Joyful Insurrections

One of the joys of my adult life has been reading, teaching, and learning with Hiromi Goto’s inimitable words. And I am not talking here about a depoliticized form of emotion but a critical mode of joy that can shape and transform worlds. (The feminist killjoy Sara Ahmed has taught us well!) Those already initiated in Goto’s prose will agree that her heroines are unforgettable: Naoe, the irreverent grandmother figure in Chorus of Mushrooms; the ethically minded Sayuri in The Water of Possibility; Melanie, the determined teenager in Half World; and Stinky Girl, critic extraordinaire in Hopeful Monsters, to name a few. What these women have in common is their vitalism and what I call their joyful dissent. In Shadow Life, Goto’s first graphic novel, the magnificent seventy-six-year-old Kumiko Saito is no exception: she is stubborn, she is passionate, she is hilarious, and she lives her life loudly and unapologetically. As stated by Goto in her author’s note, it is rare to find complex representations in the media of older women, particularly BIPOC queer elders. To counteract this lack, Goto and the book’s illustrator, Ann Xu, delightfully bring the unstoppable Kumiko to life, inviting readers to immerse ourselves into her habits and routines through sixteen chapters, from Kumiko’s refusal to stay in an assisted-living home to her renting, against her daughters’ wishes, an apartment in a queer neighbourhood in Vancouver.


If this is your first encounter with Xu’s work, I urge you not to stop here and to indulge in her middle-grade graphic novel Measuring Up (2020). In Shadow Life, marketed for an adult audience, Xu’s black, grey, and white drawings complement Goto’s narrative in exquisite ways. Kumiko’s force and agency are emphasized through the systematic use of panels drawn from her vantage point; extreme close-ups highlighting Kumiko’s emotional reactions, such as laughing and bursting into tears of joy; and the recurrent bird’s-eye-view shots of her body swimming in the pool or lying down at night, thinking. The multimodal narrative unfolds through a well-crafted blend of realistic and fantastic elements. Kumiko, who describes herself as a “kind of a castoff” (14), embarks on a battle to trick death, presented in the form of variously shaped black-inked shadows that attempt to infiltrate her apartment. The complex topic of death is often treated humorously through the emphasis on the ordinariness of life. Kumiko successfully traps death’s shadow in a second-hand vacuum cleaner she purchases from Meena, who is one of the “colourful” cast of secondary characters, as Xu puts it (Goto and Xu, “Behind”). Some of these younger characters also bring the question of intergenerational alliances and tensions to the forefront of the narrative. Whereas Kumiko’s daughter Mitsuko is consistently presented as infantilized, highly worried, and utterly frustrated by her mother’s agency, other characters, such as Mark and Yusuf, care about Kumiko in kinder ways. They cook food for her or try to be helpful without interfering or trying to control her. As Kumiko reflects, “I guess there’s Nice Meddling and Meddler’s Meddling” (56). I read these passages as modes of queer care that traverse temporal and spatial frameworks.


The importance of time and memory is indeed central to the graphic novel. There are numerous panels of Kumiko and her former girlfriend, Alice, interspersed into the present, infusing the narrative with a sense of trans-temporality where queer care matters. These memories quietly enter the present, inviting readers to understand Kumiko’s complexity and full life. There are panels where we see them at the cinema, reading Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), arguing, and sleeping together. Some of these illustrations are fused with a shadow, signalling the looming presence of pain, loss, and death. However, the intimacy these women share, their past, and their longings are treated by Goto and Xu with a sense of joy that disrupts any melancholic inclinations or sense of nostalgia—a form of joyful dissent that permeates many of Goto’s fictional worlds, in my view.


I cannot recommend Shadow Life enough to fans of the graphic novel genre, readers invested in queer stories, and teachers committed to integrating BIPOC writers and artists as central to their syllabi. The novel’s sense of queer kinship and community is celebrated again at the end, where a mode of collective love for Kumiko triumphs as she wins her battle against death. Shadow Life presents a world that is drawn following the influences of manga and Goto’s grandmother Naoe, as Goto shares in the author’s note. This is also a graphic novel that was published during COVID-19, a global pandemic that has intensified social and economic inequities, racism, sexism, and ableism, among other necropolitical processes. At this historical juncture, as Goto rightly contends, “humour is a way to speak back to despair” (qtd. in Mlynek). I thus urge you to dive into Goto’s and Xu’s joyful insurrections in Shadow Life, and to let yourself be moved to feel, laugh, and act.


Works Cited

Goto, Hiromi, and Ann Xu. “Behind the Scenes of Shadow Life with Hiromi Goto and Ann Xu.” YouTube, uploaded by VanCAF, 22 May 2021, 7vaEi4q2pvs&t=5s. Accessed 11 July 2021.

Mlynek, Alex. “In Shadow Life, an Asian Elder Isn’t a Victim. She’s the Hero.” Broadview, 26 Mar. 2021, Accessed July 9, 2021.

This review “Joyful Insurrections” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 22 Feb. 2022. Web.

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