This week I reviewed issue 32 of Crossed Genres for the month of August on Tangent Online Magazine. This issue features three stories on themes such as the emotional evocation of food, the blind strength of parental love, and our deep connections with deceased loved ones. “Where Do You Go to, My Lovely?” by Yusra Amjad, “Infinite Skeins” by Naru Dames Sundar, and “The Copperlin U.S. Post Office Manual” by Lauren Rudin can be read in the August 2015 issue of Crossed Genres. My review can be found at Tangent Online.
I love Sumikko Gurashi. These adorable little characters are just one set among San-X’s many popular icons. Chubby and round, these simply drawn cartoon animals scream, “I am cute, buy me!” In the already kawaii saturated Japan, they’re nothing special. Yet the characters of Sumikko Gurashi are a lot more complex than just a couple of cute faces. Underneath their button eyes and hopeful smiles is a surprisingly introspective commentary on the Japanese and their culture.
If everything in Japan has a mascot then the characters of Sumikko Gurashi are the icons of Japanese introversion. The name literally translates to “corner living,” referencing the characters’ love of being in the corner where it is calming. The characters of Sumikko Gurashi are the dictionary definition of kawaisou (pitiful). They’re shy, they’re self-conscious, and sometimes they pretend to be something they’re not because they’re not sure who they really are. But even though they represent character flaws, each one in its own way is so optimistic and so darling that you can’t help but love them. There’s something charming about a person (and by extension a culture) that can be open about the negatives as well as the positives. It makes them more endearing and trustworthy.
The reason for this could be similar to why we finding blushing individuals cute. Some scientists believe that blushing may be a non-verbal social communication to indicate our regret for messing up. The theory goes that when we make a social misstep, our involuntary blushing signals to observers that we understand we made a mistake and are sorry for it. People who blush are seen in a more positive light by their peers after the fact, giving some weight to this theory that blushing is a physical means to show genuine remorse.
If we think better of people who blush to show their contrition for a social mistake, perhaps we are also endeared to those who can admit they are flawed. That openness and honesty creates a trust bond through which further connections can be made. That San-X created Sumikko Gurashi as a commentary on some of the more negative traits in Japanese cultural personalities makes us, the observers (and consumers) look at them and sigh, “Aww, you’re not so bad, Japan,” followed by a lightening of the wallet. At least in my case.
Who are these blushing characters, wearing their hearts on their sleeves? There are many characters in the series but these are the ones I could find information on:
Neko (cat) is very shy. Actually, I’ve found this to be pretty typical of every cat I’ve come across in Japan, from the felines at the Cat Café to my own friends’ pets. I’ve yet to meet a single cat in Japan who wanted to interact with people. Sumikko Gurashi’s Neko loves to face inward into the corner, and shuns contact with other people.
The green penguin, Pengin? doesn’t know what he is, exactly, and honestly, neither did I when I first saw him. I thought he was a kappa (water goblin), and apparently so did he. He used to wear a plate on his head to make himself look more like a kappa, and I always see him pictured with cucumbers, a kappa’s favorite food. Pengin? is aware of his uncertain identity, and so punctuates his name with a question mark.
Tonkatsu is probably my favorite of the Sumikko Gurashi characters. Japanese tonkatsu is a breaded and deep fried pork cutlet, served as the main meat portion of a meal. The character Tonkatsu is a crumb, left over and forgotten after the whole tonkatsu meal has finished. Only his nose is actually meat, forever unwanted and uneaten. I told you the characters were pitiful. At least he has a friend—a little fried shrimp tail, also uneaten. (Who eats the tail of fried shrimp?)
Shirokuma the polar bear is very out of place among his kin. He likes warm things, and so ran away from the North Pole to warmer climates. He packed his things in Furoshiki (travel bag) another sentient character in the Sumikko Gurashi world. Shirokuma however, is still rather cold-hearted, and is afraid of strangers. You can find him sipping warm tea in the corner, alone.
Other minor characters include the tiny grey dust bunny who is just overjoyed to have other people in the corner with him, the left over tapioca balls at the bottom of the bubble tea cup, Nisetsumuri who is a slug wearing a snail shell for appearances, and Zassou, a weed who dreams of being in a beautiful bouquet. And the cast continues to grow: a lizard and a sparrow were also recently added.
Like most people approaching thirty who have a desperate desire to reconnect with childhood, I spend a lot of time in the toy store and there is no shortage of Sumikko Gurashi goods for me to buy. I now have a whole Sumikko Gurashi stationery set, ready to take with me to university when the time comes. (Don’t judge. If you could be in fifth grade again you would.)
In the end, we are all flawed beings. No one is perfect, and having a cute and cuddly character around to remind one of that fact is very comforting. If a shy cat, a socially anxious polar bear, a penguin in the grips of an identity crisis and a tonkatsu crumb can be adorable and sought after, then surely a thirty year-old with a perhaps unhealthy attachment to cute things can be as well.
Now that I’ve admitted one of my strange personality quirks, why not share yours?
Thomas the Rhymer, Ellen Kushner’s retelling of the myth of the 13th century Scottish laird, is a beautifully written fantasy fairytale, full of pastel prose, sweet poetry and cheeky, charming characters. While at this point I expect nothing less of Kushner’s writing, I’m still spellbound by her imagery and her ability to place me right beside the characters, no matter how fanciful the story is. There are no bloody battles or life or death struggles in this book, but nonetheless, Kushner makes her readers’ hearts pound with nothing more than the spooks and desires of the heart.
The book is split into four parts: the first part told by Gavin, a farmer in the Scottish countryside; the second by Thomas, the titular character; the third by Meg, Gavin’s wife; and the fourth by Elspeth, the ultimate retainer of Thomas’ wayward heart.
The story opens with Gavin and Meg sitting in their home one rainy night when they happen to receive and unexpected visitor. The young man at the door is travel worn, soaked through and in need of a fire and some rest. Within a short while they adopt the harper who is called Thomas into their home, care for him, feed him and listen to his outlandish stories. Of course they don’t believe half of them but he’s endearing enough that they don’t mind the embellishments. Thomas stays with them for a season before heading off back to the life of a traveling minstrel.
When he returns again months later, we meet Elspeth, a spirited young woman who lives near Gavin and Meg, and with whom Thomas takes a fancy. The two of them strike up a sort of cat and dog relationship in which the pleasure they receive from each other’s company is carefully hidden under the hissing, growling bickering their interactions tend to dissolve into. After staying for yet longer than before, Thomas heads off again, into the life of court favor, shiny gold rewards and lose noble women.
In this way he comes and goes, always seeming torn between the comfortable, quiet, settled life of Gavin, Meg and Elspeth, and the grand, flamboyant, debauched life of court. During his final visit to the country, however, Thomas seems to be on the cusp of making up his mind when a meeting with the supernatural changes his life forever.
So begins the second part of the book, with Thomas’s encounter with the Queen of Elfland. She has heard of his fame and offers to take him with her to Elfland for seven years of fairy court, food, music, sex—and silence. Thomas agrees with almost shocking haste, given his recent events with Elspeth, and off they go. During the journey, Thomas is given the rules of Elfland: he must not eat the fairy food and he must not speak to anyone but the Queen herself. Thomas is thrilled to be going to the place of his childhood dreams, and with so beautiful and royal a lover attending him, he thinks that the seven years won’t be nearly long enough.
Thomas is pampered by the Queen, and treated like a curious new pet by all the other members of Elfland court, but when he’s not playing in the days-long feasts, or sleeping with his royal lover, Thomas has altogether too much time on his hands. This puts him in conflict with Hunter, the Queen’s brother, who poses a riddle to Thomas and all but dares him to solve it. Thomas, who has taken an instant dislike to Hunter because of the siblings’ exchange over the life or death of a dove, can from that moment on, think of nothing but solving Hunter’s riddle, just to shove it in his face.
That selfish motivation quickly changes when Hunter’s target, the dove drinks a bit of Thomas’ spilt blood and reveals that it is the answer to Hunter’s riddle. Then it is only a matter of writing the best song he has ever sung, and bask in Hunter’s reaction at the defeat of his riddle. When the moment finally comes, Hunter literally erupts into flames, but since the victory is Thomas’ and his Queen’s, Thomas is permitted to have his wish, to give the dove his voice so that it may right the wrongs done to it in life as a mortal man. Thus, Thomas must serve out the rest of his seven years with no voice at all, not even to speak to his queen.
But when that time is over, when he’s finally brought to leave Elfland, the Queen gives him back his voice, along with a final boon of the tongue that cannot tell a lie. Not only must Thomas be entirely truthful with his spoken words, but he also gains the gift of prophesy, for good or for evil. And this concludes part two.
Part three brings us back to Meg and Gavin, now seven years aged and thinking their harper dead and gone for not seeing hide nor hair of him for all these years passed. So when Thomas comes knocking on their door again, changed yet unchanged and spouting the most fanciful stories of seven years in Elfland, Meg is naturally skeptical, and Gavin downright offended that after all this time, Thomas can’t do anything but hand them a pack of lies.
Nothing could be further from the truth, though, and after some painful absolution, Thomas is once again fully embraced by the couple. Of course, he also has to learn about the fate of Elspeth, who married a widower and now takes care of his young, screaming children at the cost of her sanity and happiness. This affronts Thomas who tries convince her to run away with him. Naturally, Elspeth is livid with him, though between fighting and wooing, wooing wins and in the end. Elspeth marries Thomas.
The book then skips years ahead in time to Elspeth, sitting with Thomas on his death bed. In this final part of the book she takes us back to some of their most notable adventures together, mostly centering around Thomas’ ability to read the future, and the success and heartache it brought them both. True to the original story, Thomas’ reunion with the Queen of Elfland is foretold by the sighting of two pure white deer, and Thomas is eased into death by his once lover, concluding the story in sorrowful sweetness.
At 258 pages, Thomas the Rhymer isn’t a long read, and is in fact sped up by the easily digestible prose. There were times when I had to stop reading and go back a few pages, just to re-absorb what I’d read, because I felt like I was getting through it too fast.
I loved the opening part, so much so that I felt a bit disappointed when the point of view switched in the second part. I had got to the point where I didn’t care about the adventures in Elfland, I just wanted to read more about Gavin and Meg and Thomas and Elspeth, all having their little micro-adventures. It didn’t take long for me to get into the Elfland arc, though, especially since Hunter is such an immediately intriguing character. (What can I say, I like them tall, dark, handsome and murderous.)
At times it felt like maybe Thomas knew some things that the reader didn’t. Perhaps it came from being unfamiliar with the real-life myths and ballads of Thomas the Rhymer, but things like who the ghost king at the well was, why Thomas immediately trusted him, and how Thomas was able to figure out certain rules at Elfland court were a bit inadequately explained for me.
I was also a bit disappointed by the reveal of Ermine, but only because after having the character invisible for so long my imagination drew up all sorts of images and fantasies, which I’ll just have to tuck away in the closet in my brain to giggle girlishly over in the future.
Finally, the inclusion of the last part of the book made me put it down for a little while before I could continue reading. I wasn’t ready to read about Thomas’ death, just then. I liked him far, far too much by that point to want him to go away forever. But Kushner writes deaths into her stories with wonderfully sweet emotion, and the death of Thomas the Rhymer is no exception. It was the beautifully painful closure the book needed, and though I wiped a tear away at the end, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy every word of it.
The next book on my reading list is Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E. Feist.
The wonderfully talented and incredibly hard working Alex Hurst has just released the first installment of her science fiction, illustrated novella series, ‘D.N.A.’ With beautiful, original illustrations, this superhero origin story is a perfect read for those sitting in between the next summer blockbuster. She’s having a give away on her blog right now, so if you’re interested, go check it out!
Originally posted on Alex Hurst:
In 2066, superheroes aren’t born; they’re made.
Nanotechnology has helped gene therapy reach new heights, but not everyone is granted access to treatment. Defending the powerless has fallen into the hands of Alta Williams, the only known survivor of a full nanoCell organ transplant and host to the mysterious program D.N.A. Alta, able to change her genetic code at will, can fight those who take advantage of the Non-Generation – but at what cost?
A few days ago, I finally got to release a novella I’ve been waiting to tell you about since April. D.N.A. is a serial novel concept that had been playing around in my mind for well over a year, when it was first released in Heroes & Villains (Writers’ Anarchy III). This edition has further edits, and a handful of beautiful illustrations from multimedia artist Kevin Nichols, who also did the cover art.
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Kyoto, more than any other major city in Japan, is teaming with living history. You can’t walk five minutes without bumping into a shrine, a temple, a historical landmark or someone dressed in traditional clothing. Kyoto prides itself on keeping close ties with its history, and this fastidious keeping to traditional festivals and pageants informs of that.
Some of the most exciting festivals to watch in Kyoto are the equestrian festivals: traditional horse races, mounted archery and acrobatics, all with a military or spiritual background–sometimes both. Admission is free and open to the public. You can read all about them all in my Taiken Japan article, here. Count them as just one of many must see events in Kyoto throughout the year.
This week I reviewed the fourth issue of Lontar, a speculative fiction journal out of southeast Asia. They publish poetry and prose under 10,000 words from southeast Asian authors, many of whom have won awards in their home countries and abroad. The subject matter varies through the science fiction spectrum, but the journal is an enjoyable read. Of the five prose stories included in the fourth issue, I reviewed four of them (Tangent doesn’t review reprints): the stories by Eliza Victoria, Andrew Cheah, Kate Osias, and Ng Yi-Sheng. You can find my review here.
If you’re interested in Lontar’s content and would like to support them, you can follow their blog here, and purchase this and the three previous issues of their bi-annual journal.
This week during my usual slate of time in which I do my best to lose all faith in humanity by perusing the Internet news, I read a blog post by Jane Marie who was denied a neck tattoo and, to put it mildly, was unhappy about it. In fact, she was so unhappy about it that she wrote a scathing rant against the artist, Dan Bythewood, in the tone of, “Can you believe this dickish man wouldn’t ‘let me’ have a neck tattoo?”
The crux of her displeasure is that she, being a near 40 adult female is perfectly capable of making her own decisions as to what to do with her own body. In this she is, of course, absolutely right. Where she is wrong is the assumption that her adult decision and a fistful of dollars entitles her to a tattoo. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t, and the belief that it does draws a line in the sand between the casually tattooed and the culturally tattooed—that is to say, those who treat tattoos as an accessory and those who treat them as a lifestyle.
Now here’s the thing: tattoo artists, being as diverse a group of people as anyone else, each have different ideological lines that they are willing to cross. This particular artist does not like to work on visible areas (hands, necks, faces) of people who are not already heavily tattooed, those who are not clearly invested in tattoos as a lifestyle. Which is fine, this is the position of lots of artists. There are also artists who are willing to cross that line in certain circumstances, as Jane Marie herself admitted. (She later went to an artist who had apparently worked on her before, who agreed to the neck tattoo after giving her a similar caution to the one Dan tried to express.)
Jane Marie wanting a neck tattoo as a casually tattooed 40 something isn’t a problem. Dan denying her the neck tattoo isn’t a problem. There wouldn’t have been a problem at all if the exchange had ended there. But instead of acting like the autonomous adult that she wishes to be respected as, Jane Marie took events to the next level.
She cried sexism:
Dan: “A neck tattoo on someone without a lot of tattoos is like lighting a birthday candle on an unbaked cake.”
Stunning analogy, right? I wonder: Does Dan know what an analogy even is? And then suddenly I’m fighting back tears because, as Dan has already correctly assessed, I’m just a feeble-minded, hysterical girl. And then I ask the next thing that pops into my head.
Me: “Would you say this to a guy?”
Dan luh-hiterally paused, looked askance, and said with a slight nod, unconvincingly, “Yeah.”
Then he asked if we were ready to get started on the other tattoos, and I was so infuriated I cannot remember exactly what I said but it was something to the effect of, “Are you fucking kidding me? I’m not going to give you money after that, let alone have you touch me or put art on my body!” And then we walked out.
Pause for face-palm.
Ok, I understand being upset and disappointed about not being able to do something you’re really excited about. We’ve all been there. But for a woman whose whole argument for getting the thing she was denied is that she’s a big girl who can make her own decisions, she sure doesn’t act like it.
The real kicker though is the tacit accusation of sexism, which is a stretch to say the least. Unless I’m missing something in both Jane Marie’s and Dan’s accounts of how this all went down, nothing was said to suggest that Dan was acting in malice against her sex. By using sexism in her argument, Jane Marie highlights the massive frivolity with which feminism is sometimes employed, which further discredits the spirit of the movement at a time when social justice backlash is becoming aggressively and viciously vocal.
Her stunning overreaction also cements the notion that we women are unable to contain or control ourselves, an idea that is still so prevalent in society that Nobel-Prize winning biologist Tim Hunt felt it would make a good joke for a dinner gathering hosted by the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations:
…let me tell you about my trouble with girls…Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.
Pause for second face-palm.
Hunt’s official and unofficial statements are in conflict, of course. In one account he says he was nervous and said the first, ill-advised thing that came to his head. In the other he says that he was speaking more from truth than in jest. Whichever version you believe has more weight, the more pressing problem is the worldview that not only incubated this, but allowed it to continue to thrive into the 21st century, a time when women are still vocally calling for recognition and equality. Even if this was nothing more than innocent, jittery word vomit, something in what he said apparently didn’t seem at all sexist to him, otherwise why in the hell did he say it at a gathering hosted by female scientists? That he was apparently so blind to how his comments might be taken shows a flabbergasting level of societal disconnect and male privilege that is heartbreaking from a feminist perspective.
Women have taken immeasurable pains in the past and present to be recognized as humans and professionals whose thoughts and opinions matter, especially in STEM fields and still, still we find ourselves as the butt of some bro-scientist’s sexist joke about Lady Emotions.
If ever there was a time to fling around indignant feminist rage against someone being offensively patronizing, this was it. Yet, in contrast to Jane Marie’s rant, female scientists responded in humor with the #distractinglysexy Twitter campaign, proving that some of us can control our raging Lady Tears, even when others choose to make a mockery of us.
A little while back I took up my first freelance writing job with Taiken Japan, a Japanese travelogue site where foreign residents in Japan write about all the fantastic little things they find here. Not that it’s hard. Japan is filled with so many treasures, big and small, that even living here for five years I’ve only just scratched the surface.
Still, there are a few places that have touched such a soft spot in our hearts that Alex and I have visited them more than a few times while living here, even though they are somewhat out of the way and a pain to get to. In fact, that they are out of the way and a pain to get to might be precisely why we like going there. Tourists–even Japanese tourists–are comparatively rare, and the atmosphere is quiet and quaint, just the sort of place a writer might like to go for a few hours of relaxing escape to hammer out a few more pages.
Arima onsen is perhaps my favorite of these little weekend getaways that we’re fond of. An onsen is traditionally a natural hot spring, but the word can also mean water that is pumped out of a natural hot spring and used for a public bath. Arima is a hot spring resort town near Kobe that is absolutely filled with small town charms and delights. To read more about Arima, check out my Taiken article here.
And if you can’t wait, here’s a little gallery of pictures to give you a taste of just how charming this hot spring town is:
One of my very first posts on this blog was a happy introduction to my bookshelves. Therefore, it is with a heavy heart that I bring you this image today. A photo of empty bookshelves is truly heartbreaking, especially knowing that these three were once full of great books.
But with the clock ticking on our final year in Japan, preparations for the move back are starting early. As much as I love to come home to shelves heavy with books, I’m in agreement with Alex that the books need to be shipped first, while we still have the money to do it.
Pretty much as soon as we decided that we were moving back I adopted a ‘no book left behind’ policy. Alex tried to fight this at first, but in this I’m firm. I can’t part with a book. Not one book. Not even the books I really didn’t enjoy. I would feel their loss acutely, if even one of my literary herd vanished. At least we both like books enough to place them as first priority of the things we move.
So yeah, boxing up our life of the past five years began last month and it has been hard on both of us. Being in our late twenties, this was really our first time living on our own, living together, making it work as adults do. It’s always hard to uproot oneself from one place to another. As items from the house you’ve become so familiar with begin to disappear, it really hits home that you’re leaving, that this place that has been a part of you for the past however many years is truly going to be left in the past. All of life is a transition, but I can’t think of anything else that more clearly expresses that, all at once, than moving. We must dismantle and pack every aspect of our lives, both material and memorial, from the last five years and ship them off to another country. Each box that is taped up and sent off leaves the house we’ve called home a little emptier and a little colder. Soon we’ll be standing in its shell. A soulless body ready to accept another family after us.
And I’m sorry to get all sappy and poetic with this, but it’s hard to put these emotions into words. When packing started, Alex and I both fell into melancholy. Since Alex did the packing herself she experienced it more strongly. I think I’ve mostly been mentally and emotionally avoiding the issue, though moving is coming whether I’m ready for it or not.
We have moments of excitement, of course. We’re going to be stepping into a new stage in our lives: grad school and publishing for her and finally finishing my degree for me. Turning an eye toward the future helps keeps our spirits up while we prepare to say good bye to far too many happy memories in Japan.
And really, that’s what makes this the most difficult. The books will be waiting for us when we get back to Canada. I have no doubt that we’ll be able to make a life just as good if not better than the one we’ve made here. Together, Alex and I have managed to overcome some huge hurdles and carve out a very comfortable life. No, I’m not worried about the future, but what can I say? The present is pretty damn awesome as well. Japan has been and continues to be good to us. When the day comes, I’m going to be terribly sad to close this chapter of our lives. I’m not ready to leave, but some changes have to be made before one is truly ready.
So goodbye for now books. So long bookshelves. Farewell to our time in Japan. It’s been swell. I’ll miss you, but it’s time to move on.
Last week I reviewed Beneath Ceaseless Skies issue #174 for Tangent Online Magazine. I was really impressed by the stories in the second issue of May. Maybe it’s just that my tastes in fiction run in the same vein as BCS, but I have really enjoyed reviewing them this month. Yoon Ha Lee and Kay Chronister are both fantastic writers who have a wonderful way with words. Go read my review here, and read the original fiction here, when you have the chance. You won’t be disappointed.