Interview with the Translator: Hills of Silver Ruins, Outlaws

Kate: Speaking of a dangerous environment, the outlaws introduced in Book 1 of Hills of Silver Ruins certainly evoke the Wild, Wild West and of course, as a later post discusses, Japan produced the seminal "Western" work with The Seven Samurai.

Americans look back on that time with fondness, emphasizing the independence and ignoring the starving-to-death factor. Ono is combining both, of course. The outlaws here are far more vicious and uncontrollable, although, like Elias's gang, they can be honorable within specific parameters.

Is the "wild" past of Japan like the Catholic past for Protestant Englishers? Fascinating but please, none of it here? Are Ono's gangs more like the Japanese perception of yakuza (which can include a own code of honor)?

Are yakuza cowboys?

Eugene: It depends on the cowboys. Certainly not the "traditional" Hollywood Gene Autry cowboy. The analogy works better if you shift the historical references to the Lincoln County War and Billy the Kid. Those were Battles Without Honor and Humanity, which is also the title of the yakuza movie series produced during the 1970s. The series redefined the genre the same way that Sam Peckinpah did the western.

The modern yakuza came into their own during the Occupation when they took over and ran the black market. And fought each other for territory. The yakuza during this period compare well to the land gangs in Hills of Silver Ruins, as they assumed control over the entire local economy from the supply chains down to the retail level. And like the land gangs, they were a byproduct of government policies.

In the short span of time between the end of the war and the beginning of the Occupation, corrupt politicians and military officers stole billions and then resold their ill-gotten gains on the black market. It was a moral outrage, of course, but it would have been better for all concerned to regulate those markets rather than attempt to stamp them out. Society simply couldn't survive without the black markets.

To be sure, even at the time, they were seen as a necessary evil. Their persistent popularity has much to do with the ability of the police (and the groups themselves) to insulate themselves from the general population.

During the height of the Cold War, the yakuza also supported right-wing political factions that could be deployed against left-wing "agitators." Thus the yakuza also came to fashion themselves as a modern Shinsengumi defending "traditional values." Unsurprisingly, the Shinsengumi are hugely romanticized today, though they were more likely "a bunch of hitmen hired by a repressive regime."

But that Cold War is over, and over the past quarter century or so, the police have cracked down hard and pushed the yakuza further and further into the fringes (and at the same time into legitimate businesses). Now less of a threat unless expressly sought out, the Gene Autry version has reemerged in shows like The Way of the Househusband, The Yakuza's Guide to Babysitting, and Hinamatsuri.

One of the running jokes in The Way of the Househusband has Tatsu running into yakuza who have aged out of the business or whose organizations are simply no longer in business.

On the other hand, last year's ultraviolent (and well-received) Akiba Maid War, which restages Battles Without Honor and Humanity in 1990s Akihabara but makes all the participants cute girls from warring maid cafes, is a paean to the past. Like a yakuza babysitter, the dark humor rises from the juxtaposition of cute girls in frilly outfits mercilessly spilling blood like cinematic yakuza from fifty years ago.

Though even there, the series concludes with a present-day reminiscence about the 1990s as "way back then."

Problems with Utopias: Change is Normal

For the epilogue to His in Herland, I needed to figure out, "How would Alima Asytanax adapt to his new environment?"

The problem (from a writing point of view): I didn't think he would have any trouble adapting at all. Truthfully. (Oh, no, where's the conflict!?) My students from outside the U.S. adjust fairly quickly to life in the U.S., those who come from rural areas and refugee camps and those who come from cities in Africa, South America, Russia, and South Korea. They complain about winters in the Northeast. Otherwise, American modern life in a small city is not that big a deal.

For Alim, there would be some adjustments, of course. But what would they be?

I wrote The Translator.

Eugene: I agree that human beings evolved to adapt. It's literally in our genes. If anything, unless we actively swim against the tide and (purposely) give ourselves culture shock, we adapt faster than we expect. Language aside, the foreign isn't as foreign as we often want it to be.

The stumbling blocks are usually the mundane day-to-day stuff, not the National Geographic stuff. Like how the plumbing works. Or the sheer density of human activity.

In Non Non Biyori, which takes place in the sticks, pretty much anybody from anywhere else is exotic. So the hometown girl once treated as remarkable because she attends school in a nearby city now finds herself upstaged by the new girl who moved from Tokyo. Tokyo!

A common trope in anime and manga is the alien who shows up in Tokyo and almost immediately fits into daily life. This trope is not without precedent. In the mid-19th century, after 250 years of isolation, the Japanese government sent delegations all over the world and the rest of the world sent delegations to Japan.

I've always thought it's a good model for how an alien invasion would actually play out.

It seems that anime and manga became ubiquitous practically overnight (though it took half a century). Publishers figured out pretty quickly that they didn't have to flip the page order in manga. K-drama caught on even faster.

Kate: Your comment about "mundane day-to-day stuff" reminded me: during my study abroad in England, I got irritated because British stationary stores sold A4 size paper rather than 8-1/2 x 11, and the A4 wouldn't fit well in my notebook (and I'm used to America, which even back then sold every paper size). A peer commented that it was the first time she had seen me behave in an insular fashion (my peers kept complaining about the weather) but it was the first time I actually felt inconvenienced. I didn't make the mistake of bringing only shorts, short-sleeve shirts, and sandals for a stay in England in July. Different currency was a given. Bank holidays were irritating but not that big a deal. The underground was fun! I adored the ability to buy little cheeses at Sainsbury rather than blocks of the stuff (and I loved the pastries). The dinky kitchen in our flat was cute. Ribena, though gross, was interesting.

But paper of the wrong size? Ahhhhh.

Consequently, Alima's epilogue stresses his ability to adapt. Life may get overwhelming--and then there's the unfamiliar plumbing.  Otherwise, life is life.

Utopias are static environments. Human beings, however devoted they become to routine or perhaps because they are so good are turning anything into routine, are not.  

Note about images in the epilogue: One of my previous versions of His in Herland took place at the same time as the novel. Terry stowed Alim in Herland and went to fight in World War I. Alim and many of the women helped wounded soldiers who found themselves near Herland. Terry eventually returned, flying his tattered plane the last few miles after a dogfight to crash-land near Herland and be taken in. He survived.

I retained those images since my point still stands: Alim is willing to take on a supposedly more dangerous, less apparently streamlined world when he leaves Herland. 

Utopias are the equivalent of magical thinking: a desire to pretend that the weirdness and randomness and uncertainty and "we don't know the future" nature of life has been "handled," put in its place, rendered innocuous, non-threatening, manageable, unsurprising. 

Alim abandons that pretense.

Alim's Epilogue

His in Herland or Astyanax in Hiding

Fairy Tales: Unappealing and Ubiquitous Andersen

When I first started A-Z List 7, I knew I would need to tackle Hans Christian Andersen eventually. I was not looking forward to the experience. 

Turns out, I am not as averse to Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales as I initially assumed. I realized, looking over his bibliography, that a number of tales I didn't associate with Andersen, such as "The Wild Swans," are his. I will address some of those tales in a later post.

Unfortunately, the Andersen tales I really dislike, I really dislike.  

As I mention in an earlier post, I'm not automatically opposed to Disney's sweetness-and-light approach to fairy tales. For that matter, I don't care if Disney wants to use its movies as vehicles for a particular philosophy. Welcome to capitalism! The company can produce all the stuff it wants. I can watch it or not as I please. 

"The Little Mermaid" is one place where I greatly appreciated Disney not going down the maudlin, depressing angst corridor (if you don't know whereof I speak, read the original tale). 

Don't get me wrong: Andersen is a skilled storyteller.  "Ugly Duckling," "Little Match Girl," "The Tin Soldier," not to forget "The Little Mermaid" are all memorable because they capture a zeitgeist exceedingly well. 

But doing something well is not the same as doing something everybody wants to read, just as disliking something personally doesn't mean there isn't another audience out there for it. 

I find many of Andersen's tales unbelievably depressing. Even the "Ugly Duckling," which ostensibly has a happy ending, rests on a desperate and unnerving desire for approval by others. And the sad deaths of so many of Andersen's characters begin often with rejection by others. 

I can appreciate that the tales reflect the author--I can even appreciate that they despondently zero in on part of the human condition. It's like every emo Goth in the universe got together to grouch, "Life is so depressing, you know, a dark pit of despair and nothingness. Yeah, yeah, like that."

I chose "The Snow Queen" for this post because it is more chilling--ha ha--than down-in-the-dumps. And has impacted our culture greatly, from Frozen to ballets to literary references. 

In "The Snow Queen," Gerda joins a notable pantheon of heroines searching for lovers, suitors, brothers, and other male missing persons. The trope has a long history.

Note: Regarding folklore, a trope is a narrative element that shows up in more than one tale. A motif is a singular element (in literary analysis, the motif is often connected to theme). Gathering helpers to search for a lover is a trope. A magical ring or object is a motif.

Kay is rescued from the Snow Queen--or, rather, from the shards of a broken mirror that turned him into a posturing jerk ("I'd like to know if you deserve to have someone running to the end of the world after you," says the robber girl to Kay). The Snow Queen is never specifically punished. Rather, like mermaids, the Snow Queen exists at a remove: untouchable, indifferent, ruthless, snow itself. Punishing her would be pointless (especially if you live in Northern Europe).    

Kay is rescued from the allure of perfection and returned to the warmth and complications and oddities of everyday life, including all the good, imperfect helpers Gerda met along her journey: "Kay and Gerda looked into each other's eyes. There they stood, grown up and yet children--children at heart--and it was summer, warm and delightful summer." 

Vladyslav Yerko's version of the tale is gorgeously illustrated. I rather wish the final picture corresponded to the text--all the main characters remain children except the queen. But the gap between image and text is easy to overlook, the book is so beautiful. 

"The Snow Queen" is not only one of Andersen's (ultimately) more positive tales, it seems to present an answer from Andersen to Andersen about the double-edged sword of pursuing the unattainable. As a writer, rather than a collector, of fairy tales, Andersen created cultural phenomenons, memorable tales whose tropes and motifs touch on the human condition. They add to it. They complicate it. They make it whole. They don't need to be perfect to be valuable.

They may not have made their creator very happy. But his feat is worthy of Gerda's search. 

Interview with the Translator: Hills of Silver Ruins, Poverty

Kate: When Risai and others enter Tai, they encounter a ravaged and danger-filled country, rife with poverty. 

A great deal is discussed about poverty in the books, especially in Hills of Silver Ruins. I know from previous conversations with you and from your post on “parasite singles” that in Japan, individuals are expected, even required, to go to their families first before they go to the state. In the manga series, What Did You Eat Yesterday? Kenji’s deadbeat father hasn’t lived with the family for years, yet the local welfare agency sends a letter to the mother anyway, basically asking, “Is there anything you can do?” The family meet and confer before sending back a polite negative. (Americans would call up the local Social Security office and rant for twenty minutes.)

The discussions in Hills of Silver Ruins seem to focus on people helping themselves but only if the structures are in place that make that possible—Sure, we will work hard but we have to be allowed to get jobs and take home the cash. Hence, Gyousou’s efforts, described in more than one book, to end as peacefully as possible the siege on the town that wouldn’t pay taxes—because the town had a point.

Does Ono’s attitude here towards poverty reflect a general attitude in Japan? Or a specific political/economic attitude held by a specific group?

Eugene: Kipling could have written "The Gods of the Copybook Headings" as a treatise about contemporary Confucian attitudes toward life and work in Northeast Asia.

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
Thus, as in The Devil is a Part Timer, the first thing a stranded alien does when he shows up in Japan is go to school or get a job (or both).

 In Kaguya-sama: Love Is War, Kaguya's father, a soulless business machine (with intimations of connections to organized crime), is not treated with as much contempt as Miyuki's layabout father. In contrast, the most valiant stock character in all of Japanese fiction is the single mother who keeps hearth and home together despite the most bizarre of circumstances. Seiko in The Demon Girl Next Door is an excellent example.

In Asian society, "make work" is not an anathema. In practice, lifetime employment necessarily results in low productivity and overall lower wages, as does overhiring. But it is a price Japanese society has long been prepared to pay, and with little debate. Hence the ubiquitous sight of "elderly guys, wearing bright orange jackets, waving what looks like a cheap lightsaber toy around" in the vicinity of any construction zone.

That's pretty much the situation we see developing at the end of book 3 of Hills of Silver Ruins.

Soup kitchens and boarding houses were built in cities where large numbers of refugees had congregated. Agents set up shop among them, recruiting workers to rebuild the towns and cities damaged by war and natural disasters. Despite the meager wages, news of paying jobs drew in more refugees from outside Zui Province.

The job recruiter is depicted as a heroic role throughout the novel, and the "tax holiday" in order to encourage commerce (even on the black market) is seen as good policy.

Hajime Aoyama in Coffee Ikaga Deshou ("How About a Coffee") turned his life around (he was a mob enforcer for a loan shark) when he met a homeless man (Tako) who turned out to be a coffee connoisseur. In his makeshift shack beneath an underpass, he teaches Hajime the art of roasting, grinding, and brewing coffee. This category of homeless person is more an urban camper with extremely low overhead.

A romanticized view, to be sure, the self-organized homeless do come across as so well organized that it is not hard to see it as the lingering remnants of the black market economy from the post-war Occupation period. As Japan's society ages, social welfare policy is slowly stepping in to pick up the slack.

Getting back to Kipling, though, in Coffee Ikaga Deshou, this idea of coming to terms with your sins is a central theme, and Hajime must at some point confront his past, which also brings him into contact with Tako's estranged family.

Stargate & the Mary Sue: Why Daniel Isn't One

Literature Devil tackles what makes a Mary Sue character, sometimes male, often female. What makes a character a Mary Sue is debatable. Generally, as the attached video proposes, the Mary Sue is already good at everything. Doesn't have to learn. Doesn't have to grow. Doesn't have to make choices. Doesn't have to improve. Doesn't make mistakes. Instantly knows the right answers. Rises above the other characters by label, rather than merit and attainments. 

I postulate an additional definition. Recently, while rewatching Stargate (1994) for the fifth or sixth or seventh time, I noted that Daniel walks in and solves the initial inscription immediately. A ha: a genius!

So why is he less annoying than, say, Wesley on Star Trek: TNG?

The reason? He pays a price to get where he is. And he pays the price voluntarily. 

That is, Daniel is introduced to the viewer when he is trying to convince a group of fellow archaeologists of the "true" date of the pyramids. He waffles when asked, "So who do you think built the pyramids?" but sticks to his argument. His argument, moreover, is clearly the result of much study, as evidenced by the books and notebooks he lugs around. Despite his education, he still struggles to decipher the hieroglyphics on the capstones, evidenced by many sleepless nights. 

Moreover, his blithe assurance that he will be able to figure out the hieroglyphics on the other side of the Stargate turns out to be wrong. He is reliant on others to help him find the "tablets" so he can make the final link. This team trope from the movie is fully utilized in Stargate SG-1

Struggles without cost, I propose, is one of the problems of the Mary Sue. When a character doesn't have to risk in order to excel, the character is being applauded simply for existing/enduring, often (these days) for having the correct and proper and acceptable type of existence/endurance. (The ability to "endure" is a good quality that has been lifted to abnormal heights of reverence. It's one quality, not all of them.)

Another great example of a non-Mary Sue is Blizzard in One-Punch Man. Although gifted with enormous powers, she has taken a hard look at her circumstances. Amai Mask will never let her rise to "S" class. Does she struggle in the mid-"A"-range or stay at the top of the "B" level and shore up her position? 

Saitama listens to her more than he does her more powerful and constantly irritated sister. Despite his unstoppability, Saitama has a lovable weakness for drifters (mostly due to "been there done that still doing that" empathy). While he is rather at loose ends, he appears to respect those who make concrete choices, even if the choices aren't the best ones and not ones he would make  himself. (He argues with Blizzard; he also leaves her be.) Choice indicates risk, which Saitama no longer feels. Risk indicates the character willingly pays a price, even if--in the case of Daniel--the price is self-imposed exile from his profession.  

Fairy Tales: African Tales, Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales

For A-Z List 7, I picked up Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales CD Collection.

I admit to some trepidation--I've never entirely understood why I should be drawn to collections by celebrities. For instance, I've never understood why I am supposed to find a collection of poems by a Kennedy more valuable than a collection of poems by Bob Smith from Buffalo. Does a celebrity automatically confer literary status? In addition, such collections are often tied to a political purpose. Does the political purpose automatically confer literary status? (In the case of Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales, the purpose was charitable.)

There is a very funny Coach episode where Kelly and her husband want Luther to give them $5 for every mile they walk for a local charity. They expect to earn about $25. Luther offers to give them $25 to paint his garage, but they don't want to paint his garage. 

"How about I just give you the money?" he says. 

Dauber breaks in: "I'll paint your garage for $25, Luther."

So--I have my doubts about celebrity endorsements and celebrity concerts and what-not. 

However, I admire Nelson Mandela, and I love folktales, and the collection looked interesting, so I determined to give it a try. 

To avoid technical problems (skipping), I went to Audible and downloaded "The Cat That Came Indoors," edited by Hugh Tracey and told by Helen Mirren; "The Snake Charmer," edited by Nelson Mandela and told by Samuel L. Jackson, and then "The Snake Chief," edited by Nelson Mandela and told by Scarlett Johansson. 

The first two are so hilarious, the tales and the tellings, I began laughing on the sidewalk as I walked to the Portland Public Library. The third is a lovely classic groom-beast tale and reminded me of Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters.

I recommend the collection! In the world of charged language, the collection represents true diversity. A variety of tales. A variety of writers/editors. A variety of tellers from Don Cheadle to Gillian Anderson. The actors do a fantastic job and truly seem to enjoy themselves!

Interview with the Translator: Hills of Silver Ruins, History

Kate: The 12 Kingdoms series, including Hills of Silver Ruins, demonstrates a fascination with history. As good fantasy, Ono's world is true-to-life; the fantastical elements depend on consistent natural laws as do human advances and behaviors. 

I recently read a brief history of Japan for children. If anyone had asked me even three months ago, I would have assumed that Japan as a country stretched back as far as the Ancient Mediterranean Empires. I'm willing to bet that many people, who rely on general knowledge, would make the same assumption.

Is the perception of antiquity because the ancient and modern world are set side by side in Japan? Or is that Japan had those years of isolation; hence, "modern" for Japan is really recent (while for Westerners, "modern" is also kind of historical, starting with the end of Shakespeare's life)?

And do Japanese people share this perception—that Japan is really old—or are they busy exclaiming, "China is soooo much older!" and that accounts for the interest in China?

Eugene: I'd say that Japanese generally think of Japan as an old country that got new really fast. After all, compared to the United States, Japan is ancient. But several other factors play into this. First is that Japan can point to a cohesive polity that reaches further back than most of its European counterparts. As early as the Asuka period (538–710), there was an identifiable government, language, and culture of Japan.

Another key factor is the relationship with China, from which Japan borrowed its culture, orthography, and political organization. From the start, Buddhist institutions grafted themselves onto their Chinese (and Indian) counterparts and so could treat that ancientness as their own. In any case, there is plenty of hard evidence for home-grown ancientness, as the Jomon period dates from 6000–300 BCE.

For example, in the slice-of-life anime movie Laid Back Camp, the girls are restoring a run-down campground near Mt. Fuji when they discover shards of Jomon pottery. The project gets put on hold while archeologists excavate the site. This is considered a seamless part of Japanese history. The same applies to the thousands of "keyhole" burial mounds found across Japan that date to the Kofun period (300–538).

Where archeological evidence is lacking, myth will suffice, so the imperial line officially begins with Emperor Jimmu in 660 BCE, though there is little objective historical evidence for emperors that predate the Asuka period. Before that, we're in King Arthur territory. But like King Arthur, a really good myth almost qualifies as actual history.

Kate: Very interesting! On reflection, I decided that Japan offers a continuity that other places simply don't have. Anglo Saxon culture (500ish CE) became the determining culture of England with the Celts (1000 BCE) being the determining genetics. But in the meantime, there were the Romans and the Danes and the Normans, so that a later generation saw no connection between itself and, say, Stonehenge (there is no cultural or genetic connection) until nineteenth century nationalists began searching for a connection. Likewise, the cave paintings in France are older than just about anything but Werner Herzog's movie emphasizes a human connection rather than a French one.

Is Japan's uniqueness that it offers cultural memory--like the Middle East but without the grudges? 

Eugene: Japan as a coherent polity was in large part a product of the Genpei War (1180–1185) that ended the Heian period and the direct rule of the imperial household and moved the secular government far away from Kyoto to Kamakura. This separation of "church" and state not only preserved the imperial line but also the culture of the Heian period, which later shoguns could build upon to show how sophisticated they were. But for the most part, when it came to overthrowing the previous regime, "it's not personal, it's business." 
The link below is an example of how traditional culture in Japan (in this case, shrine visits and kimono) still permeates modern culture. It'd be sort of as if the majority of the population attended Midnight Mass, whether they were Catholic or not, and turned the experience into adorable pop art. 

Problems with Utopias: The Need for Individual Grace

At the end of His in Herland, I had to determine Alim's reaction to leaving his hometown and his country. It would have been easy--too easy--to give him a spat of disillusionment: Stupid utopia! Stupid adult authority figures! Stupid everyone! I'm a rebel, yo! 

I didn't. 

Reason 1: Despite my criticisms of utopia, my ultimate point is that Herland or Troas isn't one, no matter how much it wants to be. Like Miss Marple always finding the village corollary to the big bad city murderer, my point is, You thought you were so edgy and avant-garde. You're not. You're just like every other social order. Get over yourself. 

Which means Herland/Troas offers good and bad stuff. In fairness to Gilman, she crafts a world that is gorgeously pro-child. Alim would carry that away with him. 

Reason 2: Blaming parents, God, social orders is easy. Scapegoating is easy. Developing narratives and abstracted theories that shovel the blame onto history,  a being, a specific group is easy

Personal responsibility is hard and therefore, more interesting. 

I like Alim. As his creator, I want him to grow up, not trade on a victim narrative and call on a "higher order" that would allow him to hide behind rules/someone else's demands or wallow in how unfair his life has been. 

His father died in ancient Troy. His mother was killed by monsters soon after. He wandered for generations underground. He had to hide his sex when he went to the center of his own country. 

Yet as Terry would say, "So what?" 

As Eugene, The Translator, states:

[W]e are all products of our culture and rarely think to question it. Fish discover water last. It's always easier to point at those other people in that other culture. I think there are a whole lot of unhappy people in the Occident [like everywhere else] who can't divorce themselves from the culture that defines the boundaries of their lives and end up trapped by those expectations.

Like the nature versus nurture debate, splitting the difference is a good place to start. But that means half is on you.

Alim is more reflective than Terry. However, Terry is his mentor. Terry's is the perspective he adopts. 

And it lends him grace. He makes choices, then accepts the outcomes, good or bad. That's life. In the meantime, he can appreciate what he has gained, what he hopes to gain, what life offers.

Chapter 20 & Chapter 21

His in Herland or Astyanax in Hiding

Fairy Tales: African American Folktales

African-American folktales are great examples of the process of adaptation that all folktales undergo. 

Despite the efforts of Grimm and Lang et al., there is no such thing as "pure" culture. Attempts to argue otherwise--once there was a pure culture and then it was corrupted but we can get it back--whether the argument is made by alt-right or alt-left theorists is balderdash. Humans like to make claims to stuff. But just because something currently seems tightly connected to a culture doesn't mean that it always ways. 

See chronocentrism here and here.

So "All God's Chillen Had Wings," a classic African-American tale, evokes elements from African tales, the condition of slavery in North American, and Christian texts.

Adaptation gives folktales their power--and their universality. They speak to a need to keep communicating, no matter what.  "Folklore," Hurston wrote, "is the boiled-down juice of human living."

I'm a fan of Zora Neale Hurston who began collecting African-American folklore before the Arts & Crafts Movement in America really took off--that is, she foresaw a need before it became popular. She took down tales in their "vernacular," respecting the tellers. 

One of my favorite collected tales by Hurston is "Mosquito Lies" where a "gnat" eats up  six-yoke and twelve-yoke teams! It drills through a cast-iron pot!

The exaggeration conveys the reality. If you've ever dealt with mosquitos in the Northeast and Southeast, you believe it! Though the image is from Alaska:

In addition, Virginia Hamilton, illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon, has produced several beautiful anthologies of African-American folklore (see above), including Her Stories.  

Interview with the Translator: Hills of Silver Ruins, The Novel

Kate: Hills of Silver Ruins is the most recent novel in The Twelve Kingdoms Series by Ono Fuyumi. You have translated many of the others and are now working on the long-anticipated Hills of Silver Ruins

Does the book seem a culmination to the series?

Eugene: Hills of Silver Ruins is Fuyumi Ono's first Twelve Kingdoms novel since 2001, though she published a collection of short stories in 2013 that take place in the Twelve Kingdoms universe. Her previous novel, Zan'e in 2012, is in the contemporary horror genre (the other half of her oeuvre). Hills of Silver Ruins is a sequel to The Shore in Twilight.

Although Youko is the featured character that springs to mind, Taiki has actually commanded as much or more of her attention over the series. The epic Hills of Silver Ruins does feel like her swan song, though along with Hayao Miyazaki (whose absolutely, positively last film, How Do You Live? opens next summer), I wouldn't count out another installment down the road.

Kate: Does the book include recurring themes? 
Eugene: I see two themes playing out throughout the series. The first is how the divine interferes in human affairs. Though the cause and effect are more explicit than in our world, there are still those who see around them a mechanical universe that, once set in motion, does not need a god to continue operating.

Rousan appears to be carrying out an experiment that Shouryuu (the Imperial En) once mused about when he contemplated what he would do if he got bored with being emperor (since to abdicate is to die). What would happen if he threw a wrench into the gears of that mechanical universe? Would it self-correct and how? The conclusion (so far) is that the universe of the Twelve Kingdoms does indeed self-correct while making the maximum allowances for human agency.

In fact, Ono often inveighs against legalism as a basis for both life and political governance, which brings up the other theme: the difference between reigning and ruling.

Asen was so hellbent on reigning that he gave little thought to actually ruling (and he was a nihilist going in). I wonder if Ono was thinking of Ying Zheng, the brutal king of Qin, when she created Asen. I'm pretty sure Ying Zheng was an inspiration for Shoukei's father (the assassinated emperor of Hou) at the beginning of A Thousand Leagues of Wind.

Another historical reference that springs to mind is Oda Nobunaga's assault on Mt. Hiei in 1571. It roughly parallels Asen's attack on Zui'un Temple. The real Nobunaga and the fictional Asen are two Nietzschean peas in a pod.

The most successful kingdoms are those where the emperor or empress reigns but doesn't try to run everything themselves or try to fix everything all at once. This was a major problem at the onset of the Meiji era. There's no disputing the need for reform but the ruling oligarchy moved so fast they triggered numerous revolts, culminating in the Satsuma Rebellion, that could easily have been avoided.

Gyousou fell into the same trap and even sent Taiki abroad so he could act with fewer checks and balances.

By contrast, Shouryuu once appointed a man to be province lord who was "so busily engaged in pilfering the public treasury he had no interest in plotting political conspiracies or leading insurrections." Because a greedy rich man worries him less than a Machiavellian interested in power for its own sake. Such lowly passions are easier to control with carrots and sticks.

On the other hand, especially in chapter 21 of book 4, Asen comes across as a funhouse mirror image of Saitama from One Punch Man. Asen defines himself in terms of his rivals. The breaking point came when he realized that his rivalry with Gyousou was entirely one sided. He awoke from his prolonged funk when Taiki showed up because Taiki became another player to compete with.

Kate: After multiple translated books and manga, do you find the translation process harder? Easier? 

Eugene: I'm considerably better as a translator than I was when I started out but Fuyumi Ono doesn't make it easy with her extensive use of Chinese and references to medieval Chinese culture. Vocabulary aside, she has a clear and comprehensible style. I usually read about half a dozen chapters ahead. I make so many notes along the way that I have to start writing while it's fresh in my mind.


Animals: Dead Dogs

Speaking of animals...

A surprising number of children's books end with dead animals, dead dogs in particular. As the Friends' clip indicates, Phoebe's well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful mother switched off films before the horrible endings. Phoebe is utterly shocked at Old Yeller's fate!

Maybe, instead, her mother should have put the movie in the freezer.

One rather impressive example of a children's book that ends with a dead animal is L.M. Boston's The Stranger at Green Knowe. Hanno, the gorilla, escapes the zoo and ends up at Green Knowe where his presence is temporarily protected by Ping. The writer pulls no punches. Hanno's capture is detailed. The zoo's inefficiences are clearly presented. The keeper is portrayed as intelligent, kindly, and well-meaning. He knows Hanno's limitations in captivity but there is only so much he can do. The risk to Ping is clear--Hanno is not some cutesy, tamed pet. He may love Ping. He could also easily kill him.

Consequently, as the story moved towards its climax, I was at a loss for how it could possibly be resolved to any degree of satisfaction. 

And yet, the end is satisfactory. 

Finally, yes, yes, it's Cosby. And the clip is fantastic! (Dogs occur at the beginning; gorillas occur at the end.)

Fairy Tales: A-Z List 7, Introduction (Again)

A-Z List 7 tackles fairy tales in various guises. 

I originally tackled A-Z List 7 by subject-matter organization or Dewey Decimal number: 398.2, 398.20.., 398.21...

I changed my mind. For one, not all libraries use similar numbering for the same item. Aesop is cataloged under 398.2, 398.24, 398.209 in the Maine Minerva system (even 811 when a fable is included in an anthology). I often couldn't tell where one subject-matter left off and another began, especially since I borrow books from more than one library. 

I am not advocating a single designation for Aesop by the way. I find the various choices illuminate how a text is perceived. It CAN be cataloged in different ways!

But for the sake of transparency...

I either needed to pick a library and read every single picture book within 398 or skip around, which wouldn't give the list much cohesiveness or an end point. 

Not that an end is required, but I needed some kind of organizational approach.

Portland Public Library uses the alphabetical approach. I resisted this approach at first as lacking variety. (A whole month of Grimm? Really?!) But in fact, the alphabetical approach still offers surprises. 

I also found, being a lover of context and history, that I was looking up collectors and authors of various tales anyway. I figured I might as well use the system that gives me those collectors and authors upfront.

Portland Public Library starts with Aesop. 

I don't count Aesop's fables as fairy tales. But it is a good place to start since it begins what will likely become a theme in these posts: What IS a fairy tale? 

I have nothing against Aesop's fables as fables and actually use them in my composition course when I illustrate the line between fiction and essay. Aesop is right on the line. 

In fiction, a story doesn't have to prove anything. 

In essay writing, however, a story must prove a claim. I don't come right out and say, "Oh, please, stop writing essays about yourselves!" But I get very close. 

I don't reject first-hand, primary observations, however, because I want students to learn the difference: a story about visiting New York to prove that New York is a good tourist spot is different from a meandering story about "how I felt one day and what I learned." 

Aesop falls into the first category. Though the lessons weren't originally attached to the stories, they are clearly meant as aids to pondering deeper truths. The lion and mouse aren't going on some talk show to unload their personal moments of crisis to a voyeuristic audience. The lion and mouse are proving:

Little friends may prove great friends.

Problems with Utopias: How to Get Out

Utopias are not automatically closed environments. However, leaving a utopia is almost always difficult. In Lost Horizon, despite continual warnings, Lo-Tsen (book)/Maria (movie) leaves Shangri-la, whereupon she immediately dies from old age--after a tremendous number of people are killed in an avalanche (movie).

The problem of leaving is partly connected to the politics of a utopia--lost citizens require restructuring of the remaining social order. But I propose a still older reason. Utopias often bleed into the fairy realm, and leaving the fairy realm always requires a cost: 

Tam Lin transforms into various animals, Rip Van Winkle--and others--lose time. Eurydice can only leave the Underworld if her lover performs a task. 

And tasks must be completed, including potential sacrifices. As Terry says in Chapter 18, "I was here in the tunnels to take risks."

I support this particular trope. A change in life requires costs. It requires that the protagonist delivers up something of the self. Alim from His in Herland not only accepts that he may never be able to return. He makes and owns a concrete decision. He "acts on the world," choosing to leave rather than simply follow Terry's lead (Terry sacrifices his reputation--such as it is--for the ability to leave).

Writing problems arise when writers don't want their protagonists to take this inner risk. 

The problem doesn't appear to be attached to suffering. Suffering delivers cache. The problem is a reluctance to force the protagonist to live with a choice. Perhaps writers fear having the protagonist make the wrong choice. Perhaps writers don't want their characters to have to choose. 

Nevertheless, it must happen. Keeping one's options open is hardly the point. The protagonist accepting responsibility is the point

I recently read a disappointing Christmas story. In the story, the protagonist--who went into a series of foster homes when his mother died--learns that his father is a substitute Father Christmas, an elf who filled in for Santa one night. 

Not a bad premise. (I'm not troubled by overdone premises.)

The problem: the writer wanted the foster situations that the protagonist suffered to be horrible. Look at all that suffering! 

Except then, the writer wanted to let the substitute Santa off the hook. The biological dad couldn't check in on his son because...ah...he was afraid he wouldn't be able to get back to Santa's world...except people was afraid Santa would be mad...except Santa is a really swell guy...but it's nobody's fault and nobody's responsibility...because the substitute Santa lives in another world, after all...except the protagonist can visit...only the substitute Santa can't leave...except people do leave, all the time...and by the way, the protagonist is about thirty, so the substitute Santa had three decades to overcome all the waffling. 

And the telephone system blew too--
amazingly enough.
It reminded me of Tom Hanks' character in You've Got Mail trying to invent reasons for his supposed no-show. 

I was disgusted. The protagonist's father abandoned his son and had no good narrative reason not to check in on him for thirty years. 

If a protagonist is going to abandon responsibility, the reason had better be a good one ("God" or "my clique" or "the social order told me too" or "we must for the sake of our perfect future" is not an acceptable reason). Otherwise, the protagonist needs to step up. 

In a sense, I've come back to where I started with these posts: to keep people in, there has to be a reason--and it has to be believable. If people determine to leave, they must bargain with the world's rules or--in the case of Terry & Alim--the Fates. As my Greek god tells Terry, “Everyone’s story has to be checked.”

Terry arrived through the tunnel--Alim and Terry leave through the tunnel after paying a toll: Fantasy Writing 101. 

Chapter 18 & Chapter 19

His in Herland or Astyanax in Hiding

Eowyn, Galadriel, and Tauriel

I am generally in favor of scriptwriters and directors taking liberties with books. I get annoyed when the scriptwriter clearly doesn't appreciate or understand the book's original version (far too many Agatha Christie remakes). But I also expect to see some creative, "between the lines" readings. 

Consequently, the introduction of Tauriel in Jackson's Hobbit trilogy never bothered me. In a recent re-watching of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I came to appreciate that Tauriel is thematically in-line with Tolkien's approach to many characters, male and female, including Eowyn. 

Eowyn is a fantastic character in the book and film trilogy. As John Howe states about Kili and Tauriel:

The relationship between Tauriel and Kili is like one of those love stories where people think they are falling in love when, in fact, they are actually falling out of love with everything else around them, and the only sympathetic face is someone they would never choose in other circumstances...

Likewise, Eowyn is attracted to Strider because of what he represents and because of the "cage" in which she sees herself. She is rushing away from a life that confined her, especially as her uncle appeared to sink into despondency. She craves more opportunities, a bigger canvas. 

She isn't ambitious for the sake of ambition. She doesn't want to be the queen of Middle Earth. Her marriage to Faramir is entirely believable. Because although she isn't ambitious, she truly can't go home again. 

In a similar way, Galadriel leaving Middle Earth is perceived by the lady herself as a loss. She would stay if she could--instead she will "diminish" and leave those shores. She can't return an earlier Age.

In many ways, Tolkien--and C.S. Lewis--understood the female spirit better than later writers who more noisily proclaim themselves feminists. 

Eowyn, Tauriel, and Galadriel (and Lucy and Jill) are, foremost, people with strong characters residing in a messy world. They make choices that send them into battle or into exile or into a new state of being. They enchant the reader and the viewer because their emotional reality is a open book, not because it is carefully labeled and boxed.

Christmas Tale: Kids Are Weird and Wonderful III

No, I won't be discussing "shooting your eye out." 

I have a vivid memory from first or second grade. Actually, maybe it was kindergarten. I'm sitting in the library in Lincoln School. The librarian has just finished reading us A Certain Small Shepherd by Rebecca Caudill, illustrated by William Pene du Bois, and I am enamored. As soon as she is done, I hop up and fetch the book to check it out. Another student is upset with me for getting to it first. I remember not the elation of "winning" but faint guilt followed by overwhelming relief that I didn't miss an opportunity.

That's it. 

I don't remember the content--or, rather, I suspect that I do but I'm not sure that I'm not conflating this book with a half-dozen others. 

Perhaps this is the problem with adult memory. We could be remembering anything.

However, I do remember the cover. And the cover--not the title--is how I found the book again. I decided to reread it. 

It's quite remarkable. For one, it takes place in the mid-twentieth century in Tennessee. And without making a big deal out of the fact, there obviously aren't a lot of state and federally-mandated school programs for the main character, Jamie, who is mute. 

Nor do the author and illustrator make a big deal out of the fact that the family that arrives at the protagonist's home on Christmas Eve is a black family who have already been turned away from several homes. The point is made clear as is the father's disappointment in his neighbors. But the event is presented within context, the experience of an observant boy.

The power of the book is not so much that Jamie regains his voice--I saw that coming (hey, it's a Christmas story!). It is rather how entirely normal he is--he gets frustrated at not being able to communicate. When he is made a shepherd, he is elated. When the pageant cancels due to the snowstorm, he is devastated. 

Consequently, the miracle is not only the miracle given the sweet-tempered and virtuous father (his son regains  his voice), the miracle is Jamie's decision to adopt his role for guests who have just become parents.  

The familiar ordinariness of the story, the humanness, coupled with the greatness of heart is what makes it a true Christmas tale.