Angela Carter’s Intellectual and Personal Adventures in Japan

Natsumi IKOMA, Visiting Professor to the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at UEA, discusses the influence of Japan on Angela Carter and the origins of the exhibition she curated for the British Archive for Contemporary Writing.

In 1969, Angela Carter visited Japan for the first time in her life with the money received from the Somerset Maugham Literary Award. She had expected to find the exotic and strange, like many European intelligentsia who visited the land of the Orient before her. But what she came across there was beyond her preconceptions.

 

Encounters with Japan, its culture and its people had such a huge impact on Angela Carter that her scholars differentiate the works as Pre-Japan and Post-Japan. She lived with a Japanese boyfriend in Tokyo. Their time together – just a few years – was intensely romantic, but often plagued with harsh power struggles. Twenty odd years after their defeat in World War 2, Japan, and this young man, were suffering from complex issues. They were trying to regain the confidence and authority they believed they once owned. He was sensitive to the objectifying treatment that Japanese people receive from Europeans and Americans. Being in a relationship with a European woman, an established writer, was a difficult one for him. Eventually, the relationship ended unhappily, even though they shared many intellectual interests and sensibilities. But her will to understand him and his country was a strong motivation to overcome the apt othering of the Orient. She acquired sensitivity towards gender, race, and power issues partly from this relationship, which contributed to Carter’s unique writings. Because of this personal experience, Angela Carter is so unique in British literature.

While she was in Japan, she was a diligent student of Japanese culture and society, trying to absorb every tiny detail. She read numerous books, both literary and scholarly, perused journal articles, enjoyed and analysed comic books. She watched many theatre performances, such as Kabuki and Bunraku, and saw many films including blue-films. She was fascinated by the juxtaposition of high and low culture in Japan, and by the proliferation of the sex industry, just a street away from serene residential areas. The mixture of literary flamboyant expression with lewd remarks, one of the trademarks of Angela Carter’s writings, was arguably acquired during her Japanese days. She loved to discuss her findings with her Japanese boyfriend. The complex city, the world’s most populated city then, gave her an opportunity to examine the relations among gender, race, and power not only in Japan but also in the UK, in Europe and in the world, and offered a new insight.

When I came across the list of books owned by Angela Carter in the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at the University of East Anglia [held within the Lorna Sage Archive], I was delighted. I had been studying the influence of Japanese culture on Carter’s writings for years, and was convinced of the extensive research done by Angela Carter regarding Japan. The list confirmed my conviction. During my sabbatical year at UEA I have recovered some of the books from the list, and with the immense and invaluable help provided by Justine Mann, managed to compile exhibition materials to show, at the Symposium: Angela Carter and Japan, that took place at UEA on 30 June, 2018, which was organized by myself and Dr Stephen Benson of LDC. You can see Carter’s extensive study of Japanese society and culture, which she continued even after she returned to UK. You can now see the exhibition materials at 02 floor of UEA Library until early September 2018 and then by appointment only in the Archive Reading Room during October 2018.

British Archive for Contemporary Writing at UEA: http://www.uea.ac.uk/bacw

 

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