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Novelist | Li Kotomi

  • Date:2021-09-27
Novelist | Li Kotomi

.Chinese Name: 李琴峰
.Date of Birth: December 26, 1989
.Place of Birth: Changhua, Taiwan
.Did You Know:
Li Kotomi is a Taiwanese novelist, translator, and LGBT rights activist based out of Japan. She describes herself as a "refugee in the world of language" who "fled" to Japan, presenting the particular observation of her situation through her works. After her first novel, "Hitorimai," which she wrote in her second language of Japanese, won the Gunzo New Writers' Award for Excellence in 2017, she felt relieved to have acquired her "citizenship" of the language. Since then, she has considered herself to have a "bilingual pen" to depict the world as she sees it. In 2021, she won the Akutagawa Prize for her novel "An Island Where Red Spider Lilies Bloom," becoming the first Taiwanese to win the award and receiving great attention.

Growing up in Taiwan, Li Kotomi always felt a certain sense of oppression, yearning for freedom even though she was among the top of her class in a high-pressure educational environment. She began learning Japanese at the age of 15, the same age at which she started writing novels in Chinese.

After graduating from National Taiwan University with a double major in Chinese and Japanese, she went to Japan in 2013 to study for a graduate degree at Waseda University. After graduating, she took up a job at a Japanese company and worked as a Chinese/Japanese translator. In her spare time, she continued to write novels, as well as book reviews, memorials, and essays. Her prose works include "We in the Middle," "The Day I Got Japanese Citizenship," "When Will the Rainbow Float?—Reflections on LGBT Issues in Japan and Taiwan," "After the Draft of Article 748: A Brief Discussion of Discriminatory Remarks in Japanese Politics," "The Sorrow of the Weak: Recent Hate Speech against Transgender People in Japan," and "Like Two Independent Machines."

In 2017, Li's first novel in Japanese, "Hitorimai," received the 60th Gunzo New Writers’ Award for Excellence. The book mostly draws on her own experiences, and is a textual regurgitation of her teenage angst. Writing her novel in Japanese, Li says, was a "shameless attempt to expand the possibilities of language," just as she considers herself to have been warmly taken in by Japan after fleeing Taiwan. She said that winning the award was like someone gently telling her, "It’s okay, just stay here and write with confidence."

Li Kotomi calls non-native speakers "refugees in the world of language," and says her first award from the Japanese literary world was a recognition of her "Japanese-language citizenship" (though not actual Japanese citizenship) that gave her the courage to continue writing in Japanese. Since then, she has been working as a Japanese-Chinese bilingual writer, writing, translating, and interpreting.

In 2019, she visited Okinawa and the island of Yonaguni for her creative work. The tall buildings and artifacts reminded her of Tokyo, but the natural ecology of Okinawa gave her the illusion of being in Taiwan. The background and tragic history of the Ryukyu Kingdom and the island of Yonaguni became the basis for the later creation of "An Island Where Red Spider Lilies Bloom."

The same year also saw Li nominated for the Akutagawa Prize and the Noma Literary New Face Prize for her novel "Count to Five and the Crescent Moon." This novel tells the story of a Taiwanese lesbian's subtle feelings for her Japanese female friend, their long-awaited reunion in the last summer (2018) of the Heisei era, and an imagined love affair that cannot be consummated.

In 2021, she won the MEXT Award for New Artists for her novel "Night of the Shining North Star." In the same year, she was also nominated for the 34th Yukio Mishima Prize for "An Island Where Red Spider Lilies Bloom" and won the Akutagawa Prize, becoming the second winner in the history of the prize to be a non-native Japanese speaker. This work, which covers a wide variety of aspects, including language, race, culture, history, and more, tells the tale of an unknown island where women are in control of everything and have a special language that only women can learn. The special language used in the story, a new language created by Li from a fusion of Mandarin, Japanese, Taiwanese, and Ryukyuan, led one of the judges, Professor Hisaki Matsuura of Tokyo University (and himself a past winner of the Akutagawa Prize), to praise the work as a refreshing change in Japanese language and literature.

After winning the award, Li said that although literature is indeed a dialogue with herself, not winning the award would have said to her that there is no readership for her work, so she is happy to be accepted by the general public through the award. Being blunt, she also said that she "took the award for granted," not because her work was better than others, but because she had "put [her] best effort into it and worked hard to write it well, to write what [she] wanted to write."