Reviews / October 2017 (Issue 37)

Dream-like Reality, Reality-like Dream: Kyoko Yoshida's Disorientalism

by Michael Tsang


Kyoko Yoshida, Disorientalism, Vagabond Press, 2014. 192 pgs.


The stories in Japanese author Kyoko Yoshida's debut collection, Disorientalism, were first published in various American literary journals between 1998 and 2008, and it is evident that during this time she shaped a consistent literary voice. Hers is a distinctive style of fiction: a bit like weird fiction but not always speculative; a bit like magical realism but more dystopian and less realist. In Disorientalism, we may be (finally) seeing the birth of a Japanese writer in English. The book has attitude. Its stories carry a central purpose. And Yoshida has the skills to deliver. Disorientalism is truly one of its kind.

As is suggested by the title, this collection sets out to disorient the world we live in. Yoshida's stories are a remake of our world in a parallel but gothic dimension. In this parallel world, literary editors can melt like slugs, dogs are cyborgs that can project movies and cats tell stories after chewing on pencils. The cityscape of Kyoto is reinvented as a suffocating but alluring place that "gnaws" at one's mind. But such deconstructing of the building blocks of our world is not done for the sake of destruction. Such disorientation of the taken-for-granted, the given or the commonsensical is necessary because only then can we ask difficult questions to challenge the way our world operates or change how we perceive our surroundings.

The opening story, "The Movie Dog," gives allegorical names to a family of three: Papabon, Mamabon and their son, Sokobon. "Bon" in Japan can be a suffix for rich, ignorant boys, and can also mean average or common. "Soko" reminds me of "sokosoko" which can mean average or just on par. These are fitting names for a story about spoilt children and their silly parents, foreshadowing the theme of dystopian social relationships in many of the other stories.

Take "The Eastern Studies Institute" for another example of Yoshida's multi-layered deconstruction. This is a story about a Chinese student of the Eastern Studies Institute (presumably in Kyoto) falling to his death while trying to free an ancient edition of The Journey to the West (Xiyouji). The Journey to the West, as many will know, is about the Chinese monk Xuanzang's Buddhist pilgrimage to the west of China, i.e. India. The work inspired the Chinese phrase, "to go west," which means to die (i.e. one's soul returns to the origin of Buddhist thought). Already we see how the Chinese student's death is a pun on the Chinese language, but the play on East and West goes deeper, since it is equally ironic that a Chinese student has to travel to the easternmost country of the "Orient" (Japan) to study about his own country and the Asian hinterland.

In reality, the fictional "Eastern Studies Institute" is very much modelled on the real Kyoto University, including its physical location "at the foot of Mt. Yoshida" in Kyoto, where Yoshida herself lives. Or like how the Institute is described in the story, Kyoto University was also founded partly with compensation money from the Sino-Japanese War. Even Dr. Harada's statue in the story—a frequent target of vandalism and graffiti—is a counterpart of Kyoto University's own mascot, the statue of Teacher Orita.

On the other hand, the Institute's function as a centre of Oriental Studies matches not with the purpose of Kyoto University, but leans closer to the Oriental Library (Toyo Bunko) in Tokyo. Toyo Bunko was founded by a former president of Mitsubishi, who purchased the private library of George Morrison, an adviser to Chiang Kai-shek. In the story, the Eastern Studies Institute had purchased rare Chinese books using China's compensation money, "a double exploitation" that eventually allowed Japan to "compete with China in Sinology." While the history of the Toyo Bunko doesn't exactly mirror that of the library in the "The Eastern Studies Institute," in it we also see form of double exploitation—capitalism allowing a Japanese entrepreneur to develop a research library out of a Westerner-owned but China-related book collection. In this way, the story asks interesting questions about the definitions of "East" and "West" (note also how this is echoed in the collection's title, "dis-Orientalism"), explores the difficult history between China and Japan and touches on the loneliness of a research student in a foreign country all at the same time.

The unsettling effects of stories like "The Eastern Studies Institute" couldn't be achieved if Yoshida wasn't superb in her craft. She employs literary devices productively, such as suspended endings and frame narratives. Some stories in this collection are quite short, but whatever the length, the ending always leaves the reader hanging. This lack of closure clearly helps accentuate the feeling of disorientalism. And her use of frame narratives serves to highlight the contrasting layers of dream and reality. In "Octavia," the narrator, who opens an italicised dream sequence for a story with "I am dreaming," turns out to be unreliable and the main portion of the story proves dream-like.

Yoshida also excels in her use of language. Sometimes the narration is so candid and hilarious that the reader can only say "ouch." One can imagine the narrators speaking with a stony face, but what they say is often so true that it becomes a sarcastic, biting critique of society's hypocrisies. Here is an example: "Their deaths are always welcome because they lower the average age of the staff and provide new positions for those who have been waiting" ("Eastern Studies Institute"). Or this: "My name is Kazuo Harada. I'm a literary hack an emerging young popular novelist" ("Octavia"). At other times, Yoshida shows that she is capable of embellishing the narration with ornate language: "The man must travel to the lower extremity of Arabia to complete his uranometry, the book of fixed stars. Dark nebulae must be groped, dwarf galaxies sucked, cosmos outlined, heavenly bodies delineated" ("A Goldfish Galaxy"). Here the rich and imaginative language of cosmological adventure carries a faint hint of sensuality, brilliantly couching a sexual encounter. The nouns and adjectives used are highly symbolic, mystifying the subject matter, making strange a common action.

The blurb says Yoshida's stories "systematically smash the boundaries of the real and its imagining." Indeed, the distinction between dream and reality is often blurred in this book (there is even a rare second-person story connecting the inner ear to the human faculty of dreaming), but this does not mean the resultant storyworld is otherworldly. Rather, it's neither completely familiar (especially if you know Japan well enough), nor completely alienating, more like our world "othered." It is in this ground of uncertainty that we can embark on the journey of reknowing our world, rediscovering what has been overlooked. In this vein, perhaps the very last line of the book is a clear message to the reader: "People of Providence! Indulge in your ephemeral sleep, for you sleep only in your dreams." It is an ironic, but true, proposition: in sleep, one's mind wanders and imagines, disorienting the world, yet knowing it better.


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