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Li Kotomi from Taiwan was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for her novel, “Island Where the Autumn Equinox Flowers Bloom,” becoming the first Taiwanese and first foreigner since 2008 to win the award.
Li, 31, became the second novelist whose native language is not Japanese to receive the honor following Yang Yi, who won the literary prize in 2008 for her novel “Toki ga Nijimu Asa” (Morning when time bleeds).
Li, who also goes by the name Li Qinfeng, was born in Taiwan in 1989, she grew up in a small town in central Taiwan, far removed from the influence of Japanese. She says that none of her friends and no one in her family could speak the language and that until she started studying in junior high school, she could not even recognize a single hiragana character, the main phonetic script of Japanese.
She developed an affinity for the Japanese writing system early on in her studies. Anime, television dramas, and other pop culture from Japan are widely available in Taiwan, and Li would study by copying down and practicing the lines she heard. Drawn in by the lure of the Japanese language, Li came to Japan in 2013 after graduating from National Taiwan University
She mastered katakana before the more prevalent hiragana for the simple reason that all the names of the Pokémon character are written in the script. She bolstered her vocabulary by watching anime, learning words like Kimi (you), shōnen (boy), and suki (like). She worked her way through well-known titles such as Case Closed, Inuyasha, and Hikaru no Go, and listened to a wide range of J-Pop artists. Once she satiated her interest in the linguistic offerings of the Japanese subculture, her desire for a deeper understanding of the language led her to novels and lyrics, where she learned the rich expressions that characterise her Japanese novels and other writings.
Her first Japanese novel, “Solo Dance,” won her the 60th Gunzo New Writers’ Award for Excellence in 2017. Another work, “Count to Five and the Crescent Moon,” in 2019, was shortlisted for the 161st Akutagawa Prize and won her the Noma Literary New Face Prize. Lee’s new work, “Island Where the Autumn Equinox Flowers Bloom,” is also in Japanese and depicts a world ruled by women, where traditional gender roles have been reversed. The novel partially looks at fictitious languages, which only selected women can learn, while men cannot create or record any events. Li explores the theme of identity through the eyes of the novel’s protagonists, a girl without a memory of her past who finds herself stranded on a strange island. There she meets residents who communicate in one of two languages based on gender. Speakers of the female dialect eventually come to dominate society, but the girl in learning to use the feminine language discovers the island’s tragic history.
The story was influenced by Li’s travels around Okinawa, including to Yonagunijima. While part of Japan, Yonagunijima is an outlier both geographically and culturally, lying closer to Taiwan and even China than it is to mainland Okinawa. The history and customs of the island have a deep connection with Taiwan, and Li imaginatively borrows from her experience while traveling around Okinawa to map out how the juxtaposition of boundary and diversity influences a person’s identity.
The Akutagawa awards ceremony took place Friday (Aug. 27) in Tokyo. Lee said winning the prize was a miracle that would add to her life