In a Letter | Kate Zambreno | Granta

In a Letter

Kate Zambreno

The day before I first attempted to write this down, I checked an inbox that I do not often check, and opened up an email from an unfamiliar address that appeared to have been sent weeks earlier. The email was from a reader of the Japanese translation of a book that I had once written. I hesitate to write ‘my book in Japanese’ because this doesn’t feel exactly true. As I wished to explain to this correspondent, who, this being a work of fiction, is, I should add, a fictional correspondent, I wasn’t sure that I had actually written this book, the one that she had read. In fact, I was sure that I hadn’t. A friend of mine, who actually has the same name as my correspondent, it being a common name in Japanese, had read both versions, the one I wrote and the one I hadn’t, and said she thought it was my voice in both, in the original and in the translation, which seemed fairly absurd, almost impossible, but perhaps it was true. But regardless this translation must be regarded as something of a fiction. The letter writer informed me that she had read my book in Japanese, or at least the book in Japanese that bore my name. She wrote that the book, which I had written and then published years earlier, in fact a decade previously, only to have it translated fairly recently, had continued a conversation in Japan about ‘the gender gap’, a phrase that felt oddly journalistic and unfamiliar to me in regards to my own work. Strange to think, she wrote, that earlier readers were more hostile to the message within, although, again, I didn’t know exactly what she meant, I couldn’t remember if the book had a message, and if so, what it communicated. I wanted to ask you, she wrote, about a childhood memory that you write about in this book, of the house in which you were born. In the book, when you described the house, the expression on its face, with its black shutters, something detached or maybe quizzical, and the patch of grass in the front, and the way the flowers in the outside box were red, white and purple, and how when you pressed them, you could feel them collapse, and then bleed against your fingers, when I read this small, minor detail, about the suburb you were raised in, the reader wrote to me, I felt the hairs raise on the back of my neck, because before we moved back to Japan, for I was born in the middle of the country, like you were, I lived in such a suburb, in, I believe, the same suburb, where there is a large Japanese population, in fact, I feel certain I lived in that same house, or a house nearly identical to that one. When I read this passage in your book, she wrote to me, I felt the strangest sensation, it is difficult to describe. I had a photograph, in my mind, of me as a young girl standing in front of just this house, its expression detached or quizzical, exactly as you wrote, with just such a flowerbox, full of, I believe, touch-me-nots. When this reader wrote ‘touch-me-nots’ I didn’t know what she meant, but I looked it up online, and realized these were the same flowers that I think about as well, except that my mother called them impatiens, which I always interpreted as ‘impatience’, which often stood in for my mother’s mood when dealing with my restlessness as a child. I wonder, the reader wrote to me, was it possible I had lived in the same house, or a nearly identical house? Was it possible your family moved out, and my family moved in, for I am a good deal younger than you, although I am the age you depict yourself being in the book by you that I read. When I read this in the letter, I felt slightly disturbed, more so than usual by the statements of feeling I receive from readers, statements of feelings that although sincere are often intense, and meant more for the narrator of my books, most specifically that same, earlier book, than for myself, a great deal older now, at least a decade older. But I had no recollection of ever describing my childhood home in a book, or at least in that book, and felt no recognition whatsoever with the description of the house’s expression as ‘detached or maybe quizzical’, and if I had, what does the phrase mean, houses only have blank faces. I wonder if I had actually even written that description, or whether this was the translator’s embellishment. I wonder, still, how the translator, who, apparently, wrote this other book on which my name, somehow, resided, knew about the façade of my childhood house. Perhaps she had seen a photograph, although I have no idea if any exist or would have been available or public, unless, perhaps, she knew the specific address of my childhood home, but I don’t know how this would be possible. There were photographs, or memories, that resided within me, although I don’t think I possessed actual photographs of that house, which I lived in through my entire childhood, and in which my father still lives in alone, my mother having been dead for many years, since we never actually moved as children, so it would have been impossible for the writer of this letter to have lived there instead. And if someone did make this up, either the translator, or the reader, how did they know about that house? I remember sitting on the cold concrete step, and the red berries in the bushes that were poisonous, but still we liked to squeeze the skin off of them. But, since I don’t know how to read Japanese, I had to take this reader’s witness to the passage as truth. I don’t know why she would make this up. I could ask my friend, who had the same name as this reader, but I didn’t want to bother her. I wasn’t going to ask her to read the entire book again for one small detail. The writer of the letter seemed spooked, or perhaps indignant. There was that strange feeling, of reading something that I thought was going to say one thing – an exuberance to a written work that I couldn’t quite share – and instead bore another affect, one of disturbance. How is it possible we lived in that same house? Although every house in that neighborhood looked more or less alike. Perhaps other neighborhoods looked like other neighborhoods, and other towns like other towns. Perhaps we had, somehow, adjacent memories. She was coming to New York to visit, she wrote, could I let her know if I was appearing anywhere in person? I did not reply. So I guess in many ways she was not in fact a correspondent, even a fictional correspondent, although I did correspond with her in my thoughts, puzzling this out. In fact I long forgot about this letter, until I happened upon this notebook where I wrote about it some time later, when cleaning off my desk, and attempted to transcribe it.


Image © Nathan Rupert

Kate Zambreno

Kate Zambreno is the author, most recently, of The Light Room, published by Corsair July 2024, and Tone, a collaborative study with Sofia Samatar. Heroines will be reissued by Semiotext(e) in March and Corsair in September 2024She is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow. 

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