In Japan’s recent past, the task of preparing and serving tea frequently fell to female office workers, sometimes called ochakumi (“tea-pourers”). My mother remembers observing older tea-pourers in the 1970s teaching younger ones how to do it correctly, preparing the young women for how they would someday serve their husbands. Although there has been strong feminist pushback against this practice, gendered expectations about who serves drinks in the workplace have persisted. So perhaps it is significant that in Emi Yagi’s novel, Diary of a Void (translated by David Boyd and Lucy North), it is coffee-cleanup duty that causes Shibata, the office worker at the center of the story, to snap and tell her colleagues that she can’t wash the cups due to her morning sickness.
Except that Shibata isn’t pregnant. It’s a lie. Consciously or unconsciously, she is pushing back not just against her office but against a long history of gender-based discrimination. In her previous job, she was sexually harassed and groped. In her current one, it is “simply assumed” that, as the only woman on her team, she will undertake menial jobs outside her official work—she must answer calls, sort packages, replace ink cartridges, pick up trash, clean the office microwave, and more. Sick of such treatment, she seizes upon her invented pregnancy to get a break—an impulsive decision that grows into a personal rebellion.
I was wary of the premise. You see, I am pregnant. I had been hesitant to share the news at work. Those in my professional life have been supportive, and I feel lucky. Still, according to a 2016 survey conducted in Great Britain, where I live, 77 percent of mothers reported experiencing negative or possibly discriminatory behavior while pregnant, during maternity leave, and/or upon returning to work, and 11 percent felt forced to leave their jobs. In the United States, which has no federal mandate for paid maternity leave, many people do not have the option to take leave at all. Japan offers better parental benefits than the U.S., but it isn’t problem-free. Pregnancy discrimination—the Japanese word for it is matahara—remains prevalent, and a recent study linked it to depression in pregnant employees.
Given how pregnant workers are often treated, the idea that a woman would con her employers into better treatment via a fake pregnancy struck me as startling and strangely transgressive. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by Shibata’s lie—there is something delightful about an ostensibly humble character who finds a way to evade what is expected of them. Reading Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in college, a time when I was trying to figure out how to play by the rules, I was thrilled by the idea that one might politely decline to work, as an employee in the story does with the simple phrase “I would prefer not to.” In Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, the main character enjoys her work but chooses to opt out of most roles expected of her socially and romantically, showing readers how ridiculous and unnecessary many of those demands are while highlighting the beauty of her seemingly unconventional choices. The protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation tries to spend a year in drugged sleep, a premise some of my friends and I found enticing not because we wanted to do it, but because we recognized the urge to quit everything. Similarly, the outsize nature of Shibata’s ruse charmed me.
Another author might have played the idea for slapstick or suspense. Shibata does take measures to avoid being detected—choosing a remote bathroom when she has her period, stuffing her dress to appear pregnant—but Yagi’s focus is on how acting pregnant reshapes Shibata’s relationship to herself. At first, her new role seems liberating, if still gendered: A co-worker comments, “When a woman’s pregnant, she’s got to do her very best to take care of herself,” and Shibata buys into the permission her pregnancy gives her to do just that. She escapes coffee-cup duty and leaves work earlier. She buys fresh vegetables and makes herself healthy meals. She takes baths using nice bath salts, starts doing pregnancy exercises, and opens a mutual-fund account. Her role as a pregnant woman gives her a reason to provide for her own short- and long-term well-being.
Yet the book never idealizes pregnancy. Yagi finds ways to show us how strange the experience can be—I laughed with recognition as Shibata tries to visualize her fictional baby using an app that compares it to differently sized fruit. Nor is her workplace portrayed as falsely kind: Shibata senses that people may be gossiping about her and wonders if they judge her because she isn’t married. Co-workers try to guess the gender of her child—two supportive characters guess a boy, whereas a demeaning colleague tells her, “You’re just not the type who would have a boy, Shibata … It’s going to be a girl.” I sighed at the way being female is made into an insult, and thought, too, of how many pregnant people might relate to Shibata’s weariness at fielding invasive questions and unsolicited opinions.
Yagi also refrains from presenting motherhood as easy. We see the difficulty of being a woman with or without a child, and Yagi—a women’s-magazine editor as well as a novelist—emphasizes how society makes both roles harder. Shibata’s friend Momoi is shamed by the other mothers at her school for not preparing homemade lunches for her child. When a friend Shibata meets in prenatal-exercise class gives birth, we see the full extent of the woman’s despair, exhaustion, and loneliness, made worse by an unsympathetic husband who offers minimal help. One can almost imagine how each character’s struggle to balance work and home life might appear in a letter to an agony aunt. The novel’s response seems to be This is not your fault, and it isn’t fair. And yet, Diary of a Void is not a story about men versus women—instead, it is about how a pervasive set of rules, biases, and expectations can trap individuals. Shibata doesn’t begin the story desiring a child; all she wants is to not be expected to do all the scut work in her office just because she is a woman, and a fake pregnancy is the only way she can find to escape. But she eventually realizes that lying doesn’t allow her to leave the office early—it simply lets her leave on time. Shouldn’t that option be available to everyone, pregnant or not?
As the novel goes on, it shifts from social commentary and satire to something stranger. Just as Shibata reaches the stage when her pregnancy should be obvious, she encounters a stained-glass window featuring the Virgin Mary on a disused building. Though Shibata is not Christian, she chats with Mary about pretending to be pregnant, asks her if she had any hobbies, and considers how annoying it probably was to have been called the Virgin Mother even after her son had grown up. She relates to Mary, she later thinks, “not as a believer, but as a peer,” and this encounter precedes a change in Shibata that seems more magic than miracle: Soon after, it seems that her pregnancy may become real.
By the end of the book, Shibata has finally learned what she wants and is ready to fight for it with ingenious dishonesty—she can’t change the world, but she can take from it what she needs. While we might hope for political and social movements that fight for fair treatment at work, I don’t judge Shibata for not waiting around for their success. Who can blame her for lying to escape a system so much larger than herself? As I finished reading, still trying to navigate my own path through pregnancy dos and don’ts and the sort of parent I will be, I found that I was even a little envious of Shibata’s bravery. My circumstances are not hers, and I doubt they are yours, either—but if you’ve ever wanted to bite back at a nosy boss, a rude co-worker, an unfair assignment, or the endless list of shoulds we face, then maybe you’ll find something to enjoy in her audacity too.