Meanwhile On a recent June afternoon, I meet Sayaka Murata, the back of my linen dress damp. It’s a very humid summer day in Tokyo, the sun is hidden by a thick blanket of gray, and we’re strolling through Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, a 116-year-old park that becomes thick with crowds during the cherry blossom season. Visitors are rare today; we seem to be the only ones stupid enough to go out at noon. Looking at Murata’s long black dress with a collar and black tights makes me even hotter, but she doesn’t seem to be hurt except for a delicate shine on her forehead. Maybe the subtle shine is a source of pride for Murata, I think. After all, she’s not sure her body works the way other people do.
“In high school, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t break a sweat,” she says. “Even now I feel like my body and I don’t understand each other.” Murata, the author of more than a dozen novels and short story collections, often writes from this place of alienation. Many of her characters feel distant from their bodies, both in mechanics and purpose. In 2016, Murata published A woman in a storea novel told by a contented, unambitious Smile Mart employee who finds more satisfaction in fulfilling her duties as an employee than in pursuing marriage or motherhood. A woman in a shop was a national bestseller that year—winning the prestigious Akutagawa Award in Japan—and almost every year since, selling 1.5 million copies worldwide. Earthlings, Murata’s second novel to be translated into English, is about a woman whose alienation is literal; she believes she is an alien disguised as a human. In July, Murata published The ceremony of lifea new collection of stories in which she invents grotesque social rituals (in the title story, funerals are an excuse to eat the dead) to expose the absurdity of bodily norms to which we’ve all been desensitized.
Although she is unlikely to use either term, Murata’s fiction can best be described as speculative-feminist. The worlds she invents look to the future without following the tropes of science fiction; her scenarios inspire horror without leaving the daily light of home and office. She invents strange social experiments that take place in seemingly familiar worlds and instills disordered fantasies in unruly women. Her characters navigate domestic conditions that distort the smooth image of marriage, childbearing, and family life, like a mirror of a happy home. Like in a fun house, her tricks entertain and delight. As I read her books, I often find myself laughing out loud and then repeating: Did I really just read that? While she can be outrageously rude at times, she’s rarely just that. Rather, her conjectures operate as a provocative form of scientific inquiry, questioning the conventions of her genre. Why, she asks, do people live like this?
When I meet Murat, I feel a slight cognitive dissonance, knowing that in front of me is a melodious 43-year-old woman, the author of several scenes of sensual cannibalism. She is small and delicate, with neatly curled chin-length hair. She often giggles. The way her eyes sparkle makes me think of Piute, the stuffed hedgehog amulet in Earthlings: sweet, but distant, as if in a distant world.
In the Japanese media, Murata is sometimes referred to as “Crazy Sayaka,” a nickname first affectionately given to her by her friends, but which she fears borders on caricature. Despite her editors warning her not to say weird things in public, the weird comments keep pouring out like vomit. Several times during our conversation, Murata starts to say something and then catches himself. She looks to the side, as if checking with someone; then a shy smile flashes across her face as she goes ahead and says it anyway. This happens when she talks about finding her own clit and falling in love with one of her imaginary friends. Listening to Murata gives me a strange sense of relief. Her literary worlds offer little comfort, and yet I feel my body relax in her presence, as if it has found a momentary refuge from the pressure of humanity’s collective illusions.
From Murat’s childhood was troubled by the intense — sometimes painful — effort to be, as she put it in a 2020 essay, “an ordinary earthling.” Growing up in the small city of Chiba, a prefecture east of Tokyo, she was lonely and sensitive, often interrupting kindergarten classes with inconsolable bouts of crying. Her father, a judge, was often at work, and her mother, busy taking care of her and her older brother, worried about her timid appetite and weak physique. “I just wanted to hurry up and become a good person,” says Murata.
Aware that her weakness made her stand out, she carefully studied the instructions for earthlings. But the pressure to keep up the daily pretense felt like “little cuts” in her heart. She would often hide in her elementary school’s restroom and cry until she threw up. When Murat was 8 years old, she writes, an alien entered through her bedroom window. It took her to a place where she didn’t have to perform, where she felt accepted. Over the years, she has made more imaginary friends, and now has 30. “Thirty?” I repeat. “I couldn’t just leave one or two,” she says. “That’s how sentimental I was.” These creatures have watched over her since she was a child, playing with her and holding her hand while she falls asleep.