Blog, Book Club Blog
Q&A with Durian Sukegawa – Author of Sweet Bean Paste
1. What made you want to write about a character with Hansen’s?
The idea of writing about Hansen’s Disease, or leprosy as it is commonly known, came to me in the 1990s, when I was a late-night radio presenter. I sometimes opened up the radio show to my young listeners, and one evening I decided to ask them the question: “Is there any meaning to life?”
Of course, the answer would be different for everyone and there is no one correct answer. Still, I decided to ask them this question because I felt that human existence cannot be described only in terms of common sense and morality. Why is it wrong to hurt people? Why do we face such difficult challenges? I wanted to reexamine these questions from the perspective of the meaning of life. As a precondition for this, I took it for granted that there would be a wide range of answers to this question. However, to my surprise, many of the listeners gave almost the same answer.
“We were born to be useful to society. If we are not useful to others, then there is no point in living.”
This reaction made me feel uncomfortable. Young listeners have probably been repeatedly told by their parents, teachers, and other adults to be useful to society. I felt this was a conditioned response.
It is true that human beings cannot live alone. As human beings we make up society. In that sense, their willingness to be helpful is to be praised. However, this is where the trap lies. Society is always a mixed bag. A society that is safe for one person may create darkness for another. I thought, for example, of the people living in the Hansen’s Disease Sanatorium.
Until its abolition in 1996, Japan had a law that excluded people affected by leprosy from society and kept them in absolute isolation in sanatoriums. Many patients were not even allowed to leave the sanatoriums after they were cured, and they were forced to spend the rest of their lives in confinement.
In the face of people who were tormented by disease, who suffered discrimination, and were sent away from their families, I could never say, “If you are of no use to society, then there is no point in living”. Of course, I don’t think anyone could say that. But my listeners had come together and said, with one voice, saying that “whether or not I am useful to society” was the meaning of life. Herein lies the darkness created by a seemingly bright society.
Then I thought to myself: let’s not question whether we are useful to society or what work we do, but instead seek a meaning of life that can be shared equally by people born under any circumstances. I decided to try to write a novel about it, using the leprosy issue as my subject matter. I can clearly remember walking alone through the streets at night with this vow. Thinking about leprosy and its problems was also a way of deepening my thoughts about human existence.
2. The message of the book, that our value is not based on our productivity, feels even more important in a post-pandemic world. Have the last few years changed the way you think about the book?
Life has meaning; I think many would agree with this. However, I think the point of contention was what we accomplish in life. I believe that it is also important to ask what we have felt in life. The hand that reaches out from the heart can touch something beyond the material world. It can transcend physical barriers and become the size of the earth.
Humans created society, but it is the underlying force that expresses this world that created us. When we lean into that power, we realize the significance of a renewed appreciation of this world.
In the novel, Tokue wrote in her letter, “We were born in order to see and listen to the world. That’s all this world wants of us.” That is what I wanted to tell my readers.
After these two years of the pandemic, my feelings about Sweet Bean Paste have not changed. In fact, they have become stronger than ever. I think our hearts can be actively receptive. Perhaps it is my mission to convey this to people all over the world.
3. Why did you choose sweet bean paste as the focal point of the story? Were there any other dishes you could have written it about?
At the Hansen’s Disease Sanatorium, there really were people who made sweet confections. Since Japanese sweets are mainly made with red bean paste, I believe these people were talking about red beans every day.
When I was at the sanatorium interviewing people to write this story, I was also attending a confectionery school. I had gone to write a story about a confectioner, but then decided that since I was going to the school, I should also join it. At that school, in their first year, the students study Japanese confectionery. So, at the same time I was learning to make sweet bean paste, I heard about the people who were still making it in the sanatoriums.
So, it felt as if had no choice but to focus on sweet bean paste – it guided me.
4. Have you found a difference in the way people respond to the book in Japan and the rest of the world?
This story has now been published in fifteen languages and is currently being translated into seven more. I am not aware of the reaction in every country, as they are too diverse. However, reading the reviews in the UK and France, it seems to me that the reactions there are not so different from those in Japan. As an author, I am happy to read that they have gained a new perspective on life.
5. What is one thing you hope all your readers take from this book?
No matter what your environment, no matter what your destiny is, you have a reason to live. You are born blessed. That is what I wanted to convey with this story. I want my readers to live their lives without fear of anything, savoring every day to the fullest.
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