A semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s. This novel radically broke with Japanese literary tradition and offers a luminous meditation on how a person becomes a writer.
In Japanese, several features set it apart from a conventional Japanese-language novel. The words flow horizontally left to right as in many European-language books, as opposed to vertically and right to left as in most Japanese-language books. It also freely moves from English to Japanese and back, the way a fluent speaker of both languages like Mizamura might ... Carpenter’s compromise is to use different typefaces to represent the use of different languages. A great deal must be lost in translation, but the novel is still a thoughtful reflection on language and culture ... Mizumura’s reflections on race are some of the most eloquent in the book ... An I-Novel ends without a conclusive answer, but it becomes clearer that Mizumura’s distinction between her 'Japanese-language self' (her 'real self') and her 'English-language self' isn’t a comfortable one. Her dual identity makes her a keen critic of two very different cultures that are, in some ways, inseparable.
Innovative yet influenced by traditional Japanese literary style, An I-Novel focuses on subtle details within an intimate structure. There are evocative descriptions, as of the snow’s 'soundless dance' and how Nanae dates 'a merry-go-round of men.' More intense events, however, like the crime and veiled racism Minae encounters in the US, are included with detached yet troubled candor ... an intriguing, nuanced portrait of a family in flux, and of a young woman finding her creative center between two worlds.
In an age of so many books about identity, An I-Novel stands out for the tough questions it poses. It’s not difficult to read, since Mizumura is a fluent and entertaining writer ... Mizumura’s books reclaim the particularity, the untranslatability, of her own language. And they do so without the slightest whiff of nationalism ... What’s difficult about her work is the questions it raises. How to be national without being chauvinistic? How to be local without being provincial? How to use identity as the beginning of the discussion rather than — as it is so often today — the final word? In Mizumura’s works, the question is always open. She knows, from the very beginning of her American story, that this is not her country, not her language. But it’s one thing to realize that. It’s another thing to get back home.