i: Kanako Nishi


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


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

Otomen: Aya Kanno

Otomen_cvr_01_FINAL.inddTCAF! It happened! I’m not dead! All three are cause for celebration. As is the fact that I was able to find my way back to my own personality after an intense week of interpreting. Day after day of speaking for someone else tends to bring about an identity crisis in me. I have all these conversations with so many people, but I am not actually a participant in any of them; I’m just a voice. I always find this middle ground between two languages and two people to be such a strange place, especially given that the conversations I assist literally pass right through me. I generally have no recollection of anything anyone said. I’m too busy talking for everyone in the room to spend any energy on remembering what anyone said.

Which is why I’m glad I got to spend some time outside the interpreting context with TCAF guest and Otomen author Aya Kanno. At dinners, parties, a trip to Niagara, all the many extra-festivular events we took part in, I got the chance to have a tiny bit of self and hear her considered ideas on her work and gender and her growth as an artist, on top of the usual casual conversation you might expect to have at such extra-festivular events. One particularly interesting discussion we fell into was in relation to translation and the usage of words. I’m translating her latest work Requiem of the Rose King (which I will not be discussing here, given the obvious conflict of interest, but it is pretty amazeballs and I would totally recommend it if only for the adorable boar), and it was the first time she had had the chance to talk with a translator of her work (and my second time being able to talk with the author of a work I translated) (est em, in case you’re wondering). So we spent our time in the green room before panels talking about words and Shakespeare and the nuances of translation. Continue reading

Watashi no Naka no Otoko no Ko: Nao-Cola Yamazaki


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. Continue reading