Picnic in the Storm: Yukiko Motoya (Trans. Asa Yoneda)

stormPeople have been telling me for ages that I should read Yukiko Motoya, that I would enjoy her quirky, magically realistic style. So she has been on my reading list for some time now, and yet I never manage to get around to reading her work. I always have so many other things to read! Things that were on the list first, things I need to read for work, things written by authors who are already my favourites which means they are naturally higher up on my list of reading priorities. So Motoya never seemed to get a foothold in my reading world.

And then I went to London earlier this year to talk to people about manga and translation, a thing I do for free on Twitter, so I was more than a little surprised than anyone would actually pay me to do it, much less fly me across an ocean. But they did, so I jumped on a plane to tell some British people why manga is important and interesting as a genre in itself and what the challenges in translating it are. (Spoiler: It has a lot to do with the pictures part of the equation.) The festival was mostly a celebration of fiction without pictures, though, so I was surrounded by great authors and amazing translators for a week, which was such a treat. I got to hear about so many interesting books and translation projects and challenges from people doing fascinating work in the world of Japanese art and literature. It was like I was living all books all the time. I very much recommend the experience Continue reading “Picnic in the Storm: Yukiko Motoya (Trans. Asa Yoneda)”

Karasu wa Aruji o Erabanai: Chisato Abe

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I often get annoyed at works of fiction in any medium that feature an almost exclusively male cast. Where are the women? Girls? Who is producing all the men in this strange world? They baffle me, these worlds without women. As I’ve said before, there are only two situations in which I will accept a startling lack of women: boys’ boarding schools and men’s prisons. These are places where the population necessarily lists male-heavy. Any other setting in a world of human beings better have some women who say something and are part of the action in a significant way or I am walking away.

But I have at last discovered a third world in which a mostly male cast is entirely acceptable: Heian-style segregated imperial court. After the first volume of the Yatagarasu series Karasu ni Hitoe wa Niawanai, which was pretty much all ladies all the time, Karasu wa Aruji wo Erabanai presents the men’s side of the story. And not in a #NotAllMen kind of way. Abe simply rewinds time in a way, bringing her readers back to the beginning of Hitoe and retelling the story of that entire time period from the perspective of the men involved in the story. And since the court in this world (and in the flowery bygone days of a long-ago Japan) is mostly segregated by gender, the story of the men mostly involves men, much like the story of the women mostly involved women. Continue reading “Karasu wa Aruji o Erabanai: Chisato Abe”

Karasu ni Hitoe wa Niawanai: Chisato Abe

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After several months of flying around the world because I am apparently a jetsetter now—but only an economy class one, so it’s all very uncomfortable and cramped—I have returned to my home and native land (have we not changed the lyrics to that song yet? That is some seriously settler style stuff there) only to discover that it is cold and unpleasant here. A discovery I make upon my return every winter. A discovery which makes me reconsider my life choices and ponder a permanent move across the ocean to Tokyo where we simply play pretend at winter. All those Canada Goose jackets! For temperatures that almost never go below zero! How charming!

Happily, however, this freelance life means I can do my job anywhere as long as I have my trusty computer, and anywhere includes never leaving my apartment because it is too cold and gross outside. And never leaving my house means all that time I save on actually going places and seeing people, I can devote to reading all those books I keep buying to trap myself in a pleasant circular hell of never being able to read all the books I buy. But not all of those books are bought! Knowing that I have certain proclivities, pretty much anyone and everyone in my life gives me books when faced with the challenge of what to get me for some special occasion or no occasion at all.

Which is how I came into the possession of the six books of Chisato Abe’s Yatagarasu series. I’ve been wanting to dig deeper into science fiction and fantasy by women authors in Japan both because there is a dearth of these very books in translation into English and because I just really love SFF and want to find new stuff to tease my eyeballs with. And wow, if you want something new in your SFF reading diet, you are probably going to want to check out Hitoe. Here’s the elevator pitch: Heian era bird people. Game of Thrones meets Tale of Genji. With crows. Who are people.

The gifter of these books suggested that I start with volume three since the first two books are basically dressing the windows, mostly world building and not much action. But personally, I especially want my fantasy to be heavy on the world building; I want to dig deep into my new fictional universe! So of course I started with volume one, Hitoe. And while it is indeed heavy on the world building, it does not lack for action.

Surveying the great mountain range, the god of the mountains decreed that there would be four families ruling over them—north, west, south, and east—along with one family to rule over all of them—Souke. We enter this world long after the god has made this declaration, and all five families are well established in their own ways. Tradition has it that each of the four directional families sends a daughter when the time comes to serve at court so that the imperial prince may choose a wife from among them. And the time has indeed come.

But the eastern house’s eldest daughter, the one who has been groomed since birth to be the future emperor’s bride, is stricken with smallpox and scarred only a few months before she is to go to the imperial palace. So it is the second princess who goes in her place, a naïve girl who was raised apart from the main palace in the east and knows little of the ways of the world. Including the fact that she could technically turn into a giant bird whenever she wanted. She’s basically the tutorial character in an RPG. Since she knows nothing about anything, everyone is forced to explain things to her. This could have been annoying in the hands of a less capable writer, but Abe is surprisingly skilled (this is her debut work), and the second princess is deeply sympathetic as the reader learns with her about the three other princesses there to compete for the prince’s affections and the court system they are a part of.

Since no men are allowed in the Sakura Palace where the four women have their own palatial lodgings, the story revolves almost entirely around the princesses and their many lady attendants. And while the idea of competing for a prince’s affections sounds pretty backwards, the women all have their own agency and political motivations, making this less a love story and more a political thriller with romance having zero to do with any of it. And indeed, in the book’s climax, the story is more murder mystery than fantasy. We learn all the secret machinations that pushed the different bits of the story forward and characters that seemed despicable at first become sympathetic in a constant upturning of everything the reader is invested in.

From a language nerd perspective, I love how Abe constantly shifts between names for the characters in a way that is easy to follow and yet still deeply meaningful. When we meet our ostensible protagonist (all the princesses get their time in the sun), she is known only as the second princess. It’s not until she gets to court that she receives what we would consider a name. And all the princess names are merely pseudonyms, placeholders until they marry and can reveal their true names. A revelation that is powerful in many ways in the case of one princess later on in the book. It’s like Abe’s toying with that old fantasy trope that names have power, but combining it with the Japanese tradition of different names for different aspects of your life.

The book is basically three hundred and seventy pages of court drama and intrigue in flowing kimono with incense recipes and hanabi parties and origami, against a backdrop of steep cliffs and rocky mountains navigated by people who can turn into birds, who are birds. It feels both familiar and utterly, surprisingly new at the same time. Don’t let anyone tell you to read the third book first. Start with volume one and get deep into all the twists and turns of this strange world of crow people. 

Heaven’s Wind: Angus Turvill (ed.)

heavenswind_img2.jpgFrom desert to snow to the gentle warmth of late fall in Tokyo, I have experienced a lot of weather in the last couple of weeks. And a lot of jet lag. My body clock may never recover, to be honest. I am not meant for this jet-set life; there’s a reason I’m a freelance translator and not, like, the head of an international house of couture. (I imagine they fly a lot? I don’t know. I work at home; I’m very out of touch with the world.) So I’m more than happy to settle into Tokyo life for the next few months. Especially happy to pick up on my Tokyo bookstore life and get all the brand-new manga that I’ve been watching appear from my Toronto apartment.

But there is still a backlog of books to deal with before we get to all that juicy new stuff. Like this lovely bilingual collection of stories released earlier this year by the Japan Society! I ordered it straight away, but since its arrival, it has languished in the shelf of unread books because of the many other books in the queue before it, the general overwhelming busy-ness of the last couple months of my life, and a vague sense that this was not the book I wanted to read at that time. Sometimes, a book will seem like the perfect book for the moment on paper, but when you actually pick it up, it feels wrong in your hands somehow. And when that happens, I always respect what the book and the moment are saying and turn my attention to a different book. If you’re not in the mood for that particular book, you end up not appreciating it and really wasting everybody’s time. Continue reading “Heaven’s Wind: Angus Turvill (ed.)”

Satsujin Shussan: Sayaka Murata

ShussanSatsujinOver a delicious vegan lunch one recent sweltering day, my Japanese counterpart (freelance translator of comics into Japanese, random arts interpreter, staunch feminist, fujoshi—we are basically the same person) brought up the idea of vulnerability in contrast to all the powerful posturing and random attacking that seems to happen both on- and off-line these days, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. It’s been nagging at me in a way I find hard to put into words exactly. We’re all pulling up our big kid pants and trying to front like we’ve got it together, or we’re on top of things, or we’re better than someone somehow, or just trying to act like we don’t cry during motivational sports commercials (it can’t be just me, right?) when maybe what we need is to step right off of that high horse and admit that we’re barely functional or lonely or in need of some actual help. (Note: This is not a cry for said help, so please don’t put your Cardigan of Worry on. At least not for me. Look around you, though. Someone might need a kind word or two on a postcard from you.)

Perhaps these thoughts are unconsciously steering my reading choices. I’ve been picking up books on people in vulnerable places, work that gives other people gentle and kind consideration, stories that not only dip into but linger in the sphere of the domestic. And this is perhaps where Sayaka Murata shines brightest. Although I loved her Akutagawa prize winner Conbini Ningen (now available in English translation! Run out and get it and support good books in translation!) and its convenience store setting, I’m perhaps even more besotted with her 2014 work Satsujin Shussan and its deep dive into the doubly vulnerable world of pregnancy and murder. Doesn’t get more precarious than life or death! Continue reading “Satsujin Shussan: Sayaka Murata”

Ningyo no Ishi: Seia Tanabe

Scan 13I’ve been sitting on this book for a couple months now because I couldn’t quite figure out what I thought about it. This happens to me more often than you’d think, given the generally strong opinions of which I am possessed. Forming those strong opinions takes time, and until I have really let something simmer in my brain, I can be pretty wishy-washy on a topic. And so it was with Seia Tanabe’s latest novel, Ningyo no Ishi. I liked it? Maybe? I didn’t hate it? I kept reading all the way to the end? But why? What was the point? Which isn’t to say the book isn’t good or isn’t worth reading. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on why it was worth reading.

I picked this one up because Tanabe’s been on my mind a lot recently. She’s married to science-fiction author/former physicist Toh EnJoe, and that pairing has always made me wonder what dinner is like at their house. I mean, she writes ghost stories; quiet, atmospheric things about yokai and bakemono that go bump in the night. And he writes ouroboric stories about space and the future and who knows what else because sometimes I feel like I am not smart enough to read EnJoe’s work. I can understand how the two met; the literary world in Japan is surprisingly small (much like the manga world), and it feels like everyone knows everyone else somehow. But how did they make it to marriage?? And what must that marriage be like?? Who knows, maybe they’re both super into rom-coms, and their respective writing interests just never come up. But I doubt that, given that they jointly published a collection of essays last year called Shodoku de Rikon o Kangaeta, which roughly translates to “We considered divorce through our reading.” Uh. Is all not well in the land of Tanabe/EnJoe? (Yes, I have that book, and yes, I will almost certainly write about it when I have finished it.) Continue reading “Ningyo no Ishi: Seia Tanabe”

Random Anniversary 4: My Brain

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Almost two years to the day since my brain last celebrated the end of a journal, a sign that me and my brain need to work on spending more time with our journal and less time on Twitter. But the gratification from Twitter is instant, while the journal is more of a slow burn, and present me always needs cookies right now, all too often to the detriment of future me.

What happened in these two years documented in a little purple notebook that I got in Singapore? Who knows?? The notebook in question is tucked away in my Toronto apartment, while my brain and I are here in Tokyo. Recent happenings that are most certainly included in the journal include interpreting at TIFF in September and for author Hideo Furukawa last month (reasons why posting here has been especially light), but further back than that, and my poor memory grows hazy. I was in Japan a lot last year? Maybe? I lectured a bunch of hapless university students in America about gender in translation? I had some birthdays and my body continued its relentless march towards our inevitable decline? Continue reading “Random Anniversary 4: My Brain”