Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Misa Dikengil Lindberg

Misa Dikengil Lindberg  (translator of the Tomo story by Kenji Miyazawa, “The Dragon and the Poet”) grew up in a bicultural (Japanese/Turkish) home in New Jersey and has lived in both the United States and Japan. She was first drawn to translation studies while teaching at a bilingual Japanese-English school, where she fell in love with Japanese children’s literature. She currently writes, edits, translates, and teaches in Vermont. 

Can you tell us a bit about your cultural background/connection to Japan? My mother is Japanese and the only one in her family to have immigrated to the U.S., so I have a lot of family in Japan. In college, I studied Japanese intensively and later lived with my grandmother in Japan for a few years while continuing my studies. I've also taught in a Japanese-English bilingual school and am an avid reader of Japanese children's literature.  
Misa Dikengil Lindberg with her grandmother in Kamakura in 2009
When did you first encounter the work of Miyazawa and what were your impressions?
Honestly I cannot remember my first encounter with Miyazawa's work! My mother gave me a beautifully illustrated copy of Milky Way Railroad in Japanese when I was younger, but I mostly just admired the pictures. It wasn't until I read a collection of Miyazawa short stories in English translation that I felt the themes of his work strike a chord in me. I loved how nature is always depicted as magnificently complex, magical, and possessing a wisdom that is just beyond the grasp of conventional human minds. Through his writing, Miyazawa shows us how deeply connected we all are to the natural world. All of this inspired me to read Miyazawa in Japanese, as difficult as it was for me at the time.  

Can you tell us a bit about Miyazawa’s background?
Kenji Miyazawa was born in Hanamaki City in Iwate (part of the Tohoku region) in 1896. He was the son of a wealthy pawnshop owner and was raised in a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist family, although he later converted to Nichiren Buddhism. He was blessed with deep empathy for all living things and remained a devout Buddhist throughout his life. Not only was he a radical vegetarian, but he also deeply troubled by the plight of poor farmers in Iwate. Always fascinated by science and nature, Miyazawa graduated from the Morioka Agriculture and Forestry College in 1918 and worked in a variety of professions, including teaching (agronomy) and working with farmers as a fertilizer specialist. Miyazawa struggled with his health throughout his life and died of pneumonia at the young age of 37. 
Kenji Miyazawa, circa late 1920s (photo courtesy Kamakura Museum of Literature)

What do you particularly admire about Miyazawa’s writing?
I admire his ability to interweave his thoughts and beliefs about nature and Buddhism into thought-provoking fiction. Of course, one can still enjoy his writing without much understanding of Buddhism, but with background knowledge, his writing really gains so much depth. He was obviously so passionate about the themes he chose to write about.

What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
I hope that readers will see the ultimate message of the story as positive. The dragon is atoning for his sin of wreaking careless, egotistic havoc on humankind--havoc that brought natural disasters and suffering to many innocent people. The world, however, always balances itself out, and for every negative there is a positive. If the dragon were not trapped in the cave, the exchange between Surudatta and the dragon may never have taken place. To me, the passing of wisdom to Surudatta is a symbol of hope--hope that the world can be saved, regain harmony and balance, and witness an end to suffering. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
Be strong. Stay positive. Continue to be compassionate to friends, neighbors, and strangers, even after the damage is cleared and normalcy returns.  

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