BOOK REVIEW EDITOR ELLA KELLEHER WRITES – What would happen if your country sank into the ocean? Would you still have a claim to your “homeland”? What about the language you speak? Could it still be considered your “native language”?
In Yoko Tawada’s latest release of dystopian fiction, Scattered All Over the Earth (2022), “the land of sushi” (presumably Japan) disappears due to global warming and rising sea levels. As a result, the country lingers on only in its kitschy and most digestible form. While no one remembers the actual name of the disappeared land, people do reminisce on anime, miso soup, and cosplay.
Japan was already gone in more ways than one. Urbanization led to the leveling of the country’s sacred mountain ranges. The nation’s sex drive had become “practically extinct.” The overworked and neglected Japanese people eventually could not “distinguish between the virtual and real worlds” once human connections became a luxury most people could not afford. Japan was not the only country destined for disappearing. The apocalypse casts a shadow that spreads over Europe, where environmental poisons decimate populations of oceanic wildlife.
The novel begins from the perspective of Knut, a quirky Danish linguistics student. By chance, he watches a televised panel between people from extinct countries such as East Germany, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. He then sees a young woman whose face resembles an “anime character.”
Hiruko is from “an archipelago somewhere between China and Polynesia” that has completely vanished. The actual name of Hiruko’s country is obviously Japan. However, Tawada makes a point to never explicitly name the country of Hiruko’s birth. Rather, the readers begin to understand the soft power of Japan, as its pop culture and uniqueness are almost an entirely separate entity divorced from its country of origin.
Hiruko does not speak Danish. Instead, she has invented her own made-up language, which she named “Panska.” From the word “pan” meaning “all” and “-ska” for “Scandinavia.” Hiruko can communicate with people from any country in northern Europe through her homemade language. Albeit she sounds like she’s speaking backward. Knut, enamored with this enigmatic woman, describes Hiruko as “breathing in several grammars, melding them together inside her body, then exhaling them as sweet breath.” It appears the last thing to go extinct may just be romance itself.
Modern conceptions of race, religion, sexuality, and language merge together and become nearly impossible to distinguish as separate concepts. Hiruko movingly explains, “When you think about it, since we’re all earthlings, no one can be an illegal resident of earth. So why are there more and more illegal aliens every year? If things keep on this way, someday the whole human race will be illegal.”
Perhaps, we are not as different as we have been led to believe. The concept of a “global culture” and the impending doom set on humanity by ecological disasters puts a kind of melancholic tint on “Panska,” as it was born out of necessity and devastation rather than pure linguistic innovation. Knut, a man with the privilege of still having a home country, describes Hiruko’s “homemade language” as being like “Monet’s water lilies. The colors, shattered into pieces, were beautiful but painful.”
Tawada unveils another undeniable truth: woven into languages are the threads of loss and pain sewn by its speakers. As more and more languages become globalized, the very nature of speech will become stained with the experiences and cultures of people across the world – weakening the very idea of a “native tongue.”
Worth emphasizing is Margaret Mitsutani’s incredible translation in Scattered All Over the Earth (2022). “Panska” is artificial, a somewhat messy amalgamation of various Scandinavian languages that were originally transcribed in Japanese. Tawada’s work is effectively a stunning quilt of languages layered atop one another. The author’s passion for language even leads her to question the conception of words that have problematic connotations.
Tenzo, originally a Greenlander, is described as an “Eskimo” throughout the story, despite that term having racist and offensive implications. He explains that “people who consider the word ‘Eskimo’ racist think it’s enough to just replace it with ‘Inuit’, even though strictly speaking not all Eskimos are Inuit.” Through Tenzo’s perspective, Tawada casts an uncomfortable spotlight on the perhaps simulated discomfort that many non-natives exhibit over the treatment of indigenous people. Tenzo is not the only character “driven into an ethnic corner.” Everyone in Tawada’s novel experiences what it’s like to be exoticized. Foreignness is all just a matter of perspective.
Scattered All Over the Earth (2022) has no polished, clean-cut ending. It is the first installment of a planned-out trilogy that aims to answer some of Tawada’s philosophical and existential questions. Even without sequels to carry its weight, Tawada’s latest release is both a brilliant homage to language and a thoroughly entertaining fiction novel to let yourself get lost within. However, such a journey would not be possible without the sophisticated linguistic Sherpa, Margaret Mitsutani, who guides it all into language you can easily follow.
Former LMU English Honors Graduate Ella Kelleher is the book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. Her English studies featured a concentration in multi-ethnic literature. She is currently in South Korea helping ‘indigenous Koreans’ with their English.