Translated by Asa Yoneda
Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
The title of Yukiko Motoya’s short story collection Picnic in the Storm could easily be a description of the author’s literary life. In her native Japan, Motoya is reaping prize after prize, yet the young writer writes about the ordinary and everyday with an ease and a quirky – extremely so – twist as if she were merely people-watching on a picnic, oblivious of the prize storm brewing around her. It says something that when Motoya collected the Akutagawa Prize in 2016 – one of Japan’s most prestigious literary awards – she wore mismatched socks as she really wasn’t expecting to win. The prize came for An Exotic Marriage, a short story about a newly-wed young woman who realises that she and her husband are growing to look increasingly like each other the longer they are married for, slowly starting to merge into one.
An Exotic Marriage is among the short stories in Motoya’s English translation debut, and in many ways, it is emblematic of the collection as a whole. Who hasn’t heard it being said that married couples grow alike, and who hasn’t just shrugged it off since it’s intuitively plausible that people who live together and love each other might just have things in common? This is where Motoya’s magic comes in: she takes what others dismiss as too ordinary to be noteworthy and treats everyday incidents to metamorphoses into sharp social commentary and, many times, a celebration of women and a call for female emancipation.
The idea of metamorphoses rings true throughout the collection. In The Lonesome Bodybuilder, a woman takes up serious bodybuilding and bulks up, yet her husband doesn’t notice any changes in his now strikingly muscular wife. The Women describes how women turn into oversexualized killing machines who force their boyfriends and husbands into duels because all the time, they’ve secretly wanted them to wear shorter skirts, higher heels, and redder lipstick. Motoya is a feminist Kafka of sorts; and like Kafka, there is eeriness in her stories, too. In Fitting Room, a sales assistant serves a customer who refuses to leave the eponymous fitting room and who might not even be human, while How to Burden the Girl is an increasingly horrifying take on the Electra complex.
It’s not all Kafkaesque nightmares, though, as Motoya’s writing can be as hilarious as it can be haunting. The Women sends a poignant message about patriarchal pressures on women, and it is all the more powerful for the wittiness with which Motoya describes men. Forced to fight women, they are reduced to whimpering painfully clichéd pleas: “Don’t change. I just want you to be yourself.” In Q&A, a much celebrated agony aunt does one final column from her death bed to answer her readers’ questions. An offfice worker who cannot find The One is adviced to opt for bicycle saddle instead:
Best of all, a saddle can’t speak. You lament that you can’t find the right person because you have too many expectations of men who speak, and end up seeing too many of their failings. But if your partner is a bicycle saddle, there’s just one thing you need from them: to gently and lovingly support your ass.
From a marketing perspective, the timing to publish Motoya’s English debut couldn’t be more favourable, with bookshops dedicating whole sections for newly translated Japanese literature and fellow Akutagawa Prize winner Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman dominating sales charts. But here is no need for that extra pull for Picnic in the Storm: haunting, funny, and painfully poignant, it really stands on its own – just like its female protagonists.
Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.
Yukiko Motoya, Picnic in the Storm, trans Asa
Yoneda (Little, Brown, 2019). 978-1472154347, 224pp., hardback.