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For Japanese Novelist Sayaka Murata, Odd Is the New Normal

For Japanese Novelist Sayaka Murata, Odd Is the New Normal
11 Jun
8:00

TOKYO — Keiko, a defiantly oddball 36-year-old woman, has worked in a dead-end job as a convenience store cashier in Tokyo for half her life. She lives alone and has never been in a romantic relationship, or even had sex. And she is perfectly happy with all of it.

Her creator, Japanese novelist Sayaka Murata, thinks that makes Keiko a true hero.

“Keiko doesn’t care — or maybe she doesn’t realize — when she is being made fun of by others,” said Ms. Murata, 38, of the narrator of “Convenience Store Woman,” her 10th novel and first to be translated into English. “She did not want to have sex at all and that was fine with her, and she chose that life. I really admire her character.”

“Convenience Store Woman,” which won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize for literature two years ago and has sold close to 600,000 copies here, will go on sale this month in the United States. Written in plain-spoken prose, the slim volume focuses on a character who in many ways personifies a demographic panic in Japan.

Japanese media is filled with stories about declining marriage and low birthrates, as well as references to ominous surveys about young people who are virgins or have forsaken dating and sex, a narrative that the Western press finds particularly alluring when writing about Japan.

In the novel, Keiko’s friends and family are mortified on her behalf, urging her to find a man and settle down or move to a more professionally fulfilling job. Keiko observes their anxiety with head-cocked bemusement. “Here was everyone taking it for granted that I must be miserable when I wasn’t,” she thinks, after a reunion with a group of married high school classmates who seem appalled by her nonexistent love life.

Ms. Murata said she wanted to write from the perspective of someone who defied conventional thinking, particularly in a conformist society where people are expected to fulfill preordained roles.

“I wanted to illustrate how odd the people who believe they are ordinary or normal are,” said Ms. Murata during an interview in a smoky subterranean cafe in Jimbocho, Tokyo’s book district, where she sometimes comes to write. “They are the so-called normal people, but when you switch the direction of the camera, it is they who appear strange or odd.”

With relatively few contemporary Japanese novelists translated into English, Grove Press, the American publisher, is hoping to capture a niche audience of readers who have enjoyed other works by Japanese authors like Banana Yoshimoto, whose novel “Kitchen” was also published by Grove in the early 1990s.

Peter Blackstock, a senior editor at Grove, said he was particularly attracted to “Convenience Store Woman” because of its portrayal of a working-class employee. “There is so little that we see that deals with people working in jobs where they are not going to be promoted or where they’re not on a managerial track,” Mr. Blackstock said. “That resonates no matter where you are.”

Ms. Murata, the daughter of a judge and a homemaker who still lives with her parents, wrote from experience: She herself worked at several convenience stores over a period of close to 18 years, starting while she was still a college student.

Japanese convenience stores are a unique institution, with several ubiquitous chains blanketing the country. The stores sell basic sundries like candy and soft drinks and microwaveable lunchboxes, but also serve as a kind of central clearing house for so many activities of daily life: Customers can pay their electric, gas and tax bills as well as purchase tickets to museums or concerts, or buy a button-down shirt, socks and underwear if they don’t have time to go home or do their laundry.

Although convenience stores have come under criticism in Japan for mistreatment of workers, Keiko sees the store as a kind of utopia whose strict rules and established routines give her life shape and meaning. She cherishes the store’s instruction manual, without which, she says, “I still don’t have a clue how to be a normal person.”

Ms. Murata, who in person does not come across as someone who has any trouble with basic human interaction, nevertheless relates to Keiko.

“For me, when I was working as a college student, I was a very shy girl,” she said. “But at the stores, I was instructed to raise my voice and talk in a loud friendly voice, so I became that kind of active and lively person in that circumstance.”

Over the years, she chose to stay on the job because the shifts helped discipline her writing schedule.

She would wake up at 2 in the morning and write until 6, starting her shift at the convenience store at 8 a.m. After finishing at 1 p.m., she would go to a cafe and write until going home for dinner. She liked writing with the sounds of people around her; even when writing at home, she said she opens the windows to let in the street sounds.

Four years ago, after her novel “Of Bones, of Body Heat, of the White-Colored City” won the Yukio Mishima Prize for literature, she decided she could quit the part-time gig and focus on writing full time.

Her writing life started early: A science fiction fan as a child, she started crafting her own stories when she was 10 years old.

The stories never turned out as she originally imagined. “The characters in the stories would develop by themselves, almost automatically,” she said. “They led me beyond into the world.”

She hid her writing, she said, either out of embarrassment, or because she did not want her friends to praise it with platitudes. “I didn’t want their compliments just because they were my friends,” she said.

In college, she joined a small private class led by Akio Miyahara, a novelist who had won the Akutagawa Prize. Most of the others in the class were office workers pursuing a hobby.

Mr. Miyahara, 85, recalls that Ms. Murata was one of very few women, and the youngest in the class.

“It was like a chick jumped in the roosters’ hut,” Mr. Miyahara said. Her stories, he recalled, touched on themes of sexuality and misfits. At times, he said, he found her work “hard to understand.”

Sexuality and sexless relationships are a recurring preoccupation for Ms. Murata. In a “A Clean Marriage,” a short story published in the British literary journal Granta, she wrote about a married couple who lived “like brother and sister, without being a slave to sex” but conceived a child at a futuristic fertility clinic.

Ms. Murata says that she is interested in people — particularly women — who don’t want to have sex; she wants to reassure them that there is nothing wrong with that.

Too often, she said, “under the conventional conservative way of having sex, the woman is just treated as a tool or object.” Instead, she wants women to experience “true intentional sex, because that is beautiful.”

In “Convenience Store Woman,” Keiko eventually invites a male co-worker to move in with her as a roommate — he sleeps in the bathroom — but allows friends and her sister to assume that the two are romantically involved. Keiko, on the other hand, regards him as a pet, even describing meals as “feeding time.”

“She has a very keen eye for the grotesque, for one thing that can be both funny and horrifying,” said Ginny Tapley Takemori, who translated the novel into English.

After quitting the convenience store job, Ms. Murata said she found it more difficult to keep to a schedule. But she now grabs stretches of writing time in her publisher’s office or in cafes.

Her next novel, she said, features another woman who is not unlike Keiko. “She doesn’t fit in,” said Ms. Murata. And that’s just fine.

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