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‘I Just Peeked Into Their World and Took Notes’: Yoko Ogawa Conjures Spirits in Hiding

On her desk, Ogawa keeps a beaver skull, an animal she admires for its industry. It gives her inspiration, she said, echoing the sentiments of the editor in “The Memory Police,” who says that touching objects that have disappeared “became a way of confirming that I was still whole.”

Ogawa achieved best seller status, and a film adaptation, with “The Professor and the Housekeeper,” another novel with memory as its theme. Much lighter in tone than “The Memory Police,” it tells the story of a single mother who takes a job as a cook and cleaner for a mathematician who cannot remember anything new for more than 80 minutes.

Along with memory, another of Ogawa’s preoccupations is the human capacity for cruelty. “The Diving Pool,” a collection of novellas published in English (including the prizewinning “Pregnancy Diary”), features characters who use subterfuge to inflict pain on people close to them. In “Hotel Iris,” a sadistic older widower engages a 17-year-old high school dropout in increasingly brutal sexual trysts.

Ogawa said she does not write about cruel characters to damn them but rather to explore what might drive someone to physical or emotional violence. “People try to hide it from others or try to cover it up,” she said. “But in the world of literature, you can reveal that nature, and it’s O.K. to do so.”

Given that she writes vividly about female bodies, and the violence that men can do to them, some critics have dubbed her a feminist writer.

“In a lot of her work she is interested in women’s roles in the family and women’s bodies,” said Kathryn Tanaka, an associate professor of cultural and historical studies at Otemae University in Nishinomiya, Japan. “You really can’t separate that from questions of feminism and untangle her from that gendered private space that her texts inhabit.”

Ogawa resists the label, saying she considers herself an eavesdropper on her characters. “I just peeked into their world and took notes from what they were doing,” she said.

“I see a bridge from that item to the next scene, or I see a rainbow that I have to climb over to move to the next scene,” she said. “That’s how I write.”

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