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      Sewing for the Heart

      By Yoko Ogawa

      February 7, 2013

      Art by Kike Besada.

      Yoko Ogawa writes creepy, ominous gothic novels and stories—sort of like a Japanese Flannery O’Connor or Shirley Jackson. Except sexier and a lot more Asian. She came to prominence in the late 80s in her native Japan and has since written more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, all of them commercially and critically viable.

      Hotel Iris (2010), for instance, tells the story of Mari, a teenage girl who works in a desolate hotel by the ocean. When she falls into a twisted romance with an older man, a translator of Russian novels who may or may not have murdered his wife and who also likes to beat and humiliate Mari during sex, the teenager has a realization: “It occurred to me that I had never heard such a beautiful voice giving an order,” she thinks. “It was calm and imposing, with no hint of indecision. Even the word ‘whore’ was somehow appealing.”

      “Sewing for the Heart” is from Yoko’s new collection, Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales (Picador February 2013), and it’s as perversely tantalizing as anything she’s written. In the story, a comely cabaret singer with the outlandish birth defect of a heart that developed outside her body hires a reclusive bag maker to sew a satchel to protect the misplaced organ. 

      We’ve paired this story with Spanish artist Kike Besada’s collages. Kike dug through old medical journals that he found in an NYC thrift store and cut out pictures of bags, hearts, hospitals, and all sorts of other things in order to come up with just the right macabre imagery for a story that is heartfelt in the most literal sense.

      “Dr. Y from Respiratory Medicine. Dr. Y from Respiratory Medicine. Please contact the pharmacy immediately.”

      The public-address system had been repeating this announcement for some time. I wondered who Dr. Y was and where he could be, as I studied the hospital directory. Central Records, Electroshock Clinic, Conference Center, Endoscopy… It was all like a foreign language to me.

      “Why do they keep paging this Dr. Y?” I asked the woman behind the information desk.

      “No one’s seen him this morning,” she said. She seemed annoyed by my question, and I was sorry I had bothered her.

      “Could you tell me where to find the cardiac ward?” I said, getting to my real question. I pronounced each word slowly and carefully, hoping to quiet the pounding of my heart.

      “Take that elevator to the sixth floor.” She pointed past a crowd of people gathered in front of admitting; I noticed her nail polish was chipped.



      I am a bag maker. For more than 20 years now I’ve kept a shop near the train station. It’s just a small place, but it has a nice display window facing the street. Inside, there are tables for the bags and a mirror, and a workshop in back, behind a curtain, with shelves for my materials. The window features a few purses, an ostrich handbag, and a suitcase. A jauntily posed mannequin clutches one of the purses, but her face is covered in a fine layer of dust since I haven’t changed the window in years.

      I live on the second floor, above the shop. My apartment has just two rooms—an eat-in kitchen and a living room that doubles as my bedroom—but the place is bright and pleasant. On clear afternoons, the sun streams in through the window and I have to move the hamster’s cage under the washstand. Hamsters don’t like direct sunlight.

      In the evening, after closing shop, I go upstairs, take off my work clothes, shower, and eat my dinner. This takes next to no time. When you live alone as I have for many years, daily life only becomes simpler and simpler. It’s been a long time since I’ve cleaned up the bathroom for someone, or changed the towels, or so much as made dressing for my salad. I have only myself to please, and that doesn’t take much.

      But compared to the world upstairs, my life with my bags below is quite rich. I never weary of them, of caressing and gazing at my wonderful creations. When I make a bag, I begin by picturing how it will look when it’s finished. Then I sketch each imagined detail, from the shiny clasp to the finest stitches in the seams. Next, I transfer the design to pattern paper and cut out the pieces from the raw material, and then finally I sew them together. As the bag begins to take shape on my table, my heart beats uncontrollably and I feel as though my hands wield all the powers of the universe.

      Now, you may be wondering why I get so excited. You may be thinking that a bag is just a thing in which to put other things. And you’re right, of course. But that’s what makes them so extraordinary. A bag has no intentions or desires of its own; it embraces every object that we ask of it to hold. You trust the bag, and it, in return, trusts you. To me, a bag is patience; a bag is profound discretion.  

      So then, in the evenings, when I’ve finished my dinner, I sit on the couch by the window and drink a cup of Chinese tea. I turn off the lamp in the room and look down on the street below. The passersby are cast in a seductive shadow. People drift by under my window—strolling couples, men returning late from the office, women from the bars, drunks—and all of them are carrying bags. Here’s a filthy one with two long scratches on the side. That puffy one seems to mimic the face of its owner. That one’s cracked and faded, as though it was left out in the rain. In the moonlight I see these details, savor them for a few seconds as they pass below my window.

      As I sit and watch the bags, the hamster runs on his treadmill. Hamsters are nocturnal, so he seems to wake up when I turn off the lamp. From time to time he makes a tiny sneezing noise, but nothing more.

      A woman with a shoulder bag passes by. Her hips twist and the bag turns toward me, revealing a clasp on the front. The strap cuts into the material of her blouse. Next comes a woman carrying a Boston bag. She holds the handle so tightly, it seems her fingers might leave a deep impression on the leather. There must be something very important inside.

      The hamster stuffs his cheek with sunflower seeds. I take a sip of tea. My hands ache from a long day of gripping the needle and the awl.

      Topics: Fiction, yoko, ogawa, hearts, gothic, flannery o'connor, Japan, japanese, shirley jackson


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