Clarissa Goenawan: Rainbirds, Soho Press, 2018.
I get a little tired at times of how many foreign writers set their stories in Japan – it’s quite a different matter if it’s a memoir of living in Japan for a while like Polly Barton or Florentyna Leow, or fiction featuring someone visiting Japan from abroad (like Jessica Au). But it can feel ever so slightly like cultural appropriation when it is set in Japan and features Japanese characters, as it will inevitably be perceived as representative of that culture. Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands irritated me tremendously, for example, while Nicolas Obregon’s crime novels set in Tokyo are ok but nothing exceptional. It’s just me being grumpy, but there are so many Japanese authors out there that give us a real insight into that culture – or write about other interesting things, maybe even about life in the West?
Anyway, please ignore me when I get on my ranting-podium. This was Goenawan’s debut novel, but given that her two subsequent novels are also ‘Japanese’, we might assume that she actually lives in Japan now and is fully immersed in that culture (her author bio only says ‘an Indonesian-born Singaporean writer, so I really don’t know).
This one has been billed as ‘a spellbinding mystery’, since it opens with the murder of a young woman Keiko Ishida in the small town of Akakawa. Her brother Ren, who is about to graduate from university and also seems to be the only one from the family who cares about what happened to her, comes to pick up her belongings and to discover what happened to her. It appears that he didn’t know Keiko as well as he thought he did, and he is riddled with guilt that he wasn’t there for her. The mystery, however, is not really the point of the story. Instead, it’s about Ren spending six months replacing his sister at the cram school where she was employed and meeting all sorts of people who played a part in his sister’s life.
I found the family secrets a bit tedious, to be honest, and the book overall felt a little bit as if it were trying too hard to portray the quirkiness of Japanese culture and the melancholy/whimsical style of contemporary Japanese authors like Murakami and Kawakami. Nevertheless, it was a good enough read that I finished it in 2-3 days, just not very memorable. Also a peeve about the book cover (not the author’s fault at all, of course): why are there fish on the cover rather than birds or rain or a dreary Japanese provincial town?
Drusilla Modjeska: The Mountain, Vintage Books, 2012.
You might also accuse Modjeska of cultural appropriation for this book set in Papua New Guinea. However, this author (Australian now, although she was born in England) grew up in Papua New Guinea and lived there through most of the period described in the novel (1968-71) as the country seeks to gain its independence (which it finally did in 1975). Furthermore, several of her main characters are Australian or European, anthropologists and their wives, who have come to do fieldwork and teach at the newly-established and only half-built University of Papua New Guinea.
The book has two timelines – the present (set in 2005) and the past (1968-73). In the past, Martha, Rika, Leonard, Aaron, Milton, Jacob, Laedi are friends and a mix of nationalities, including natives of the island – they befriend each other, fall in and out of love, help each other, annoy each other, betray and hurt each other. In the present, Jericho is their son and protégé, who was raised in the United Kingdom and now decides to return to Papua New Guinea for the first time since his childhood and reconnect with his mountain village. I can see why the author included a prologue set in the present, dropping just sufficient hints to make us want to read about the past and how it got to the situation in the present, but it wasn’t necessary for my enjoyment of the book.
As with the Rainbirds book, I did not find the family secrets aspect of the story the most compelling. I was far more interested in the cultural differences and racism, the satirical eye cast upon some of the anthropologists, the descriptions of local traditions. Although the isolated village high up in the mountains described in the novel is fictional, the fjords do exist, as do the bark-cloth artefacts which the villagers try to make a ‘biznis’ of at some point. And I’m certain that many of the traditions the author describes are derived from anthropological materials, such as the description of the dance ritual lasting all night which Jericho has to participate in to win the trust of the villagers and prove himself a worthy descendant.
There are many discussions and arguments in the book about what colonialism has done to the local culture, and what independence might look like, all fascinating and only occasionally erring into the more educational rather than entertaining. But how else can you show the tensions between cultures, between the older and the younger generation?
‘I suppose it’s what happens when you’re caught between two cultures,’ Martha says when they leave. ‘Two epochs.’
‘Does that mean we take the worst from each?’ Bili snaps.
It’s easy enough for you, she says to Martha, living in Sydney, to buy the liberal version. Easy enough to say that all these cultural manifestations are equally valid, equally important. It’s another form of racism to say it’s fine if a young man dies for a cultural belief that wilfully prefers witchcraft over medical science. Is that what Martha wants? For us to say, fine, you go on believing the world is flat and the stars are made from the souls of dead ancestors and we’ll say you’re just as right as anyone else, and in the meantime those who have good hospitals will reap the rewards of your ignorance and make off with your resources.
I particularly enjoyed the chapters written from the viewpoint of the Papuans or New Guineans themselves (and I didn’t even know that the different tribes don’t consider themselves homogenous). For example, this is what Milton the writer (who studied in Melbourne) says about white people, and about his white girlfriend Tessa:
All his anger poured onto the page as he banged away at the keys: anger against Tessa for when she’d turned her back as if he’d never been there. He’d made a scene, that’s what Tessa called it… Anger at the playwright who arrived back in Melbourne from New York boasting about having met Allen Ginsberg, swaggering around with a joint in one hand and Tessa in the other. The arrogant shit. It turned out he was a cousin of Tessa’s sister’s godmother, whatever that was. These white people who wander the world peddling their belief in the artist freed from the primitive demands of kin and clan, they’re as highly regulated and interconnected as any Papuan. It turns out to matter as much to them who their families are, and who they have engaged in obligation and the play of status. It’s just not as obvious, and they don’t admit it. You’d need to be an anthropologist to make sense of it.
In the end, I wonder if my (by no means perfect, but still, reasonably good) knowledge of Japanese culture lowered my rating for Rainbirds, while my complete ignorance and therefore curiosity about Papua New Guinea increased my enjoyment of The Mountain. Still, I don’t think I’ll keep either of them on my bookshelves.