Kenzaburo Oe Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Art and Healing: Conversation with Kenzaburo Oe, 1994 Nobel Laureate in Literature; 4/16/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Welcome back to Berkeley. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in 1935 in a small island of the Japanese archipelago. I must emphasize that the war between U.S.A. and Japan began when I was six years old. And then at ten years old, I saw the war finished. So my childhood was during the wartime. That is a very important thing.

Were you the first writer in your family?

This is a very delicate problem. My family continued to live [on that island] for two hundred years or more. There are plenty of journalists among my ancestors. So if they had wanted to publish, I think they could have been the first writers. But unfortunately, or fortunately, they didn't publish, so I am the first man who published what I wrote; but my mother was always saying that "You men of our family are always writing the same thing."

You have said in an interview: "The act of trying to remember and the act of creating began to overlap, and that is the reason why I began to write novels."

Yes. If I may add something: I begin my writing by the method of imagination, on the ground of imagination, and toward the imagination.

What books did you read as a young person?

I didn't read many books before nine years old. I was fascinated by the telling of tales of my grandmother. She was talking about almost everything about my family and my district; so it was enough for me. I didn't need any books at that time. But one day, there was some discussion between my grandmother and my mother. And my mother got up very early in the morning, and she packed one kilogram of rice -- we ate rice-- and she went to the small city of our island through the forest. Very late at night she returned. She gave a small doll to my sister, and some cakes for my younger brother, and she took out two pocket books. Tome one, tome two. I found Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. I didn't know the name of Mark Twain, the name of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, but my mother said -- and this was the first talk between my mother and I about literature, and almost the last talk. She said, "This is the best novel for a child or for an adult. Thus your father said." (The year before my father had passed away.) "I brought this book for you, but the woman who made the barter with the rice between us said, "Be careful. The author is American. Now the war between U.S. and Japan is going on. The teacher will take the book from your son. [Tell him] that if your teacher asks you who is the author, you must answer that Mark Twain is the pseudonym of a German writer."

You also read, according to your Nobel Prize speech, a book called The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.

Yes, a very famous Swedish feminine author [Selma Lagerlöf], wrote that book, a book for the children of Sweden to study the atlas of their country. [In this book] a kind of trickster is going through all of the country on the back of a small goose. That was also very, very fascinating. So in my childhood only two books are dear and I also continued to read them again and again. I remember almost all of the words of those two books.

And one line in particular stood out for you. When the wanderer in the book returns home, he says, "I am a human being again."

Yes, the hero has become a very small boy through fairy magic and he couldn't believe in the possibility that he would become an ordinary sized human being [again]. When he returns to his house, he secretly comes in the kitchen. His father finds him. Then a very kind, humane passion occurs in the hero; then very naturally he grows to ordinary man's size. Then he shouts, "Oh Mother, again I am a human being." That is very important for me to add.

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