In the exchanges that have taken place between Japan and Europe over the centuries, culture holds a special place. 19th-century Europe discovered the land of the rising sun through art and music. During the Meiji Restoration (1868-89), Japan was fascinated with many aspects of the West, including cultural and social features. Today, that tradition is carried on by Japanese poet, writer, and food critic Ryoko Sekiguchi.
JAPAN Forward sat down with Sekiguchi to find out more about her story. We met on the fringes of a seminar held at NipPop, a three-day festival of contemporary Japanese culture. The yearly event is organized by the University of Bologna's Professor Paola Scrolavezza. It brings special Japanese guests to the Italian city from the world of arts.
Centuries of Exchange
Since the Meiji Restoration, the cultural dialogue between Europe and Japan, apart from a few brief exceptions, has never stopped. Recently, there has once again been a boom of interest in Japan from abroad.
The most recent "Japanese fever" is found in new trends in France, and even Italy. Among the main aspects influencing the European, food and culinary tradition play a key role. These are key elements in creating a dialogue that brings together these distant cultures.
In this exchange bridging gastronomy and emotions over two continents, literature has also been influenced. So much so, writers who combine the finesses of writing with that of the tasting experience are increasingly common.
Such is the case with the elegant and sophisticated writing of the Paris-based Sekiguchi. Her recent work is Nagori, la nostalgie de la saison qui vient de nous quitter (FOLIO, 2020), under the French title. The book grew out of an artist residency experience in Rome and received the prestigious Coup de Cœur du jury du Prix Rungins des Gourmets and the Prix Mange, Livre.
A Vocabulary to Bridge Cultures
The roots of Ryoko Sekiguchi come, as is often the case, from her background.
"My mother had a cooking school and next to the ingredients and recipes she would annotate explanations of food-related words. These words always fascinated me. And as a child, I loved reading these explanations. I think my interest in words and cooking developed from that."
Sekiguchi has chosen to work straddling two continents, and she develops a dialogue between cultures while also crafting "new" words.
The Japanese word nagori refers to a product's seasonality. Sekiguchi opens up to the term's emotion, and thereby enriches her prose with a new semantic sphere.
"Sensibility is born from words: we can't perceive what is unnamed", she writes in the book Nagori, explaining her rationale.
Thanks to the book's translation into many languages, a vocabulary framework is created even for stories far from Japan. That makes it possible for readers to find a name for everyday hard-to-tell experiences.
In the interview, the author recounts receiving numerous messages after the publication of her book. In the messages, people explained that they recognized themselves in the feelings she described. Moreover, many said they had finally found the right word to express their condition.
All Activity is Translation
With Sekiguchi, translation thus becomes a geographical map of feelings. It is also a way to fix certain emotions in different languages.
She explains. "I once wrote an essay entitled: all activities are translation. In 2011, after the great Tohoku earthquake, I wrote a book [in French] because I wanted to convey to the French the things that happened [in Tohoku Japan] and that are hardly known and would have been lost. "
She continued, "I did the same with my latest book, 961 heures à Beyrouth (et 321 plats qui les accompagnent) (FOLIO, 2022). I wrote when I spent forty days in Beirut and which I made with the method of listening to writing. Again, this is a translation activity."
Giving some insight into her work, she says, "As a translator, I don't think there are any untranslatable words."
Putting Transience into Words
There is a sort of magical respect Sekiguchi has for putting experiences in words.
"Two days before coming here to Bologna, I was in Bretagne (France), where I visited a chef. I tasted his cuisine, I read his recipes. My job is to translate into words what he has created, to convey what I have eaten to those who have never tasted it. So the cuisine is translated into another language."
In the journey that links words to memory, and time to the senses, food and cooking seem the perfect metaphor for telling the transience of life, and how we can make these moments last just a little longer through writing.
"The cooks' culinary works are consumed so quickly... But by using words, they can stay much longer. I write books to turn their works into words so that the experience remains with us. For me as a writer to think that what I have created can be consumed in a very short time is really unbearable," Sekiguchi explains.
A Magical Force
Sekiguchi believes in the power of words as magical elements, endowed with a force capable of overcoming time and therefore death. The ability to fix on the page a "gray zone" present, suspended between past and future, makes her writing poetic.
The author imbues her writing with time references. And in fact, at the end of Nagori, she writes, "I have always written about death and for the dead. For once, I wanted to write a book about life. Or about death as a continuation of life. About the dead living with the living. Because that is how the seasons are. Successive deaths or disappearances give way to other lives. But one day they return."
*Translated excerpts from Nagori are the author's, based on the Italian version of the book.
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Author: Stefania Viti