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Bird outside the Cage: an Interview with Yumi Matsuo.

Yumi Matsuo was born in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, in 1960. After studying English literature at Ochanomizu Women's University, she worked for a major electronic company for several years. Her first publication, Ijigen kafe terasu (Coffee House in Another Dimension), in 1989 was followed by Baruun taun no satsujin (Murder in Balloon Town--an excerpt of which follows), which had been inspired by her marriage and childbearing in 1990 and which was awarded third place in the 1992 Hayakawa SF Contest. The idea of the story involves a very un-PCish pregnant female detective who resolves the mysteries caused within the very network of pregnant women. The series springing from this novella made this new writer so popular that her first collection of stories, Barun Taun no Satsujin (Murder in Balloon Town), was a finalist for the fifteenth Japan SF Award in 1994. Leading SF critic Mari Kotani finds her imagination comparable to those of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, James Tiptree, Jr., and Margaret Atwood. Matsuo undoubtedly helped us recognize the invisibility of a pregnant woman we had never noticed, just the way Ralph Ellison, in the 1940s, made us aware of a black guy as an invisible man in a WASP-oriented country. Yumi Matsuo's other postfeminist works include: Burakku enjeru (Black Angel, 1994), Pipinera (Pippinella, 1996), Jiendaa-jo no toriko (The Prisoner of Gender Castle, 1996), Makkusu Maus to Nakamatachi (Max Mouse and His Friends, 1997), and Runako no kichin (Runako's Kitchen, 1998). She currently lives in Tokyo, where she is completing a new set of stories in the Balloon Town series. (Amanda Seaman and Takayuki Tatsumi)

Larry McCaffery: What was it that got you first interested in SF? Were you reading it a lot as a teenager?

Yumi Matsuo: My father bought all Hayakawa's paperback SF series as they were published, which means he bought all foreign SF books published in Japan at that time. So SF books were all over my house, before I ever got interested. I think many people "discover" SF--by themselves or via friends--when they are young, and they find it as some kind of countermeasure. I mean, for them, SF is "something else," something antitraditional, in many cases not approved by parents or teachers. Maybe this explains how some people get into SF. But in my case SF was tradition. So this might be the reason, or part of it, for my not going too far into SF; later on, when I was in college, I somehow wound up in an SF club.

LM: So at this point, while you were in college, you were reading SF but not yet writing it?

YM: I was writing stories, but I'm not sure if it was SF or not. Most of my writing was really short and not very eventful. Many of them are set in a world almost the same to our reality, only different in a slight, particular way. For example, one story is set in a world where men no longer wear neckties--they do exist, but are regarded as some sort of strange habit of the old days. A woman happens to choose a striped necktie as a gift to her boyfriend, a man she has met accidentally and started to date. But after she gives it to him, she gradually notices something strange, for every time she does the tie for him, the knot comes to a different-colored stripe, as if the size of his neck is always changing. She begins to worry and consults a friend, who immediately concludes that the boyfriend does not really exist--he is a phantom the heroine has made up in her mind. She says it can't be and rushes to meet him. He undoes his necktie, picks her up with his fingertips, and puts her away in the neatly rolled necktie. Most of what I wrote then was something like that--nonrealistic and really short. They appeared in the fanzine of my SF club.

LM: Who were the writers you were influenced by?

YM: As for SF, I read Ray Bradbury or Frederick Brown from my father's bookshelf. When I went to college, my friends at SF club introduced me to newer writers like Samuel Delany, Tom Reamy, or John Varley. I liked them, though I am not sure if they influenced what I wrote then. But what I liked the best among all SF short stories I have read was Carol Emshwiller's "Adapted." A friend recommended it, and I was immensely moved when I read it. I might have been influenced by Emshwiller, if I could have read more of her works in Japanese. "Adapted" was translated into thrillingly beautiful Japanese by female translator Fusa Obi.

Sinda Gregory: Since you were studying literature in college, is it possible that instead of being influenced by SF writers, you were influenced more by mainstream or serious literature?

YM: Yes. British Literature was my major and I read authors such as Margaret Drabble and especially Iris Murdoch--who probably had some influence on me.

SG: Murder in Balloon Town seems like a very controversial book in terms of its treatment of feminist issues. Have you read a lot of feminist fiction and criticism, or have you not been influenced by that?

YM: I cannot say I'm influenced by feminism in any conscious way, because I haven't read much feminist fiction and almost no feminist criticism.

SG: Perhaps the book's main influence was your own pregnancy. Was it written during or after your pregnancy?

YM: I wrote the first draft of the first story (the book is a collection of four rather long "short" stories) when I was actually pregnant--very pregnant, I would say. I set it aside for some time, and after I gave birth to our son and everything had settled down a little, I again worked on it and, when I was done, sent it to Hayakawa's contest. They published it, and three more stories, in their SF Magazine.

SG: Could you tell whether or not women like the story more than men?

YM: I first thought women would like it--and they did--and at the same time I was expecting to get some objections from men. But I haven't seen such negative response from men, at least not as much as I have expected. Of course, there must have been people who say, "I just don't want to read this kind of book," and those people must have stayed silent. Anyway, when people talked about that book at all, they talked favorably. I was concerned that the book may offend women who cannot get pregnant even if they want to. Maybe I was too nervous, because you can't write anything without a fear that it might hurt people. A self-righteous, or simply bad, fiction will hurt many people. And even a good, well-balanced fiction may hurt some people in some ways. But the woman who wants to have children and cannot seems to be under a special kind of pressure--maybe especially in Japan, where many people still find values in traditional ideas of family and blood lineage. So I was concerned, but I wanted to and decided to write the book anyway. So I tried to make it as good as I could.

SG: Your work seems to be very concerned with the political aspects of gender. Was your mother a liberated woman who pointed these things out to you?

YM: Not actually. She is like most Japanese housewives--certainly not a feminist.

SG: When did it happen, as Americans say, that your "consciousness was raised"?

YM: When I was a child my father always said--not that he was particularly oppressive--but he told me "girls shouldn't do this" or "should do that," as many fathers do. It seemed to me that girls had more restrictions than boys, and I thought it wasn't fair! If that could be called a gender consciousness, mine was raised when I was very young. But the bigger wave came when I got married. Not that I am blaming my husband. I am talking about the system. Like the Japanese family registration system, for which, as far as I understand, you have no equivalent. When a child is born, parents report it to the City Hall and his/her name is added to the family register topped by, usually, the father. The register is stored and managed at the prefectural office. When the child grows up and gets married, his/her name is deleted. Another register for the new couple is created, usually--again--topped by the husband. You will need a copy of this register on many occasions, like when you get a passport, a driver's license, or a job. And when you request the copy at the prefectural office, you always have to refer to who is on the top of the register. That is our family registration system, and in the old days men didn't move to a new register even when they got married. Women "married into" the register of the man's family, topped by her husband's father or grandfather. Today people move to a new register when they get married.

SG: So your book, Murder in Balloon Town, grew out of this period?

YM: Yes. It is about a near future where women don't have to carry a child--they can rely on a new technology, artificial uterus, instead of their own body. Some women don't like this and want to carry their children in their stomachs. Those women are gathered into a Special Ward in Tokyo. Not too long after that, the place gets a nickname: "Balloon Town." A murder takes place just outside the town: three men witnessed the murder and knew for sure the murderer was a pregnant woman, only they cannot describe her features except her big, round stomach. They are so overwhelmed by it and cannot remember anything else. So a female police detective goes undercover inside the town, with a fake identity of a pregnant woman in an early stage. She solves the murder and other cases, with the help of an amateur sleuth--her friend who is really pregnant and living in the Special Ward. The four events take place following the sequence of time, so that you can see the growth of the two heroines--one deepens her career as a detective, the other with a stomach getting bigger and bigger. And at the end of the fourth story she gives birth to a baby. Some of them are parodies of famous detective fictions, like "The Turtle-Bellied League" named after one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, "The Red-Headed League," or "Why Didn't They Ask the Midwife?" after "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?" by Agatha Christie. I wrote the first of the four stories when I was pregnant. In a way, it's a parody of John Varley's "The Barbie Murders"--a story about murders in a town where all residents look strictly identical as a result of surgical operation. Residents of the town are all followers of a religious cult, which forbids the followers to conceive ideas like "oneself" or "individual." So the residents all look like asexual Barbie Dolls, and when the murder takes place, you can't tell the murderer from any other residents. In fact, the victim, the suspect, and the witnesses all look identical. A female police detective goes there undercover--after taking the surgical operation and becoming a Barbie herself. I read this story when I was pregnant. It somehow reminded me of pregnant women, because pregnant women too live in a small world and many of them believe in something that can be called a cult, in a very broad sense. So I changed the Barbies to pregnant women and wrote this story about Balloon Town.

SG: So the direct inspiration for this story had to do with the fact that while you were pregnant, you were very aware that you had no individual identity.

YM: Very much so. I don't know if this is true in America, but in Japan, we have something that can be called the pregnant woman's culture. There are many books and monthly magazines directed specially toward pregnant women--one of the magazines is actually called "Balloon"--filled with suggestions about how to stay healthy, what to eat, how often or how wildly you should have sex with your husband. They even interfere in what music you are supposed to listen to.

LM: I suspect rock music isn't held in very high regard.

YM: Of course rock-and-roll is the worst! They say Mozart is the best, which seems humiliating to both rock and roll and Mozart. My sleuth says "it [her baby] won't survive a life with me, if it would have a convulsive fit on listening to the Stooges." Anyway, I certainly didn't agree with most of these. Of course you should listen to arguments on such matters as smoking, alcohol, and nutrition. Those matters are scientifically proven. But I didn't like the "you-should-do-this-but-not-that" tone of those books and magazines. So I decided to write about a pregnant woman who is inclined to rock-and-roll, sleuthing, and inevitable smoking--for all amateur detectives should puff, brood inside the smoke, from the days of Sherlock Holmes. I invented cigarettes with "no nicotine, no tar, with a carbon-monoxide neutralizing filter" especially for the purpose, though, I strongly doubt if something like that can really exist.

SG: One of the most striking things about Balloon Town is how it's made from so many different elements combined in so many unusual ways. You have the detective formula and a domestic story, and, of course, just the idea of having a pregnant woman doing anything is unexpected. In American literature I can't think of many novels or short stories that even involve a pregnant woman. It's as if when you're pregnant, it's time off; you are expected to more or less disappear.

YM: You're retired.

SG: Yes, you're no longer really in the world, but somewhere else.

YM: I know the feeling very well; and in fact, that's why I wrote that first story. I was pregnant myself, and I didn't want to think of myself as retired. At that time, I was finding it hard to keep on writing, being married and having a baby. I was kind of cornered then-because, though at that point I had some of my works published, they were far from successful. And it seemed the publishers I had worked with had no interest in me anymore. So I decided to write this story, send it to the contest, and thought, maybe I would give up writing, if this one should not be accepted. Fortunately enough, it was.

SG: How would you say your fiction since Balloon Town has evolved or changed?

YM: Of course, I'm not trying to write only about pregnant women or feminist issues. But being pregnant actually made me aware of many other things. For example, I began to notice the relationship between Japanese society--which is almost synonymous with industry--and the individual. Because in Japan, towns, roads, even parks are designed for and interlinked with productivity; they're not really intended to be used by old people, pregnant women, or handicapped people. So being pregnant made me aware of other social relationships and situations in Japan and how these related to individuality. It is very difficult to be an individual in Japan. In Japan you can be someone only as long as you belong to some big structure, like enterprises or government offices, not small structures like families.

SG: Your upcoming novel--about the Japanese woman who, when she goes into her house, shrinks--seems connected to what you just said because it seems to suggest that what happens to a Japanese woman who does not have a larger affiliation is that she gets lost. What is the title of that book?

YM: Pippinella. This book deals with the paradigm shift that's been occurring in Japan from the perspective of sexuality; it's also a book where I tried to address issues of surveillance and punishment. Pippinella is the name of a female canary who appears in two of Hugh Lofting's books for children, Dr. Dolittle's Caravan and Dr. Dolittle and the Green Canary. Pippinella is a great singer, which is unusual since, as you know, canaries usually do not sing; but in my book she even becomes a prima donna of opera, which may remind us of "Carmen Dog" by Carol Emshwiller, in which a dog heroine becomes a prima donna of opera. When she is young, Pippinella is told by her parents not to try to sing because females can't sing well even if they practiced, and such an attempt is really shameful too. Pippinella thinks this is unjust because, according to her, females can sing--all they lack is practice. So against interference from her family and after much practice and hard days--including a time when she actually works as "a canary in a coal mine"--she gains success in her musical career. You can call this an early example of feminist fiction. I used canaries not only as a feminist figure but also as a metaphor for all people whose souls are caught in some invisible cage.

LM: A bird in a cage.

YM: Exactly. Here contemporary Japan is shown to be a kind of prison. I called the heroine Kanako because the name partly resembles canary pronounced in Japanese. She is a married woman, whose body shrinks into child-size, three or four feet, whenever she takes off her shoes. As you know, we Japanese don't wear shoes inside our houses. Her body starts to grow at the moment she puts her feet in her shoes in the doorway. Thus she can be quite normal outside. But all this is what she tells us, because the novel is written in the first person. It is the case of an unreliable narrator, like The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James. Maybe her body really shrinks, or maybe it's just what she believes. Some people who are close enough to see her without her shoes--her husband, of course, and a close friend--will not deny her words, but readers can suspect that they are pretending, trying not to hurt the heroine's feelings. Her husband disappears one day, leaving a strange word "Pippinella" on his notebook, and the heroine sets off on a journey to find him. At the end of the story, the protagonist confronts her true problems. She also sees her husband's own problem and the reason why he has gone away; though she cannot meet him there, she, for the first time in four years of marriage, fully understands her husband and his love toward her.

SG: Tell me a bit about Black Angel.

YM: It is a novel about college students who like American or British rock-and-roll music. When they put a CD of an American band in the player, a small, shadowy figure in the shape of a winged woman springs out of the player. It darts upon one of the girls and kills her. The police conclude her death is a suicide, but her friends know it wasn't, and they try to find out the identity of the monster and the reason why it attacked that girl. So the book has a mystery, love, and a little insight about the relation between Japanese society and American pop culture. I thought it would attract people, but the book didn't sell much, though I received some favorable remarks from readers and editors.

Transcribed by Pam Hasman

The complete interview with Yumi Matsuo can be accessed at

SINDA GREGORY published an interview with and essay about Rikki Ducornet in the Fall 1998 issue of Review of Contemporary Fiction; the author of Private Investigations: The Fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s, she currently is Professor of English at San Diego State University.

Having received her M.A. in Literature from UC-Berkeley, PAMELA HASMAN is now a poet, fiction writer, housewife, and belly-dancing instructor living in San Diego.

LARRY McCAFFERY's most recent publication was Federman, A to X-X-X-X--A Recyclopedic Narrative (San Diego State University Press); currently a Professor of English at San Diego State University, his main activity is hiking near his home in the Anza Borrego Desert.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Author:Gregory, Sinda; McCaffery, Larry
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
Previous Article:The Human Factor (from Evil Eyes).
Next Article:Murder in Balloon Town.

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