Then you see what happens when you send your work out into the world, and it is variously understood and misinterpreted and reviled and adored and misquoted and respected and hashed into unrecognizable bits. And then, when your creation, your dear little difficult thing, goes across borders, that's when it gets truly strange.
This is what happened to Rebecca Brown when she accidentally went to Japan and discovered that she was a rock star.
Brown is one of Seattle's best writers, and altogether far too underknown. Now in her mid-40s, Brown has published nine books over the course of her career, most of them with smart small presses such as City Lights and Seal. Gifts of the Body, a book of stories both lucid and savagely dreamy, was published in 1995 by HarperCollins, a major house, and despite excellent press sold only--I was very surprised to learn--3,000 copies in hardcover.
Even after all these years and all these volumes, Brown remains something of a cult cipher; the smart, literary lesbian, the artist who claps with one hand and writes with the other. In a graceful gesture, her most recent (and most personal) book, Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary, was published in limited letterpress editions by Grey Spider Press, as if acknowledging that her work is precious to few by making the few as precious as possible.
When her planned trip to India was derailed by current events, she went to Japan instead and found herself staying at the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo's swankiest accommodations, courtesy of her Japanese publisher. Everywhere she turned, Brown encountered people of boundless energy willing to promote, publish, and talk about her work. Indeed, people had to be turned away from her overcrowded readings and appearances--some of which had ticket prices of $15. (In Japan, the hardcover edition of Gifts of the Body has sold over 20,000 copies in translation.)
What's the disconnect here? What does it mean to be big in Japan? It means that for some reason your own country has passed you over, either for being too marginalized, not marginalized enough, too done, too rare. And something in this not-quite-right-for-mainstream status translates into deep interest somewhere else, either for reasons of exoticism (a kind of reverse Orientalism) or an uncanny and unexpected bridge to another culture.
But it doesn't seem to be Brown's strangeness that attracts her Japanese fans. Here, she is perceived as (in her own words) "a lefty, fringy lesbian," the kind of author that mainstream literary magazines occasionally review as a token gesture toward the subculture. But she found in Tokyo that the Japanese are in fact more blasé about homosexuality than we are here in Freedom Country, that what they really wanted to talk about was literature. There is also--quite surprisingly, because Gifts of the Body is about an AIDS caretaker and her dying patients--no perceivable AIDS crisis in Japan, at least according to the people Brown met and asked. "Because of the reception here," she said, "I assumed Gifts of the Body was a gay book and an AIDS book, but it wasn't in Japan, particularly. It was a book about caring, and about dying."
In translation, the light beam of literature refracts through the mind of another writer (a teacher of mine once suggested that there is no English translation of Dante's Inferno, but rather there is Pinsky's Inferno, Ciardi's Inferno, Musa's Inferno), but then, how can you ever know what another person has taken from your work, even in your own language? How can you rein in meaning and control its expression? You can't, you can't, you simply make the thing and let it go, let it refract through the minds of readers and hope it falls into their souls.
And then, perhaps, as I have always suspected, the Japanese are simply a higher form of life.