May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada, and while it doesn’t exactly nudge my blog in a new direction (at least half my content is Asian), I thought I’d formally acknowledge it by posting this review of Tomo, an anthology of Japanese teen stories.
Tomo is a collection of Japan-themed young adult short fiction commemorating the March 2011 earthquake; proceeds from the book’s sales support relief efforts in Tohoku. The anthology’s contributors are all connected to Japan via their heritage or lived experience.
The thirty-six stories are very loosely connected (in terms of both style and content) and have been grouped together thematically. Only five of the stories (gathered under the heading “Shocks and Tremors”) overtly deal with the earthquake, but tellingly, most of the stories embrace hope, positivity, and the possibility of new beginnings. The book emphasizes the normal preoccupations of teens everywhere—identity, belonging, the first stirrings of romance, the longing for supernatural powers, Facebook… Tomo means “friend” in Japanese, and the editor envisions this book as way for teens around the world to understand their kinship with teens in Japan.
Several pieces deal with protagonists who are half-Japanese (haafus), often with conflicting loyalties; in some cases, the events of the earthquake exacerbate their conflicts. Other stories reach back in history—we hear voices from the internment camps for Japanese-Americans during WWII, for instance, while in another piece, the post-earthquake radiation scares evoke the aftermath of atomic bombing half a century ago. To paraphrase a character from the story “Paper Lanterns”, a story about grieving and remembering, this collection is a group memory bank, with varied accounts of teens growing and evolving in Japan.
The wide-ranging nature of this book inevitably implies that the reader will take some stories more to heart than others. I have a weakness for ordinary-meets-odd, and one of my favorite pieces was Alan Gratz’s “The Ghost who came to Breakfast”, a well-paced ghost story with an end-twist that characterizes the best in this genre. The linear storyline of Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s “Kodama” is elevated into greatness by her anything-but-linear sketchbook format, in which handwritten sentences writhe on the page in unexpected tangents (you have to turn the book ninety degrees in some instances). And then there’s “Yamada-san’s Toaster” by Kelly Luce, where the manner of a person’s death is etched onto a slice of bread by a very special toaster.
There’s plenty for seekers of more realistic fiction too, in the sections titled “Friends and Enemies”, “Insiders and Outsiders”, and “Families and Connections”. The teen protagonists are written with sympathy and intuition, and the stories are all executed with confidence. Sure, a few of the pieces feature some heavy-handed symbolism and could have used a lighter touch, but there isn’t a single dud; this collection was divided into ones I liked, and ones I liked more.
The stories also provides fascinating vignettes of contemporary Japan—the story “Signs”, for instance, is an Amelie-style mystery featuring a Purikura (photo) booth, a strange salariman, and a winning teen lead. From Pasmo travel cards to harajuku girls to face-offs between a Kendo club and a dance group at the school gym, Japan is placed vividly in the reader’s heart and mind. And that heart would have to be made of the proverbial stone not to feel for the people affected by the earthquake. But Tomo inspires more than sympathy—it ignites us to empathy.
Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction, Holly Thompson (editor).
Stone Bridge Press, March 2012