Why Are Only Mothers Miraculous?

Since 1947, the Japanese government has distributed a booklet to expectant mothers, encouraging them to record their journeys through pregnancy, delivery, and matrescence. Prepartum, women can jot down their diet and exercise regimes, and the details of their doctors’ visits; after giving birth, they can note vaccination dates and developmental milestones. In Japanese, the handbook is known as boshi techō, where techo means “planning journal” and boshi means “mother and child.” Emi Yagi has titled her début novel, translated into a rinsed, clear English by David Boyd and Lucy North, kūshin techō—a log not for mother and child but for “an empty core.” American readers will encounter the book as “Diary of a Void.”

Some premises prove so irresistible that they become crutches, excusing a colorless execution. That’s not the case here, although Yagi’s gambit is seductive enough to prop up a more ordinary book: a woman in her mid-thirties, sick of being treated like dirt at her office job, pretends to be pregnant. Her colleagues predictably shower her with accommodations. “Diary of a Void” begins as a standard-issue workplace novel—a morose account of capitalist disaffection. Shibata, a “production manager” at a cardboard-tube manufacturer, left her previous gig to escape sexual harassment. At her new office, everybody looks ill, “like they were having liver problems.” The only female employee in her division, Shibata is expected, on top of her regular duties, to perform such tasks as tidying the kitchen area, purchasing supplies, and emptying the trash. Her co-workers refer to her, annoyingly, by the name of whatever they need fixed or cleaned or done. “Hey . . . Microwave?” they ask. “Hey . . . Coffee?” Although the deadpan Shibata would make a terrific work friend, she diverges from other recent avatars of the millennial precariat (such as Millie in “The New Me” or the unnamed narrator of “Temporary”). Those heroines were dissociated, dysphoric. Shibata seeks out beauty, frequenting music festivals that linger, days later, “in every part of my body.” Her outsider status seems to have less to do with ironic remove than with social awkwardness. (People passing on the street look “so sure of themselves,” she thinks, enviously, “none of them bursting into tears because their fingertips were freezing.”)

The book imitates the structure of a mother-and-child diary, with chapters named for the forty weeks of pregnancy. This isn’t satire so much as a nod to how the novel really does chronicle a gestating life: Shibata’s. After informing her employer that she’s pregnant, she no longer has to clear away other people’s coffee cups; her request to leave work at five, rather than seven or eight, is immediately granted. On the train, commuters rise to offer her their seats, and she arrives at the supermarket in time to select the freshest, juiciest vegetables. For the sake of “the baby,” she prepares herself delicious meals, soaks in bubble baths, watches classic movies, and takes up walking and stretching. Her skin glows; she puts on weight. (To clinch her disguise, she also pads her stomach with packaging foam.) Something is awakening within her: “this force,” she reflects, “a presence that I hadn’t felt before.”

As Shibata’s “pregnancy” progresses, her once lonely world turns busy and purposeful. In week twenty-four, she joins a maternal-aerobics class. The other women, chirping tips and commiseration, remind her of birds; they even give her a cute nickname. Lit up by a newfound sense of community, Shibata arrives at an epiphany: maybe starting a family is about “creating an environment in which people make space for one another—maybe without even trying, just naturally, to make sure that nobody’s forgotten.”

One possible version of the book goes like this: a lie grants Shibata permission to respect herself, to embody a conventional vision of self-care, and to understand the value of sisterhood. (Ta-da!) Yet Yagi also evokes pregnancy’s power to annul. After weeks of being poked and surveilled at work, Shibata wanders past a stained-glass window depicting the Virgin Mother—another immaculate conception—and launches into a tirade on the overvaluation of motherhood. “As if that’s the only thing that gave meaning to your existence,” she fumes to the figure. “Hey, did you have any hobbies of your own?” In a way, Shibata’s new status as a gilded vessel only continues the dehumanization that her co-workers subjected her to before she faked her pregnancy. As her due date nears, Shibata laughs at the objects—a bunch of spinach, a butternut squash—conjured by her Baby-N-Me app to represent her burgeoning fetus. The analogies are sweet because they are silly. Obviously a baby is not a vegetable. But, also, Yagi insists, a woman is not a microwave. Shouldn’t that be equally obvious?

Such moments imply a novel that is primarily interested in political commentary. (Early on in her “pregnancy,” Shibata must conceal debilitating menstrual cramps from a suddenly solicitous colleague—the joke being that no one seems to notice the suffering of women who aren’t pregnant.) But Yagi doesn’t simply explore how “pregnancy” affects Shibata, socially and psychologically. Her designs are both deeper and weirder; she wants to press on broad assumptions about life, vitality, and spirit, and where these qualities can be found. At maternity aerobics, one expectant mother wastes away, becoming thinner and paler everywhere but her stomach, which grows prodigiously. This woman, Shibata thinks, is “beautiful,” majestic in her self-surrender. Shibata seems drawn to such love—the kind that might ruin her, tear her open—and yet the awe she feels can’t quite be confined to reproduction. Why, the novel seems to ask, is it necessary to sequester life within certain borders, and to guard those borders so obsessively? Why are only pregnant women miraculous?

As the book goes on, Yagi increasingly blurs the lines between fertility and barrenness, the animate and the inanimate. She sometimes accomplishes this via magic realism. Ghosts appear on the side of the road. A dentist’s waiting room—where a spectacularly white-haired creature in paper slippers and a mint-green gown confers balletic blessings—is a liminal space where some who pass through are never seen again. But other nods to the mystery of life feel subtler. When Shibata visits her parents in her twentieth week, the hallway is “bone-chillingly cold,” and flanked by staring dolls. A TV prattles cheerfully at “a table with nothing but an unfinished sudoku on it.” Yet, pushing open the kitchen door, Shibata is “hit in the face” by sensuousness: “the smell of shoyu and the heat of something being grilled.” Her mom stands at the stove. In a skillet, carrots and snow peas simmer and spark. This dance of hot and cold, deprivation and sustenance, feels like a metaphor for the fraught relation between parent and child. After dinner, Shibata’s mom offers her the creamy luxury of Häagen-Dazs, but can’t resist dipping her own spoon into her daughter’s cup. Later, Shibata wonders at the “dazzling heat” radiating from a friend’s pregnant belly—a heat that seems capable of either warming or incinerating the body that contains it.

Perhaps inevitably, Shibata’s imaginary child, who is male, becomes less imaginary as the weeks roll by. Shibata experiences “nausea,” “pain,” “a heaviness around my hips,” “an intense pressure on my organs that makes me feel like I can’t breathe.” The baby, she observes, “seems entirely indifferent to my will. When I try to sleep, he starts kicking.” During week thirty-six, Shibata undergoes an ultrasound. As the doctor points out the tiny head, belly, butt, and feet, Shibata sees only “a sandstorm, bits of dust blowing all over the place.” But then: “it was as if a storm that had enveloped everything all night long had finally settled,” she marvels, “revealing a secret flower garden that had been waiting for its moment.” There, in fact, is her son; he appears to be throwing up a peace sign.

Behind this lovely (and funny!) mysticism stands a sarcastic, and probably correct, wager—that readers might not be able to grok the value of a woman’s soul without a fetus to incarnate it. “Diary of a Void” advances one of the most passionate cases I’ve ever read for female interiority, for women’s creative pulse and rich inner life. But even that description fails to capture what Yagi is after: those parts of us, precious and possibly hostile, which flower in darkness, disintegrate when described, and can be compared only to alien life-forms. Call it bioluminescence—whatever animates the esoteric chambers of the heart, the rooms so private that they are sometimes mistaken for voids. ♦

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *