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Author Interview: Nina Schuyler (Part 1) [in Bloom]

NinaSchuylerWith all the vastness of the internet, I had quite a difficult time finding answers to the sorts of questions I had about Nina Schuyler and her relationship to her fiction – most especially regarding race and identity. (I know, so loaded!)

In both of her lauded novels – The Painting (2004) and The Translator (2013) – Schuyler takes a giant leap into a country, culture, language, even gender into which she was not born …and unlike some who have attempted such chameleonic feats (and succumbed wholly to cringe-inducing exotic pandering), Schuyler is sensitively attuned, carefully authentic, and thoroughly convincing.

So when I wrote the feature about Schuyler, I felt a bit restricted because I couldn’t write what I didn’t know. How grateful was I to get the chance to find out more from Schuyler herself! (Her name, by the way, is pronounced NIGH-nah SKY-ler, and not “Nee-nah Shoe-ler,” as narrator Kirsten Potter mistakenly refers to her in the audio version of Schuyler’s The Translator. Choose the page!)

Let’s start with some obvious questions about language … how many do you speak, read, or write?
I speak enough Japanese to be dangerous. On a recent visit to Japan, I asked an elderly Japanese woman for directions to a tea house and ended up at a cemetery. Long ago, I learned Spanish. Now that my two sons are learning it, I, thankfully, am finding my way again in that language. When I lived in Denmark as a university student, I learned Danish. Unfortunately, that language has faded and I’m left with only one phrase: “May I have a cup of tea?”

Might I assume that English is your first language? Your last name is Dutch – is that also your family’s background?
It is. I’m Dutch on my Dad’s side. Pennsylvania Dutch, actually. I grew up knowing a little bit about my heritage, but it wasn’t dominant by any means. My father talked to us early on about the intersection of the Dutch and the Japanese, how the Dutch were one of the rare groups of foreigners allowed to live in Japan, though in confined quarters.

What drew you to learn other languages?
I think the allure of languages is intertwined with my love of words. In my novel The Translator, my protagonist, Hanne Schubert, says she learned seven languages, not to converse with the world, but to make an array of sounds. I understand this appeal.

Unlike my protagonist, however, I want to converse, to reach across the silent, lonely gap and speak, not in my native tongue, but in someone else’s. My attempts, however faulty, always unfold into something memorable.

And being so facile with languages – and your latest novel bears the title The Translator – have you ever considered taking on translating projects?
With my Japanese teacher, I’ve translated Japanese poetry. My small, feeble efforts have shown me how much skill and art there is in moving from one language into another.

Both your novels have been woven around an intersection of East and West – certainly the twain meet in your work. Where did that impetus come from?
When I was growing up, my father often traveled to Japan for work. He’d bring back the usual souvenirs – Japanese fans, geisha dolls in glass boxes, origami birds, chopsticks, and the occasional bonsai tree. The aesthetic was so different from the West, pared down, simple lines. It seemed the embodiment of grace, and I was transfixed. I began to read about Japanese art and artists, and from there, I wanted to learn the language, which I studied in college and then after I graduated. I embarked on that adventure, not knowing I’d be learning three alphabets, and that it would take about 3,000 kanji to read a newspaper. I also studied Japanese economics, with a fabulous professor who wove in psychology, society, and Japanese culture.

Because I am from the West, I see how much the two worlds – East and West – could learn from each other. I know that sounds idealistic – so be it. In my novel, Hanne Schubert moves from her isolated, lonely state to awareness of community and the other. This movement is, in some sense, representative of how the West could stand to absorb some of the lessons of the East. That is, the West, with its hyperbolic emphasis on the individual and individual rights, and the East, with its emphasis on community and harmony and the public good. […click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Nina Schuyler,” Bloom, January 8, 2014

Readers: Adult

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