“In Sawako Nakayasu’s first poetry collection in seven years, an unsettling diaspora of “girls” is deployed as poetic form, as reclamation of diminutive pseudo-slur, and a characters that take up residence between the think border zones of language, culture, and shifting identity. Written in response to Nakayasu’s 2017 return to the US, this maximalist collection invites us to reexamine our own complicity in reinforcing conventions, literary and otherwise. The book radicalizes notions of “translation” as both process and product, running a kind of linguistic interference that is intimate, feminist, mordant and jagged” Wave Books stated in their press release.
October 6th marks the release of Sawako Nakayasu’s Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From, a poetry collection that explores feminism, the female body, the Asian identity, and much more through a multiplicity of languages and translations.
Over the course of three zoom sessions, the current Translation editors of the Columbia Journal Issue 59, Odelia Lu and Brittany Nguyen, came together to deconstruct the text in its many appearances and shapes. Print Translation Editor and nonfiction writer Odelia Lu, born and raised in Guangdong, China has advanced knowledge of English and Japanese. Online Translation Editor and poet Brittany Nguyen, born and raised in California, USA comes from a Chinese and Vietnamese-American background, with knowledge of Korean and Japanese. Both authors first encountered Nakayasu through her poetry collection Mouth: Eats Color: Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-translations & Originals. The conversation below, centered around three main topics and referencing 18 specific poems, explore how identities are expressed, structured, and shifted within multiple languages, cultures, and disciplines. Here is their conversation.
Topic: Situating Through the Body & Bodily Experience
Brittany: Nakayasu travels through many forms of “the mouth,” whether it be through language or eating. I want to start the conversation thinking about the female bodies that appear amongst food products. Two precise examples that tell two different tales are Girl Soup and Some Girls Fight Inside A Bag of Cheetos. In the former, we see community building, and a lethargic “soup” of girls, assumed to be Girl A to Girl J, are able to share a sense of togetherness, before turning into “cyborgs or robots.” The soup of girls are essentially freeing themselves from societal prejudice. They are victims of, or exponents of, the eaters. In the latter, we see these girls viciously tear—metaphorically and physically—each other apart for survival.
We frequently see resonances in many girls suffering from the hands of those consumers and also their own eating habits, often resulting in a lot of vomiting. On many occasions, other girls trade their mentalities for opportunities, and in this case through destroying one another.
Odelia: Yes, I am quite struck by the ways Nakayasu carries out the perceived images of women in the society through the physical performance of digestion. For example, how most girls—seemingly small and easy—have softer bodies thus easier to consume, while the hard, metallic “cyborgs and robots”—possibly being the feminists—are harder to chew and swallow. Such opposing images are constructed so well through depicting a bodily experience of eating. Ochikubo Stew, similarly, brings to mind Cinderella’s damsel-in-distress prototype.
I’m also glad that you mentioned vomiting because that’s another image that left a powerful impression on me. In more than one poem, we have moments of girls vomiting (possibly suffering from anorexia and/or bulimia). They are sometimes under social pressures that overlook such vomiting, and the willingness to challenge such social pressures (or not) binds the girls together against other communities, in a way that’s very similar to what you have talked about.
B: Nakayasu uses food to represent the countries in which the girls are born into. And those countries are simply destructive, as the girls are forced into their premeditated molds. Many never leave their bowls, or are “never cooked,” or are unready due to their lack of resources and opportunities. As we know women come in many sizes, ages, forms, just as the text suggests, and Nakayasu plays with this idea, with giant girls on fire, tiny girl heads appearing throughout the city, and of course, tiny dismembered girls in food products.
O: To piggyback off of what you said, we do get a lot of recurring images of small girls in many different spaces, oftentimes inside a body, sometimes inside of each other’s body. Their relationship varies from intimate and supportive to grotesque and violent, not to mention that the environment also influences their relationship. As a reader, I sometimes sense that these small figures are manifestations of the speaker, who is ever-shifting herself, whether in terms of identity labels, aspects of personality, even parts of a body. For example, girl H could be viewed as the speaker’s heart.
B: I would argue that all these girls struggle with their own self-identities due to their supposed gender roles. I want to bring up Mountain Girls, which is so jarring and compelling. It is the story of starving young men leaving their grandmas to die in the woods, only for those grandmas to build grand communities together. The grandmas formed their own little club and I love it because it manifests female camaraderie despite the circumstances of male abandonment.
I just came to realize that I have been grouping all the girls throughout together, simply as “the girls.” But I have also been questioning each girl’s individuality. When talking about identity, and essentially the visibility of each girl, I wonder if their characters change as we progress or if they remain the same within their world.
O: Mountain Girls really reminds me of a Japanese film, The Ballad of Narayama, which is about the rare tradition of senicide that is faithfully followed by a rural village in 19th century Japan, but in contrast, the girls in this poem land with a happy ending.
And to go after what you said, I started to wonder about the same thing when I was a few poems in. At first, I thought the girls represent a universality because there does not seem to be a visible gesture that points toward their differences. It is almost as if Nakayasu does not want you to keep track of each of them on purpose. Even half-way through the book, I still thought a lot of the girls have relatively fluid identities, genders, and experiences, like they are parts of the same body that resists those definitions. However, there were a few girls that caught my attention, Girl F, for example. I found myself consciously tracking her character because she has a very distinct, sassy, and free personality. I mean, her name is “Fuck You For Asking” in Girl Names. So I think, based on my own reading, there are both individuality and universality represented in the girls.
I am also very interested in the topic of motherhood in the book. Reading Four Girls Pool Their Breasts Together, I couldn’t help but think about what it means to be a mother especially in today’s society. It calls to mind the very tiring and demanding bodily experience of single mothers caring for the babies, as well as shaming gazes on breastfeeding mothers in public. Nakayasu’s language is very sharp and full of agency, so much so that this poem itself reads like a punch to the social stigma, which I much appreciate.
B: I almost feel as if Nakayasu is protecting and shielding women through this book. Like there is a giant Nakayasu towering over the society, and we are on her shoulder fist-pumping with every line she utters. But coming back to the text, I’m also interested in the idea of birth, and the idea of nature versus nurture. All the girls are born into distinct circumstances, like food products, and are raised within the accompanying rules. So, can their pain or struggles be attributed to their location, their upbringing, their lack of opportunities, or a cumulation of circumstances? It makes me think of how society, as you briefly mentioned, is where the blame lies.
I also briefly want to mention all the “eyes.” There are some blinded girls, some see certain colors, many are looking at particular objects and places and people. One very clear moment is in Girl D And Her Phosphorus Eyes where most people who gaze at Girl D die. But in the later translation, eyes encapsulate “love.” This makes me think about the duality of translation as the later poem directly addresses the author. From there, I start to wonder about Nakayasu’s visibility and where she is situated in this poem and/or throughout the text.
O: Definitely, it’s so hard to pin down a certain moment because she almost permeates through every poem in the collection. Maybe another way to approach her visibility is through looking at her collaboration with multiple authors. Sometimes contributors offer translations (or anti-translations, or translations with astute mutations) to Nakayasu’s originals. Sometimes they make an appearance in the form of dialogues in action, or sometimes they help Nakayasu with the process of revision. I especially enjoy these writers’ fresh perspectives and, in some cases, languages other than English. Their voices are very distinct and serve as a pleasant companion to the central narrative, but what is so great is how closely they are all interconnected! This is such an encouragement to future writers and translators on the aspect of joint effort.
Topic: The Experience of Immersion—Cultures, Languages, History, and Society
B: I want to bring attention to the fact that Nakayasu’s first language is Japanese. In a few subtle, or sometimes not-so-subtle ways, Nakayasu immerses her Japanese tongue amongst the English. One moment that I think is simply so terrific is in Map, where we get a translation within the text. “Barabara jiken” is translated as “dismembered-into-tiny-millions-of-fragments incident.” The former is sonically so beautiful, with the word “bara” meaning rose in Japanese, which sets up a jarring contrast to the latter when the two images intertwine with one another.
And then the poem ends with “Also please stop correcting me on how to pronounce my name,” which I love for its tone but also how strange this situation must be when someone believes they know your name better than yourself. I resonate with owning a name which may be foreign to English speakers, like for me my last name, and having others attempt to colonize and/or assimilate your name. I see this poem as the immersion of name and culture, and at the literal level, language.
O: That definitely reminds me of the times people mispronounced my Chinese first name, Ye. I think that’s something more common for immigrants and/or those who identify within foreign diasporas, which brings me to my next point of interest. I personally adore Now The Bridge A Grey Orchid. The English section portrays the theme of immigration and border-crossing, amplifying the sacrifice Girl H has to make in order to be accepted into a nation that does not seem to respect her past, culture, and identity, being prejudiced, almost racist and xenophobic. What these two countries are, or what ideals they stand for, is implied by images of orchids and daisies. Yet, the Japanese section actually reveals the agency and power lying within the narrator and her words, which would have stayed camouflaged to those who don’t have access to the language.
B: There are also other poems in the book that evoke the image of border-crossing, though not necessarily the geographic border of nations but the border between life and death, border between genders, and many more as well. I remember before this conversation you mentioned you were a big fan of Girl P specifically, who also represents the complex immigrant experience.
O: Yes, Girl P—白く溶ける日 is one of my favorite poems in the book. The first half of the poem illustrates the multiplicity of life as an immigrant through the focal point of language, especially the languages used in the society versus in education versus in family (Girl P is born into a Korean family in Dalian, China, yet receives her education in Japanese because she lives in a district under Japanese colonization). There is a sharp emphasis on the in-betweenness and embodiment of different tongues in daily life. There is also an intense urgency on the sacrifices Girl P’s parents make, for which her father apologizes for again and again. The second half of the poem, as I read it, deals with historical trauma inflicted by war. It was heart-wrenching to read when the language is so raw and the images are so gruesome. After reading this version, reading its paired English one Girl P—Whose Story Never Ends gave me a noticeably different experience. This may be because there are more white spaces carved out, and its structure is altered slightly.
B: I love how the English version was put in later than the Japanese. This English translation ends on the notion that “the parents knew of the language of the continent to some degree” to survive in the country and possibly “to keep their identity hidden.” I’m fascinated by the idea of forced immersion, and want to bring forth one of the biggest conversations within translation: foreignization versus domesticization. Also, in our own lives, how do people retain their heritage in a foreign land that asks otherwise? How does this English translation retain or lose the emotions, intents, and cultural nuances of the original Japanese?
This is also right after Mountain Girls, where the girls are tired of being asked the same, or similar, questions that we have seen in a few poems throughout the collection. Here, we get the glorious question “where are you from?” The speaker tells us that the answer changes based on the “the number of twitches” counted on the person’s face. This leads to the speaker “fessing up” with a wonderful sense of cultural tradition showered in not-so-subtle sarcasm. The grandmas here grow out from their intended roles, and the speaker even says that she is a “reborn mountain hag” also.
O: I agree, and I think this kind of sarcasm is also happening, quite painfully, in a different dimension. While there could be many interpretations of this poem, I read Some Girls Fight Inside A Bag of Cheetos from an angle of internet violence that is so prevalent these days. People could be “taking advantage of opacity” to spit out “mean, toxic syllables” to hurt others, while many behind the screen could join this fight with low stakes even without registering the consequences of their actions. Some might retract their fists after realizing the victims are also “unmistakably human”; unfortunately, others might be less sympathetic.
B: Yes! More of Nakayasu’s brilliant social criticisms peek through. I feel as if I’m holding this giant “I hate society” sign. I am slowly coming to connect everything to my life and the suffering we face today simply because of our bodies. A big topic today is body shaming, and the inability to love oneself because of the unattainable standards of beauty. I would argue this stands truer for women than it does for men, but that of course is not all-encapsulating. In Ten Girls In A Bag Of Potato Chips, Nakayasu writes that the girl’s “true position within the global economy and food supply chain” directly “affects the likely outcome of their collective fate,” resulting in the decision to either “speak, slap, or remain silent.” This highlights the collective effect on the female mentality when facing adversity.
O: What you said reminds me of Board Game, where Nayakasu uses a pool of scabs as a metaphor for “the collected sufferings of girls” and makes a board game out of it. For me, it is simultaneously sarcastic and empowering; sarcastic because it mocks the almost pitiful nature of this game, and empowering because the game brings all the girls together. Some girls find the act of swimming through the collective pain traumatic, while others turn out to be proud and strong once they get through it. I view the pool not as a glorification or normalization of pain but rather an understanding and embrace of collected suffering and how becoming part of a community could be a great solace to some.
In the book, community is not only presented through gender but also through languages. As a Chinese citizen studying in the States with knowledge of Japanese, I find the navigation of multiple languages—on all levels, literary or colloquial—very fascinating. Depending on how it is translated, sometimes a text can instantly conjure up a specific community while excluding others. Referencing Girl P—白く溶ける日 again, instead of using the Japanese equivalent of “misses” or “young ladies” to refer to the Chinese women in this poem (which is entirely in Japanese), the translator substitutes it with the Chinese term 小姐 (xiaojie) and its pronunciation in Katakana. I immediately latched on to that phrase when reading, and thought it was interesting how such a small detail could make me self-aware about my mother tongue and my identity as a Chinese girl.
Topic: Translation Techniques
B: As an Asian-American, I often find myself speaking Chinglish or Vietglish, and I love the level of play in the poems immersed in more than one language. I want to look at one that changes forms, such as the Laid Out Along The Road Like Attenuant Parts pieces. The English version of the poem was one that had confused me greatly. It is still hard for me to approach now, and the visual art translation by Kyoko Yoshida at the end leaves me with the same effect. Strangely though, I find the Japanese version slightly clearer, what do you think?
O: I agree, the picture in the end was a pleasant surprise for me, but the poems are hard to understand. However, the Japanese version is very intriguing because of the transformation that happens on the page. It extracts certain words in the original poem and puts them in the form of kanji before deconstructing them into hiragana and katakana, only to ultimately translate these romaji into English terms based on their polyphonic definitions. Looking at that, you can really get a glimpse of how extensive and versatile Japanese is, which quality is demonstrated throughout the whole book, especially visible in the translations and anti-translations.
B: This truly reminds me of Mouth: Eats Color. And a poem that does this directly on the page switching between the two languages is Bright Sun In The Head Of The Girls, which is one of the most experimental poems of this collection. This poem directly addresses the art of translation and Nakayasu herself. With its wonderfully sarcastic tone, we are told what we are “reading, or hearing, or witnessing, is a totally irresponsible and mediocre translation of the poem from earlier.” And that “it is only after the mediocre translator gives up on translating that anything of value ever happens,” which makes both the speaker and I giggle. This underscores the limitations of translation. At the end of the day, I think translators are just looking for the best mistranslation.
O: I 100% agree with that. To add to the examples we are already discussing, Word Gets Out That Arms Are For Hugging is also a poem that stood out to me as an anti-translation in collaboration with Kyoko Yoshida. It is really fascinating to see the two writers and translators dive deep into the Japanese language and play with the sound, the form, and the evoked imagery. For instance, the syllables ロ (ro), コ (ko), and the kanji 口 (kuchi) all resemble each other, and Nakayasu and Yoshida take advantage of this resemblance to play with the various images that could be applied with them. The attentive thoughts on the 生腕 (nama-ude) pun is also something I am very intrigued by. I can’t say how much I’ve learned by reading just this one poem.
B: It’s so fascinating and I just want to say that I love the collaboration aspects of this book! There are so many contributors; Genéve Chao, Lynn Xu, Hitomi Yoshio, Kyongmi Park, Kyoko Yoshida, Karen An-Hwei Lee, and Miwako Ozawa. I always say “translation is collaboration,” and this applies between the languages, the translators and authors, and especially between the cultures.
Due to the multiplicity of the collaborator’s languages interacting throughout the text, I would argue we have more foreignization, which I know we both favor over domesticization. We get much more exposure to those who identify as Asian diaspora in this text than what the publishing industry defines as literary conventions. Only in recent years has translation slowly become accepting to a text’s foreignness due to globalization, thus opening up to the understanding of the original’s emotions and intents. I’m glad to be stepping out from the rigid idea of a perfect translation.
O: I feel similarly as the anglophone world has long been the subject of the infamous three percent problem in translation, which this poetry collection definitely rebels against. I think there is a grey area that foreignization and domesticization overlap, and that is the place I strive to go to when working on my own translation projects.
It is incredible to see all the techniques Nakayasu and her contributors have applied to translate in this collection of poetry. There are not only other languages such as Chinese and Spanish, but also creative methods like phonic translations, syntax switch, and more. Sometimes my perspective as a native Chinese speaker also brings unexpected insights that might even be unintentional! There is so much that we could talk about on and on for days and nights!
B: Unfortunately we have to wrap up our talk. Let’s look at The Sawako Nakayasu Tour, where we get a direct address to the author and her body. Right off the bat the girls are fighting and there is much debate about ownership. I love this for so many reasons, but especially for its ability to slap me back from the world of the girls into my own body. I’m also interested in the ownership of language and culture, and the sort of authenticity granted by the community. This is all well contemplated throughout the book, but for now, if I were to end, I would say that I too would like to book a ticket for the Sawako Nakayasu tour! I can’t be left out!
O: Me too! Nakayasu’s work is really something that gives you new insights every time you pick it up again, and I had so much fun reading it and dissecting it. There are some poems I had to read multiple times, ruminating on them like a detective in order to arrive at a mind-blowing moment, but when it comes, the result is truly one of the most satisfying feelings in the world. I love this book also for its multilingual and multicultural awareness shown through both Nakayasu’s own mind as well as that of her collaborators. I just want to thank them for sharing this jewel with us!
B: Agreed! There is so much more to explore in Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From that is not spoken about here. The text joins many conversations of social criticisms and traverses through “translation.” With each read I believe readers can unfold new layers on all the different levels we briefly brought up. I hope this conversation is never-ending, and I hope this little love letter to Nakayasu’s amazing work can contribute to more discussion and/or reflections. I’m personally looking forward to what Nakayasu comes out with next!
Sawako Nakayasu is an artist working with language, performance, and translation—separately and in various combinations. She has lived mostly in the US and Japan, briefly in France and China, and translates from Japanese. Her books include Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From (Wave Books), Pink Waves (forthcoming, Omnidawn), The Ants (Les Figues Press), and the translation of The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa (forthcoming, Penguin Random House), as well as Mouth: Eats Color–Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-translations, & Originals (reprint forthcoming, Wave Books), a multilingual work of both original and translated poetry. She is co-editor, with Eric Selland, of an anthology of 20th Century Japanese Poetry (forthcoming, New Directions). She teaches at Brown University.
Nakayasu is also the upcoming guest judge for Columbia Journal’s Winter Contest in Translation. Submissions for Columbia Journal‘s 2020 Winter Contest will open in all categories on November 15, 2020.
Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From is available now for purchase.
About the Authors
Brittany Nguyen is a poet and translator from Walnut, California. She currently lives in New York City working on her MFA at Columbia University. She translates from the Korean and the Vietnamese but sometimes ventures into the Chinese and the Japanese, often incorporating them into her own work. She is the current Online Translation Editor for the Columbia Journal and a poetry editor for Non.Plus Lit, an online poetry magazine. She is the 2018 recipient of the Academy of American Poets: The Piri Thomas Poetry Prize and has a piece in the Notre Dame Review’s “Everyday Wonders” Issue.
Ye (Odelia) Lu is a translator, occasional poet, and nonfiction MFA candidate at Columbia University. She is a world traveler who has lived, studied, and worked mostly in China and the US, briefly in the UK, and probably in Japan in the foreseeable future. She translates from Chinese and Japanese. She is also the Print Translation Editor for the Columbia Journal Issue 59. Her work has appeared in Sine Theta Magazine Issue 11. When she is not writing, she loves to cook and play PS4 games.