2020 / January
Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Kent Chuang /tr. by David Mayer
Akira Higashiyama made a big splash with his very first novel, Turd on the Run, winning the grand silver and reader’s choice awards as part of the Kono Mystery ga Sugoi! (“This Mystery Novel Is Excellent!”) awards that were handed out by Japan’s Takarajimasha publishing house in 2002. Then in 2015 he won the Naoki Prize for the novel Ryu, in which much of the plot draws on the author’s own family history. The Naoki Prize is recognized as the highest honor in the world of popular Japanese literature. And in 2017 his Boku ga Koroshita Hito to Boku o Koroshita Hito (“The Ones I Killed and the Ones Who Killed Me”) took three major awards—the Oda Sakunosuke Prize, the Yomiuri Prize for Literature, and the Watanabe Junichi Literary Prize. Just like Turd on the Run, the 2017 novel featured a story set in Taiwan.
Higashiyama’s stories generally revolve around the theme of “escape” or “flight.” Indeed, he feels that his own life story is one of “flight.” Before achieving fame, he took all sorts of side jobs to keep food on the table for his family. “Flight”—fleeing—is what one does to escape. It may be forced upon you, or it may be that you’ve got a problem you’re not willing to face. In any case, it’s about leaving behind what you don’t want, and pursuing what you do want.
Akira Higashiyama is the Japanese pen name of Wang Zhenxu, who was born in Taiwan before moving with his family to Fukuoka Prefecture in Japan’s Kyushu Region at age five. His pen name reflects his family background: When you take the characters for higashi (東) and yama (山) and reverse them, you get 山東, i.e. Shandong, the province in China where his grandfather was born. The 彰 in “Akira” (彰良), meanwhile, alludes to Taiwan’s Changhua (彰化), where his mother once worked.
Not writing not an option
I interviewed Higashiyama in 2019, the year after he turned 50, the age that Confucius famously described as the time at which he “knew what were the biddings of heaven.” Recalling what it was like when he first started writing, Higashiyama says: “Not writing was not an option.” He held an office job for the first year after university graduation, but the nine-to-five routine was not the future he had in mind, so he fled back into academia to continue his study of economics. However, the pressures of marriage, two children, and a doctoral dissertation deadline got him to feeling like a complete failure. One December evening in 2000, after feeding his infant son and waiting for the family to fall off to sleep, Higashiyama sat down at the computer and started writing. Come morning, the computer crashed and everything he’d written was lost, but the sense of healing in the night’s activity had hooked him, and he began writing regularly. Three months later his first novel, Turd on the Run, was born.
But the story from that point on was not as simple as “happy ever after.” Higashiyama is frank about the difficulties: “When I first started writing, sales were slow and I couldn’t make a living on my novels alone, so I taught Chinese part-time at university.” His writings had been forced out of him, and this enables him to recognize in the works of other writers the signs that they too have no choice. “I prefer it when a piece of writing shows that the author has a ‘become a writer or die trying’ sort of attitude.”
Higashiyama moonlighted to make ends meet all the way to age 50, by which time both of his kids had left home for school. The time had come for him to rethink his life, so he quit the university teaching that he’d been doing for over 20 years to concentrate full-time on his writing.
Stories as an extension of the family
Higashiyama is the third Taiwanese author to win the Naoki Prize, after Eikan Kyū (Qiu Yonghan, 1924-2012) and Chin Shunshin (Chen Shunchen, 1924-2015). Although he moved to Japan at a very young age, during his school years Higashiyama spent each summer in Taiwan. He liked listening to the stories of the family’s elders. His grandfather had lived through times of war and found a way to get by in a Taiwan riven by tensions between mainland Chinese newcomers and native Taiwanese.
Because Higashiyama spent so much time shuttling back and forth between Taiwan and Japan, “flight” naturally became something of a keyword in almost all of his novels. “Maybe all the flight in my life stems from my own identity problem.” As a kid in Japan, everyone regarded him as Taiwanese, but then in Taiwan everyone regarded him as Japanese. “I could never feel like I truly belonged in any single place. I’ve thought about why I should like traveling so much, and I think it’s because when you’re traveling you don’t need to make yourself belong to any particular place.”
Yes, his family may have been scattered to the four winds, but everyone has remained connected by an invisible umbilical cord. During our interview, Higashiyama described his writing routine: “I’ve installed a little raised shelf on my desk, on top of which I’ve put photographs of my maternal grandfather, my maternal grandmother, and some other deceased relatives. Every morning I change the water in the offering cup and say a few words to them. I feel like they’re always with me.”
As a full-time writer Higashiyama matured gradually in his craft, and after more than a decade strung together some of his stories into a novel titled Ryu. Set in and around the old Chunghwa Market area, the work features tales of people growing up in Taipei during his parents’ and grandparents’ generations. By chronicling the Taipei of the 1970s through the 1990s, Higashiyama triggers strong feelings of recognition and nostalgia among readers in Taiwan even as he offers his own take on those years. Higashiyama’s father Wang Xiaolian is a noted anthropologist who published novels as a young man under the pen name of Wang Xuan. Higashiyama once showed the completed manuscript for Ryu to his parents, who commented: “There are no good guys or bad guys in this story. And that exactly reflects history and war as we have known them.” He describes how, in those years of civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, people could fall in with one side or the other through pure happenstance, and again through willy-nilly circumstance end up going at each other with guns blazing. What he describes is how very little value attaches to a person’s existence in an age of great tumult. The tale he spins is one of people bobbing along in the raging “current” (ryu) of history.
An author’s authenticity
Japanese readers may be most familiar with the hard-boiled detective style that Higashiyama employs in works like On the Roadside and Johnny the Rabbit, but readers in Taiwan have been touched more by the love stories in works like Ryu and The Ones I Killed and the Ones Who Killed Me. Speaking for myself, an author capable of writing in such sharply contrasting styles, as Higashiyama does, impresses me as genuine.
When I first saw him, with his casual way of dressing, the impression I got was not of a person anxious to give off a “nice guy” image, but of someone who simply went about his daily affairs in a very relaxed mood. When we asked him to pose for a few street photos, he had to dodge traffic, but simply laughed it off: “No problem!” He doesn’t own a smartphone, but relies on a landline and email to communicate with people. His life is as simple as his personality. He says of himself: “I can be indifferent to all sorts of things, but once I take a fancy to something, it’s always going to be real special to me.”
Higashiyama was always a nice, well-behaved kid, yet in his novels he has often written about fighting and blustering youths who put their bodies on the line in defense of their buddies. An episode in Ryu describes a conflict between the protagonist Ye Qiusheng and a young tough named Lei Wei. Higashiyama writes in the novel: “The fierce look in Lei’s eyes seemed to say to me: ‘Back off. I’m asking you to back off. Don’t make me become a killer!’ When I looked into his eyes, I realized we were both just trying to somehow get through the situation at hand, for the sake of our futures.”
In The Ones I Killed and the Ones Who Killed Me, Higashiyama tells of how four boys become friends and grow up together. Due to an accident, one of them becomes a serial killer. As the time for his execution draws near, his friends wonder how they might be able to save their childhood friend. One of them thinks to himself: “Even if only in memory, let me accompany you till the very last second.” What Higashiyama describes in the words of his protagonists is not issues of soaring adult loyalty and righteousness, but the fierce blood-brother ties of 14- and 15-year-old boys in the flower of their youth.
I was dumbfounded and somewhat horrified when the mild-mannered Higashiyama said: “I guess I’m just making up for the fact I never went bad as a kid.” Seeing my reaction, he was quick to add: “I think any boy ought to feel that same way!”
Freedom at 50
The course of Higashiyama’s career has been anything but plain sailing in a society like Japan’s, where people are under immense pressure to succeed. He confides: “I’ve never been much satisfied with myself. I’ve never felt that being a writer was any big accomplishment. I can’t be anyone other than who I am. That’s the only reason I write.”
Now in his fifties, Higashiyama has worked out a bucket list for himself. He remains as interested in music and traveling as ever, but his frame of mind is very different now. “When I was young, it was as if there was an invisible opponent that was always competing with me. I felt the need to travel farther than him, or to see more than him.” But things have changed as he’s grown older. Early last year, at the invitation of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, he began writing a column—“Akira Higashiyama’s Turn! Turn! Turn!”—as a sort of travelogue in which he guides readers on an imaginary trip through the places of his life, including Taiwan (where he grew up), Tokyo (where he once worked), the Iidabashi area in Tokyo (where he lived for a time), the Muromi area in Fukuoka (where he spent much of his childhood), and Hiroshima (where he once stayed for a short time).
Higashiyama recently bought a small guitar and practices on it every day, but it’s just for fun. He’s not putting any pressure on himself.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve grown old. And anyway, I realize that music is just a source of enjoyment for me. I know I’m a writer. I like writing novels. That’s what I care about doing. Everything else is no big deal.” Now that he’s in his fifties, perhaps it is in his novels where Higashiyama continues to engage in flight. But in his real life, he’s not fleeing from anything. Writing is what heaven bids him to do.
《逃亡作法TURD ON THE RUN》是東山彰良在日本文壇的出道作，2002年一出版即獲得日本寶島社第一屆「這本推理小說最厲害！」大獎銀獎、讀者獎；2015年，以家族故事為背景的創作《流》獲第153屆直木賞，此乃日本大眾文學獎最高榮譽。2017年，同樣以台灣為舞台的小說《我殺的人與殺我的人》，更一舉獲得織田作之助獎、讀賣文學獎、渡邊淳一文學獎三大文學獎。
去（2019）年年中採訪東山彰良時，他正處於「50知天命」的年紀。回憶當初提筆的契機，他坦言：「自己沒有不寫的選擇。」喜歡音樂和旅行的東山彰良，大學畢業後曾經當過一年的上班族，但朝九晚五並非他想像的未來，他逃入學術界，研讀經濟。但成了家、有了孩子，再加上博士論文的期限將屆，落在肩頭的壓力頗大，感覺自己人生失敗、一事無成。他記得2000年12月的某個夜晚，餵飽尚在襁褓中的小兒子，待家人睡著後，東山彰良對著電腦開始寫作，「就像腦子裡有一部電影，然後把它轉換成文字吐出來那種感覺。」即使到了早上，電腦當機讓他寫的東西一秒清空，但那一夜被療癒的感覺，讓他開始持續創作，三個月後第一部作品《逃亡作法TURD ON THE RUN》誕生。
《逃亡作法TURD ON THE RUN》在日本文壇初試啼聲即獲獎。文學評論家大森望評語：「結合昆汀‧塔倫提諾、蓋‧瑞奇、柯恩兄弟、三池崇史等人的黑色幽默敘事風格。」但之後的故事卻不如童話般的一帆風順。生活中的柴米油鹽醬醋茶種種現實，構成了經濟壓力，東山彰良如實道出：「我剛出道的時候，因為小說不暢銷，沒辦法光靠寫小說生活，所以我一直在大學當兼任的講師，教中文。」曾經有讀者詢問想寫小說（謀生）但擔心家人反對，他直白地說：「年輕人問我這種問題，就表示說他們還有其他的選擇。」東山彰良的寫作是被逼出來的，也因為這樣的境遇，他能讀出是不是被逼出來的作品，「我比較喜歡那種『不成為一名作家只有死路一條』的作品。」