Monday, December 22, 2014

Study Guide: Tawada Yōko’s “Where Europe Begins” (1991)


Study Guide: Tawada Yōko’s “Where Europe Begins” (1991)[1]

*To purchase Susan Bernofsky/Yumi Selden’s translation of the story, click here.
*To view Tawada Yōko’s Official Homepage, click here.

Tawada Yōko (1960–):  Tawada Yōko majored in Russian at university, but during her first job developed a passion for all things German and moved to Germany for postgraduate study. She got her Master’s at Hamburg University and her PhD at Zurich before returning to Germany to write. Her first publication was a collection of poems. In 1991 her novella Kakato o nakushite (Missing Heels, tr. 1998) won the Gunzo Prize for New Writers. The novella Inu mukoiri (The Bridegroom Was a Dog, tr. 1998) was awarded the Akutagawa Prize in 1993, and Yogisha no yako ressha (Suspects on the Night Train), a series of linked stories, received the Tanizaki Jun’ichirō Prize in 2003. Tawada lives in Germany and writes in both Japanese and German. She describes her approach in her essay Ekusofoni (Exophony), stressing that what’s important is not each individual language, but the space between them. “I don’t want to be an author who writes either in language A or language B,” she declares. “I want to find that poetical ravine that divides the two and tumble into it.” In 1996 she won the Robert Bosch Stiftung Chamisso Prize and in 2005 was awarded the Goethe Medal. In 2011 her novel Yuki no renshusei (The Trainee of Snow) won the Noma Prize for Literature. (Source: J-lit, Books from Japan)

Study Questions

1. Describe the narrative structure of the work. Summarize the five “diary excerpts” (parts 3, 7, 8, 11, 15); the four “first travel narratives” (parts 5, 9, 12, 18); the two “something I told a woman three years after the journey” sections (parts 6, 10); and the “excerpt of the letter to my parents” (part 17). What effect is produced by constructing the story as a patchwork of various types of narrative?

2. Describe the narrator. Where is she located (temporally and spatially)? What was she like before her trip to Moscow, during her trip, and after her trip? What is her motivation for wanting to go to Moscow? How much of the experience on the boat/train does she remember?

3. Tawada Yōko’s works are often described as “writerly” (see below definition). What elements in this work are “writerly”? Explain.

4. Make a list of the salient images/symbols of this work (e.g. foreign water, water, white serpent, Fire Bird, paper snake, white birch tree, omul, seahorse, knife, umbilical cord, volcano, etc.). Describe these images/symbols and their significance.

5. Discuss the narrator’s parents/upbringing. What picture can we construct from the fragments that are given?

6. Identify and summarize the various myths/legends that are referred to in the work. Discuss their context/significance/function/relevance to the story.

7. Anton Chekhov’s play Three Sisters (1901; transl. Elisaveta Fen) serves as a kind of urtext to this story. Discuss the relation between these two texts.

8. What does the work tell us about the boundaries/divisions between nations, continents, cultures, languages, etc.?

Related Literary Terms

*Readerly and Writerly Texts: Translated from Barthes’ neologisms lisible and scriptible, the terms readerly and writerly text mark the distinction between traditional literary works such as the classical novel, and those twentieth century works, like the new novel, which violate the conventions of realism and thus force the reader to produce a meaning or meanings which are inevitably other than final or “authorized.” Barthes writes:

The writerly text is a perpetual present, upon which no consequent language (which would inevitably make it past) can be superimposed; the writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages. (S/Z 5)

Readerly texts, by contrast, are anything but readerly; they are manifestations of “The Book.” They do not locate the reader as a site of the production of meaning, but only as the receiver of a fixed, pre-determined, reading. They are thus products rather than productions and thus form the dominant mode of literature under capital.
Behind these distinctions lies Barthes’ own aesthetic and political projects, the championing of those texts which he sees as usefully challenging—often through the method of self-reflexivity—traditional literary conventions such as the omniscient narrator. For Barthes, the readerly text, like the commodity, disguises its status as a fiction, as a literary product, and presents itself as a transparent window onto “reality.” The writerly text, however, self-consciously acknowledges its artifice by calling attention to the various rhetorical techniques which produce the illusion of realism. In accord with his proclamation of “The Death of the Author.” Barthes insists, “the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text” (S/Z 4). (Source:

[1] Originally published in German (“Wo Europa Anfängt”) and Japanese (「ヨーロッパの始まるところ」) in 1991. English translation: Where Europe Begins. Susan Bernofsky and Yumi Selden, with a preface by Wim WendersNew York : Published for James Laughlin by New Directions Pub. 2002.

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