Interview with Ji Eun Lee about Kazuo Ishiguro

Interview with Ji Eun Lee, author of “Norfolk and the Sense of Loss: The Bildungsroman and Colonial Subjectivity in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go,” TSLL: Texas Studies in Literature and Language 61.3 (2019): 270-90. Interview conducted by Corey Brooks.

Kazuo Ishiguro, December 2017

Could you describe your first encounter with Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go? What do you remember of the experience, and how has your appreciation of the novel evolved since that time?

I first read Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for a graduate seminar in my first year at UCLA and eventually wrote a final paper on this novel for another class, which was taught by my adviser Jonathan Grossman. He allowed me to write on any novel, and recollecting my first encounter with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day at a used bookstore I visited impromptu and my attachment to it, I decided to write my final paper on Never Let Me Go. On my first read, I automatically saw the link between the clones and Homi Bhabha’s theory of colonial mimicry, as I was deeply immersed in postcolonial studies then, and saw the revision of the traditional trajectory of the bildungsroman in the clones’ frustrated dreams ending with total emptiness. Two years later, I presented the paper at a graduate conference themed “excess,” which happened to appear in the Bhabha quote I had. I got excellent feedback, especially from Melanie Jones, who suggested that I should see the sense of loss not as an end point of stunted development but as a creative force opening up alternative possibilities. That inspired me to see the loss as a constituent void producing another form of existence outside the binary between colonizer-colonized. My students who read Never Let Me Go together in my class also boosted my admiration for the novel. Anne Bardet was one of them. I was so proud of her when her final paper “Breaking Free from Systemized Collective Individuality” critiquing the shared echo chambers of today’s SNS-based social interactions won the 2018 Teague Melville Elliott Undergraduate Essay Award honoring the best humanities writing in lower- and upper- division undergraduate classes at UCLA.

Ishiguro display, Stockholm 2017

What advice would you give to a first-time reader of Ishiguro?

Please don’t expect to discover anything Japanese in his works just because he is Japanese-British. Except in his first and second novels The Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986), Ishiguro has consistently refrained from adding a reflective touch as a Japanese immigrant and rather tried to write on diverse issues not limited to his ethnic heritage. I would recommend starting with The Remains of the Day (1989), When We Were Orphans (2000), and Never Let Me Go (2005)–which I consider Ishiguro’s classics—paying close attention to the language and settings that parallel the narrator-protagonist’s awakening. In many of his novels and especially in these three, the reader’s expectation for the narrator’s reliability is gradually betrayed by the revelation of the hidden meaning behind the narrator-protagonists’ naïve yet deceptive writing style. The narrators’ submissive yet subversive developments often happen along their experiences of spaces, as shown in Stevens’s road trip from aristocratic country estates of Oxfordshire and Salisbury to untamed  landscapes in Weymouth, Christopher Banks’ journey from London to Shanghai, and Kathy H.’s lifelong entrapment in and departure from Hailsham, the Cottages, and donation centers. Ishiguro’s most recent novel Klara and the Sun is a wonderful sequel to Never Let Me Go. It insightfully continues the question of what constitutes humanity through the perspective of a non-human first-person narrator—this time, an AF (Artificial Friend)—whose personalized consciousness and development contest the human monopoly on individuality, with uncertain yet resilient hopes for the future.

Never Let Me Go was published in 2005. How does it fit into or modify the genre of the bildungsroman?

The bildungsroman, the etymology of which derives from the German word Bildung meaning education or formation, features a young individual who matures to adulthood harmoniously incorporated into society. Karl Morgenstern and Wilhelm Dilthey, who first introduced this term for the genre, both emphasize the teleology of individual development, as Dilthey writes that in a bildungsroman, “[a] regular development is observed in the life of the individual: each of the stages has its own intrinsic value and is at the same time the basis for a higher stage.” M. M. Bakhtin claims that individual development in this type of the novel happens on the convergence between private time and history, arguing that “He [the man] emerges along with the world and he reflects the historical emergence of the world itself.” Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, on the surface level, fits into this taxonomy of the genre, as it starts with the clones’ childhood and follows their journey as adults after leaving Hailsham. The teleological progress implied in the bildungsroman, however, can no longer work, given the absence of the future in the clones’ destiny ending with donation. The novel’s narrative disconnects the clones from historical time promising self-integration into society, and in this unsettled bildungsroman, the development, or un-development, of the clones unfolds between spaces that impose institutional norms. Unlike the traditional bildungsroman characters who triumphantly age into individuals accepting societal values, the clones face the loss of their organs and of their autonomy, embracing subjectivity devoid of agency.

  • Dilthey, Poetry and Experience, edited and translated by. Rudolf A. Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985, p. 390.
  • Bakhtin, “The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism (Toward a Historical Typology of the Novel),” Speech Genres & Other Late Essays, edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist; translated by VernW. McGee, Austin: U of Texas Press, 1986, p. 23.
The Grand Pier, Weston-super-Mare

Ishiguro protests being called a postcolonial writer. Why do you suppose this is?

In the interview with Groes I cited in my article, Ishiguro is very skeptical about the word, saying, “I’ve never understood the categorization of postcolonial writing. [. . . ] Does ‘postcolonial’ mean writing that came out in the postcolonial era? [. . .] Or does it mean writing by people who don’t have white skins?” suggesting that the term delimits expectations about the topics that non-white writers are supposed to write about. Surely, the term “postcolonial” began as a theoretical concept formed around the concept of the nation and national consciousness (Frantz Fanon), the Subaltern’s unspeakability (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), Orientalism (Edward Said), and a clear sense of writing back to the center as shown in exemplary novels such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), and J. M. Coetzee’s Foe (1986). At some point, however, it attained a restrictive function categorizing writers not based on their literary styles but on their biographical, racial backgrounds. This tendency underlying the term may discomfit the younger generation of writers in the twenty-first century, whose focus has shifted away from the national context to conflicts between general concepts born out of Western modernity such as humanity or individuality. Also, their literary styles are so diverse and cannot be defined in homogenizing terms. As Ishiguro notes clearly in the other interview I cited, he is “interested in the way words hide meaning,” whereas Salman Rushdie, in his view, “seems to be reaching out—to express meaning that can’t usually be expressed through normal language.” Ishiguro wants to be free from any constraints pre-determining the thematic and literary scopes imposed by the early definition of the term.

  • Ishiguro, “The New Seriousness: Kazuo Ishiguro in Conversation with Sebastian Groes,” 2009, Kazuo Ishiguro: New Critical Visions of the Novels, edited by Sebastian Groes and Barry Lewis, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 263
  • Ishiguro. “An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro,” interview conducted by Allan Vorda and Kim Herzinger. Mississippi Review, vol. 20, 1990, pp. 135.
Ishiguro in Stockholm, December 2017

You’ve suggested we understand the “postcolonial” to involve “the epistemological reshaping of subjectivity that reverses the progressive, linear, teleological frame of individual development.” What are some works published since Never Let Me Go that you would categorize as new “postcolonial” literature?

I will confidently nominate Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (2009) for the title of “new ‘postcolonial’ literature.” Based on the real historical tragedy of the massive toxic gas leakage at the American company Union Carbide that killed thousands of people in Bhopal in 1984, the novel tells a story of the twenty-year old narrator-protagonist named “Animal,” who can only walk on fours as he was born with a disorder stemming from the disaster. The political, economic irresponsibility of the “Kampani,” which caused the event, is visible in environmental injustice haunting the people living in the fictional city of Khaufpur and Animal’s unfulfilled desire to be like any other human walking on two feet. Animal’s development, however, moves beyond the purposive singular trajectory of humanity. Instead of defining himself as nonhuman or not-yet-human, Animal confirms his unique subjectivity as “the one and only Animal.”  The narrative that flips back and forth in time and the paratextual elements consisting of an accompanying website, translations, and glossaries joyfully depart from the center-bound critique of colonial capitalism and the stabilizing framework of identity-formation. Also, Amitav Ghosh’s non-fiction essays in The Great Derangement: The Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), together with Dipesh Chakrabarty’s seminal essay “The Climate of History: The Four Theses” (2009) and Elizabeth DeLoughrey’s recent book Allegories of the Anthropocene (2019) invite us to consider a postcolonial literature that shifts its focus from the twentieth-century nationalistic struggle for agency to environmental discourses concerning the status of the human in the geological, planetary scale of climate change in open-ended, indefinite narrative forms.

  • DeLoughrey, Allegories of the Anthropocene. Duke UP, 2019.
Holkham beach, photograph by Edward G. Jones

Could this new definition of postcolonial narrative be applied successfully to older works of literature? If so, could you name a book or author that might especially benefit?

Yes, of course. I highly recommend Michelle Cliff’s Abeng (1984) and its sequel No Telephone to Heaven (1987). Both novels feature the coming-of-age story of the light-skinned heroine Clare Savage, whose unstable racial identity belonging to neither black nor white parallels the novels’ quest for an alternative history of Jamaica opposing the institutional doctrine of British colonialism. The yearning for teleology still persists, but her development, especially in the second novel, is fissured by narratives oscillating between micro- and macro- histories and even fragmented perspectives crossing temporal and spatial boundaries.

Homi Bhabha’s theory of mimicry plays an important role in your essay. Would you define it for us?

Bhabha writes that “colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, “as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite” and affirms the lingering trope of dissimilation opposing the complete identification with the allegedly superior colonizer by emphasizing the “ambivalence” shaping mimicry through “its slippage, its excess, its difference.” According to Bhabha, mimicry is a state of ambivalence between assimilation and dissimilation that begets a subversive power of critique. My take on mimicry, however, is that it engenders a sense of loss, which obstructs the capacity for criticism and can instead articulate subjectivity outside the binary between the colonizer and the colonized.

  • Bhabha, Homi K., “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” The Location of Culture, Routledge, 1994, p. 122.
Homi K. Bhabha, 2010

Bhabha can be a difficult writer to follow. What challenges does literary theory face today in an era of more straightforward prose?

Bhabha’s language can be very dense, complicated, and yes, difficult to follow. In my view, however, literary theory does not have to be written in complex prose. Contemporary theories have adopted clear simple language echoing scientific organization and defining key concepts in less metaphoric and more common yet correspondingly exact language. When I read contemporary theory in posthumanisms, animal studies, ecocriticisms, etc., I feel that literary scholars today are taking a more direct, approachable outlook on language. 

How do you wrestle with this tension in your own critical practice?

I try to keep revising, re-reading a draft as if I have never read it. I also try to identify keywords of my arguments and see whether I can redefine them in more clear language by avoiding jargons that only I can understand. Meta-reading scholarly articles also helps. From time to time, I meta-read some articles by highlighting key phrases and sentences that I particularly like and add them to my corpus of lucid academic language.

Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day was filmed in 1993, and Never Let Me Go in 2010. What are some of the specific challenges involved in transposing his novels to the big screen?

The biggest challenge I see in the task of filming his novels, especially these two novels, is the presence of the first-person retrospective narrators who filter and unpack the stories through their own subjective positions in time, because films can only show scenes unfolding in the moment. I am not sure whether Mark Romanek’s film Never Let Me Go did justice to Kathy’s narration, which the novel presented as complex narrative texture gradually stripped off of her reflective musings. I admire, however, how James Ivory’s film The Remains of the Day embraces this challenge and creatively uses camera angles and voice-overs reading letters to reshape the narrative points of view into the twofold structure vacillating between Miss Kenton’s and Stevens’s perspectives. The film starts with Miss Kenton’s letter, positing the past and the present perspectives in one frame. It also adds another layer of perspective in resemblance to the third-person omniscient viewpoint at the end, when the camera zooms out from Darlington Hall to follow a bird that alights from the house and soars over the grass of the surrounding estate. This cinematic omniscient perspective implied in the bird’s-eye view of the ending scene suggests that both Stevens and Darlington Hall are set free from Stevens’s retrospective gaze that has hitherto confined them to the past. 

What are you working on now?

Currently, I am working on a couple of exciting research and pedagogy projects. My first book-in-progress, Walking London: Urban Gaits of the British Novel, examines the novel’s development alongside the city through the perspective of a city-walker, whose gaits differ depending on the shape of the urban environment. I analyze how the characters walk—jostling and jostled in dense traffic, prowling across cross-species encounters, wooshing alongside accelerating vehicles, and cruising through racially-gentrified urban districts—in novels by Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, H. G. Wells, and Sam Selvon. My book translates the unintentional, collective, instinctive, absent, or disjointed agency inherent in these urban gaits into narrative movements engineering an environmental reading and thus counters a long-held view (currently under much pressure) of the novel as dominated by agential individuals. Another important work I am doing is Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom. It is a digital humanities project that incorporates a race-conscious standpoint into interdisciplinary teaching practices, initiated by some Victorian scholars last year at the call of “Undisciplining Victorian Studies” by Ronjaunee Chatterjee, Alicia Mireles Christoff, and Amy Wong, who bravely proposed to disrupt the assumed whiteness in Victorian readership and pedagogy. I joined the team and have been developing study materials and guidelines, especially about nineteenth-century Africa and the British Empire. Last but not least, as a BK21 postdoctoral fellow in “Interaction English Studies in the Era of AI (Artificial Intelligence)” at SKKU, I am working to make sure that my engagement with environmental humanities, medical humanities, and anti-racist Victorian pedagogy aligns with the BK21 team’s goals of shaping new forms of interaction between human and nonhuman intelligence in 21st-century technologies and environments. If you want to learn more, please check the programs’ websites and come see me at the MLA panel “Victorians in Location” next year!