Monkey Business with Roland Kelts

Roland Kelts is a half-Japanese American writer, editor and lecturer who divides his time between New York and Tokyo. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US and the forthcoming novel, Access. He has presented on contemporary Japanese culture worldwide and has taught at several universities in the US and Japan, including New York University and the University of Tokyo. He is also a frequent contributor to NPR and a columnist for Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper.

Roughly two years ago, my dear friends Motoyuki Shibata—a Japanese writer, scholar and translator of American literature—and Japanese literature translator and scholar Ted Goossen, the editor of the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, approached me with a singular mandate: please help us publish an annual English-language journal of contemporary Japanese stories, poems, and art for a western audience. In 2008, Shibata founded a new literary magazine in Tokyo called Monkey Business, modeled in part by Brooklyn’s A Public Space—for which he and I had curated and edited a portfolio on contemporary Japanese fiction for Issue 1 in 2006.

At first I was skeptical: American literary journals sometimes feature foreign fiction in translation, but usually as exotic inserts tucked into the dominant domestic discourse. But Shibata has persuaded me that there is a convergence of literary sensibilities in Japan and the US right now. Fiction writers from both countries seem to be responding to the cataclysmic events of the late-20th and early 21st Century with an intimate strain of surrealism—personal dream narratives anchored in experiences of childhoods, families and neighborhoods, which may be an organic or even helpless narrative cry against the rain and reign of chaos–natural disasters, endless, faceless wars and disrupted personal and political narratives.

The most renowned exemplar of narrative uncertainty in Japan is Haruki Murakami, whose lengthy conversation with younger and somewhat spikier novelist Hideo Furukawa serves as the fulcrum for this first English-language edition of “Monkey Business International.”  To loosely compare America’s experience of 9/11 with Japan’s disastrous 3/11, one might wager that both nations’ writers are giving voice to the incongruous conditions of latent wealth amid vast inequality, turmoil, global decentralization and grave insecurities, both personal and political.

As the author of a book on contemporary Japanese popular culture and its worldwide appeal, Japanamerica, I was glad that Shibata and Goossen wanted to bring manga, Japanese graphic novel narratives, into the mix. They included a manga by a brother and sister team named Nishioka and based on Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor”—an ideal example of the convergence of Japanese and Western storytelling.  The opening story, Furukawa’s rendering of a Tokyo overtaken by lonely monsters, is manga-like in its frame-by-frame vision of the city’s neighborhoods. The collection also includes fresh takes on traditional poetic forms like tanka and haiku, a few older gems worth re-examining, and free verse from new voices.

As I write now here in Tokyo, we are finishing the next issue of Monkey Business International.  Volume 2 will be available in early 2012, with launch events planned for New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and Tokyo.  We’re presenting a segment on Japanese writers responding to the ongoing nuclear crisis in Fukushima a Haruki Murakami special feature on Kazuo Ishiguro, a dialogue between Murakami and conductor Seijo Ozawa, a poem by Mieko Kawakami based on J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” and a tight list of brilliant young Japanese writers—plus new manga.  Adversity is rich soil for new narratives, and Japan is once again home to adversity.  Monkey Business is the fastest, cheapest way I know to encounter such stories firsthand in English.

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