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The Chat with Lynne Kutsukake


Author Lynne Kutsukake examines a potent friendship between two young women in 1970s' Japan in her new novel, The Art of Vanishing (Knopf Canada).

The Literary Review of Canada says, "Kutsukake renders a lifelike picture of 1970s Japan while dissecting, with Austenian precision, the fraught social relations among its people. . . . Perhaps the most intriguing thing about The Art of Vanishing is that it is a beautifully mimetic novel about the limits of mimesis."

Lynne Kutsukake is a novelist and short story writer. Her debut novel, The Translation of Love, won the Canada-Japan Literary Award and the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. A third-generation Japanese Canadian, she has a master's degree in East Asian Studies from the University of Toronto and studied Japanese literature in Japan on a Monbusho Scholarship. Fluent in Japanese, she has translated a short story collection, Single Sickness and Other Stories, by Mizuko Masuda. She has a degree in library and information science and for many years worked as a Japanese Studies librarian at the University of Toronto.


The Art of Vanishing is told from the point of view of Akemi, a shy young woman in 1970s Tokyo. What drew you to Akemi’s story?


What drew me to Akemi’s story was her voice. My original idea had been to create a first person narrator who would tell the story of how her beautiful, rich friend became involved with a strange artistic couple with cult-like leanings and the tragedy that unfolded. The narrator would be kind of like Nick in The Great Gatsby, telling the tale with a little bit of distance. But this quickly changed because the more I wrote, Akemi’s voice became stronger and more compelling, and I realized that even a quiet, outwardly reserved person like Akemi would have a storm of emotions inside that she wanted to share with the reader. She wasn’t just an observer or a bystander—she needed to tell her story. The harder I worked to develop and refine her individual voice, the more her unique inner life shone through.

In Tokyo, where she’s studying medical illustration, Akemi meets a charismatic friend named Sayako. An obsessive kind of attraction results. What were the challenges and what were the joys in bringing this relationship fully to life?

Akemi and Sayako come from different class backgrounds and have opposite personalities. But while they express themselves differently, beneath the surface they actually share many of the same qualities: ambition and desire undercut by self-doubt and insecurity. The challenge of bringing their relationship to life was in trying to develop complexity and nuance in their individual characters. As in real life, people are complicated and full of surprises. That is the challenge and also the joy in character development in fiction. I am a firm believer in the importance of character; if your characters are real and interesting enough, hopefully the reader will want to spend time with them.

The Japan you describe, in the 1970s, is undergoing rapid economic and social change. There’s such a strong tension between tradition and new beginnings, a tension that is exploited by two older adults, who befriend Sayako and Akemi and encourage them to join their artistic commune. Can you talk more about this period in Japanese history and why you were drawn to exploring the counter-culture of the time?

By the time my novel opens in the mid-1970s, the extreme radical leftwing movements of the 1960s had either been driven out of the country or had self-destructed through violent purges. In mainstream society, the goal was to get into a good university, get a job as a salaryman, live a middle-class life. For women, the pressure to get married and raise children was intense. Yet social protest and resistance have always found expression in the arts—in music, theatre, dance, art. Surely this is true everywhere in the world. Japanese avant-garde art in the 1970s was vibrant, imaginative, daring and full of energy. I really love this art.

Akemi is such a devoted and talented artist, and her creativity changes form as the novel progresses. What was it like to share with readers the precise and evocative details of her creative growth? Was much research involved in the medical illustration side of things?

I wanted Akemi to study some kind of graphic illustration but at first I didn’t know what kind. I tried out a number of things: police sketch artist, courtroom illustrator, children’s book designer. Nothing seemed quite right. Then the pandemic hit, and every time I turned on the news I saw the same striking image of the Covid virus—the colourful fuzzy ball with spikes sticking out. People needed to "see" the virus in order to understand the danger it represented, and I realized that someone—a medical illustrator—had been responsible for creating this unforgettable image. It was then that I decided Akemi would study medical illustration. I did as much research as I could about medical illustration on the internet and borrowed anatomy books from the library. I studied online medical illustration images, and I spoke to a medical illustrator about her experiences. It’s an incredibly interesting profession!

Then the pandemic hit, and every time I turned on the news I saw the same striking image of the Covid virus—the colourful fuzzy ball with spikes sticking out.

Finally, this is your second novel after your critically acclaimed debut The Translation of Love. How are you feeling about having a new book out in the world?

I feel over the moon! Amazed, overwhelmed, and deeply grateful for such good fortune!


Excerpt from The Art of Vanishing

Although my room was next to Sayako’s, it would be several weeks before I would meet her. Long before I set eyes on her, I was aware of her presence in ghostly ways: her laundry hanging on the bamboo pole outside her window, the scent of perfume drifting through the open screen, the sound of music from a transistor radio that bled through the thin wall between our rooms, the slamming of a door, the clatter of hangers being shifted from one side of a pole to another, sometimes even the insistent tapping of a pencil or a pen on a bare wooden desktop.

   Once I heard her come in just before our 11 p.m. house curfew. No one else, I would learn, dared test the rules the way she did, for Miss Ito would stand at the door with her eyes on her watch waiting for the exact time when she could lock the front door. I was told that last winter Miss Ito had made someone stand outside in the cold for half an hour before relenting and opening the door. When I asked if that had been Sayako, the other girls didn’t reply.

   When we finally met, it was on a Saturday morning, a day the weather forecasters had predicted would be the start of a week-long deluge. Sure enough, I woke to the pounding of rain on the metal roof, a relentless thunderous banging. I went down to the kitchen to make breakfast and was taken aback by the sight of a stranger in a nightgown standing on a stool and rummaging through the top shelves of the cupboards. The stool wobbled unsteadily and the woman’s long tangled hair swung back and forth across her back. I stood in the doorway, not sure whether I should go in, when she turned toward me.

   "Oh, it’s you," she exclaimed. "You’re the new one?"

   It took me a few seconds to realize that this must be Sayako. She was wearing sunglasses, which struck me as rather odd given that she was indoors and it was very dark outside. Sayako resumed searching in the cupboard.

   "Doesn’t anyone here drink coffee? I’ve got a splitting headache—this bloody rain! I’ve got to have some caffeine. I can’t believe nobody has coffee."

   "I do," I mumbled.

   "You do?" She turned around so suddenly I worried she might tumble off her stool.

   "It’s Nescafé. If that’s okay."

   "It’ll have to do. I’m really desperate. Where is it?"

   "In my room."

   "Oh, get it, would you." She paused and then flashed a dazzling smile. "Please!"

   I nodded and raced back to my room to grab the precious jar of Nescafé instant coffee I kept on my bookshelf. My aunt had told me that everyone in Tokyo drank coffee and I would need it to keep me awake during the long nights when I was studying. All students in Tokyo drink coffee, she said. I had yet to even open the jar.

   When I returned to the kitchen, Sayako was rubbing her temples. She pointed to the kettle on the burner. "I filled it with water. Can you do the rest? I need my coffee strong. Very, very strong. Just bring it to my room when it’s ready. Oh, no cream, just sugar."

Excerpted from The Art of Vanishing by Lynne Kutsukake. Copyright © 2024 Lynne Kutsukake. Published by Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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