Innumerable Voices: The Short Fiction of Yukimi Ogawa

Innumerable Voices is a monthly column profiling short fiction writers and exploring speculative fiction themes in their many permutations. The column will discuss stellar genre work from both fresh and established writers who don’t have short fiction collections or novel-length works, but who actively contribute to anthologies and magazines. Links to magazines and anthologies for each story are available as footnotes. Chances are I’ll discuss the stories at length and mild spoilers will be revealed.

Since this week began with All Hallows’ Eve—the night on which ghouls and spirits pierce the veil to enter our realm—I cast my thoughts towards Yukimi Ogawa’s body of work, which grounds itself in Japanese folklore and engages the preternatural as a concept in an altogether different manner. Western stories about spirits, beasts, and guardians of forests and rivers—the ones I’d grown up reading and watching at the very least—are stories of segregation. The otherworldly has been driven off to its own realm, allowed to return only at specific times, as if there had been a decisive battle that we’d won long ago. Any subsequent visitation of the preternatural into our world is seen as violent and predatory, as impotent vengeance. A single-entity insurgence.

Reading Ogawa’s stories, especially the ones about the yōkai, I see a different narrative, one based on coexistence and intermingling. The spirits in her world haven’t gone anywhere, they’re still part of the world and an aspect of life that humans know about and have accepted, even if they don’t come to recognize the phantoms roaming alongside them or have moved on from fearing them. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Town’s End”[1] and “Rib”[2], as both stories reveal what it means for the yōkai to inhabit the same world as humans.

In “Town’s End”, Saeko Kimura wants nothing more than to do well at her job, so much so that she doesn’t even notice when the marriage agency she works at becomes a safe haven for female yōkai seeking human mates. There’s no conspicuous or malicious manifestation to disturb daily life, but rather a gradual intertwining of the mundane and preternatural as more spirits flock to Saeko, drawn to her helpful and generous nature, and pay for her assistance by stranger and stranger means. The four-act structure without an immediate conflict is a meditation on this world where there are no clear dividing lines between what’s human and what is not, and how kindness joins the two in peaceful cohabitation.

Ogawa’s approach to interpreting the supernatural is to make it relatable. This comes out in the way the feared Kuchisake-onna—a yōkai with a slashed mouth, stalking the streets at night to find her next victim—is conscious about the way she appears. It also comes out in the not-so-favorable and somewhat patronizing opinions that the yōkai express about humans that delighted me as a reader. But the biting remarks and dry humor live fully in “Rib”—a story about the unlikely kinship between an orphaned boy and a skeleton woman (a hone-onna).

The concept of monstrous femininity is prevalent in cultures all over the world. Scorned lover or carnal female desire that’s been weaponized, the monstrous female is terrifying, dangerous, a harbinger of death to men. The hone-onna performs her monstrosity in her initial encounter with the orphan and does so with dedication:

Stupid boy. It was time to learn a lesson. “Little apricot,” I said, slowly tugging at my head-cloth. “Are you sure your momma looks like… this!”

I threw back my head-cloth to reveal my face, hands (previously hidden in my sleeves) and all, that were all bones, bones, bones. I had the grace to arrange a dead woman’s hair on my bare skull like a wig, though. The skeleton woman was supposed to scare the life out of living people she didn’t like, and now, look what I got here: birds fluttering away, children standing dumbstruck; soon grownups would start to notice, start to scream. And of course, that was the way I expected the boy to react.

Amidst the chaos of scared things the boy widened his eyes, then gaped a few times. Then he said, “Sorry. You are so much more beautiful than my momma.”

The boy’s unexpected reaction subverts expectations and alters the narrative, as the hone-onna finds herself outside her designated role as a monster. What Ogawa does from here on is to humanize her, as acting against her nature reveals complexity and adds nuance to her existence. Later on in the story, she tells the reader “My intention wasn’t to kill,” and it’s both a striking, unexpected confession and the trigger for her redemption from her one-dimensional status as a dark creature. A similar redemption is then mirrored in “Icicle”[3], where the daughter of a yuki-onna (a snow woman who freezes people to death in mountains) leaves her home to learn about her human heritage and, in the end, emerges stronger.

But all these journeys are made in isolation. As monsters, these yōkai don’t have a choice but to exist in the margins—living in the world, but not accepted by it. Rather they are feared. They’re abject. They are on their own, shunned, causing panic and disgust wherever they go. These fears find ripe ground in “Hundred-Eye”[4], the story of a girl who, due to her being a thief, grows numerous eyes on her long arms. Given that her monster status is gained, rather than intrinsic to her being, the narrator is preoccupied with coping with her monstrosity and projects her anxieties, internalized self-horror and the trauma of acting as a source of fear onto her young charge—a child of a frightening birth. Yet, despite all this, Ogawa manages to maintain a hopeful tone as these abject women go on to find a modicum of inner peace.

In the context of the grander, overarching narrative regarding the roles and lives of women that Ogawa constructs over her body of work, inner peace and a promise for a brighter tomorrow are not always a given. After all, risk and danger are part and parcel of female desire, and it comes as no surprise when things go wrong. The near-frenetic narrator in “Perfect”[5] receives the eternal beauty that had driven her to trade her jewelery and riches for body parts, but only as she transforms into an island. In “The Earth of Ashes”[6], a girl trades her life and body to become the Earth and nature just so she could be with a boy who had once commented on her colors. It’s the ultimate story of unrequited love: the narrator knows she’s not beautiful enough to earn his love and adoration, so she chooses to communicate with him through flowers and the colors of the natural world. Both stories hinge on the importance of beauty and the confines women are forced to circumvent in achieving what they want. Both stories accentuate, how even in their elevated state of being—women who become the world—they are cut off from the person and the thing they desire most. They are alone. Beyond reach.

These two pieces are a perfect entryway into Ogawa’s fearlessness in conceptualizing her worlds, which even at their most subtle delight, reward, and command attention. When she goes big in stories like “The Seed Keeper”[7] and “The Giant’s Tree”[8], both contemporary takes on creation myths, this ensnaring effect finds its fullest expression and the reader is invited to wander and lose themselves among potent cosmological imagery. Ogawa creates without restraint and in her narratives, reality is a mutable thing—easy to reshape just as effortlessly as Bo, the giant in “The Giant’s Tree”, shapes his environment. With no restraint, the impossible is the norm and no other story exemplifies this better than the tragicomic “Left Behind”[9].

Flippant gods, far-future technology, and cosmology converge into an event horizon beyond which genre matters not one iota. Ogawa flexes all of her creative muscles in modulating her tone from the matter-of-fact bleakness of the twin fox guardians’ situation to pure comedic genius whenever anyone goes on to have a conversation. This story, as with most others in which her deadpan humor surfaces, works because of the language: Ogawa is direct and her use of English is best described as mesmerizing. As someone who’s not a native speaker, reading the work of other non-natives in English is a gift and a privilege, because no one promises our voices will be heard. Hearing a storyteller create far from home in this way is powerful. Here the language itself is telling us a story independent of the plot. The mood I’m left in upon reading Ogawa’s writing is unlike anything I’ve felt in a long time.

The culmination of the themes, ideas and characteristics I’ve discussed above comes in three stories, which I implore you to read together in a quick succession, one after the other, to fully appreciate Ogawa’s vision. I’m talking about “The Colorless Thief”[10], “Ever Changing, Ever Turning”[11], and “In Her Head, In Her Eyes”[12]. On their own, these stories tease us with unusual worldbuilding choices as the reader is introduced to an island whose people are born with kaleidoscopic skin and hair. We’re initiated into the realities of living such a life with Hai in “The Colorless Thief” remarking “Like I said, this is a country-size freak show. We feed on you, and you feed on us.” Monstrosity as identity runs through all three narratives and the abject is made manifest in the rules the islanders observe relating to the use of colors. Themes of marginalization, oppression, and exploitation also dominate as the women in these stories endure violence and humiliation in order to maintain their worth and value. Hai must endure systematic beatings in order for her skin to display patterns. Hase from “In Her Head, In Her Eyes” is mocked at every turn during her time away from her island. Shino from “Ever Changing, Ever Turning” loses her entire way of living once she’s made privy to a secret from the continent—the home of foreigners. There’s a lot to read in between the lines, but that’s not to say there’s not a lot of meat on the page.

Just as Hase creates new patterns for her home, so does Ogawa interconnect her stories, as one answers the questions posed in the other, and she plays with our expectations. At pure surface level, these works appear rooted in the fantastical and magical, but as soon as you think you’ve found your footing and understand where you are, Ogawa warps your perception almost imperceptibly until the world is completely unfamiliar again. In Yukimi Ogawa, we’ve gained a unique voice and a singular interpreter of the speculative in our ranks. She challenges deeply held attitudes and preconceptions about what’s possible regarding structure, tone, and genre itself. It’s the easiest thing in the world to allow ourselves be limited in what’s always been done in the literature that has shaped us. We’re so close to it, after all. It’s in our body and spirit. Reading Ogawa provides the landmark against which we can recalibrate our course. Discover new routes to new destinations.

 


Footnotes

[1] Available to read at Strange Horizons, March 2013.
[2] Available to read at Strange Horizons, June 2014.
[3] Published in Clockwork Phoenix 4, 2013.
[4] Available to read at Strange Horizons, Issue 2015.
[5] Available to read at The Dark.
[6] Available to read at Expanded Horizons.
[7] Available to read at Jabberwocky, August 2012.
[8] Available to read at Mythic Delirium, June 2014.
[9] Available to read at Mythic Delirium, September 2016.
[10] Available to read at Ideomancer, May 2014.
[11] Available to read at Lackington’s, Issue 11, Summer 2016.
[12] Available to read at The Book Smugglers, October 2014.

Haralambi Markov is a Bulgarian critic, editor, and writer of things weird and fantastic. A Clarion 2014 graduate, he enjoys fairy tales, obscure folkloric monsters, and inventing death rituals (for his stories, not his neighbors…usually). He blogs at The Alternative Typewriter and tweets @HaralambiMarkov. His stories have appeared in The Weird Fiction Review, Electric Velocipede, Tor.com, Stories for Chip, The Apex Book of World SF and are slated to appear in Genius Loci, Uncanny and Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling. He’s currently working on a novel.

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