Interview: Masatsugu Ono, winner of Japan's top prize for emerging novelists

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 March, 2015, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 March, 2015, 10:41pm

In January, Masatsugu Ono won the152nd Akutagawa Prize for his short story 9 Nen Mae no Inori (A Prayer Nine Years Ago). Founded in 1935 and regarded as the most prestigious award in Japanese literature for up-and-coming novelists, the Akutagawa Prize counts Kenzaburo Oe, Ryu Murakami and Shintaro Ishihara among its winners. Ono's book tells of a Japanese woman who, after living in Tokyo and overseas for many years, faces challenges trying to raise her son as a single mother in a Japanese village. Born in Oita prefecture in 1970, Ono studied at the University of Tokyo and earned a PhD from the University of Paris VIII. He is now an associate professor of literature at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, focusing on literary criticism and modern Francophone literature. He talks to Julian Ryall

Have you been surprised by the reaction the book has received?

Yes, very. This was the fourth time that one of my stories had been shortlisted, and I had not won previously, so I was half hoping but also half resigned to not winning. But the impact of winning the prize has been huge. When I went back to Oita recently I met the governor and he gave me an honorary award. The people in my hometown were very proud, as well, and I think that might be because the story is set there and it represents their lives in many ways.

How does it feel to be recognised in the same way as authors such as Kenzaburo Oe, Kobo Abe and the rest?

Winning the Akutagawa is going to make it easier for me to continue writing, without a doubt, and many publishers are now interested in my work. But it is still difficult to make a living by the pen. The Naoki Prize is for popular literature, and winners of that can make a living from writing, but the Akutagawa is different. But I have always enjoyed conducting research, and I love teaching, so I will continue with those, as well.

Where did the concept behind the book come from?

The places I write about are always based on my hometown, a small fishing village in the south of Oita prefecture. Recently, my focus has been on families that have many difficulties. I also hear lots of anecdotes from my mother - who is very talkative - about local people. She went to Canada about 15 years ago with some friends, and she told me stories about that trip that gave me ideas for my story.

Was it difficult to write from the perspective of a woman who has been in a relationship with a foreign man?

It was not very difficult. I'm an easy-going person. I talk a lot; some of my friends say I'm like an old woman. And when I go to my hometown, I am surrounded by people who are talking all the time. I find it very easy to identify with them. It was only a little more difficult to identify with a 35-year-old single mother, but my writing is all about becoming the other person. That can be a challenge, but it is also interesting for me.

How long did it take to write the book, and what was the hardest part?

The writing took about five months but the research was about a year. And while all writing is difficult, it is also pleasurable. But this book was a little different. My brother died of a brain tumour last year. We knew he was going to die, and I felt his imminent passing very strongly. I loved my brother, and when I found out he was ill, I wanted to write a book that revolved around the absence of one person who was dear to others. And even though this is fiction, that person for me is my brother. So writing is a pleasure for me, but it comes with pain.

What is your strategy for working through the tough parts of writing?

In the preparatory stages, I never know how to start. When I do begin, I always start by having a scene that I try to put into words. After that, writing is like digging a tunnel; I start digging in one direction, but sometimes that tunnel collapses so I have to go off at another angle until I get to where I want to be. But I never know the ending of a story when I start writing.

Who have been your literary influences and why?

I'm easily influenced, so everything I have read has had some influence on me. Every time I read a novel, I learn many new things. I particularly enjoy William Faulkner, Gabriel García Marquez, Kenzaburo Oe and J. M. Coetzee, but my favourite is Patrick Chamoiseau's Texaco.

Where does your interest in French literature stem from? And who's your favourite French author?

When I first went to university, I studied French philosophy, but it was hard for me, and my professor recommended I read Chamoiseau. I read his first novel, Chroniques des Sept Misères (Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows), and I felt the book was full of people from my hometown. I abandoned - with pleasure - my philosophy studies. I found French literature much easier to "eat".

Are you working on a new project?

I'm trying to write a historical novel based on the history of southern Oita. It's set in the Meiji era and includes real people born in my prefecture, such as journalist Yano Ryukei, who was known for his bestselling political novels and adventure fiction. I'm doing the research at the moment, and I expect it will take another two years to complete, but my publisher is pushing me to do it faster because of the Akutagawa Prize.