Meet the Minnesotan who wrote a novel in Japanese — and then got it published

an author holds a copy of her book in a park
Novelist Marnie Jorenby with her book "Bye-bye Bag Lady," written in Japanese and published in Japan. Jorenby teaches Japanese at the University of Minnesota.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

If you listen to public radio much at all, you know author interviews almost always involve a reading.

Including from Marnie Jorenby, but as she reads aloud from her novel, "Bye-bye Bag Lady,” distinctly Japanese combinations of consonants and vowels compete with the quacking ducks on the pond and rumbling Harleys passing on the nearby street.

The setting is Loring Park in Minneapolis, chosen as an outdoor COVID-safe space to talk, which only added to the wonder of a story by an author who grew up on a farm near Cannon Falls, Minn., but whose fiction is being read on the other side of the Pacific.

a book cover with Japanese text
Marnie Jorenby's "Bye-bye Bag Lady" is published in Japan by Hayakawa Press.
Photo of the book by Euan Kerr | MPR News

Jorenby studied Japanese at Carleton College, and lived in Japan during her senior year.

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She now teaches the language at the University of Minnesota.

The novel-writing came about by accident, she said. Jorenby was writing a story in English in a school computer lab, but it felt kind of personal.

"So one day, I thought, I don't want people to see what I'm writing by coming up behind me. So I'll just switch to Japanese to take some notes, I thought. And then, I don't know, once I got going, it was so interesting to write it in Japanese," she said.

Because by writing in Japanese, Jorenby could use not one, but three alphabets.

“You know, I love English to death, but it just doesn't have as many possibilities for me,” she said. “If you write a sentence in English, it's the 26 alphabet characters. But you can do so much more with so many more characters.”

Of course, writing in Japanese takes a lot of practice — and help. A Japanese friend gave her feedback on language and style and encouraged her to keep going. Still, after several years, Jorenby felt at a dead end. Then she learned about someone important.

"His name is Murakami Tatsuro. He is self-styled as Japan's only literary agent. And I just mailed my manuscript to him and asked him if he was interested,” Jorenby said. “And he was."

Murakami had worked as an editor at Hayakawa Publishing, which specializes in science fiction and translated world literature. He pitched the book to his old company and after much discussion it accepted "Bye-bye Bag Lady."

The story is told by an 11th-grader called Akebi, who believes her father is naïve and soft-hearted. She is horrified when her dad announces he's offered a room to a homeless woman who is known around town for always carrying 20 bags.

"She's been living in a snack bar, in the ceiling above the women's restroom. But she fell through the ceiling and was discovered, so she had to leave. So she comes into their house and Akebi is incredibly upset because she's convinced that Bag Lady is trying to scam her father.”

The following is a translation of Jorenby’s reading in the park, where Akebi describes the arrival of her new housemate.

"The monster entered our apartment.

‘Here, I'll humbly take your bags and show you the way to your room.’

I didn't like Father's tone. Why in the world would he use respectful language to a scam artist who just fell out of an attic?

'No need for respectful language,' I said tartly.

Father glared at me. 'Shhh!' he said, pursing his lips and putting a finger to his mouth."

Hayakawa printed 3,000 copies. Jorenby said she didn't expect the novel to be a bestseller, but it drew positive reviews.

Minnesotan Tom Grathwol has lived in Japan for a decade, and is co-founder of an international school in Tokyo. He said when he first heard about what Jorenby had done, he was surprised. 

"Being a longtime learner of the language myself, it's extremely impressive. It's not something that I would dream of trying to undertake myself," he said.

He said reviews in the Japanese press gave "Bye-Bye Bag Lady" the high complement of seeming written by a native speaker. 

“Someone said like, there's nothing weird about her language, or to directly translate what the comment was: ‘It's not weird, it feels normal, it feels natural,”” he said. “To hear that from a Japanese reader is very big praise.”

Another big surprise, at least for Jorenby, are her readers. She wrote "Bye-bye Bag Lady" for a young adult audience, but her publisher told her that's not who's reading it.

"Hayakawa told me [the] people who buy this book are probably women in their 20s and early 30s," she said.

Japanese youth don’t read novels, the publishers said. They read the hugely popular manga comic books, they told her.

Jorenby has submitted another Japanese-language manuscript, entitled "Good Evening, Sun Tower," to Hayakawa. It's about an American woman who moves to Japan to escape an abusive partner, but she as she enters Japanese society she forms new relationships that Jorenby says develop their own possibilities and problems. She is hopeful it, too, may be published.

When asked if "Bye-bye Bag Lady" might ever be published in the U.S., Jorenby said she knows her family would love to read it, but she is doubtful anyone would want to translate it.

“I don't know if it would become important enough for that to be an issue,” she said with a laugh. 

She said she could translate it herself, but she worries that in adapting the language to make it work in English, too much would be lost.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.