Sokuseki Bijin no Tsukurikata: Akiko Higashimura

SokusekiBijin_HIgashimura

It’s still Women in Translation month! So many women, so much translation! Where to find the time to read all the great books people are suggesting?? I probably never will, given that the shelf of unread books at my house has spread like some terrible fungus out onto an end table, which is now stacked dangerously high with books that I have acquired for my brain to battle one of these days. I love the fact that I get to read books for a living, but sometimes, I look at the spreading encroachment of paper crawling out of the bookshelf and across my apartment, and I despair. There will never be enough time to read them all. This is how I face the fact of my own mortality: by slowly coming to truly understand that I will never read all the books, that there will always be unread books on that shelf/end table/floor/everywhere.

But for the time being at least, my brain and I are very much alive! And that means we continue to beat back the tide of unread books, undaunted! And in keeping with the “women who have been translated into English, but I am reading a nontranslated book” theme we started last week with Sakuraba’s Jigokuyuki, my brain thought it might be nice to take a look at shojo/josei manga star Akiko Higashimura, author of the hilarious and beautiful Princess Jellyfish and Tokyo Tarareba Girls. Those series are both being translated into English, and you should definitely pick them up. You will laugh, you will cry, you will feel some major feels. You could also watch the drama they made of Tokyo Tarareba Girls earlier this year. It’s pretty great! Continue reading

Testosterone Rex: Cordelia Fine

testoWith TCAF being this very weekend (come check it out! I will be at the Queer Mixer along with new footage from the Queer Japan film that we will show you! </shameless self promotion>), you’d think my brain would be one hundred percent comics all the time these days. And it mostly is! The other day, I devoured So Pretty/Very Rotten by Jane Mai and An Nguyen, a satisfyingly thick volume of comics and essays on Lolita fashion that I very much enjoyed. But An is a friend of mine, so I would feel weird about going on here about how great her book is. (But it is, though! You should read it. Also, if you’re in town for the big comics party, there’s a related art show at the Japan Foundation, and Jane and An will be talking about the book on Sunday moderated by yours truly. You should come! </shameless self + friend promotion>) I also read Canis the Speaker, and I have many thoughts, but my brain is still processing them. We work slowly.

But when I saw a new Cordelia Fine book on the shelf on my local bookseller, I couldn’t not pick it up. I loved her snarky takedown of gender constructions in Delusions of Gender, and Testosterone Rex with its subtitle of Myths of Sex, Science, and Society promised to deliver more of the same. And it does! This time, rather than straight up gender constructs, Fine tackles the myths surrounding testosterone and the idea that this hormone runs rampant in the male half of the species, creating this uncrossable divide between men and women. Unsurprisingly—and spoiler alert—she finds that all of this is pretty much garbage in a bunch of different ways. Continue reading

i: Kanako Nishi

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Every so often, a book mirrors my own existence to the extent where it freaks me out slightly. Maybe it’s the surface details, maybe it’s the protagonist’s inner life, maybe it’s the world she lives in, but there are books that send a bit of a shiver up my spine when I think about how much I relate to them. The first book I remember being wholeheartedly and unstintingly devoted to in this way was the Trixie Belden series. Her poverty, her tomboyishness, her love of animals, her admiration of Honey’s beautiful blond hair, I saw myself in all of it. (Not so much in the farm part of her existence, being a lifelong city girl, but we pick and choose what to identify with in our art.) Then there was She Came to Stay, the book that swallowed my identity when I was nineteen or so. Ever since, there have occasionally popped up these sorts of books which make me gasp and look around my apartment for the secret cameras reaping the minute details of my life.

I never expected to have that feeling with a Japanese novel, given the many differences in my life and upbringing, and the way things happen on this side of the ocean. And yet. Here we are. A book whose protagonist is a foreigner living in Japan who speaks the language fluently and studies theoretical mathematics in university. A book whose title in fact, derives from those very mathematics. Seriously. The first line of the book is “There is no i in this world,” and our heroine gasps. This reader also gasped. The “i” the speaker is referring to is the imaginary number i, the square root of -1, a number and a world view I have spent a large part of my life with. But it’s also the name of our stunned protagonist. Ai. Her parents gave her this name in katakana, rather than assigning the kanji normally associated with it, to leave room for all the possible interpretations. The most obvious of which would be the word “love”, which is often a name for girls. So we have a hero whose name is caught in a Schrodinger-style uncollapsed wave of “love”, “imaginary number”, “English first person”, and more. And she herself is caught in a similar uncollapsed wave. Continue reading

Monstress: Marjorie Liu/Sana Takeda

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Dang! It has been a very long time since an English book has graced this space. I’ve spent so much time in Japan this year (and am about to fly back across that ocean yet again!) that I haven’t actually had the chance to read much stuff in English. Most bookstores in Tokyo don’t have books in English, and when they do, they’re way more expensive than books in Japanese or those same books in English in a bookstore in Canada. But then there is not the same abundance of bookstores in Toronto that there is in Tokyo, so when I’m on this side of the ocean, it’s a bit more difficult for me to randomly encounter interesting books.

So I suppose it’s not surprising that I ran across this particular English book in Tokyo. The encounter was random, but my interest in it was not. The corner of the internet I inhabit has been aflutter with Monstress since the first issue, and I was very intrigued with what I was hearing about it. But much like I find reading a chapter a month in a manga magazine annoying, I also hate reading single issues of North American comics; I am one of those people that pretty much always waits for the trade paperback. So I made a mental note about Monstress and then studiously ignored all talk of it online for fear of ruining it for myself. But when the first volume of the trade came out this summer, I was, of course, in Tokyo.

However, being a city of weird magic, Tokyo brought the book to me! In the hands of one half of the creative team, Sana Takeda herself! Yes, I live a blessed comics life, friends. Through a series of convoluted associations and events, Sana ended up being a part of a Canadian comics event that I was working at in my capacity as OFFICIAL INTERPRETER for TCAF. As soon as I saw the short stack of the first trade on the table in front of her, I knew I was going to have to get a copy even though I was only a week away from flying back to Canada, and therefore very aware of how much stuff I had to cram into my luggage. But how often does the universe bring a book to you? You can’t just walk away from a gift like that. Especially since she was selling them for what amounted to the US retail price, a steal for a Canadian book buyer! And she kindly threw in issue seven on top of that! Sana Takeda is a pretty nice person, is basically what I’m saying here. Continue reading

The Vegetarian: Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)

812I+tp4jcLEven when I was little, I apparently understood that writing would never pay the bills. I went through a variety of day jobs, answers to the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question. The firm conviction that I would eventually be a writer was unshakeable, but on the side, I was also going to be a vegetarian veterinarian, among other career choices (including a ballerina briefly, until I started lessons with the mean-spirited Miss Pam). The two were inextricably linked in my young mind. You could not be a veterinarian without being a vegetarian, and vice versa. But then I found out that being a veterinarian meant that I would have to hurt animals (giving them shots, surgery, etc.), and I knew that I could never be a veterinarian. But the dream of vegetarianism lived on. I hassled my parents about it constantly, until they promised that I could stop eating meat when I turned thirteen. I think they thought I would lose interest. But I was laser focussed on never eating another animal, and so on my thirteenth birthday, I declared myself free of the horrible burden of meaty dinnertimes, and I never looked back.

But after moving to Japan, my own vegetarianism became an unexpected issue. This was back in the nascent days of the internet, so the information I had about my new country of residence was basically limited to whatever was in the Lonely Japan guide my friend gave me as a going-away present. And they were not super veg-focussed. So I was surprised to discover how vegetarian-unfriendly this country was (and still is). I was forced into a constant state of negotiation, just by living here. One of the first things I learned to say in Japanese was, “Does that have meat in it?” Even today, when the concept of vegetarianism is so much more widespread (albeit as a lady diet trend [ask to hear my rant about how even my choice of diet is gendered!]), I am still negotiating with servers, insisting on no ham on a vegetable pizza, asking for a shrimp-free tempura platter. (Although my language skills have advanced considerably, and I am more certain that the negotiations will result in food I can eat.) So naturally, given the amount of time I have spent thinking about this word, the title of the Korean novel The Vegetarian alone was enough to pique my interest.

As is my wont, I ignored the jacket copy and bought the book based on the title and the cover. The deeply disturbing cover. And as usual, the contents did not betray my snap judgement. (Seriously. Judge those books by their covers, people.) Continue reading

Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison

Scan 30The classics, you guys! I am dipping into them once again! I was actually reading this as part of my conscious focus on black writers for Black History Month (as opposed to my general tendency to focus on Japanese writers) (because of my job and everything), but we all know how very not timely I am with these write-ups. (And also how I don’t write up all the books I read. But that doesn’t mean they’re not good! In fact, The Book of Phoenix [which I read in February as well] is phenomenal! I would highly recommend it, and I may write about it here one of these days, when I have sorted my thoughts more.) So if it helps, just save this one for Black History Month next year. It will wait. It has already waited almost seventy years. A few more months won’t kill it.

But whether it’s for Black History Month next year or right damned now, you should probably read this one. Especially if you’re an American because dang! Not much has changed in your country in seventy years, friend. The one thing that really honestly shocked me about Invisible Man—and there is a lot to shock a person in these pages—is how spookily relevant it still is. A book written to reflect black status in America in 1952 should not read like it could have been written last week. Seriously. “His name was [spoiler] and he was black and they shot him. Isn’t that enough to tell? Isn’t it all you need to know?” It probably goes without saying that the “they” in question here are the cops. Continue reading

Waisetsutte Nan Desuka?: Rokudenashiko

Waisetsu_RokudenashikoWe all know by now that this is about the time of year I start rambling about TCAF, right? Because I take this interpreter thing seriously, and that means reading up on all the Japanese guests of the festival, so I don’t go all deer-in-the-headlights when I’m on stage with one of them. Last year, I got to hang out with Aya Kanno and talk to her about the series of hers that I’m translating, conversations which are still helping me with that translation. And this year, Shintaro Kago’s bringing his experimental style to Toronto, alongside Rokudenashiko, who is experimental in a different kind of way.

In case you don’t recognize the name, just google “vagina boat artist”. Yes, Rokudenashiko has been making headlines for the last year or two because of her arrest for making art from her vagina. And she wrote some books about it! The first one Waisetsutte Nan Desuka? is debuting in English at TCAF as What is Obscenity?, translated by Anne Ishii of gay manga and apparel movers and shakers Massive. So hooray! I’m finally talking about a book that you monolinguals can read too!

Rokudenashiko is also featured in the documentary Queer Japan about ye olde LGBTQ life in the land of the rising sun, talking about her pussy and her arrests. So it is double disclosure time: not only do I work for TCAF, I am also working on that documentary. But I promise I am being entirely unbiased when I say that it is going to be a great film, and you should totally support it on Kickstarter and get a signed copy of What is Obscenity?. Or one of the many other amazeball rewards (including limited edition signed prints by Genogoroh Tagame!!). Continue reading