September is National Translation Month! It is a great follow up to August which is celebrated as Women In Translation Month. So why not just continue August’s theme into September?
A great book to pick for this month is Where the Wild Ladies are by Matsudo Aoko. It is translated from Japanese to English by Polly Barton.
The book has a collection of 17 stories that reimagine famous Japanese ghost or yokai stories with a modern and feminist twist. Owing to that, all the stories possess a touch of the mystical and whimsical. Strange and surreal things are bound to happen. However, Matsudo recreates the ghosts, spirits and characters as modern-day Japanese individuals who are plagued by disillusion and sadness. However, unlike the female characters of the original stories, Matsudo’s versions do not wallow or weep endlessly. They display subtle courage that allows them to live by their own rules and challenge every form of sexism from the casual to the upfront.
For example, in the second story in this collection, Smartening Up, the protagonist repeats self-loving affirmations to herself like a mantra to heal after a bad breakup. She tries to up her ‘romantic potential’ by embracing movie and advert lifestyles. In doing so, she decides to dye her hair blond because as we know, all blondes in American movies meet their soul mates. Interestingly, her dead aunt visits as a ghost and gives her sane advice about letting the wildness of her hair remain intact. The story presents an unabashed glimpse into the perceptions around body hair and how women are shamed for it across the world. But thanks to her dead aunt’s ghost, the protagonist sheds her inhibitions and thankfully not her hair.
In Smartening Up, the ghost showcases will power and challenges romantic ideals women are expected to live by. In the other retellings, the ghosts from the original story are reincarnated in a modern avatar where they are freer and are not tied down by rigid patriarchal rules. One such beautiful story, The Missing One retells the tale of Okiku. She was a samurai’s servant, who was wrongly accused of losing one of the 10 precious plates in the samurai’s household. No matter how many times Okiku counted, she never found the 10th plate. The samurai decided to forgive her only if she became his mistress. Okiku refused and was consequently put to death. It is believed that Okiku’s ghost is never able to count to 10. A similar incident happens to Kikue, the protagonist in The Missing One. However, Kikue is not in a subservient position but a single woman and an owner of a shop: an unusual combination according to Japan’s standards. It is a heartwarming tale of Kikue navigating the mystery of the missing plate through her intelligence, despite the usual casual misogyny thrown at her for being a single woman running a shop.
No Japanese ghost stories or its retellings are complete without featuring the most famous of yokai: kitsune, or the fox spirit. In the story, A Fox’s Life, Kuzuha leads a free and emboldened life as a fox spirit which compared to her human life is far more empowering. As a human, she goes through the motions and does not even realise how she internalises all the prejudice about women and their capabilities.
That is one forte of Matsudo. She slips in the everyday discrimination in her prose be it Kikue’s internalized assumption that she will face flak for voicing her opinion or Kuzuha earning less than her male counterparts. Matsudo puts in these ideas so ironically and casually that they are best suited to reflect society’s equally casual attitude and acceptance of these discriminations. Through the premise of retelling folklore, Matsudo also portrays and questions the complicated layers of societal norms laid out for its inhabitants.
The stories are connected by a thread that weaves its way through other mysterious characters and ghostly reincarnations as well as a dreamlike incense factory! The stories also depict the pressures and assumptions that men face in the modern Japanese capitalistic society particularly through the characters of the ghost aunt’s son and the incense factory owner.
All the stories dabble in various narrative techniques and different points of view. This further shakes us out of our complacence, making us sit up and notice how abnormal the things we consider normal actually sound. It is interesting to note that it is ghosts and supernatural creatures, the ones considered abnormal, that lay bare this reality to the reader.
All the stories contain a preface that informs the reader about which classic ghost story the author has retold. It helps give context, especially to those who are unfamiliar with Japanese myths and ghosts. A list of the inspiration behind each story is also given at the end of the book.
Thus, Where the Wild Ladies Are appropriates the idea of ‘wild’ on its own feminist terms and not on narrow-minded ideas that limit women’s existence and individuality. For those looking for a simple as well as engaging read to step into the world of Japanese literature, this is a brilliant collection of stories to start with! Murakami is great, but let’s go beyond one author as well! It is always fun to explore more writers. Where the Wild Ladies Are presents the perfect start to that exploration of Japanese writing. With that, the reader can also delve into the world of Japanese beliefs and perhaps get inspired to read the original stories too.
You can buy the book here.