Saturday, August 15, 2009

"Good grammar is always glamour, girls": Goro Takano's _With One More Step Ahead_

Years ago, around the turn of the last century, as one might say, I bought a copy of Richard Wright's haiku via the internet. It wasn't that I was a Wright fan, though Native Son had a big impact on me in high school. Nor was it for love of haiku, a form I appreciate mainly in the abstract (though I'll be teaching haiku in a few short weeks). I got the book of Wright's haiku because we were admitting a student to our Ph.D. program--a Japanese national--who had written on them. It was rumored that the student's mother was an important tanka writer in Japan (I have no idea if that is true). As someone whose primary memory of Wright involves an alarm clock, a rat, and a Chicago tenement, the haiku surprised me. They seemed so classical, so wrapped up in nature (despite their provenance in Paris), so faithful to the intentions of their form. "In the damp darkness, / Croaking frogs are belching out / The scent of magnolias," goes #227. Equally intriguing was the Japanese student of Wright, one Goro Takano, whose English was quick, word rich, and accented. Once we were on speaking terms in the hall, I asked him how the Richard Wright project was going. He indicated he'd moved on.

Goro returned to Japan to work on his dissertation. I got an email from him, asking if I'd direct it; it had become a novel, he said, and he'd been working on it for years. He'd started writing in Japanese, then turned to translating the manuscript into English. It had taken on a life of its own in English, insisted on being written in this "stepmother tongue." One of the novel's characters, in other words, was a language that was not its writer's blood relative (not sure I like this parsing of blood and not-blood, but there you have it). As a poet I was unsure how to take this request, but Goro sent writing samples, odd parables more reminiscent of Kafka than Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. So I said yes. It proved one of those marvelous dissertations that directs its director. I was left to fling pages full of questions at Goro by email slingshot, not so much to recommend revisions as to help us both through knotty philosophical and literary issues. "Is this a Japanese or an American novel?" I remember asking at one point.

Now, on reading the proofs of the large novel--With One More Step Ahead--from Blazevox [books], I realize how little meaning that question ever had. This novel is post-national in the best sense. An American-language novel with African American influences, its primary subject is the amnesia suffered in post-World War II Japan. An American novel, it involves a lot of Hawaiian material. A novel in part about Hawai`i, it engages the Japanese fascination with these islands. The novel owes a lot, perhaps, to the contemporary Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami, who has also written about Hawai`i, but its intellectual edge is sharper, its encyclopedic investigations of contemporary literature, film, and gender politics more attuned to the academic eye and ear. Ah, but what to make of a narrator/translator who suffers dementia, a husband/writer who communicates only by moving his eyeballs, a sex cultist named Cosmo who has no gender, a TV producer who wants pathos at the expense of his subjects' happiness, or the boundaries of the A-bomb dome broken by lovers who copulate on ground zero? If much of the energy of the novel is intellectual, it manifests itself in surreal, time-criss-crossing plots and subplots that will make it a page turner, once it escapes the pdf form I'm reading it in. Or is it that I simply haven't yet imagined it and me with a Kindle?

Amusing, yes, that Goro Takano, the expert on three line haiku, emerges here as the author of a 379-page novel (including bibliography!), its pages slathered with words, complicated syntax, an English that is not quite that spoken by a native--sometimes better. This reader became so involved in the subtle differences between her own English and Takano's that actual English words began to become foreign. Take the word "distressful." I was convinced it was the neologism of a non-native speaker until I looked it up on and realized that it IS an English word. Goro's prose enacts the (English) language in the process of being reinvented and rediscovered. It's an exciting read on many levels, but this is one that I find crucial to the overall effect of the novel. Nowhere is this as apparent as in the poems Takano includes in the novel, poems by Lulu, the demented narrator/translator. Lulu writes in various modes, including the ballad. Chapter 23 begins with a quote from John Ashbery's "37 Haiku" in A Wave: "He is a monster like everyone else but what do you do if you're a monster." Then we get Lulu's proto-Bob Dylan ballad, which opens:

Hard rain is falling down.
All over this small town.
Misty cold midnight.
Only a few city lights are on.

The poem's tone is odd, to say the least, rather like one of Ashbery's funny/sad poems. "Finnish Rhapsody" comes to mind, though that poem's not so jangly as this one.

Her dearest daughter is gone.
Run over by a truck.
That was also a rainy night.
Her kid was walking after her.

As it takes its nine page course, this poem comes to record the intense ethical conflict of a TV reporter over whether he should have saved the girl or recorded her death on film.

I can't say for sure if that poem was written in that way because Takano is a second language writer in English; in some ways, the poem reminds me of Sarith Peou's simple yet searing poems in Corpse Watching, also composed in non-native English. But there are moments in the book where the second language English emerges, making the writing more effective. Take "Lulu's Fifth Poem: 'Tanka: I Am.'" Ron Padgett's The Handbook of Poetic Forms defines the tanka thusly:

"Tanka (from the Japanese for 'short poem') are mood pieces, usually about love, the shortness of life, the seasons, or sadness. Tanka use strong images and may employ the poetic devices, such as metaphor and personification, that haiku avoid." (187)

Takano's / Lulu's poem opens in unsurprising English (the formatting is going to hell, sorry):

I am a spider
whose dewy web is still
missing many
warps and woofs; yet,
I am master of myself.

I am a mist
who spreads gradually
far and wide,
while still searching for
a chance to confine myself.

But as the poem goes on, its English gets less predictably English. Take this section:

I am a rain;
I won't chase anymore
those who scattered
away--Because, look, here's
someone waiting for me.


I am a mud
drying up with
a good number of
footsteps of the people
masking their true faces.

Or the last line of the final section:

I am a forest
who flourishes deep inside
of a newborn's mind;
as time goes by, maybe, I'll
be doomed to soil and wane.

Some native English speakers could come up with a line that combines "be doomed to soil" with "be doomed to wane," (the aforementioned Ashbery comes to mind) but something tells me the line is more easily arrived at if these words remain somewhat foreign. And phrases like "I am a mud" and "I am a rain," which seem to ask for the reader to take out the indefinite article, or to add something to the end, like "spot" or "drop," are effective precisely because they resist native fluency. They are more like lines from Peou's "Corpse Watching":

Corpse watching provides excitement,
Corpse watching is filled with fear
The corpses are someone's father, brother, sister, mother--
Sometimes corpse watching brings tears. (np)

It would be "better" English to write that "corpse watching makes me cry," but it would not be more effective communication. Nor would the first two lines benefit, in this context, from being "corrected" out of its cliches, its generalizations. Because, for once, these abstractions work--largely because of the Cambodian genocide that lurks in every line of this poem and the eponymous chapbook. But also because what Evelyn Ch'ien calls "weird English." She writes "about the ushering in of a global subjectivity, in which the diaspora consciousness caused a number of writers to relate their experience polylingually."

To read Takano's entire novel is to be constantly jolted by the often miniscule differences between one's own English and Goro Takano's English. We (native speakers of English) are constantly reminded that we, like Lulu, are translators of this text, even if our translations are from English to English. The frequent parenthetical interruptions by "Translator" emphasize this difference between the American novel we think we're reading and the Japanese content--and/or vice versa. While Ch`ien's interest is primarily in weird Englishes spoken by immigrants, or Pidgin spoken by non-dominant groups (see Lisa Kanae and Lee Tonouchi's works), Takano is a writer who studied in the United States and returned to Japan, where he is now associate professor of English at a medical school. So, while he is now teaching "weird English," he is not immersed in it. His English now belongs more to Japan than to the United States, although his book will find most of its readers in this country. How appropriate that his book be published by Blazevox, "a publisher of weird little books." At first I disliked that phrase, thought to tell the publisher, Geoffrey Gatza, as much. Now I get it. Weird is good, though this book is not "little" in any sense of the word. It's complicatedly astonishing.

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