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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A Writer's Themes

Do you believe that a writer chooses his themes or do they come upon him?

Nadine Gordimer has written that we don't choose a theme or a situation or story. The theme chooses us, that is the goal of the writer. The time, the days choose us as a writer. We must respond to our time. From my experience I can say the same thing as Nadine Gordimer: I didn't choose the story of a handicapped son, or we didn't choose the theme of a handicapped boy's family. I wanted to escape from that if it were possible, but something chose me to write about it. My son chose me. That is one definite reason I continue to write.

You write in another essay, "The fundamental style of my writing has been to start from my personal matters and then link it up with society and the state and the world."

I think I am doing my works to link myself, my family, with society -- with the cosmos. To link me with my family to the cosmos, that is easy, because all literature has some mystic tendency. So when we write about our family, we can link ourselves to the cosmos. But I wanted to link myself and my family with society. When we link ourselves to society then we don't write very personal matters but we are writing an independent novel.

You say in A Healing Family that the lessons you learned in making a handicapped child an active part of your family were an example of how a society at large should treat the handicapped, and how society should learn from them. In essence, one can create a healing society by creating a healing family.

Yes, I hope so, but I don't want to emphasize the role of the family of the handicapped boy, I don't want to emphasize individuality. Always, when we linked our individual family to society, [it] has social value; if not, I think, we can only write very personal matters through our experience. When I named my first novel about my son A Personal Matter, I believe I knew the most important thing: there is not any personal matter; we must find the link between ourselves, our "personal matter," and society.

What role should the writer play in the politics of his time?

To combine our service to the society -- that is politics. I don't need any role as a policymaker. There are some friends of mine who have become policymakers.

You don't want to be Henry Kissinger.

I was in a seminar with Mr. Kissinger. Mr. Kissinger said in the good-bye party, with a very malicious smile, "The very wicked rabbit makes a smile in the cartoons, Mr. Oe's wicked smile," Mr. Kissinger said.

I am not a wicked person. Against the policymaker, sometimes I make a wicked smile. I am not a man with a policy, doing politics. But from the life of human beings [in my writings], I want to do something for politics. So I must do something through my literature or my essays.

What is that?

I personally can say in my very small voice now I am doing that.

What does a Japanese writer need to add to the discourse in Japan, which apparently is so materialist and apparently lacking in humanist values?

I have criticized Japanese attitudes toward Asia, to the world, [since] before the economic crisis in Japan. Even when we were poor I began to criticize our attitude toward Asia. During the prosperity I continued. After that, now we are in an economic crisis, and I must continue.

In Japan, we wanted to create a truly new national attitude after our defeat in the war. For years, we wanted to create democracy, democratic man, a democratic country. I think we gave up. Fifty years have passed. Now there is an atmosphere of anti-democracy in Japan. So today, not yet, they say ultranationalism must come back, but I feel very ambiguous. A dangerous atmosphere of nationalism is coming in our society. So now I want to criticize this tendency, and I want to do everything to prevent the development of fascism in Japanese society.

Do your novels and humane themes that you focus on contribute to the climate of ideas so that fascism becomes less of a possibility?

When I was in Hiroshima, Dr. Shigeto said, "When you can't think of anything to do, you must do something." So I think if I can have some power to influence young intellectuals, we can organize a different power. Because today's crisis is one of unconscious feeling of ultranationalism in Japan. A very big feeling, atmoshpere. If we write about it precisely, if we attack it, then young intellectuals can become conscious of this feeling. It is very important in the beginning.

These intellectuals might confront these issues and help shape the public debate in the way, in A Personal Matter, the young man Bird confronts the reality of his situation.

Yes, I want to ask young men of Japan, the young intellectuals, to confront their reality.

Next page: Conclusion

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