Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Letter Opener, chapters 1-4

Hi everyone,

Apologies for the gap in postings - Nikkei Book Club is going through some format changes which are not yet finalized. While we work on that, I want to give you a space to discuss our scheduled next book, The Letter Opener by Kyo Maclear. Here are some thoughts from me on the first four chapters:

What I find most interesting so far I think is something I would describe as the book’s sense of the world – which I know sounds pretty broad. What I mean by that is this: the narrator Naiko is Nikkei, her boyfriend is from Argentina, her coworkers Andrei and Baba are from Romania and Lebanon, respectively. There’s a very casual sense of multiculturalism as we’re introduced to each of these characters, even as Naiko repeatedly describes her world as sheltered and protected by her routine as a solitary office worker. But at the same time, this section describing the ESL education of Andrei and his fellow refugees jumps out at me:

Urged on by an exuberant ESL teacher, they mouthed the language of parrots: Hi, how are you? Nice day, isn’t it? Would you care for a coffee? Their accents slowed them down, but no more than if they had been taught to say: Do you know what’s happening in my country? Do you know what brought me here? (page 29)

So far all the characters we know in Naiko’s world, other than presumably Naiko, appear to be immigrants from places much less safe and sheltered than Ontario in 1989. What does it say that Naiko is surrounded by these people within her sheltered existence? How much access do they have to her safe and routine-based world, and how much access does she have to the things they’ve lived through that brought them to Ontario? Do you think they can or will find true common ground and intimacy, or do they seem alienated from Naiko?

I’m also curious what you thought of the list of Andrei’s things at the beginning of the book: do any of the objects jump out at you? What impression do they give you of Andrei? Also, by the end of chapter four, I’ve noticed Naiko explain the leather shoes the colour of dark grapes the Mamas and Papas LP record, and maybe the brass belt buckle. Did I miss any others that appear in the first four chapters?

Also, here's a short, interesting review of the novel by acclaimed Canadian author Guy Beauregard which touches on its major themes without spoiling the plot:

Please feel welcome to share your thoughts on the book so far - the first four chapters, or wherever you are in your reading. I'll post again when I've finished finalizing our format changes, but in the meantime, let the discussion go on!


Thursday, 19 May 2016

Chorus of Mushrooms: week seven

Thank you to those who attended the in-person discussion last Saturday! What a great chat, and I hope more of you will join us for our next book, The Letter Opener by Kyo Maclear!

We've come to the end of Chorus of Mushrooms - this week, I want to talk a little bit about the end of Part Four as well as Part Five. Finish the book before reading this post, because I'm not going to hold back from spoilers!

At the end of the book, we finally hear Keiko's perspective in her own words, and from Muriel's father Sam. Adult Murasaki decides to embark on a new chapter of her life, and Naoe continues a mysterious career as a bullrider in Calgary known as The Purple Mask. Are you satisfied with the ending? What questions does it leave you with? Would you change the story, as Goto tells us we can?

I'm also very interested in "Tengu's" story, and the revelation that he doesn't have a name. How does this relate to the earlier discussions we've had about naming and renaming in the book? What is the nameless man, alias Tengu's, role in the story, and does his namelessness reflect that role, or somehow challenge it?

I'll also pose the question I asked on Facebook, which is: Both Naoe and Murasaki are told that they have been speaking to their lovers in Japanese since meeting them, without having realized it. What does this tell you about these relationships, and each of their relationship to the language?
As someone who learned enough Japanese to hold a conversation with GREAT difficulty, I think that Japanese and English are too vastly different for such a thing to really be possible, no matter how fluent you are in both - the content of what you are saying changes with the language, not just the sounds. So I take this move on Goto's part to be a kind of magical realism - the same fantastical streak that lets Naoe spontaneously pull off an award-winning gymnastics routine. But why this fantastical detail, or indeed any of them (can you name other examples)? What does it reveal about Naoe's and Murasaki's respective, and collective, stories/story?

Thank you for reading with me, and I hope you'll join me for The Letter Opener next month! I'll start posting about that book in two weeks.


Thursday, 12 May 2016

Chorus of Mushrooms: week six

This week, I'd like to talk about Part Three of Chorus of Mushrooms, as well as some of Part Four - up to Keiko's article in The Herald. This is a very revealing section of the book - we are challenged with a "missing part", where Goto announces "An Immigrant Story With a Happy Ending" and then removes it from the novel. What did you feel when you came across the missing Part Three? Why do you think Goto includes it where she does in relation to the rest of the narrative?

We also get some explanations for Muriel/Murasaki's name given to her by Naoe: those of you familiar with Japanese language and culture may already have recognized that Murasaki not only means "purple", but is also the name of Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji. What do you know about The Tale of Genji? Why do you think Goto introduces a link between that story and this one? Do you think it is part of what Naoe meant when giving the name to her granddaughter, or is this just Keiko's added interpretation?

Another element of the novel that becomes even more prominent in this section is the identification between Naoe and Murasaki. Naoe tells Tengu that of her own alias, Purple, and the one she gives her granddaughter, Murasaki, "The words are different, but in translation, they come together" (174). Murasaki describes a scene where she becomes her departed grandmother in their house, sitting in her grandmother's chair and retorting to Keiko in Japanese, which she didn't at the time speak. Is this coming together a transformation for Naoe, Murasaki, or both? Or is it merely an intensification of what was already in place? Why is it happening at this point? And where does Keiko, mother to one and daughter to the other of them, belong in this coming-together?

We'll be wrapping up the book online next week, but you can also join us in person this Saturday at 11am to discuss the book. Please share any other thoughts you had while reading this section in the comments, as well as any favourite parts! And remember that if you're finishing up Chorus of Mushrooms, you can get started on our next book for June-July, The Letter Opener by Kyo Maclear.


Thursday, 5 May 2016

Chorus of Mushrooms: week five

Welcome to another instalment of Nikkei Book Club! This week, we're finishing up Part Two of Chorus of Mushrooms.

There's so much happening in Part Two that I hardly know where to start our discussion. The trip to the Oriental grocery store in Calgary? Naoe's fantastic adventures with Tengu? Her telling of the yamanba legend? Muriel's discovery of her family name? But I think what really pulls everything happening in the book right now together is the healing power of food: Muriel/Murasaki heals her mother by cooking tonkatsu for the whole family, while Naoe feasts on Chinese food, saying, "I eat for Murasaki. I eat for Keiko" (148). It's not just any food, either - both Murasaki and Naoe are reconnecting to long-lost food that brings them closer to their heritage. And Murasaki is learning about this food for the first time, through her mysterious psychic link to her grandmother. Meanwhile, "weiners and Cheese Whiz and left-over potato salad" (150) are getting dumped into the garbage. Where do the mushrooms of the Tonkatsu family's farm fit into this spectrum of food, eating, re-connection, and discarding?

Other things I'm thinking about:

Naoe says: "My Japanese eyes are at the back of my head, and they can only see backwards" (110). What does this mean? Would it be possible for this to change for her? How does this statement relate to Keiko and Murasaki?

More funny names in this section: if you didn't know the meaning of Tonkatsu, you do now, and there's also Tengu the truck driver, Naoe's new alias Purple, and Sushi the shop person. Any guesses as to what's going on here?

And some more interesting things about knowing and not knowing: Muriel doesn't know how to make tonkatsu, resorting to trial and error, and she doesn't know how to use chopsticks. But she tells Sushi that she "know[s] what the words mean" on her grandmother's shopping list, without having any idea what they are. And she knows what the mimikaki is on sight. Where is this knowledge coming from, and why is it only for some things and not others?

Can we talk about Shane Wu? Why is he included in Muriel's story?

I'll finish off with an announcement: the June-July book club read will be The Letter Opener by Kyo Maclear. This is a novel with a mystery at its heart: the main character Naiko is a young Japanese Canadian woman whose coworker Andrei suddenly vanishes. Make sure to get a hold of a copy for June!


Thursday, 28 April 2016

Chorus of Mushrooms: week four

This week we start looking at Part Two of Chorus of Mushrooms, which begins with Naoe's departure from the family home (I'm reading up to page 108 in my edition of the book for this week, ending with the part about the salamander). Murasaki doesn't know what happened to her, but makes up several different answers when asked. Why do you think she does this?

I'm also still thinking about what it means to be Asian Canadian in Chorus of Mushrooms. Sometimes, it can mean you know things: how to pick out a Japanese eggplant, how to speak Vietnamese. Other times, it means you don't know things: the difference between a cat and a skunk, for example. And there are other things that Murasaki doesn't know that she or someone else questions, like when the woman in the supermarket asks what a vegetable is called in "your language", assuming she is Chinese. In our latest episode of the Sounds Japanese Canadian to Me podcast, Raymond Nakamura and I talk about going to Japan as a Japanese Canadian and how it can be valuable to get to "know what you don't know", and I think that kind of double-awareness is relevant here: in the supermarket scene, Murasaki doesn't just know about the Japanese eggplant, she also knows what she doesn't know about Chinese vegetables, and she knows what the woman asking her questions expects her to know (Chinese, even though it's not "your language") . Can you think of other ways that Asian Canadian identity is about knowing or not knowing certain things, or certain ways of knowing/not knowing, either in the book or from your own or others' experiences? How are these different ways of knowing/not knowing related to Murasaki's impulse to make up different answers to people asking about her grandmother's fate?

Other things I'm thinking about:

Are the jokes funny? Are there some genuinely funny moments, and others that aren't? How do you tell the difference?

Food is really important in the story: from Naoe's secret stash of dried squid and osenbei to the pomegranate, seaweed, and other things she pilfers from the fridge; and also Murasaki's eggplant and "Jap oranges". Is food a necessary part of (cultural) identity? Why, or if not, why is it so important to Naoe and Murasaki? What food makes you feel connected to your culture/heritage?

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Chorus of Mushrooms: week three

By the end of Part One, I'm thinking about the invisible ways that we experience race and racism in Canada. For people like Murasaki and anyone else who doesn't look Caucasian, this is something we deal with on a daily basis from the time we are children onwards. Our parents and grandparents endured name calling, hateful speech, and racist policies from governments and other institutions, and thankfully, these kinds of things are more history than current event. But that doesn't mean that racism has become a thing of the past. 

Murasaki tells her grandmother: "everyone wants to hear stories. And I can't finish them. They scatter like sheep. Like dust" (63). The ways she has been treated because of her race are not obvious, but she still senses they are there. How does the sprinkling of these short anecdotes, like the story of the "Oriental"-looking Valentine, affect the way you experience the other parts of the book - Naoe's internal monologue and stories of her childhood, and Murasaki's later goings-on with her lover? Why include them if they don't seem to lead to a point?

Other things I'm thinking about:

Murasaki seems very casual about the details of her narrative, whether it's how she met her lover - "We could have met anywhere. We could have met, say, in an airport", as if it doesn't matter where they actually met (58). So is Naoe, including things like home perms and Meiji chocolate in her story of Uba-Sute Yama. Does this affect how much you believe other things in the novel so far? Do you believe the fantastical elements? Or does it make you doubt some of the more mundane and otherwise "believeable" details?

Smell is mentioned in interesting ways in this section. Why do you think the author is giving this sense such importance? Is this a realistic detail, a fantastical or symbolic one, or somewhere in between?

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Chorus of Mushrooms: week two

We're digging deeper into Chorus of Mushrooms this week - still working our way through Part One, but this time I'm focussing on the section that starts with the story of Izanagi and Izanami, up to the conversation on Highway 2 (pages 29-55 if you have the same edition of the novel that I'm using).
Murasaki describes helping her mother choose new names for Vietnamese refugees who have come to work on the family mushroom farm. Naoe talks about changing her name, and her feelings about the pointlessness of family names being carried forward. There's a lot of re-naming going on in this book - who else gets a new name, and how? How do the different characters feel about this process, and why? What does all of this show us about the characters and the world they live in?

And also, is this related to the uses of English and Japanese in the book and the "translations" or lack thereof? Is it related to the folktale-like stories we're told, like the one of Izanami and Izanagi? If yes, how?

Other things I'm thinking about:

Naoe's and Murasaki's childhoods seem extremely different, but is there anything they have in common? What does each of their stories tell us about the other?

What do we think of the men in this book so far? Shinji seems to have forgotten Japanese even more thoroughly than his wife Keiko; Naoe's former husband Makoto doesn't seem to be the most impressive character. And there's Murasaki's lover as well. What are their roles in the story so far, and what more do you want to know about them?