Yoko Tawada was born in Tokyo in 1960. She wrote her first novel, which she also photocopied and distributed, when she was 12. She studied literature with a major in Russian literature, and from 1982 studied modern German literature in Hamburg. She completed her doctoral thesis on »Toys and Linguistic Magic in European Literature«. Even though she was already writing in German, her first collection of prose and poetry to appear in German, »Nur da wo du bist, da ist nichts« (1987; tr. Only where you are there is nothing), was a translation from the Japanese. She was awarded the Akutagawa Sho in 1993, the most prestigious literary prize in Japan, for the short story »Inumukoiri« (Eng. »The Bridegroom Was a Dog«, 2012), and the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize in 1996.
Tawada’s work centers on otherness. »Language is strange. How else can it be that a sentence which is completely true and honest can still remain powerless?« By exploring this question with subtle naivety, Tawada also enigmatizes the unmediated understanding of the world inherent in every culture. As a poetic ethnologist she brings the exoticism of everyday life to the fore, such as in »Talisman« (1996), a volume of short stories. Tawada’s strange and defamiliarized gaze is also shared by the protagonist in »Das nackte Auge« (2004; Eng. »The Naked Eye«, 2009), a Vietnamese woman who inadvertently ends up in Paris. Everything starts to speak to her in unintelligible and mysterious ways, while she continues to be lost for words. Unexpected correspondences between these enigmatic signs transform reality into a dream world. Metamorphosis is also a theme in »Opium für Ovid« (2000; tr. Opium for Ovid), in which the Western literary tradition resurfaces under an Eastern gaze. It is not surprising that the author alludes to Dadaism (in the prose piece »Zürich«, 1997) and, during a lecture tour, to Ernst Jandl. »Überseezungen« (2002; tr. Colonial tongues) and »Sprachpolizei und Spielpolyglotte« (2007; tr. Language police and game polyglots) were followed by a fourth collection of literary essays, »akzentfrei«, in 2016. Having held a visiting professorship at the University of Hamburg, she published a collection of lectures: »Fremde Wasser« (2012, tr. Strange waters). In her most recent novels »Etüden im Schnee« (2014; Eng. »Memoirs of a Polar Bear«, 2016) and »Ein Balkonplatz für flüchtige Abende« (2016; tr. A balcony seat for casual evenings) she gives voices to a range of animals, including three generations of polar bears, and explores the mysteries of spaces, streets and landscapes.
Tawada is the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including the Goethe Medal, the Erlangen Prize for Poetry in Translation and the Kleist Prize. She has also collaborated and produced a CD with the jazz pianist Aki Takase. The author lives in Berlin.