Sayaka Murata Inhabits a Planet of Her Own

At the time I meet Sayaka Murata on a recent afternoon in June, the back of my linen dress is damp. It’s an oppressively humid summer day in Tokyo, the sun hidden by a thick blanket of gray, and we’re strolling through Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, a 116-year-old park that throngs with crowds during sakura bloom . Today, visitors are few and far between; we seem to be the only ones foolish enough to go out at noon. Looking at Murata’s long neck black dress and black tights, I feel even hotter, but she doesn’t seem affected, apart from a soft glow on her forehead. Perhaps the subtle brilliance is a source of pride for Murata, I think. After all, she’s not sure her body works like other humans.

“In high school, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t break a sweat,” she says. “Even now I feel like my body and I don’t understand myself.” Murata, the author of more than a dozen novels and short story collections, often writes from this place of alienation. Many of his female characters feel distant from their bodies, both in mechanics and purpose. In 2016, Murata published Convenience store womana novel narrated by an unambitious and complacent Smile Mart worker who finds greater satisfaction fulfilling her duties as an employee than aspiring to marriage or motherhood. Convenience store woman it was a national bestseller that year, winning Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Award, and almost every year since, and has sold 1.5 million copies worldwide. The earthlings, Murata’s second novel to be translated into English, is about a woman whose alienation is literal; she thinks he’s an alien disguised as a human. In July, Murata published Ceremony of lifea new collection of short stories in which he crafts grotesque social rituals (in the title story, funerals are occasions for eating the dead) to expose the absurdity of bodily norms to which we’ve all become desensitized.

Although she is unlikely to use either term, Murata’s fiction might best be described as speculative feminist. The worlds she invents are of the future without adhering to the tropes of science fiction; its scenes horrify without leaving the everyday illuminated spaces of home and office. She devises strange social experiments that take place in seemingly familiar worlds and implants disjointed fantasies within otherwise unruly women. Her characters navigate domestic arrangements that distort the bland image of marriage, childbirth, and family life like a funhouse mirror. As in a fun house, their tricks amuse and delight. Reading her books, I often find myself laughing out loud and then doing a double take: Did I really just read that? Although she is sometimes outrageously dirty, she rarely is. Rather, their speculations act as a provocative form of scientific inquiry, incredulously probing the conventions of their species. Why, he wonders, do humans live like this?

Meeting Murata, I experience a bit of cognitive dissonance, knowing that the sweet-voiced 43-year-old woman in front of me is the author of several scenes of sensual cannibalism. She is small and delicate, with well-curled, chin-length hair. She laughs often. The way his eyes sparkle makes me think of Piyyut, the stuffed alien hedgehog mascot from The earthlings: friendly but distant, as if belonging to a distant world.

In the Japanese media, Murata is sometimes referred to as “Crazy Sayaka,” a nickname her friends first affectionately bestowed upon her, but which she fears borders on caricature. Even though his editors warn him not to say weird things in public, weird comments, like vomiting, invariably come out. A few times during our conversation, Murata starts to say something and then stops herself. He looks sideways as if to consult with someone; then a shy smile flashes across his face as he steps forward and says it anyway. This happens when she talks about looking for her own clitoris and being in love with one of her imaginary friends. Listening to Murata, I feel a strange sense of relief wash over me. Her literary worlds offer little comfort, and yet I feel my body relax before her, as if I’ve found a momentary refuge from the crush of humanity’s collective delusions.

Since childhood, Murata he has been concerned with an intense, sometimes painful effort to, as he put it in a 2020 essay, be a “normal earthling.” Growing up in a small town in Chiba, a prefecture east of Tokyo, she felt lonely and sensitive, often interrupting her kindergarten class with bouts of inconsolable crying. Her father, a judge, was often away at work, and her mother, busy caring for her and her older brother, worried about her timid appetite and weak constitution. “I just wanted to hurry up and become a good human,” says Murata.

Aware that her fragility made her stand out, she carefully studied the earthling manual. But the pressure to maintain the daily pretense felt like “little cuts” in his heart. He would often hide in the bathroom at his elementary school and cry until he threw up. When Murata was 8 years old, he writes, an alien came in through his bedroom window. It took her to a place where she didn’t have to act, where she felt accepted. Over the years he would make more imaginary friends and now has 30. “Thirty?” I repeat “I couldn’t stick with just one or two,” he says. “That’s how sentimental I am.” These beings have watched over her since childhood, playing with her and holding her hand as she falls asleep.

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