Leading a Strange Shakespearean Double Life
I suppose that the most unusual feature of my life as a writer is that it is divided into two, complete with two different names, identities and writing styles. As Marianne Kimura, a professor (准教授) at Kyoto Women’s University, I study and write about the cultural implications of fossil fuel depletion, especially the ways that some literary works may express views on fossil fuels as they relate to humans.
As Gemma Nishiyama, I write popular style fiction with a lot of italics. I try to make it fast-paced, plot-driven, and it should naturally have a love affair or even better a love triangle and preferably a ghost or two and some magic. I also love adding astronomical and mythical elements, such as Sirius, the dog star. (Did you know that across almost all cultures in the world, Sirius is called the “dog star” or the “wolf star”? And there is even a credible rumor that our sun is circling Sirius! (Of course that would mean that our whole solar system, including us, is also circling Sirius). This idea fascinated me so much that I made it a major part of the plot of my second novel, The Hamlet Paradigm, about an astronomer who accidentally discovers a dangerous secret and is on the run, together with his wife through the mountains of Iga, the old training ground for ninjas, in Mie Prefecture).
My two personalities are unified in one way because I do focus on the sun in both my fiction and non-fiction. When I say the “sun” I don’t just mean the bright burning yellow thing in the sky. I came across the notion of the “metabolic rift” in Karl Marx’s writings and although Marx himself does not explain what exactly the metabolic rift is (he calls it a “rift in the metabolism of the earth” and posits its existence as a foundation for capitalism), it’s my theory that this “metabolic rift” is fossil fuels, which gave humans a huge margin of excess millions of times over and above the sun’s yearly energetic contribution to the earth. This huge margin of excess can last over many centuries but it isn’t infinite, of course and it could produce the effects we call “capitalism” in my opinion. (The sun is, on the other hand, for all purposes, infinite for us.)
Another thinker I study is Giordano Bruno, the natural philosopher executed for heresy by the Roman Inquisition in 1600. He came up with many theories, among them the idea that the sun is a star and that the sun’s “heat and light” are fundamental to the orbit of the earth—essentially Bruno posited a thermodynamic heliocentric model of our solar system. And he did this in the 1580s, making the timing perfect for Shakespeare to get his hands on Bruno’s books and use what he learned in them.
I started researching fossil fuels and the sun in literature in 2004 after noticing differences that almost felt surreal to me when I moved from Yamaguchi to Tsukuba in 2002. Yamaguchi, an ancient historic town in the mountains in Western Japan, has many tiny roads suitable for rickshaws and foot traffic. Tsukuba (near Tokyo), was designed in the 1960s to emulate Irvine California, has enormous multi-lane roads and interchanges. Growing up in America, I really had no exposure in my childhood to roads as tiny as Yamaguchi’s roads. Of course, America, a country that has had abundant fossil fuel resources (although now much less abundant than before) has many roads that look similar to the ones you could find in Tsukuba. I became fascinated with the power of fossil fuels to dictate infrastructure fashions to us. Yes, I mean, actually dictate lifestyles and fashions.
I wondered if anyone else was interested in this idea. I mean someone good at cultural expression who had written a book. My educational background at Harvard was English Literature, the humanities, and I sort of had a hunch that as intelligent humans we might have tried to protest this centuries-spanning “dictatorship” of fossil fuels secretly through fiction, which belongs to the “nonsense” language of paid “fools” and court jesters. These people are politically powerless but entertaining, living on their wits alone and they can, using fiction as a sort of game, tackle and address the issues that others can’t or won’t. I naturally started out by investigating writers of the US suburbs such as John Updike but sort of by accident I discovered that Shakespeare was in the group as well. Basically it boils down to the idea that Juliet is actually the sun! (Check out my Academia page or my Slideshare page for the details.)
For most other scholars of Shakespeare, my idea is too “radical” (that is what another scholar said to me at Shakespeare 450, a conference in Paris last year!) but I don’t let that stop me from carrying out my research (and having a lot of fun in the process). My idea is so simple that a 6 year-old can understand it, so this means that I get hundreds of views every month from ordinary people, though in my analytics there are a lot of ISP addresses in college towns as well, placing me constantly in the top ranks on academia.
Fortunately as a scholar I can fit in in Japan, which has a deep cultural connection with the sun through Shinto and Amaterasu. I totally love Japan and I’m eternally grateful to my husband, Takeshi Kimura, a scholar of religion, for patiently explaining Japanese culture to me and taking me around to many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples; this is the favorite hobby we share!!
My feeling is that my situation is very Shakespearean, since I have two identities, two names and also, like Rosalind or Viola, I belong to two places but I am philosophically exiled (that is to say my ideas are exiled) from one of them. Luckily, as I said, I adore Japan, a country of many festive and wonderful matsuris or seasonal festivals, and I’m positive that Shakespeare would have loved Japan too!
Climate change, oil depletion and concomitant price plunges or surges as markets struggle to adapt, the absurd fracking process which removes water from the earth forever, urban sprawl, food deserts and Middle Eastern wars and perpetual military, economic and humanitarian crises and over-population are just some of the issues touching on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels extend to every sphere of our existence, our food, our economy, our social lives, our cultural sphere, everything.
So I think knowing “what Shakespeare would say about fossil fuels” is just another element in a long-term human strategy to understand the extensive human and fossil fuel interaction better.
Finally, I will tell you how I chose my pen name “Gemma Nishiyama”. After living in Tsukuba for nine years, I moved back to Yamaguchi and it was there that I got the idea to write a popular novel about a middle-aged ex-pat academic in Japan who finds out “the secret” of Shakespeare when she befriends Shakespeare’s ghost. I suppose I was inspired by The DaVinci Code, about a secret hidden in an artwork, though my novel, Juliet is the Sun, just a self-published work, hasn’t sold anything like Dan Brown’s blockbuster. Yama means “mountain” and I like the mountains, and Yamaguchi is in Western Japan (nishi is west in Japanese). I chose “Gemma” because coal is like a stone (Shakespeare is often comparing it to a stone) and a “gem” is a stone too. I wanted to express gratitude in a way to fossil fuels, I mean, sure they have their tough aspects, no doubt about it, but they have made a contribution too. One amusing conclusion of my research is that Shakespeare might not have written what he did without them because he wouldn’t have been inspired to sing the praises of the contrasting sun.