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

Page 3 of 6

Finding a Voice in Tragedy

The birth of your son was the turning point in finding your voice as a writer. You have written that "Twenty-five years ago, my first son was born with brain damage. This was a blow, to say the least. Yet as a writer, I must acknowledge the fact that the central theme of my work throughout much of my career has been the way my family has managed to live with this handicapped child."

Yes, precisely. I wrote it.

When I was twenty-eight years old, my son was born. When I was twenty-eight years old I was a writer, a rather famous writer on the Japanese scene and I was a student of French literature. And I was talking in the voice of Jean-Paul Sartre or [Maurice] Merleau-Ponty. I was always speaking about everything of this work. But when my son was born with very big damage in his brain, I found out one night, I wanted to find encouragement, so I wanted to read my book -- that was the first time I read my book, [the only] book that [I'd] written up to that date -- and I found out a few days later that I cannot encourage myself through my book; [therefore] no one can be [encouraged] by my work. book cover So I thought, "I am nothing and my book is nothing." So I was depressed very strongly; then I was asked by a journalist who was editing a political magazine in Japan to go to Hiroshima, the place the atomic bomb [had been] dropped. There in Hiroshima, in that year the peace movement -- the anti-atomic bomb movement -- was meeting, and in those assemblies there was big fight between the Chinese group and the Russian group. And I was the only independent journalist there. So I criticized both of them.

I found the hospital of the Hiroshima survivors and there I found the very great Dr. [Fumio] Shigeto. In conversation with Shigeto and the patients in the hospital, I gradually found that there is something that encouraged me, so I wanted to follow this sense that there is something. So I returned to Tokyo and went to the hospital where my [newborn] son was, and talked to the doctors about rescuing my son. Oe Then I began to write about Hiroshima, and this was the turning point of my life. A kind of rebirth of myself.

So there was an interplay between what you saw in the victims of Hiroshima and also very importantly what you saw in observing the doctors who were treating the victims. What you observed somehow moved you to another plane in dealing with your own personal tragedy?

Yes. Shigeto said to me, "We cannot do anything for the survivors. Even today we don't know anything about the nature of the illness of the survivors. Even today, so shortly after the bombing, we don't know anything, but we did what we could do. Every day a thousand people dead. But amidst the dead bodies, I continued. So, Kenzaburo, what can I do except that, when they need our aid? Now your son needs you. You must find out that no one on this planet needs you except your son." Then I understood. I returned to Tokyo and began to do something for my son, for myself, and for my wife.

book cover Your novel about the birth of your handicapped son is called A Personal Matter, and your writings on Hiroshima are collected in Hiroshima Notes. You write in the latter: "When the Hiroshima doctors pursue the A-bomb calamity in their imaginations, they are trying to see more deeply and more clearly the depth of the hell into which they too are caught. There is a pathos in this dual concern for self and others; yet it only adds to the sincerity and the authenticity that we sense...." You are saying that in seeing this duality in the doctor, you were helped to see the complexity of the dilemma of Bird, the protagonist in your novel.

Yes. Until then, my little theme was a duality or ambiguity of human beings. [This concept] came from existentialism in France. I think I found out the true duality and how I can be so-called "authentic." But the word "authenticity" must not be so frozen in my case. I used the word from Jean-Paul Sartre. Today I would use another word. It is very simple. I wanted to be strictly an upright man. The Irish poet Yeats said in his poem, "The young man who stands straight." Straightforwardness. Erect. This kind of young man that I wanted to be, but then I used the word "authentic."

Lionel Trilling wrote that confessing to your feelings is one of the most courageous and valuable things a writer could do. That's what you did in A Personal Matter.

Yes. I wanted to do so. At the time I didn't think of the value of being an upright man. I [felt I] must write about myself. Why not? I cannot be reborn and my son cannot be reborn, I felt, [if I don't]. So when I was by the sea [I decided that] I must rescue myself and I must rescue my son. So I wrote that book, I think.

Next page: The Artist as Healer

© Copyright 1999, Regents of the University of California