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'Diary of a Void' turns a lie into an exploration of motherhood and loneliness

DAVID GURA, HOST:

So often in office culture, women end up doing the tasks that simply make the office work, like cleaning up after meetings and changing the toner cartridge in the printer or ordering cupcakes for birthday parties. This, of course, is all unpaid work on top of their actual jobs. In the Japanese novel "Diary Of A Void," a young woman named Shibata is fed up with all these chores, so she fakes being pregnant to get out of them. Book was recently translated into English, and NPR's Andrew Limbong has more.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: When the book opens, Shibata's anger is at a high simmer. It's not even just that the guys in her office are indirectly asking her to clean up the cups left behind from the meeting. It's more that the thought never even crosses their minds that one of them could just do it.

LUCY NORTH: (Reading) What I did wasn't supposed to be an act of rebellion - more like a little experiment.

LIMBONG: This is Lucy North reading. She's one of the co-translators of the book.

NORTH: (Reading) I think I just wanted to know what would happen if nobody was there to keep an eye out, to rush over as soon as the meeting ended and deal with the messes they'd made. And I still might have obliged had I not been met with the sight of dirty cups, some still with coffee in them and stuffed with cigarette butts, the odor of old cigarettes left sitting there for hours.

LIMBONG: So Shibata tells her boss she's pregnant, actually, and the odors from the cigarettes triggers her nausea. She starts coming into the office, patting her belly beneath her shirt. She starts talking about baby names, and she joins the mommy aerobics group. It kind of works. It's not that she's necessarily treated better, just different. And the indignities pile up in a way that has to be funny. Here's David Boyd, the other translator of the book.

DAVID BOYD: And I think that's really the only way that, as a reader, we can survive the workplace with the narrator, with Shibata, is by having some humor to kind of allow us to deal with the inherent absurdity in her workplace.

LIMBONG: Shibata commits hard to the bit, even when no one is around, so much so that maybe she even starts to believe it.

NORTH: And that's the story we're reading, I think. You know, she's lying. She knows she's lying. Then she's talking about living this lie, and she kind of lives it almost too really. And it takes her over in places.

LIMBONG: "Diary Of A Void" is written by Emi Yagi. She's an editor at a fashion magazine in Japan, and this is her first book. Yagi told The Japan Times that the book is ultimately about loneliness. Quote, "I wanted to write a story showing that it's important for women not to feel like they are tied to certain roles, like office worker, wife and mother."

Nozomi Uematsu is a comparative literature lecturer at the University of Sheffield, specializing in contemporary women's writing in Japanese and English literature. She says the central critique of the book isn't just at the societal forces that push women into these roles, but also at the ones convincing women that they've got to be the best at them.

NOZOMI UEMATSU: Everything is monetized. Everything has to be efficient. You have to take self-responsibility for your life. There's no sense of collectivity or community in that mode of society - hard to connect with other people.

LIMBONG: There's an app Shibata uses to keep track of her baby. And one day, it alerts her saying, hey, your baby is now the size of a butternut squash. Here's David Boyd reading.

BOYD: (Reading) A butternut squash? My voice jumped a good two octaves. Maybe the person who writes these intros eats a lot of butternut squash. I don't. I mean, I've never bought one.

LIMBONG: She goes on this rant about how people don't even know how big a butternut squash is, and the writers of the app should have picked a more relatable piece of produce, until she relents.

(Reading) I suddenly wanted something of my own, something to make space for, even if it was just my own and no one else could even see it. Something like a lie.

And then she keeps on using the app.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.