Imagining the Pacific

Reviewed by Guy Beauregard

In his work on “reading literature in a global age,” David Palumbo-Liu urges us to “think of how literature engenders a space for imagining our relation to others and thinking through why and how that relation exists, historically, politically, ideologically.” He suggests that “[r]eading with this in mind would attempt to ascertain how and why our relationship to others is not natural or immutable, but rather the result of a number of complex and often contradictory forces, some that draw us closer, others than drive us apart.” Palumbo-Liu’s work helps to clarify the stakes involved in reading the two novels under review, an endeavour that is worthwhile not simply due to his brief cameo appearances as a character named “P-L” in Ozeki’s novel. When read together, these novels raise compelling questions about the act of reading, the work of the imagination, and—following Palumbo-Liu—the ways we might be connected to, and act in relation to, others.

Self-identified as a “Caucasian-Japanese-American-naturalized-Canadian,” Ruth Ozeki and her oeuvre (including films and two earlier novels) have not to date typically been read as “Canadian.” Her Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel A Tale for the Time Being makes it difficult not to do so by situating the novel’s narrative present on an island off the coast of British Columbia. The characters in this community—including a writer named Ruth, her partner Oliver, and a wide cast of neighbours—find their lives transformed after Ruth finds a package on the beach containing a diary and other materials that might have crossed the Pacific after the devastating 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in Japan.

After this discovery, Oliver invites Ruth to “[i]magine the Pacific.” The novel encourages us to do so too in a variety of ways, most obviously through the act of reading a diary written by a Japanese girl named Nao along with other texts and objects found on the beach. Nao’s diary—which appears in a cloth-covered edition of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu that had been “retooled . . . into something altogether new”—is especially compelling for Ruth, leading her to ponder “how best to read this improbable text.” Ruth follows how Nao tenaciously navigates brutalities in the Japanese school system after her father’s loss of employment in California and her family’s ignominious return to Japan. In her newly precariatized life, Nao learns more about her family, including her engaging great-grandmother Jiko, who along with fellow Buddhist nun Muji could well have emerged from a Hiromi Goto novel. Jiko’s principled stand against Japanese imperialism finds echoes in the acts of resistance performed by her son, referred to as “Haruki #1,” and later her grandson (Nao’s father), referred to as “Haruki #2.” One of this ambitious novel’s many strengths is its insistence that this imperial past is not past, a point sharply underlined in a conversation between Ruth and her mother (then living with Alzheimer’s) while watching the news:

“Who are we at war with?”

“Iraq, Mom.”

“Really? But I thought that war was over.”

“No, Mom. It’s never over. America has always been at war with Iraq.”

“Oh, that’s terrible!” Her mom leaned forward and peered at the screen.

Days pass, and weeks. Months pass, and then years.

“Now, who did you say we are at war with?”

Multiple Governor General’s Award winner Tim Wynne-Jones’s novel The Emperor of Any Place shares some uncanny similarities with Ozeki’s text, perhaps most prominently its inclusion of a manuscript dating back to World War II, which has somehow “float[ed] up onto the shore of 123 Any Place,” the name wryly given to the novel’s suburban setting in Don Mills, Ontario. Like Ozeki’s novel, Wynne-Jones’s text includes an array of footnotes, here provided by a character named Derwood Kraft, an American flight lieutenant who had survived a crash on an island in the Marianas, where he developed an improbable friendship with a Japanese soldier named Isamu Ōshiro. Wynne-Jones mobilizes his considerable writerly skills to tell this story-in-a-story, sympathetically portraying Ōshiro as an Okinawan who “had grown up under the scarcely concealed intolerance of the Japanese toward [his] people” but who had nevertheless found himself, after settling in Saipan, part of the Japanese imperial army. Interspersed into this account are Kraft’s recollections about their harrowing yet intimate time together, negotiating their many differences while also jointly contending with a vivid range of child ghosts, critters with red eyes, and a terrifying monster that Ōshiro dubbed Tengu.

The arrival of this manuscript into the hands of the novel’s likeable young protagonist Evan, who becomes engrossed in its mysteries, enables him to mourn the loss of his rock-and-roll-loving father while also eventually arriving at a form of reconciliation with his estranged grandfather, the villainous Griff, who as an American marine was and is entangled in Ōshiro’s and Kraft’s story. But how might this story be read and potentially passed along? To be sure, the meanings generated by future retellings (including a stalled graphic novel by fictitious writer Benny Yamada) remain undetermined. But the version we do have stages Ōshiro’s and Kraft’s encounter on a “desert island,” one described as “strange and impossible.” It is not quite an empty meeting ground, given how it is populated by a range of fantastic creatures. But this encounter—however vividly and sympathetically portrayed—raises unsettling questions about the novel’s use of the Marianas, one that faithfully follows the contours of what Chamorro scholar Keith Camacho has identified as conventional military historiography in depicting these islands as a site in the American-Japanese war. In telling the story of an Okinawan and an American, Wynne-Jones’s novel acknowledges the displacement of Pacific Islanders and the impact of US and Japanese militarism in the Pacific but leaves aside questions of Indigenous agency in the Mariana archipelago. Readers seeking markers of such agency—which remain critically important in attempts to imagine lives in the Pacific as well as in Canada—must in this case look elsewhere, while perhaps also awaiting Yamada’s unfinished text.

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