The Careful Craft of Writing Female Subjectivity

Territory of Light, Yuko Tsushima’s story of a single mother navigating ’70s Japan, exploded notions of autofiction by women as simply memoiristic.

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What sort of mother loses her child in the park? Or goes out drinking and leaves her child unsupervised at home? Or lets her child stroke the back of a drunk stranger? The mother in Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light does all of these things. And yet she dearly loves her daughter. Together they throw leaves at a “dazzling blue” sky and play on a flooded roof that through her daughter’s eyes becomes “the sea.” When the girl has a bad dream, the mother recites “magic words” to soothe her: “Nightmares, leave this child alone … Let her dream she’s dancing.”

Territory of Light was published from 1978 to 1979 as a series of 12 stories in the Japanese literary magazine Gunzō that, once finished, were collected into a novel. Geraldine Harcourt’s English translation has recently been published in the United States. The novel follows a young mother and her 3-year-old daughter. At the beginning of the book, the narrator and her husband are separated but not divorced. Readers are never given her first or maiden name, an authorial choice that suggests uncertainty about who she will be once the split is complete. When she and her little girl move into a small apartment, the mother hopes that the brightly lit space will “protect [her] daughter from the upheaval.” The novel recounts their first year living alone together.

The book is short. It covers few characters and little time, and yet it tackles a vital topic. For Tsushima, choosing to write about single motherhood was complicated. Because she was both the daughter of a single mother and a single mother herself, Territory of Light and her other works on similar themes (“The Watery Realm” and Child of Fortune) are often considered to be partially about her own life. But the brilliance of Territory is that Tsushima’s skilled attention to her narrator’s inner struggles ultimately asks the reader to feel empathy not just for one woman but also for a whole strata of women living with little societal support.

Territory tends to be classified in the semiautobiographical genre referred to in Japan as the I-novel. The genre—and Tsushima’s connection to it—is fascinating, if fraught. The form rose to popularity in Japan in the early 20th century. After the United States forced Japan to open its doors to foreign trading, Japanese writers suddenly had access to European and American authors. The novels of Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Zola, which privileged the private thoughts of their characters, made a strong impression. Japanese writers were inspired to combine this realist mode with existing Japanese diaristic traditions. The result often focused on the inner life of a protagonist who resembled the author; the playwright Kume Masao praised the frank style as “the basis and the essence of the art of prose.”

Tsushima’s father, Osamu Dazai, was himself a renowned I-novelist, whose works reflected the more scandalous elements of his life—his debauchery and his repeated love-suicide attempts. Kenzaburō Ōe, the Nobel Prize–winning author whose work is often seen as quasi-autobiographical (though it’s equally interpreted as studies of national identity and masculinity), felt the pressure of being associated with the genre so strongly that when he wrote A Personal Matter, in 1964, he noted that he “had to enter into a new contract with [his] readers, first proclaiming to them that what they were about to read was not an ‘I-novel.’”

Haruki Murakami claimed that the sheer dominance of the genre turned him off from the style, writing that since “you can’t hope either to make your way through or to understand modern Japanese literature if you’re going to avoid its constitutional predisposition to producing ‘I novels,’ I made a conscious effort while young to avoid getting anywhere near Japanese literature.” He found these autobiographical stories “simply boring.” Tsushima’s daughter, for her part, has reportedly argued that critics have focused on the personal dimension of her mother’s works and ignored their pointed critiques of the wider social structure—due to Tsushima being a woman.

To see only the personal or, on the contrary, to immediately discount the personal, underestimates Tsushima for two reasons. First, not all of Tsushima’s books have an autobiographical element. Harcourt explained in emails to me that “Tsushima came to be considered an I-novelist early in her career, and Territory of Light was part of that early work.” Second, even Territory is far more than a diary regurgitated. As the British writer Olivia Sudjic writes in her book-length essay Exposure, “When a woman’s subject is female subjectivity,” readers often “assume there is no craft, no rigour, no strategy which underpins it.” Worse, it is sometimes seen as self-centered or vain—a critique often deployed toward autofiction by contemporary female writers. But this is an injustice both to women and to the insights of lived experience.

Whether a young Murakami would have enjoyed Territory of Light is unclear, but the episodes of the narrator’s life are, when read carefully, far from boring. There is something deeply seductive about being drawn into the intimate thoughts of a woman who otherwise would tell them to no one.

It is possible, too, to see how Tsushima takes a quiet, personal, possibly autobiographical tale and turns it into something bigger. She is selective about what she uses of her life. Tsushima’s father was a literary celebrity who died by suicide by drowning, with a woman who was not his wife. But Territory of Light makes no mention of the protagonist’s father; its focus is the small but mighty world of mother and child. The narrator’s plight is not that of the daughter of a celebrated bohemian, but that of an ordinary woman. By allowing her protagonist this normality, Tsushima shows how easily slipping to the bottom of society can happen to any woman.

Throughout Territory of Light, the protagonist is criticized by old friends, her daughter’s father, neighbors, and day-care workers. Often, the criticisms feel outsize and cruel. No one seems to feel empathy for her. The young mother is told that she should reconcile with her husband—that “nothing goes right for a woman on her own.” Such advice seems absurd on one level: The narrator’s ex is a drinker with no money, hardly a good bet. But in 1970s Japan, there was a strong stigma against being a single mother, and there were few social structures to support such women. There was not then, and there is still not, joint custody. Even today, most single mothers live in poverty, few receive alimony, and those who work make, on average, 30 percent less than men doing the same job. They are haunted by “the twin taboos of being a divorced mother and being poor,” as Yoshiaki Nohara writes in Bloomberg. For Tsushima’s narrator, this means that she must either give up her rights to her child or take them on entirely.

Besides social condemnation and poverty, the mother must battle self-judgment. When she has sexual dreams, she berates herself: “Why didn’t I ever dream of joyfully hugging my child?” She imagines a court of law discussing her reveries. “The mother frequently has dreams of a libidinous nature: There was no refuting that.” She struggles to feel worthy, using drink, sex, and sleep to escape her misery.

Tsushima’s gift is to provide insight into the mother’s difficulties without rendering her protagonist simply an oppressed victim. She allows her moments of intense affection for her child, as when, in the midst of a downpour, the mother does something strikingly simple: “I closed my umbrella, took my sodden daughter in my arms, and walked on slowly in the rain.” She finds beauty in unlikely things—a flooded roof, or the bright colors of an exploding chemical factory. It is an existence in which, as in so many lives, the good and the bad are muddled together. Harcourt wrote that Tsushima’s “realistic depictions of contemporary daily life in Tokyo” first drew her attention, and it is easy to see why.

At one point, the young mother describes a moment of intense but fearful love: “I felt as though everything except my daughter had vanished at the other end of the telephone. I pictured her, bobbing there all by herself on the surface of the sea, using both hands to hold the receiver, which was too big for her, and to press it to her ear.” Reading that line, it doesn’t seem to matter whether what Tsushima wrote is true or not, whether it is I-novelistic or not. This moment contains a feeling of truthfulness, not because it relates to biographical fact, but because it captures so well the particular feeling of loving someone from whom you are separated.

By rendering the everyday details of the mother’s life, whether disastrous or beautiful, Tsushima allows her protagonist a complexity that those around her do not. In the present age, in which mothers are still often seen as monsters or angels, this portrait of an imperfect mother who strives to provide a good life for her child feels painfully relevant.