Books: Things Japanese
A Collection of Short Stories
Stefan Chiarantano & Graham Westerlund
Joanne G. Yoshida
The first paragraph of Things Japanese answers a question posed in one of the last paragraphs of The Honorable Visitors, by Donald Richie. The question Mr. Richie asked was "Who will the next visitors to Japan be?" The answer that Collin O'Sullivan gives in the first story of this new collection of stories about Japan is that the visitors to Japan today are, for the most part, English teachers.
Some of the visitors in Things Japanese are here to stay as spouses, partners or for jobs, and others will return to countries of their origin. They are all searching in the same tradition as visitors who have come to Japan through the centuries. They tell of their everyday experiences, encounters, and observations, offering glimpses of shrines and of back roads, of ramen shops and sukiyaki pots. Some form relationships with people they meet on their travels and others use the experience of Japan to mirror the relationships that they came with.
The nine stories are collected in a compact, witty, sometimes understated and insightful collection. The editors, Stefan Chiarantano and Graham Westerlund, refer to the volume as a literary journal. It is slightly larger than a paperback and smaller than a magazine. In a standard B5 size, the sense of space is plentiful and gives room to the simple and clearly written stories that fill its pages. The individual stories in the volume read well together both because of a unified sensibility which the writers share, as well as an effective editorial decision to left-justify.
Another editorial decision that works for me, a reader who has lived in Japan past the decade mark, is the refreshing lack of italics for foreign words. There is much discussion amongst writers about whether to include foreign words or to italicize them or provide additional explanatory notes. Here, the editors abolished italics throughout.
The reader, whether familiar with the words or not, immediately enters the world of narrators who confront two languages daily. The non-italicized text is effective as a device to echo the reality of living in a bi-lingual world. There is also a sparse and direct language used in all of the stories, as though the characters and those narrating are used to finding simple ways of expressing themselves to make clear what they need to say in a culture where it is not always easy to be understood.
Sentences, word order and word selection seem to arise out of the context. When we learn a new language, we have to figure things out. We are not given words that come with pictures on the back like flashcards. In real life, nothing has a name until we experience it and find the way to say it ourselves:
"In Minnesota, you couldn't just crack an egg in a bowl
and call it sauce", writes Mindy Mejia in A Gaijin in Kyoto
No italics, and no asterisks to lead readers to meanings.
Sumimasen, gomen-nasai and konnichi wa are dispersed between English and less familiar Japanese words such as futatsu kudasai and make the reading a kind of chanpon of language. The writers serve us effective parallels to what the stories are depicting---characters confronted with situations that they must navigate, in settings and surrounded by a language un-explained, un-defined, and sometimes un-familiar. They take their cues from the silences and the lack of explanations. This leads them to some astute observations and guidelines for living ---
"Japan had taught her not to ask direct questions", says the main character of In the Season of Cherry Blossoms by Stefan Chiarantano
In this story, Chiarantano tells of a girl named Tina who wanted to understand what was behind the silences of a Japanese man she was getting to know and starting to love. Chiarantano brings a delicacy to the confusion in relationship that the characters experience. Could this scenario also exist between any two human beings? As I read many of the stories, I find how Japan appears as a 'stage' or setting that can help us see more clearly into universal silences to understand who we are and how we relate to each other and the places we find ourselves in.
These stories uncover moments where the difficulty of communication and the attempt to find out sometimes can give way to the most simple of epiphanies. There are surprises in some stories and there is the familiar in others. There is an ephemeral meeting with a girl named Sakura in one, and cultural differences about body hair are discussed matter-of-factly over panini in another.
After reading Things Japanese I am reminded that after all what we are searching for could be as here and as now as what's behind the noren of a just-stumbled-upon noodle shop. You just keep your eyes fresh and believe in strangers.
Text + image by Joanne G. Yoshida