A Conversation with Van Gessel

By Mary Kenagy Mitchell
Van Gessel has been Shusaku Endo’s primary English translator since the 1970s. He has translated eight of his novels and worked as a consultant on Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Silence. I asked him about the previously untranslated Endo story in Image issue 92, and about what Endo’s work has to say to the West.

Image: Can you tell us a little about the history of the story “Hymn to the Blessed Mother”? How did you first come across it?

Van Gessel: After I translated Endo’s 1980 novel, The Samurai, into English, I was waiting for him to complete his next major novel, which turned out to be Scandal (1986). But I wanted to keep making new translations available to his growing reading public, so I came up with the idea of putting together a collection of his short stories. In consultation with Endo, I drew stories from the 1960s and 1970s, and in one collection of his stories I found this one.

I loved it when I read it, but some of the stories already chosen for translation were similarly framed, with the present echoing the past, so we decided not to include it. But I’ve used the story in some of my Japanese classes for many years, and when Image contacted me about including a yet-untranslated Endo story, I thought immediately of this one, both because it is such a rich story and because one of my students, Aaron Cooley, did a fine translation of it for my class.

Like “Mothers” in the Stained Glass Elegies collection, the story shows Endo questioning the strength of his own religious faith.

Image: Our feeling is that Martin Scorsese’s Silence was an extraordinary film that never quite found its audience here in the US. Do you have any theories about why that was? (And do you know anything about how it’s been received in Japan, if at all?) [Read more…]

Singing the Qur’an in Different Voices

heavily ornate lattice covering. I sat through the meeting distracted, nervous.

I should have been at ease. After all, I was with friends—members of a Christian-Muslim interfaith group, people I’d worked with for many years, people I trusted.

But I was coming down with an acute case of performance anxiety. I had asked Ismet Akcin, the Islamic Center of Rochester, New York’s newly installed Imam, if I might recite for him after the meeting, privately, the Qur’an’s “Throne Verse,” sura (or chapter) al-Baqara, verse 255.

And to do this in Arabic.

Hence…anxiety. [Read more…]

Endurance Test

a pair of nice shoes in the center of the floor.By Matt Newcomb.

My father held the wall to work his way from the bed to the couch, avoiding the ship’s bell protruding from the wall. He was sick—the kind of sick that meant out of work too. It was his adrenal system, or his pineal gland, or a hormonal imbalance, depending on the doctor. And it was definitely sleep apnea and diabetes on top of whatever else.

During his illness, when I was in high school, he would play a twisted game with me. I might be sitting in our leather recliner, the ugly but fought-over mark of middle-class luxury in our house. He’d slap me lightly on the cheek to try to get a reaction. No reaction. Another slap, building, a bit harder each time.

It was perhaps less a game than the action of a bored younger sibling, a role he frequently played. There was no question of serious violence; I dominated him in strength, height, and health by this point. Every couple of slaps he would ask if he should stop. My goal was to never say yes. I might move slightly with some slaps, but I would win. The question was whether my frustration or discomfort would make me stop him before his worry about hitting me too hard would stop him.

He was testing my endurance, not for how long I could take pain or discomfort, but for how long I could take him. Would I put up with the pestering slaps of his illness and neediness day after day? [Read more…]

This Place is an Altar

black and white image of a large hall filled with chairs and an altar at the front, presumably a church, that is completely empty. By Jason Bruner.

Pastor David—strong, sincere, and confident in his pressed shirt and polished shoes—greets me in the doorway. “This place,” he pauses, looking me in the eye, “is an altar.”

He seems genuinely glad to have an American in attendance, but I am in an entirely different sort of mood.

I’m in Kampala attempting to conduct research on the history of Christianity and medicine, but a staff strike has closed the libraries and archives for most of my trip. And the foreign, bureaucratic process that I hoped would result in a government office’s stamp of approval felt like trying to walk through an M.C. Escher drawing.

Though it is a short trip, I am depressed and lonely. I miss my wife and daughters. But the real problem is not the research or the strike or the distance.

The real problem is that I have been among people for whom faith matters, and not just in the sense of really believing things, but in the sense that they know they wouldn’t be alive—in a strictly biological sense—without it. For them, it is vital, in every sense of that word.

This vitality makes me aware of an absence: What do I have? Do I even believe in God anymore? Does it matter? [Read more…]

Always Becoming

silhouetted image of a woman standing in front of a window, mostly in dark. outside it is bright, light, and airy, inside you can only see the silhouettes of things. the windows open outwards, the image feels hopeful. The following is adapted from an address given at the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing commencement ceremony last month.

For centuries, wise men and women of various traditions have troubled the terms being and becoming, without arriving at anything like conclusion. We affirm the beauty and joy of being—being writers, being Christians, being laborers in and lovers of a complex realm that is concurrently material and spiritual. Still, in the very midst of our being, we are obliged to affirm the efficacy of becoming, the call to be ever becoming.

During our residency we shared the deep pleasure of poring over Holy the Firm, a delicious if challenging text by the beloved Annie Dillard. Among the many provocative passages in that book, Dillard attends to the gap between what is known and what is.

“Here is the fringey edge,” she writes, “where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam. The salt sea and the islands—molding and molding, row upon rolling row—don’t quit, nor do winds end nor skies cease from spreading in curves.” [Read more…]