When she was 23 years old, Laura Imai Messina, born and raised in Rome, moved to Tokyo to improve her Japanese. Now, over a decade later, she still lives there. Messina teaches Italian in the local universities and carries research on comparative literature.
A few years ago, Messina started a blog, Giappone Mon Amour, hoping to spread more knowledge and understanding about Japan in her home country, Italy. She succeeded: today her website is the most popular Italian blog about Japan, with more than 100 thousand followers on Facebook.
Following the success of her debut novel, published in 2014, Messina, who is now 36, has recently completed her new work of fiction; written in Italian, I Dare Not Say The Joy (Non oso dire la gioia), is being published this month by Piemme.
New York Transatlantic: You created “Giappone Mon Amour” in 2011. How did you get the idea for the blog?
Laura Imai Messina: I never got the idea—it was more of an impulse. After the Tōhoku disaster and the Fukushima accident, I felt the need to tell about Tokyo the way it really was, as opposed to the intolerable lies and inaccuracies that I was reading in the Italian press. As that emergency faded away, I turned away the informative [pieces] and I began writing about Japan, the beauty of this country. My life is just an excuse to tell about it. I’ve never wanted to turn it into a narcissistic view on myself and my life; each life is trivial in its own way. I wanted to disseminate the best of this country, squeezing out of it small life lessons.
Many Italians are very interested in Japan. Several Japanese authors—Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, Natsuo Kirino, Kenzaburō Ōe, just to name a few—are very popular. How do you interpret such fascination?
It’s just a moment, and as such, it will fade away. I think the reason [for this interest] lays in the cautious splendor of Japan, in its cultural and social difference. One of the most common adjectives used in regards to Japan is “indecipherable.” The inability to understand—when it’s safely far away from us—is in many ways a source of fascination. Japanese literature conveys that difference, it offers non-trivial stimuli to which the Western reader is not yet accustomed. I created my blog when Japan wasn’t as trendy. I think it meets the need of beauty and meditation.
With your debut novel, Horizontal Tokyo (Tokyo Orizzontale), you became part of the category of Italian writers who live abroad, who mix identities, traditions and influences. Your novel was set in Tokyo, with both Japanese and Italian characters; do you think there was an Italian influence in it? Will you take your characters to Italy, one day?
In my new novel, that geographical shift sort of occurred. Momoko ferries her Japanese soul into an Italian context, Clara is very Italian and yet her disorientation in the streets of Rome is similar to what she feels in Tokyo. East and West penetrate each other in I Dare Not Say The Joy (Non oso dire la gioia). The places of the narration are concentrated mainly in Rome, but there are also long and intense incursions of one character into Tokyo. Geography is a pretext—at this point, I feel like my Italy is very Japanese and my Japan is very Italian. I struggle to draw a clear line of demarcation in my world—let alone in my novels.
Tell me about your new novel, I Dare Not Say The Joy (Non oso dire la gioia). How has your writing changed?
Awareness… rhythm. Many say that my prose advanced. I’ve never read Horizontal Tokyo again, I’m sure I’d want to change it and it wouldn’t be possible, so I’d just feel very frustrated. The main difference between a reader and a writer is that for the latter there is no definitive version of a piece of writing. The plot of this novel is more complex. The focus is on time rather than space. Only when you’re two thirds into the book you begin understanding the connection between the parts. Also, while Horizontal Tokyo was about young, sentimentally immature characters, in this new novel I discuss a more mature kind of love—especially in the relationship between parents and children. My personal experience of motherhood—both furiously searching for it and obtaining it—has upset me. My writing was affected by it in the themes and in the plot itself.
One of the greatest differences between Italians and Japanese people is civic sense, which seems to be missing in the former and to abound in the latter. Is that a stereotype? How is it for you to visit Italy?
Unfortunately, that’s not a stereotype. Italy is breathtakingly beautiful, but Italians carelessly neglect it. Sometimes I look at the garbage on the sidewalks and I wonder, where does it come from? Who did that? I believe more in praise than punishment as an educational method; and yet, I expect police to be stationed on the sides of the roads, ready to stop those who dirty the streets. I imagine some sort of license to live in the city. If we lost “points,” we shouldn’t be allowed to live there, or we should have to follow some propaedeutic course to be allowed back into the city.
What do you miss about Italy when you’re in Japan, and what do you miss about Japan when you’re in Italy?
I miss Japan terribly when I’m in Italy, because it’s home to me. In Japan, I can predict the behaviour of everyone I see, there is little unexpected. I can always trust to know that honesty drives most people. Japan relaxes me. I used to miss Italy during my first years in Japan, but not anymore. I still love to go visit, enjoy the landscapes and the flavors. I’m proud of being Italian, I’ll never stop showing my love for the country I was born and raised in.
This interview, translated by Simone Somekh from Italian, was edited and condensed for clarity. Photos: Courtesy of Laura Imai Messina.