Traveling in Pandemic Times: Yoko Tawada and Poetic Border-Crossing

Paul Celan und der chinesische Engel" von Yoko Tawada, Buch der Woche -  Bücher - Sendungen - WDR 5 - Radio - WDR

Yoko Tawada’s guest appearance in the third installation of “Archives of Migration” sparked a lively and contemporarily relevant conversation on the potential of poetic border-crossing in pandemic times, where physical mobility has been intensely challenged by closed-off national borders and the anxiety over cross-person contamination. A native of Japan, Tawada writes and publishes prolifically in the Japanese and German languages; in the past three decades, she has gained international prominence for her playful and perceptive engagements with the complexities of intercultural and cross-linguistic exchange. By restaging the feelings of estrangement and displacement as productive qualities, rather than the negative conditions of immigration and assimilation, Tawada demonstrates the benefits of multilingualism and transculturality in her impressive range of literary works.

In 2012, Rivka Galchen aptly wrote in The New Yorker: “Often in Tawada’s work, one has the feeling of having wandered into a mythology that is not one’s own. This is, of course, precisely what it feels like to speak in a non-mother tongue.” Wandering, meandering, and traversing across ideological, linguistic, and physical spaces—these are particularly suitable ways to describe the experience that is Tawada’s newest novel, Paul Celan und der chinesischen Engel (Paul Celan and the Chinese Angel). Tasked with giving a lecture on Celan’s Fadensonnen at an academic conference, the socially anxious protagonist Patrick finds comfort in the auditory-somatic qualities of language, or in other words, the bodily feelings evoked by hearing and voicing certain sounds.

For the non-native speaker, the process of speaking brings about a corporeal intimacy that often eludes the native speaker. As the narrator of Tawada’s “Canned Foreign” expresses, “Most of the words that came out of my mouth had nothing to do with how I felt.  But at the same time I realized that my native tongue didn’t have words for how I felt either.  It’s just that this never occurred to me until I’d begun to live in a foreign language.” By universalizing the feeling of displacement commonly associated with living in a new culture and language, Tawada illuminates a poetic language that is built on feeling and sound, rather than semantic content. As Tawada expressed during the workshop, Celan’s poetry similarly foregrounds sound and feeling, transcending cultural and linguistic boundaries. In “Celan Reads Japanese,” Tawada further expresses that Celan’s language and poetry exist in an in-between space or gateway that is especially favorable for translation.

Through the process of free association that characterizes Tawada’s texts, Paul Celan und der chinesischen Engel’s protagonist Patrick ambles along a journey guided by the evocation of words, akin to a magic spell. The elicitation of the word “Meridian,” for example, takes Patrick on an intellectual journey across geographic, medicinal, corporeal, and poetic spaces—within the span of minutes, he and the mysterious Leo-Eric Fu navigate conversationally from the Paris-Stockholm meridian to the 12 meridians of the body and finally to Paul Celan’s 1960 acceptance speech for the Georg Büchner Prize, Meridian.

While Tawada’s newest text recognizes the reduced mobility of our current time, Patrick and Leo’s free-flowing conversation shows that physical movement is not the only kind of traveling one may consider. At other times, these associations move by way of phonic resemblance; Patrick playfully refers to Populists as poplar-ists, for example, suggesting a desire to denounce the socio-political for the ecological. The German word Pappelisten shares the same syllabic beginning with both Patrick’s name and his nickname for himself: The Patient. “The Patient,” of course, evokes situations of sickliness and hospitalization—indicative of pandemic times to the contemporary reader—while suggesting preference for an impersonal mode of existence. However, more so than a desire to lose individuality, Patrick’s habit of addressing himself as “The Patient” indicates denunciation of a self-centered form of existence.

The story takes flight particularly after Patrick’s transcultural encounter with the esoteric Leo-Eric Fu, who is of “transtibetan” qualities and shifts in Patrick’s perception as a North Korean spy, a Tibetan monk, and a Zen-Buddhist from France. Before meeting Leo-Eric Fu, Patrick is inundated by his free association of words, which contributes to his inability to articulate a conference-level argument on Celan’s Fadensonnen: “He would rather be on the move, than think too much.” (“Er will nicht zu viel denken, sondern gehen.”). Through his dream-like correspondence with Leo-Eric, Patrick attains the insight that offers him a breakthrough in his interpretation of Celan’s poetry.

Significantly, what Leo-Eric brings is not merely the suggestion of intercultural productivity, but the encouragement to think beyond linguistic and disciplinary boundaries. In other words, Tawada’s aim in writing this text is not simply to convey the usefulness of East Asian thought and science, but to encourage a mode of living that transcends categorization. Such a transdisciplinary focus aligns with Tawada’s authorly aims—from the beginning of her career, Tawada has eschewed categorization, which shows through her incorporation of various literary genres, characters’ free-flowing travel between the psychic and physical realms, and playful satire of cultural essentialism.

The attempt to transcend boundaries and categories also brings us into considerations of the post-human. A central theme of our third “Archives of Migration” workshop was the two-part question—what does it mean to be human, and what does it mean to be something other than human? With the publication of Memoirs of a Polar Bear (2011), we saw the world through the eyes of an anthropomorphized family. In Where Europe Begins (1991), characters express feelings of disembodiment through physical transformations into mythic creatures. In Paul Celan und der chinesischen Engel, Tawada asks: What does it mean to be sick?

For many of us, these pandemic times have urged us to become intimately aware of our bodies like never before, whether through the experience of sickness or extended confinement, or both. When we are sick, we become private beings, physically and mentally confined within the spaces of our abodes. Such an intimacy with words, foreignness, and the body, is a relationship that Tawada has been exploring for decades. Through her sustained focus on such a relationship, we move towards a somaticized understanding of affect that unsettles the boundary of mind and body, while taking inspiration from animal and mythic forms. And through her characters’ dizzying travels across vast intellectual realms, we are reminded of new possibilities of travel, as long as we keep an open mind.

About Elizabeth Sun

Elizabeth is a PhD candidate in German Studies at UCBerkeley. She researches on 20th and 21st century literatures of migration and transculturality in the German and Dutch languages.
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