Have you guys noticed how many great books there are? There are so many great books! I have to read so many books for my job that every so often, I forget that books are great because it is a job and it can be a chore. So then I will start grumbling to myself about how I have to read all these stupid books (even though they are generally pretty great books I am reading for this job of mine), and that is when I know it is time to recharge my reader self. By reading books, of course! But not work books. When I start feeling annoyed at the reading part of my job, I go to the shelf of unread books and pull something made of pure joy from it. A book that I do not have to read for my job, but rather one I have to read because it is just too great not to read. Ancillary Sword, the sequel to Ann Leckie’s magnificent Ancillary Justice, was recently one such book (and maybe I will write about that or maybe I will wait for the third book and discuss overall thoughts on the trilogy). Another was Nao-Cola Yamamzaki’s equally delightful Watashi no Naka no Otoko no Ko (The Boy Inside Me).
I actually read this one back when it came out in 2012 because I love Yamazaki’s writing, and any book with a title like that is just pandering to my interest in explorations of gender. I honestly don’t know why I didn’t write about it then; maybe I was in a deadline crunch? At any rate, I am writing about it now. I had a meeting earlier this month (about books, of course), and this title came up. And then suddenly, the whole book came flooding back to me, and I knew that I needed to read it again. I knew that it was one of those great books that reminds me of all the reasons I love reading and the fact that I get paid to read for a living.
Yamazaki is one of those writers who makes me wish I could write anything half as good as what she produces. She’s funny and insightful and has the weirdest eye for detail that makes everything seem so real and dreamy at the same time. Only a few pages in, she has protagonist Yukimura explaining how she assumes that once she makes her debut as a professional romance author, she will become a man and find her one great love. She has no expectation of life as a woman. All the authors she read writing about romance and love were men; thus, in the great love she imagined for herself, she was a man. And basically the whole book is her being confronted by the fact that she is a woman and how she wants to deal with that. Yamazaki shies away from tidy conclusions of any sort; Yukimura’s not trans, but she’s not comfortable with the version of woman she is expected to be and is very into embracing both her masculine and feminine selves.
Although there are many things about Watashi no Naka that make me sigh dreamily and hug the book to my chest, one thing I relate so hard to is the sense of normalcy that permeates the entire thing. Normalcy from Yukimura’s perspective, I mean. It is a thing a friend and I have often discussed: how we feel normal until we go outside and interact with other people. I think everyone maybe feels like this, even if they don’t spend hours talking about it with their friends? There’s this sense of normalcy around how you do things, the family you grew up in, the way you were raised, because that is all you know. And then you meet other people and contrast your life with theirs, and discover abruptly, to your occasional shock, that you are weird. Not everyone’s family eats pancakes for supper, not everyone keeps their almonds in the fridge. And when Yukimura’s first novel is published, she discovers she is weird, although she doesn’t phrase it like that.
She learns that she is a woman by the persistent labelling of her in the media as a “woman writer”. And then she is unable to forget her gender ever. No matter where she goes or what she does, someone is there to remind her that she is of the lady parts persuasion. And although she is forced to concede her womanliness when it comes to her physical self, she is determined not to lose that battle for her writer self. She gets her editor (a handsome guy) to be her stand-in in photos, insists on more masculine covers for her books, and generally tries to build a reputation as being an author of “ambiguous gender”.
Yamazaki doesn’t flinch in the face of complexity. Yukimura’s feelings about herself and the world she finds herself in are messy and sometimes contradictory, changing over the course of the fifteen or so years of her life in the novel. In a trip to Nepal, she comes to really embrace the idea of existing without being seen, that idea of being normal when you’re by yourself and no one’s looking. She moves through affairs, friendships, unrequited love, finding her footing as she continues to churn out her books and grows to see herself in new ways, fine-tuning her appearance as she does so that the person she is inside and the person she is outside grow closer together.
I kept thinking about Kawakami’s Subete Mayonako no Koibito-tachi while I was reading Watashi no Naka again. There’s something really similar in the tone, given that both books are essentially narrations of a woman’s life, about women who rebuild themselves in a way. And they came out just months apart, so maybe there was something in the air back then. But Watashi no Naka’s Yukimura feels like the person hiding inside of Subete’s Irie. Like if Irie had just been able to be honest with herself when she was nineteen, she would’ve travelled the weird and difficult path of her heart to a different life than the uncomfortable downward spiral she marches through in Subete. So, uh, be true to yourself, I guess?