Fun fact: I learned the word “mangekyo” long before I started learning Japanese, along with “tsuki ni kawatte oshioki yo” and “henshin”. So when I spotted the lovely cover of Tanizaki Mangekyo in the bookstore, my first thought was an unconscious, thrilled “Sailor Moon!” This collection of short stories has nothing to do with that pretty sailor soldier, however. And yet every time I see the title, I start singing that song to myself. (I still sing it at karaoke with J-peeps. Nothing like singing anime songs in Japanese to knock J-socks off!)
My second thought, based solely on the erotic reveal of Asumiko Nakamura’s lady on the cover, was that this was a collection of erotic/definitely R-rated stories and therefore I should refrain from reading this volume on the train. Some salarymen might be cool with reading rape-y naked lady stories during their commute, but I like to keep my public manga reading PG. So this sat around for a couple weeks, waiting for a slot in my house reading schedule. And when that slot finally opened up and I actually read the obi, I realized that this is a collection of manga adaptations of stories by famed Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki. And while he is known for his “destructive erotic obsessions” (thank you for that turn of phrase, Wikipedia editor), none of these stories is particularly dangerous to read on the train. Continue reading
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
WARNING: Potentially controversial opinion ahead! Are you ready? Are you sure? Okay, here it is then…
I find the type of literature that receives accolades and awards in Canada to be very earnest and generally in a similar vein. I think everywhere in the English-speaking world, “serious” books tend to be favoured with the “serious” term “literature”, and that books written by men or books written about men or both tend to be deemed “serious literature”. But I feel like Canada has its own narrow and particular version of “serious literature”, and if someone is not living some kind of hard-scrabble life in the pages of your novel, you are not going to win the Governor General’s Award or even Canada Reads. There must be hard times or else how can we know it’s literature?
And this, friends, I find deeply boring. I don’t think you need Hard Times™ to make a work of fiction that is meaningful and relevant and life-changing. I even think that genre fiction is just as serious and meaningful as “literary” fiction. I know, I know. I hear you all out there, gasping and clutching your pearls. But I promise you, the way Ancillary Justice uses language to break down conceptions of gender is just as real and meaningful as the sparse economy of The Vegetarian in revealing the fundamental contradictions in the way society treats women. Continue reading
Hot off her win for the Naoki Prize, Nishi brings us a tale of a child unwilling to grow up in a small nowhere town surrounded by a bunch of weirdos. When I got to the bit about how everyone is in everyone else’s business, complete with widely known secret love affairs, I thought that maybe I was reading Gyokou no Nikuko-chan from the perspective of the child of the man the titular Nikuko has an affair with. I was honestly baffled by the very strong resemblance to the last novel I read by Nishi.
To be fair, she’s written five other books between that one and this one, including the previously mentioned Naoki Prize winner Saraba!, but it just happened that I read none of those in-between books, so the similarities between Makuko and Nikuko were perhaps more startling to me than many of her other readers. Although who knows, maybe her last five books also feature children growing up in small-town Japan as their protagonists, and Nishi is in a rut she might want to jump out of already.
Fortunately, those big picture details that make Makuko so similar to Nikuko are surface things for the most part, and a dozen or so pages in, I was engrossed in this story without constantly wondering if it was a new part of that story. There are still a lot of the same themes that came up in Nikuko: grown-ups are bullshit, but it’s okay because everyone is bullshit in a different way; childhood is a weird and difficult place where it’s hard to be who you are and still exist in the world in any capacity; Nishi is again using childhood as a stand-in for life in general. But she’s also reaching further in a different direction, pushing us to survive, to see the beauty in this world and ourselves, the beauty in the fleeting pain of our existence. This book is basically two hundred and fifty pages of sakura blossoms. Continue reading
Even 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
The 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
I always come back from Japan in the middle of winter, which is maybe not the best time to come back. Because one day, I am basking in the mild winter temperatures of Tokyo and later that same day, I am plunged into the icy tempest of Toronto. Which just sends me scurrying into my apartment and vowing not to come back out until April. Fortunately, my apartment in Toronto is a lot bigger than my place in Tokyo, and I have all my books here. And hibernating is a piece of cake as long as I have something to read.
So I locked myself up in my tower and have been waiting for winter to end, checking the temperature in Tokyo every so often and sighing. And when you are hibernating, or at least when I am hibernating, comics don’t quite do it. I want to sit down with a novel—a long-ish one preferably—and fall away into another world where the view is not whited out with snow. The cosiness of curling up under a blanket on the sofa with some tea and a new novel can never be overstated. Hibernating at its best. Made impossibly better by Kanako Nishi. (I’ll save my bewildered rant wondering why she hasn’t yet been published in English, but you know I have one at the ready.) Continue reading