Akogare: Kawakami Mieko

For the last few years, every October, I’ve been working with an author from Japan for a week or so as their voice in English, interpreting at the big public events for the Toronto International Festival of Authors, but also over lunches or signings or random encounters on the street. I know other kinds of interpreting are different and involve far less contact with the client, but the kind of interpreting I do is generally quite intensive, involving many hours of basically just hanging out with an artist for every hour I am on stage with them performing.

But for most of the year, I am translating, sitting alone in front of my computer with my books, puzzling out the best way to say in English what the artist is trying to say. So the sudden intense human contact that comes with interpreting can be jarring, but in a good way. Like a sudden flare in the sky that illuminates all the reasons why I do the translations in the first place. The ability to reach people, to cross language and culture and make a reader feel something new, to make them think in a new way, to offer them a bigger world in the pages of a book—that’s what we do when we translate, but sitting alone in our respective translation hovels, we rarely see the readers who are having all these feels, who are living in a changed world because of a work we translated. But interpreting is a chance to see firsthand the effect of art in this world. Interpreting for the artist is when I get to really see the effect of translation, and it gives me fuel and motivation to return to that work.

It’s the human contact part of this equation that is so satisfying, and of course, in this the Year of Plague, it’s that human contact that we all must go without. My October event is no exception. This year’s Japanese guest at TIFA is Kawakami Mieko, and longtime readers of these brain battles will know that I am a big fan of her work, so I was very excited to learn that she would be coming this year to promote her first full-length novel translation into English, Breasts and Eggs. And then everything went online, and now we are all speaking into the Zoom void. (I gave a lecture on translation this summer, and it was eerie. Most participants had their videos off to save bandwidth, so I felt like I was alone, telling my computer about all my translation thoughts.) So although the event will still happen, like everything else this year, it will be different. No signings, no seeing the flash of insight on a listener’s face, no hotel lobby coffee getting cold on the table in front of me while I interpret for a media interview.

One thing that is not different, that can’t be different if it’s me interpreting, is the descent into stalkerdom to prepare. I am busy reading up on Kawakami, listening to podcasts and interviews (including one I myself did with her years ago!) (but the article it was for got cut…), reading everything I can by and about her. Including her 2015 novel Akogare which I picked up immediately when it came out, read part of, and then put down for reasons that are lost to the sands of time now. When I started Ms Ice Sandwich, I had a jolt of déjà-vu, certain I had read these words before but not exactly sure where. And then I remembered the aborted attempt at Akogare and pulled the book from the back of my shelf where it had been languishing. 

Although “Ms Ice Sandwich” is published in English as a novella, the tale of Mugihiko (the nameless narrator gets a name in the second act) is actually the first shorter section of a novel. While Mugihiko’s fixation on the supermarket sandwich lady and his developing friendship with Hegatea (Tooti in English, for pertinent reasons) takes place in the fourth grade, the second chapter “Ichigo Jam kara Haha wo Hikeba” jumps ahead a couple years to grade six, when both Mugi and Hegatea are on the verge of adolescence and all the baffling confusion that comes with that. And Hegatea is the narrator now, living alone with her dad after her mother died when she was still a small child. She’s thick as thieves with Mugi now, hanging out at school and their regular Friday movie nights at her house with her film critic dad. 

Whereas “Ms Ice Sandwich” focuses on Mugi’s relationship with his dying grandmother and his compulsive drawing of the supermarket sandwich lady, “Ichigo” examines Hegatea’s relationship with her father and her dead mother and her coming to terms with loss and her own place in this world. Mugi and Hegatea are no doubt drawn to each other because of their complimentary losses that separate them from the other kids their age—she has lost a mother, he has lost a father—and the whole novel is something of a meditation on what it means to live when someone else is dead, the longing we feel for the things that could’ve been, the futures we could have lived, the people we could have loved. There’s a yearning in these pages that’s both deeply childish and profoundly old at the same time, as if we spend a few decades in the middle of our lives not puzzled and taken up with the problems of life and death, before sinking back down into them. 

Kawakami somehow perfectly captures the inner narrative of these children, as they talk to themselves and wonder how the world is the way it is. And the way they talk to each other, the way they flit between adult and child in the liminal space of early adolescence, is painfully perfect, sending me back to my own self at twelve. I think the thing that made my heart crack in two was how Hegatea sleeps under the Christmas tree in the living room, the Christmas tree that has been standing in the living room since her mother was still alive. It’s such a perfect detail and expresses so much about the world she lives in, the things that are on her mind however subconsciously. There’s a strange beauty in Hegatea’s half of the book, and I wish we could see the whole thing in translation so the two halves could play off each other the way they were clearly meant to. Ms Ice Sandwich is brilliant, but in the end, it’s only half a book. 

Eniale & Dewiela: Shirahama Kamome

You may have heard that Shirahama Kamome was going to be a featured guest for TCAF this year. She even drew a poster for us! And then the world exploded, TCAF was cancelled, and the many hours and emails and meetings that went into making her visit happen were all for nought. (Well, we did get that cool poster. And I got to hang out with her on the train home after one meeting, which was great. She showed me pictures of her dog.) So I didn’t have to do the usual frenzy of preparations, which left me feeling oddly adrift in March and April, like there was something very important that I was forgetting about. It seems that after all these years, TCAF has turned into a body memory for me, and when there is no surge of stress in the spring that peaks in May and then drops off a cliff the day after TCAF when I fall into bed and sleep for twelve hours, I don’t know what to do with myself. 

Part of working with an artist for me is reading every single thing they’ve ever written. Which in Shirahama’s case means the eternally delightful Witch Hat Atelier and her debut series Eniale & Dewiela. I’ve been shouting about Witch Hat from the rafters for years now and I was so, so happy when it was finally released in English because it is far too pure and good to be contained by one language. But I’d never gotten around EniDewi for some reason, even though my usual habit when I find an artist I love is to go and read everything else they’ve ever written. So when TCAF was still on, I put the series in my online shop basket so I could get myself up to speed. And then, of course, the world exploded, as mentioned above, and I never got around to actually buying the books.

Continue reading “Eniale & Dewiela: Shirahama Kamome”

Kimi ni Aetara Nante Iiou: Nemu Yoko

I am an Old, and I am also happily free of children. The desire for children is one of those things that has completely baffled me my entire life. Not that children are bad. I have met some very nice children. I like my sister’s kids a lot, and seeing them go from squalling tiny creatures on my living room floor to responsible, kind grown-ups whose company I genuinely enjoy has been a real trip. But the idea of giving up my entire life so that I could have some kids of my own has never been anywhere in my realm of possibility. I remember telling grown-ups that I was never getting married or having children when I was six years old. Of course, I got a deeply patronizing response, one that I would become quite familiar with as I grew up and heard it over and over again: You’ll feel differently when you’re older. And yet? I do not feel differently when I am old enough to render the entire question of wanting children moot due to my Advanced Age. 

But as a woman, there is always that ambient societal pressure to pair off and have kids. It’s everywhere, this heteronormative concept of family. And it’s on the milestone checklist for a “good life”: finish school, get married, buy a house, have kids, get a dog (or maybe the dog comes first), raise kids, retire, die. It’s what you’re “supposed” to do. And a lot of people do! This is not a judgement on them. But I cannot fathom it. I seriously hope I don’t die alone in my apartment, my corpse left to rot until a neighbour complains about the smell, because I didn’t birth some people who would feel compelled to check in on me from time to time, but I can’t imagine a day when I would regret not birthing those people. 

Which is why a book like Kimi ni Aetara is so fascinating to me. Kiri, a freelancer in her mid-thirties, is married with a cat, but no plans for children on the horizon. She’s in that grey space that I imagine so many women occupy these days. She’s got a great job and a great relationship, a nice apartment; she doesn’t feel any real lack in her life. She’s happy with the way things are. But she also knows biology is thing working against her here, and if she and her husband do want kids, they are going to have to start doing something about that or her womb will fill with desert dunes. She gets to thinking about this seriously when she finds out that a colleague is pregnant, and after an awkward conversation with her husband, she tips over onto the side of yes, let’s have kids. Continue reading “Kimi ni Aetara Nante Iiou: Nemu Yoko”

Kioku no Giho: Yoshino Sakumi

Kioku_YoshinoThe mountain of unread books at Château Brain has grown to almost embarrassing heights. Whereas once (in the long distant past) it was an actual pile, a stack of books on a side table, it has spread and sprawled out from that side table to occupy half of a sturdy Ikea bookshelf, with unread books spilling out in heaps on top of the bookshelf. And yet I keep buying books? It is a disease possibly? Part of the recent extra book-buying is the plague that keeps us all bemasked—I don’t want my favourite bookstores to go out of business, so I keep ordering from them at regular intervals, regardless of the number of books I already have in my house waiting for me to read them. And part of it is that when I order books for work from Japan, I figure I should just throw in some books for pleasure too since I’m paying the shipping, and everything takes so long to arrive in the post now.

But mostly? I just really like buying books and having books. It’s such a thrill to see them there on the shelves and wonder what I’ll read next. Some books I deliberately leave in the unread bookcase because I am so eager to read them and I want to savour that anticipation. (Yes, Harrow the Ninth, I’m looking at you in specific here.) Some books are there for research I am totally going to do at some unspecified future point for a project that will almost certainly never be finished. Others get pushed to the back of the shelf, lost in the mix, waiting to be rediscovered one day. And still others get picked up and put back over and over because they seem too daunting in some way. Kioku no Giho is one of these. Continue reading “Kioku no Giho: Yoshino Sakumi”

Zenryaku, Zenshin no Kimi: Torikai Akane

Zenryaku_TorikaiLet’s begin with my usual lament and just get it out of the way: I can’t believe such an incredible artist is still unpublished in English. Torikai Akane has put out book after book of amazing beauty, art and text meshing so perfectly that I am frequently overwhelmed reading her work and have to put the book down for a while to process what I’m seeing on the page. Not to mention that she is always tackling difficult and often uncomfortable topics in her work so that it’s hard not to wince from time to time while reading her. Her work is deeply feminist and focussed on women and our experiences in Japanese society, shining a painful light on many things most people would rather look away from. And of course, the cynical part of me knows that this is a large part of the reason she is not published in English and will likely never be unless some indie publisher starts championing her cause. I’ve said it again and again, and it’s an obvious truth in the manga industry on this side of the ocean: josei gets the short shrift every single time.

It doesn’t help that Torikai’s art is also far from what the average North American consumer of manga expects to see on the pages of a book here. Detailed lines, realistic character designs, an elegant beauty that’s removed from the kind of manga that makes the bestseller list over here. And yet she finds a home and a following in Japan that allows her to keep publishing her difficult tales of sex and sexuality and relationships and society. (Mostly by publishing in seinen magazines since josei is also underappreciated in Japan. Art targeted at women is denigrated around the world!) Continue reading “Zenryaku, Zenshin no Kimi: Torikai Akane”

Lilas to Senka no Kaze: Ueda Sayuri

Lilas_UedaUnable to noodle around in bookstores in Tokyo this summer, I have been noodling more in (online) bookstores in Toronto. But the indies closest to me, and hence the indies I can walk over to and pick up my books from (because why waste time and money on the post?), are pretty focussed in their missions. There’s Glad Day, a celebration of all writing queer and makers of delicious beignets; The Beguiling and its babies, Page & Panel and Little Island, serving all your comics needs; and Bakka Phoenix, your one-stop-shop for everything SFF. So because of the latter, I’ve been reading a lot more speculative fiction in English these days, which weirdly got me wanting to read some speculative fiction in Japanese. Does my brain simply need balance in the two languages? Who can say! Brains are weird.

Fortunately, I’ve had a little treat waiting for my attention in the bookcase of unread books ever since it came out last year. I enjoyed Ueda Sayuri’s last collection of short stories so much that when she released a new novel, I snatched it up. (Back when I was still allowed into Japan and could still hang out in my favourite bookstore…) The obi on Lilas to Senka no Kaze promised me this was a standalone novel, unlike her imposing and daunting Ocean Chronicle series. And no hard sci-fi here! This one’s a historical fantasy, set in World War I, so I figured it wouldn’t be full of made-up words to trip me up and make me doubt my linguistic abilities. It is, however, nearly five hundred pages long, and thus it’s been sitting on my shelf since I bought it because that is a real time commitment, and I am always having to read something else for work. Continue reading “Lilas to Senka no Kaze: Ueda Sayuri”

Inga no Sakana: Arai Niboshiko

inga_AraiWell, here we are once again in the sweaty throes of summer, turning our attention to some even sweatier throes on the pages of our favourite BL titles. Normally, I would be sweating it out in both the seasonal and bookular ways in Japan, but as we all know, these are not normal times. None of my usual noodling around the bookstores of Tokyo this summer. I, like so many of my fellow fujoshi, am locked up in my apartment and locked out of the country that is my second home with no chances to stumble upon two lithe young men intertwined on the cover of a book in the ever-expanding BL section.

But not even a plague can stop the power of women who love fictional men who love men! Because we are fierce and determined and have shelves of hot man/man action already in our homes, Tokyo bookstores be damned! And in the lead up to this, our most sacred holiday, I discovered a beloved title on my own shelves that I haven’t written about before. So let us celebrate 801 this year with the blushy genius of Arai Niboshiko!

You might remember her as the star of this brain’s 801 celebrations a couple of years ago. Or perhaps you’re more familiar with her mainstream work as Noda Ayako. Either way, there’s always something hot simmering beneath the surface of everything this talented artist touches. Her new series Double might be a stealth BL, but it’s a serious slowburn, so I’m still withholding judgement on that one. But there’s nothing stealthy about Inga no Sakana. These boys are in love! Continue reading “Inga no Sakana: Arai Niboshiko”

Policing Black Lives: Robyn Maynard

web_image_-_book_cover_0Living in Canada unfortunately often means living with one eye on the United States, whether you like it or not. Their population dwarfs ours and their cultural industries have tentacles reaching out to every spot on the globe, so if you happen to live right next door, the tentacles have a stranglehold. You grow up watching American TV, listening to American music, reading American books and magazines, and unwittingly absorbing a lot of information about American history, government, and legal structures. You also grow up puzzled about a lot of it, if you’re anything like me. Do they really wear shoes in the house like in every TV show? (Upon moving to Japan, I learned the answer to this is yes, they do wear shoes in the house. I will never not be stunned by this.) Are there really so many different accents, or is that just a TV thing? What is the purpose of homecoming? Why are there so many high school football teams? How much of the Sweet Valley High novels are true? (I was a very big Sweet Valley High fan as a child, but the many proms baffled me.)

And of course, whenever anything outrageous happens, we hear all about it up here. And outrageous things have been happening a whole lot more these days. Global pandemic, murder hornets, authoritarian governments, the not-so-slow slide into fascism—2020 is a lot. It’s a lot more in the US, which has prompted the usual reactions from the majority of Canadians. There’s the “meanwhile in Canada” crowd, who try to play up how great it is here compared with the US by tweeting pictures of the prime minister with a panda or smugly noting that our top news story is a moose in someone’s backyard. And then there are the people who shout indignantly about the injustices in America, yell at American politicians or whoever on social media, and generally get caught up in the drama, full of outrage on behalf of Americans everywhere. Continue reading “Policing Black Lives: Robyn Maynard”

Random Anniversary 6: My Brain

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These random anniversaries have a way of slapping me in the face with the extremely twisty road that is my life, and this anniversary is perhaps slappier than most. Over the course of this particular journal–a smart spring-green affair that was a gift from one of my favourite people–I went from running through the streets of London to buying extremely mislabelled “vegan” food in the night markets of Taipei to a narrow escape from a burgeoning plague in Tokyo to an actual pandemic in Toronto, where I have now been locked up in my apartment for the last three months using my sewing skills to craft masks for all my friends and family, only scurrying out for groceries and beer. It is honestly overwhelming to step back and take a real look at how life used to be and how it is now, especially because my science brain is only too well aware that the normalcy of the Before Times is probably never coming back.

And that’s a good thing in a lot of ways! The plague is certainly laying bare all the ways capitalism has failed us, and so many people suddenly have nothing to do but reassess the way we live in this world and discover the need to burn it all to the ground and rebuild a society that supports all of us, especially the most vulnerable among us, instead of a bunch of venture capitalists and tech bros and the general class of rich white people. Plus, we’re all expert handwashers now! And we have a new fashion possibility in the face mask. Continue reading “Random Anniversary 6: My Brain”

Hosekidori: Tokizawa Akiko

Hoseki

After reading Ju Sai Made ni Yonda Hon, I’ve been thinking a lot about reading histories, the books that take us to the places where we are now. My dad is a huge reader, so books were front and centre in my life for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, generally laying around the house were computer books, books on chess, Louis L’Amour, science fiction/fantasy, and Stephen King. There were no doubt a whole bunch of others, but these are the ones that stick out in my mind. I tried reading them all, of course, because I wanted to read what he read. The chess books taught me some moves, the computer books were mostly incomprehensible except for the programming books bought especially for us kids, Louis L’Amour never quite made sense to me, and Stephen King instilled a young love of horror in me, despite the nightmares.

But the science fiction and fantasy, that was something that clicked for me in a way that none of the other books did. And so I have spent a life reading all kinds of speculative fiction, even during those years when I was at my most insufferably pretentious and thought I should be reading Literature instead of genre fiction. But hot on the heels of those pretentious years of Penguin classics was a move to Japan and a deep dive into a whole other world of reading, not to mention a near total lack of books in English. In those pre-Internet shopping times, my diet of manga and re-reading the few books I brought with me to Japan was supplemented by whatever books were being passed around to every English reader in my prefecture. (We also shared VHS tapes recorded and sent to our northern hamlets by friends and family in faraway countries, which is how I saw certain episodes of Sex and the City about five thousand times.) Continue reading “Hosekidori: Tokizawa Akiko”