14 July 11 | Julianna Romanazzi | Comments

Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs: The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan
Edited by Helen Mitsios
Foreword by Pico Iyer

There are some pretty wild support groups out there. Acne support groups, jealousy support groups, lactose intolerance and tooth grinding. (And yes, these really do exist. I looked them up.) But wait, it gets better. What if you made a support group, more of a club really, for kids who have lost their fathers? That sounds pretty normal.

Except in this club members talk about their fathers as if they are still here, less as figments of revived memories and more a society of paternal imaginary friends. Yeah, this was a new one for me too.

Helen Mitsios introduces Tomoyuki Hoshino in her second anthology of Japanese literature Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs, a renewed and reworked edition of her New Japanese Voices: The Best Contemporary Fiction from Japan of twenty years ago. Mitsios’s collection, like the others in the Asian Anthology series, was recently published by Cheng and Tsui Company and is just now bringing new literature into English translation.

Hoshino’s story “The No Fathers Club” centers around a small group of people who are, in the absence of purpose and two-parent homes, looking for a connection. “We shared the problems and conflicts we had with our faux fathers and discussed together strategies for dealing with them. I told everyone how my father was perhaps too understanding, and that while it was nice that he let me do as I liked, I sometimes wondered if he really just didn’t care.”

While the whining and personal issues seem like things that ought to be listed as non-problems, the “fathers” in the club assume places in their world that are surprisingly real, even daring to leave a bruise and a split lip on one member for talk of not going to college. The club eventually shrinks to the narrator, Joe, and his friend Kurumi who he begins dating, but their time together is haunted (so to speak) by their paternal alter egos. Truly it is all they have in common. In the end, Hoshino explores how some relationships only last as long as the illusions do.

Aside from the support groups, Digital Geishas takes other interesting turns and shouldn’t be turned aside for some of its more unconventional content (as if that wasn’t reason to read it enough). Would you give your spouse permission to have month long affair? If you did, would you really mean it? Noboru Tsujihara brings to the table “My Slightly Crooked Brooch,” a story that plays on elements that are part fairytale and part urban legend. Ryō, a married man, has fallen in love. The proposal was all so very reasonable.

“She was a college student, he told her, just getting ready to graduate. Once she was finished with school, her parents had arranged for her to return to Matsuyama on the island Shikoku, where she was to get married. They’d already screened the groom and gone through with the engagement ceremony last fall. She and Ryō had decided a clean break would be best. But until then she wanted to live together during her final month of freedom, so he had agreed. It’s what they both wanted, he said.”

After some compromise, Ryō’s wife Mizue agrees. “He would be gone for a month. Not a day, hour, even a minute more. That was his promise.”

Over the course of the month Maiko and Ryō make the most of it, carefully avoiding the countdown to their final days; a husband with a different wife. Meanwhile, Mizue makes a change in her own behavior. A new apartment, a cell phone, an occupation of sorts. A jealous wife or something more?

Mitsios’s anthology takes the best of Japanese contemporary issues and writers today and brings them to English readers. Be it children of novelists or yes, talking frogs, Digital Geishas is good fodder for the reading inclined. Like the Cheng and Tsui’s other Asian works, the collection does not disappoint.

8 July 11 | Julianna Romanazzi | Comments

The Lotus Eaters: Short Stories from Contemporary South Asia
Edited by Trevor Carolan
Foreword by Urvashi Butalia

To escape from poverty a woman sells of her body in order to get by.

You’ve heard this story before, haven’t you? Actually, you haven’t.

Niaz Zaman of Bangladesh’s story “The Daily Woman” is part of one of the new Asian anthologies out by Cheng and Tsui Company and edited, like Another Kind of Paradise, by Trevor Carolan. This anthology primarily features short stories from the countries of India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but also Bhutan, Nepal, and the Maldives.

Playing on the region’s rich literary culture and history, old forms take new life. In Zaman’s story a house worker, a daily woman, reflects back on a choice she made before she was able to find her job. Her husband was sick and the babies came early. What is the price of surviving in Bangladesh? “How hungry she had been, and the two babies crying together were enough to make her go mad.”

And then the Amrikans came, pinkish-white people who were willing to solve her problem and take it away, a man and a woman. “White hair and wrinkles near her eyes. And thin. No breasts. No behind. Flat as a dried fish.” The narrator is not impressed, but it would be easier if there were less mouths to feed. So she made the deal and the Amrikans drove away.

“She sighed and drank the last of her tea. So that was what a Bangladeshi girl child was worth. Two brass bangles. She picked up the boy. Would he have been worth four brass bangles?”

Usha Yadav, an Indian writer, also takes a new twist on an old problem. In “Libations,” when the widow Saptadal dies during the festival of Holi, her fellow widows travel from door to door to seek men willing to arrange the burial rites for her funeral. When no one can be found three young women, going outside tradition, help the widows perform the burial themselves.

In a subtle (in terms of the story) and less than subtle (in verbatim) commentary on social customs and class divisions, Yadav writes “Not an ordinary funeral procession, this was also at once a protest march by women against a selfish and insensitive patriarchy which shadowed the lives of women from the beginning to the end: destroying the female embryo after the ultrasound report and forbidding women to perform the last rites of the dead. At least that is how it seemed to this small group.”

The Lotus Singers is an interesting and powerful collection and for those looking for a varied choice of reading and contemporary topics, the anthology has a lot to offer. While on the whole the stories are not as uplifting and positive as Carolan’s other anthology Another Kind of Paradise, their gritty darkness and at times black introspection give a telling look into South Asian life.

6 July 11 | Julianna Romanazzi | Comments

Another Kind of Paradise: Short Stories from the New Asia-Pacific
Edited by Trevor Carolan
Foreword by Frank Stewart and Pat Matsueda (from Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing )

It is generally agreed upon that, in general, short stories are…nice, like novels for those of us with short attention spans. They are, at times, interesting and funny and maybe even a little insightful. They are the fragile snippets of writing we smile and nod politely about as writers show off their artistic skill and then we say, “Oh, now I see it! Yes, this was the buildup to that wonderful novel they wrote.” Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

But those views only apply to general short stories. And that is the difference between the general short stories, those of that banal, groom-less category, and good short stories that are in a category all their own.

Good short stories are, yes, interesting and funny and insightful, but they also manage to accomplish in a few pages what some novels cannot. The deceptively fragile shell of their moniker hides the foundations underneath and the joy we find in the dips and twists and intricacies of the novel we consume in a single sitting.

Luckily, a collection of very good short stories just came out. Cheng and Tsui Company recently published a new set of Asian anthologies featuring collected short stories from authors around all parts of Asia and the Pacific, starting off with Another Kind of Paradise: Short Stories from the New Asia-Pacific. The work spans from Thailand to Burma to Japan and Vietnam.

In Mi-na Choi of Korea’s “Third Meeting” a mother facing the confines of a traditional Korean marriage is given a second chance, and a dilemma. To emigrate to her husband or stay home? “Her heart tightened again with guilt—not only toward Seuk-ho, but now toward her present husband as well. Was she undeniably such a sinner?” Her decision comes up against an echo of leaving the unfinished family of her first marriage, a son she could not bring with her, and the challenge of living with the expectations of something she no longer knows if she can do.

Filipino Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s “Bushouse” is a tale of coming of age set in the sequestered land of a company bus lot. The narrator, a nameless girl of seventeen, lives with her crippled brother and a mother removed from the world by grief in the shell of an empty bus, a gift from the company to the families of workers who have died. The narrator’s world is one of loneliness and a telling look at the third world’s endless recycling, both of people and things, and struggles with the more universal problem getting what you want when there is nothing there you want to have.

The anthology touches on a lot of different topics, some of them related—marriage, relationships, ties between people—some not (see homosexuality in Singapore and ghosts in the Cambodian jungle, for instance). Trevor Carolan, who edited the book, ties the topics in nicely with each other and their author’s biographical information and makes them flow, even if it seems like they shouldn’t. In the midst of their breadth, all the stories manage to capture that novel-in-short brilliance and the variety brought me some bibliophile’s joy.

For those of us with a jones for prose Another Kind of Paradise is a good collection with fresh, weighty prose and some very good short stories. But perhaps the point of Another Kind of Paradise is not limited to the stories inside it. Frank Stewart and Pat Matsueda of Manoa Journal (who wrote the book’s foreword) put it best:

“What appears to be a simple story by a Vietnamese writer can be a staggering lesson in the clash between personal ethics and social mores. Reading such a story, we feel gratitude to the author for bringing us to the cliff’s edge of morality and to the translator for enabling this moment of revelation. Through such stories, we are offered the chance to re-experience life, to exist among a different people without harm to them or their world. This is surely what we mean by world literature: writing that enables us to stay at home while traveling across temporal, cultural, and geographic boundaries. Reading this literature counters the ideas that the West is at the center of the universe and that its narratives of reality prevail over others.”

If they’re going to put it that way, why read anything else?

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