Finding a voice beyond words

The Japanese Nobel Prize winning writer Kenzaburō Ōe with his son Hikari.

The Japanese Nobel Prize winning writer Kenzaburō Ōe with his son Hikari.

It was only three years ago that I discovered the writings of the Japanese Nobel Laureate Kenzaburō Ōe. I first read his novel Nip The Buds; Shoot the Kids. This is an angry book that tells the tale of a group of outcast boys evacuated from an institution during wartime, who undertake an ultimately doomed attempt to live an autonomous existence in a remote mountain region. The tale seethes with indignation, the author’s fury standing out from the page as he presents his story of the ways in which the young men at the centre of events are despised and misinterpreted by members of the local community. I must admit that I found the book quite shocking when I read it, yet I was also intrigued by what could have motivated Ōe to write in such terms.

Determined to pursue this issue further I turned to a later novel Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! and also began to investigate more about this extraordinary writer. This second novel is no less powerful than the first. It tells the tale of K who lives in Tokyo with his wife and three children. The eldest of these three, in his late teens, is a young man with a learning disability. K and his wife, throughout the book wrestle with coming to terms with the changing nature of their son’s difficulties, and in particular the fact that he at times becomes aggressive towards others and appears increasingly difficult to manage. The book is full of complexities, not the least of which is K’s attempt to make sense of his son’s world through the poetry of William Blake.

These are intensely personal novels and it was with very little surprise that I discovered that in real life Kenzaburō Ōe is the father of a son  who has limited language and motor skills, and an inability to express his emotions clearly and is therefore often described as being on the autism spectrum. This acutely personal experience explains the intensity with which he is able to write about the complexities of family life in Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! and the difficulties of identity associated with his characters in Nip The Buds; Shoot the Kids.

Many parents of children with disabilities can articulate the challenges that they have faced in bringing up their sons or daughters. Often they will speak of the ways in which their children are seen as “different” and even “difficult.” But few have the skills of a Nobel prize winning author with which to express their experiences and emotions. Kenzaburō Ōe’s novels provide a unique insight into the complex relationship between a father and his son. Yet there is one more angle to this family saga that makes this situation extraordinary.

Kenzaburō Ōe’s son, born in 1963 is now a well-respected composer. Hikari Ōe showed an interest in music when he was very young and his parents arranged tuition for him with a piano teacher named Kumiko Tamura. Hikari, who was unable to express his emotions in words soon began to do so through musical composition. He demonstrated a prodigious talent and is now rightly regarded as a fine composer mainly of chamber music. The Japanese-French pianist Akiko Ebi has championed Ōe’s work through a number of her recordings and concert recitals and his music has gained in popularity. In September, 1994, Hikari Ōe  won the Japan Academy Award prize for music for the film score for  “Shizuka na Seikatsu” (A Quiet Life) directed by Juzo Itami. On accepting the Nobel Prize for literature, Kenzaburō Ōe reflected on how writing had enabled him to confront many challenges in his life and spoke movingly about how Hikari uses music in a similar way to portray what he described as “the voice of a crying and dark soul.”

Today is World Autism Awareness Day, declared as such by the United Nations General Assembly in 2008, to highlight the need to improve the lives of children and adults diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. There are many events going on around the world today to recognise this occasion and many people working hard as parents, carers, teachers or in other capacities to support those who have been diagnosed with autism. Raising awareness is important if we are to create a more tolerant and inclusive society. So as my small gesture towards World Autism Awareness Day I leave you with an opportunity to listen to three short pieces, Adagio in D Minor for Flute and Piano, Grief Number 3 for Piano and Nocturne 2 for Flute and Piano composed by  Hikari Ōe. Click on the link below and you will also see a photograph of the composer as a young man with his father and mother, and at work at the piano.

Apparently Hikari Ōe continues to have only limited speech, but I believe that he has certainly found his voice.

Music by Hikari Ōe