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A conversation with Clarissa Goenawan

We spoke to the author of The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida about her latest book, why she became a writer, her favourite authors, and more.

 

Why did you start writing?

It was my childhood dream! I’d loved reading ever since I was a kid and dreamt that one day, I would publish my own book. But I only started to seriously pursue the profession after I quit my banking job at age twenty-four (probably not the most conventional thing to do, but I never regretted it.)

What are some of your favourite and most influential books?

I’m a huge fan of Japanese novels. Some of my favorites are Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, Keigo Higashino’s Malice, Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief, Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and The Professor, and Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman.

Tell us about your relationship with Japan. Have you spent time living there?

I’ve only been to Japan for holidays, though it’s been my dream to spend a year living there and experiencing the four seasons.

My interest in Japanese culture started when I was about six. As a Gen Y kid, I grew up when anime, manga, and other Japanese pop culture gained popularity. I spent my afternoon watching Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon on the local TV station, borrowing Aoyama Gosho’s Detective Conan comic series from friends, and listening to Utada Hikaru’s First Love. Soon after, I got my first taste of Japanese contemporary literary fiction—Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. I got hooked and began to look for similar reads.

I’ve also studied the Japanese language and culture—on and off—since high school. Over the years, I’ve dabbled in several traditional arts, including the tea ceremony, kimono dressing, and Japanese dance. I always admired how much thought is put into every single gesture.

You have created beautiful imagery including old books, rainy days, and delicious food. What are some of your other favourite things to enjoy in Japan?

There are so many things I love about Japan. Beautiful seasons, peaceful temples and shrines, amazing food, you-can-find-anything-here convenience stores, charming cafés, quaint gardens—the list never ends. That being said, one thing that left a deep impression is their toilet bowls.

Most of the western-style toilets in Japan used sophisticated washlets (bidet toilets), which feature a dazzling array of functions. At first glance, they might look like the usual Western-style toilet. But behold, these high-tech toilets feature a heated seat, blow dryer, adjustable water jet, automatic lid opening and closing, sensor-based flushing, and even music!

You describe your novel as ‘a literary mystery with elements of magical realism set in Japan, and a coming-of-age story masquerading as a murder mystery’. How did you seamlessly interweave so many different genres and styles?

When I started writing, I didn’t really give much thought to how my work would fit into the market. I simply had stories I wanted to tell. Over the years, I realised my writings have different elements from various genres and do not fit into one particular category. My agent once described my novels as having ‘a crossover appeal’, and I’m crossing my fingers that they will resonate with a wide audience.

The novel is told from three different perspectives but not from Miwako’s. Is this a nod to the idea that no one ever really knew her?

I never really thought of that, but now that you mentioned it, it might very well be true. Each of the three narrators has their perspective of Miwako; none were wrong, but none has the full picture either. A friend of mine once said we view the world through a tinted glass. Even the same thing might not look the same for everyone because each of us has our own bias.

Miwako’s secrets shape and transform her life, and the lives of those around her. Her story highlights friendship, young love, grief, trauma, and inner turmoil. What lessons can readers take from Miwako’s experiences?

I’ll take a rain check for this. I prefer to leave it to the readers to come up with their conclusions.

Miwako appears in your debut novel, Rainbirds. Will we see any of the characters in The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida in your future books?

Yes, definitely! I’m so glad that you asked. Do keep a lookout for the side characters, because they might be the main characters for the next book.

What do you hope your readers will take away from The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida?

As a writer, my wish is for the readers to enjoy the book. But if in some way, the book offers some kind of positive impact—be it courage or solace or newfound joy in reading or whatever it is—then that would be my greatest joy.

The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida

A bewitching novel set in contemporary Japan about the mysterious suicide of a young woman.

Miwako Sumida is dead.

Now those closest to her try to piece together the fragments of her life. Ryusei, who has always loved her, follows Miwako’s trail to a remote Japanese village. Chie, Miwako’s best friend, was the only person to know her true identity — but is now the time to reveal it? Meanwhile, Fumi, Ryusei’s sister, is harbouring her own haunting secret.

Together, they realise that the young woman they thought they knew had more going on behind her seemingly perfect façade than they could ever have dreamed.

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Clarissa Goenawan

Clarissa Goenawan is an Indonesian-born Singaporean writer. Her debut…

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The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida

Clarissa Goenawan

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