On 5 March 2015, I got to meet Kazuo Ishiguro.
I’m overstating it. It was nothing like a personal interview or meeting, but rather to listen to him talk at a session organised by Edinburgh International Book Festival at The Lyceum in celebration of his newly released The Buried Giant, his first novel in a decade since 2005’s Never Let Me Go. And of course, to get my books signed.
I went up to Edinburgh from Durham to meet my friend Cheriel for the talk, which was unfortunately only an hour long, but it was great to hear him speak live (I had heard him multiple times online already). We sat at the rear of the theatre—entirely strategic so that we could be the first ones in the book signing queue afterwards.
I was surprised to see very few students or young people, and more of the elderly; which is testament to the appealing nature and quality of his books to everyone regardless of age. There were several technical difficulties with the mics, but his candid responses, subtly humorous and wholly genuine, won me (and the rest of the audience) over once again.
Once the talk was over, we quickly rushed to a different room to await the arrival of Ishiguro. Cheriel and I managed to snag a place at the front of the queue, with only 4 even-more-eager fans in front of us. I had briefly rehearsed what I wanted to say, excited and slightly nervous at meeting one of my biggest inspirations. Here’s how the conversation went:
Me: Would it be cheeky of me to ask you to sign more than one book?
[Passing him the The Buried Giant hardcover, and The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go paperbacks.]
Me: It’s an absolute honour to meet you, you’ve been such a big inspiration. I’m actually an aspiring novelist and I come from Japan.
Ishiguro: Oh, whereabouts in Japan?
Me: It’s actually a bit complicated. I was born in Singapore but I moved to Japan when I was 3 months old—similar to how you moved to Britain at a young age. I really want to write novels that communicate the beauty of contemporary Japan.
[Ironically, the lady overseeing the signing was nodding more in acknowledgement than Ishiguro, who was graciously trying hard to listen to me while signing my books.]
Ishiguro: So what are you doing here? Are you studying in Edinburgh?
Me: I’m actually a student at Durham University and I’ll be graduating this summer.
Ishiguro: What will you be doing once you graduate?
Me: I’ll be returning to Japan and will start working on my first novel.
Ishiguro: Well, good luck on your first novel.
Me: Thank you!
A fine gentleman who actually showed interest and bothered asking me questions while I bombarded him with facts about my own life. In fact, it’s usually the other way, isn’t it? I should have asked him questions. I guess I was overeager to make a good impression, hoping for him to say suddenly: ‘That sounds marvellous. How about coming under my wing? I’ll help you in your pursuit to become an author.’ It was wishful thinking, but it didn’t hurt to fantasise.
Here are my signed books!
I usually keep my books in top-notch shape, but there’s a reason why my Never Let Me Go is so battered. During my 2 years of National Service in Singapore, I always carried around a book to read in my spare time. Never Let Me Go was what I carried in my front vest pouch while running around in the jungle. I hope that’s enough of a justification.
I’ve already talked about my admiration for Ishiguro in various blog posts, e.g. most recently ‘Kazuo Ishiguro on Unreliable Narrators‘, how The Remains of the Day is one of the ‘10 Books That Have Stayed With Me (Facebook Meme)‘, comparing his and McEwan’s prose in ‘Purple Prose: Grandiloquent, Orotund, Highfalutin (aka Bombastic and Pretentious) Musings‘, even mentioning him in my ‘UCAS Personal Statement (English Literature)‘.
Especially with the recent release of The Buried Giant, various news and media outlets have featured him in articles, interviews and reviews (including one by Neil Gaiman, another of my favourite authors, on The New York Times). He is an immensely popular author who has garnered both critical and commercial acclaim, particularly renowned for The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go (which are 2 of my top 5 novels of all-time)—which understandably justifies the extensive coverage; yet despite constantly being in the limelight, he is one of the most down-to-earth, humble and gentle authors I know.
I won’t bombard you with links to his interviews (you can Google them), but I’ll quickly address the recent ‘dispute’ with Ursula K. Le Guin, the influential fantasy author of The Wizard of Earthsea. In a recent interview, Ishiguro said:
Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?
Le Guin misconstrues Ishiguro’s words and takes this as an insult on behalf of the entire genre of fantasy in a scathing blog post. Ishiguro ends up having to respond, declaring that he does not ‘despise’ fantasy, according to an article on The Guardian.
“If there is some sort of battle line being drawn for and against ogres and pixies appearing in books, I am on the side of ogres and pixies,” he said. “I had no idea this was going to be such an issue. Everything I read about [The Buried Giant], it’s all ‘Oh, he’s got a dragon in his book’ or ‘I so liked his previous books but I don’t know if I’ll like this one’.”
It’s wholly tragic that the media has overblown this ‘dispute’ to the tragic dismay of Ishiguro who simply wants to tell stories because it’s his love and passion. I’ve never felt more strongly about the issue of ‘genre vs literary’ than now: why can’t we just let authors write what they want to simply because they have stories to tell and love doing so?
Hopefully, this will start to simmer down after awhile. I had absolutely no issue with The Buried Giant using fantasy tropes; in fact, he proves his versatility in Never Let Me Go through his deft usage of science fiction elements. I found his latest novel to be decent (though far from the quality of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go), still lingering in my mind. I’ve enjoyed some of his novels, others not so much (and ultimately, it’s all subjective), but the great thing about him is that every book he writes is a work of art, carefully crafted and exquisitely formed, filled with his care and love as if they were his very own children—and essentially, they are.
An absolutely delightful author and an all-round inspiration. Thank you, Kazuo Ishiguro.