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I got a pretty sweet book haul this Christmas (and a bottle of oyster vinegarette – books and oysters, my two favourites!)

I hope everyone has had as equally wonderful a Christmas season as I have ❤

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“Sometimes,…our ignoble desire to read private letters is matched by a letter-writer’s ignoble desire to be read.”

I used to send my first ex-boyfriend postcards from each new city I visited, for quite a while after we stopped seeing each other  – unsigned, of course; a dramatic moment never passes me by.  I’d usually get a coy text message in response, “someone’s been sending me mail, I wonder who that could be…”

Cute, right? Vomit inducing. But I still wonder what happened to those postcards, even now nearly a decade on – are they tucked away in a drawer somewhere? Were they read and chucked straight in the bin? Were they even read, and I mean read, those short lines I’d imbued with so much meaning?

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A postcard I sent to my parents from NY. It still holds pride of place on their fridge.

And there is meaning in hand-written communication; the particular weight that time, thought, and effort offers up, that can’t be replicated by any other means – emails and text messages are but pixels; even a typed, printed letter doesn’t quite have the same power as something hand-written.

imageIt’s this power that John O’Connell explores in his book, For the Love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication, published 2012.

I don’t generally like light history books; I tend to find them a bit toothless in both content and analysis, and a bit forced in their attempts to be airily amusing. The blurb on For the Love of Letters’ dust jacket made it sound like just that kind of book, but I’m glad I worked through my initial cringe and read it anyway. O’Connell is not only genuinely witty and deeply knowledgable about the history of letters, but the deeply personal context of the book set it apart for me.

The book opens with O’Connell preparing to pen a reply to a letter of condolence, hand-written and sent by a friend following the death of O’Connell’s mother; and closes as he completes his reply – a copy of which is included as an epilogue, a touch which adds a particular legitimacy to the narrative. What happens between is an agile trip through the history of letters, from the rhetorical theory set out by Isocrates around 400 BC, the origin of the modern postal system, to famous letter writers and styles – love letters, advisory letters, letters confronting death.

It’s light history, light philosophy, and light humour, but it’s the personal and charming elements of the book that make it a satisfying read – it feels far more like having a conversation with an old friend than anything else.

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I’m always interested in how people attempt to shore up their lives against time, the kinds of precautions we all take to safeguard our experiences against the unsympathetic eye of reality and history, so I am likely the kind of reader O’Connell imagined appreciating his book.

…the reason we write letters is the main reason we write anything: to convert the chaos of our lives into solid, time-locked narrative.
The writing of narrative, any kind of narrative, helps us stay sane by convincing us that we are stable, autonomous individuals moving smoothly through the world. (p. 22)

Perhaps I’ll spend this holiday season writing some letters of my own.

There’s plenty of things I miss about living in Japan, but pretty high on the list is book shopping. Hard-copy books and brick-and-mortar book stores still occupy a space in Japanese life that they sadly no longer do in other countries (like Australia, unfortunately). Even though I was only back in Japan for a two week holiday this time around, with a tightly scheduled itinerary (…well, tightly scheduled stumbling from bar to restaurant to bar to late night ramen), book shopping was still high on the priority list.

Straight white men are sadly overrepresented in my bookshelf, and I make a point to seek out and support writers that aren’t straight, white, or male. I do have a particular interest in the experiences of women, so I was excited to discover Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women by Kittredge Cherry waiting for me on a Fukuokan bookshelf.

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Cute dust-cover.

Womansword is a collection of short essays on the context, use, and implications of a number of common Japanese words and phrases relating specifically to the experience of womanhood in Japan.  The words are collected loosely into themed chapters – childhood, work, domestic life, sexuality, and ageing. 

Some of the terms included in the book are hilarious, and probably going to make their way into my speech. One such fantastic term is gokiburi teishu – or “cockroach husband”. As Cherry notes, “what could be more useless, annoying, and downright repulsive than a cockroach in the kitchen? A husband in the kitchen…” – not the most fair, modern, or accurate take on the division of domestic duties, but justified by the idea “that meal preparation actually takes longer with the ‘help’ of any inexperienced cook”, and that the kitchen was traditionally one of the only places that women felt “no pressure to bolster the male ego” (p. 58).

Cherry also explains the structure of the kanji characters used for many of the words and phrases. For example, the character for woman (女) repeated three times forms a character which means cunning or wickedness (姦). This character forms part of the verb “to seduce” or “to rape” (姦する), or part of the adjective “noisy” (姦しい). Charming. As Cherry notes, “there is no character composed of three male ideograms”, the implication of this being “that a trio of men getting together is nothing remarkable.” (p. 26)  While the commentary on the ideograms used in Japanese is particularly interesting if you have a knowledge of Japanese (and would have been really helpful while I was studying!), the explanations are both clear and succinct enough to be interesting to anyone with an interest in how languages work.

While the book is focused on the specific experience of Japanese women in Japan through the lens of Japanese language, many of the issues described in the book parallel the experience of woman worldwide, from the silly to the serious – clashes with mothers-in-law (p. 133), the struggles of infertile women (p. 90), the difficulties of finding equal work for equal pay (p. 103).  I started writing this review a fortnight ago, in a very different state of mind. Japan could certainly do better by women, but the recent US presidential election has proven that plenty of places can do better by women. I also believe that it’s white ignorance and complacency that leads to so many problems. I’m certainly not ignorant of the privileges I enjoyed living in Japan as a white, Australian woman; that as an outsider I had a wider degree of latitude to say and do things that other women don’t have, especially at difficult times. The only way forward is to understand where our own privileges lie in a system that benefits certain populations over others; and when not challenging that systematic privilege, to use it to bolster those who don’t share it.

Anyway. Womansword was first released in 1987 and reissued in 2002. The updated introduction to the 2002 edition notes a number of the cultural and legal changes in Japan since the book was first published – broader sexual harassment and child abuse laws, rising numbers of single mothers, and controversy surrounding the legalisation of the contraceptive pill – but the content of the book remained (as far as I can tell) unchanged. Unsurprisingly, the book is now somewhat dated, but remains nonetheless a fantastic read – especially to see what has (and hasn’t) changed.

One part that tickled me, and that I had never heard of before, was door-to-door condom saleswomen, known as “skin ladies”: I thought that this was surely too weird to be true to any great extent (rare to say regarding Japan), but it was actually a thing, from the end of World War 2 to the early/mid 80s!

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Definitely better to buy door-to-door than from this nasty condom vending machine on the streets of Kyushu… including super racist packaging!

I was pretty happy to learn that a 30th Anniversary Edition of Womansword is due to be published later this November (it’s already added to my Christmas list…) While some online reviews of the forthcoming edition note some of the more recent inclusions – Prime Minister Abe’s “womanomics”, and the term “x-gender” for people who identify as non-binary or genderqueer, for example – it’s hard to tell exactly how much has been updated. But given the speed at which Japanese slang emerges and morphs (and the changes in legal and social attitudes to women in the last 30 years, of course), I would like to think that a significant amount of the book has been updated. I can’t wait to find out!

 

Because she wanted everything, and it seemed to her she had nothing. She wanted what was certainly not too much to ask of even a grudging world: a home, another husband, another child. …the second child, when its small image took shape for her as she lay on the studio couch in her apartment… was to be a beautiful, talented, charming, healthy, thoroughly wonderful replica of herself. And of course, to be happy; that was what she wished most for it; not deliriously happy, she was much too realistic, she told herself, to expect that; but happy, quietly happy, beautifully happy, genuinely happy. Wasn’t that little enough to ask? A world notoriously ungenerous could hardly refuse her that. The secret was, of course, to extend toward the invisible benefactor always a diffident palm. Besides, she was beautiful. Men, who said almost everything to her, and if she knew them long enough eventually the truth, always said to her that she was beautiful: it was something she remained for them, always, no matter how many other things she stopped being. Then why was everything so difficult? Why did the diffident palm return empty? Why were the alms she asked, the simple alms, refused her? Why, being beautiful, and why, being young, and why, being faithful and reasonably good and reasonably passionate, was it so hard to gouge out of the reluctant mountain her own small private ingot of happiness?

– p. 14-15, In Love, Alfred Hayes

But in my fancy, the owner [of the cafe]… must surely be a man, perhaps the woman’s husband or someone she lived with. Perhaps consumed with jealousy he had shut himself off behind the wall. Imagining the eyes of the customers creeping over his wife’s body, he was surely agonizing behind the wall. Perhaps there was a peephole somewhere in the wall through which he secretly observed the customers. Otherwise, there was no need for her to be perched like a bed, her legs exaggeratedly crossed, on the high, round stool which had been installed in front of the counter… She was worth being jealous of. Even I, who had no relationship with her at all, could only be jealous – in spite of myself.

Of course, if I could remove the wall, things would be resolved at once. … Without the wall the girl’s performance would at once appear rather artificial, and depending on the man’s attitude, quite comical. Of course, the price would be high.  Her worth would be reduced by half at least. On consideration, her being worth jealousy was a part of her value, and it would be a severe loss. Regardless of who was responsible for the performance on the stool the man would never give up his own place. He is compensated in his own way by locking jealousy behind the wall with its agonizing thoughts.

– p. 281-282, The Ruined Map, Kobo Abe

“Behind my closed eyes, all turned lemon-yellow…bright with lemon-yellow, luminous with the light reflected…”

Nemuro Hiroshi has been missing for six months. His wife, who has since become an alcoholic and no longer leaves her apartment, has hired a private detective.

A matchbox.
A phone number.
A newspaper and a raincoat.
A simple hand-drawn map of a train station.

The detective has few clues with which to start his investigation. The wife’s brother has been investigating since the disappearance, but refuses to offer the detective anything he’s discovered.

Kobo Abe’s The Ruined Map (燃え尽きた地図) starts as a fairly standard mystery novel, with all the usual film-noir trappings – the hard-boiled detective, the femme fatale wife, the seedy criminal overtones. As the book (and the investigation) develop, however, the detective finds himself descending deeper into existential and psychological torment, as his sense of his own identity starts to blur with that of the man he is searching for.

She seated herself on the same chair as last night, although it was now in a somewhat different position, and the line of demarcation between the bookshelves and the lemon-yellow curtains now fell to the level of her right ear, as fragile as china, ruined with rough handling.  I suppose some men would feel protective toward it, while others might be carried away by the desire to break it into pieces. Which type was the husband? I wondered.
(p.  127)

The missing husband, the catalyst of the investigation, remains an ephemeral character throughout the book; never becoming much clearer than a shadow.

“He was fond of licenses. He had a kind of license mania, I guess. He even carried two driver’s licenses – one for second-class trucks. And besides that, he was a radio operator, and electric welder, and a handler of explosives…. He also had a movie projectionist’s license and a secondary teacher’s license…”
“If I could read the [husband’s] dairy, perhaps I can get some general idea of what sort of dreams your husband had.”
“Dreams?”
“For instance, did he dream of the sea, or something like that?”
“My husband is a very matter-of-fact man. When he became section head he was very happy because he had somehow stopped sliding down the slope of life.”
“But he did leave you, didn’t he.”
“It wasn’t because of his dreams. He used to say licenses were the anchor of human life.”
“Using so many anchors for such a small boat certainly puts him in the category of dreamers, doesn’t it? If he didn’t use them he’d float away.”
She slowly returned the glass, which she had raised to her lips, to the table and fell into silence as if her thoughts were someplace else.
(p. 134-137)

Like Abe’s other books, The Ruined Map is slow; fever-like and unsettling. I found myself doubling back, doubting my own understanding (perhaps Abe should be read with a clear mind, rather than over a few beers, but I certainly enjoyed prefer my way of reading!)

Abe’s books may not always be easy or comfortable reading, and will leave you with more questions than are answered. I’ve read three or four of Abe’s books so far, and none of them have had straightforward narratives, or neatly concluded endings – which I don’t consider a negative, but it can be quite unsettling if you’re expecting tidy answers. What Abe does incredibly well is unreliable narration, nightmare-ish urban landscapes, truth, the experience of time, and questions of identity – particularly the tenuous grip most of us have on our own.

The client is always right. Even if he tells a lie, for instance, if he says it’s the truth the truth it is.  But the facts were no longer necessary, it was even unreasonable to demand only motives and omit the facts….I keep circling at a distance round senseless facts, trying to explain the unexplainable.
(p.138)

“If I hadn’t clung so to my preconceptions, if I had kept myself at the same level with him without deciding from the first that he was a wall obstructing my view, he might have surprised me by changing from a wall into a door, through which he might have invited me in.

Of course, the wall was no more. And with it the possibility of a door had vanished too.”

– p. 144, The Ruined Map, Kobo Abe