By turns teasing and terrifying, laconic and luminous, the stories in this anthology are drawn from sources as diverse as Borges, Nabokov, Garcia-Marquez, and traditional Japanese folklore, and yet they ultimately reside in a slyly subversive literary world that is all their own. Blending an uncompromising ethical vision with exuberant, free-wheeling imagery and bracing formal experimentation, the five short stories and three novellas included in We, the Children of Cats show the full range and force of Hoshino’s imagination. The stories include a man and woman who find their genders and sexualities brought radically into question when their bodies sprout new parts; a man who travels from Japan to Latin America in search of revolutionary purpose only to find much more than he bargained for; a journalist who investigates a poisoning at an elementary school and gets lost in an underworld of buried crimes, secret societies, and haunted forests; and two young killers, exiled from Japan, who find a new beginning as resistance fighters in Peru. An afterword by translator and editor Brian Bergstrom and a new preface by Hoshino himself is also included.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
We, the Children of Cats
By Tomoyuki Hoshino, Brian Bergstrom
PM PressCopyright © 2012 Tomoyuki Hoshino
All rights reserved.
Paper Woman (2000)
It's been two years now since I became a novelist, and I've found myself thinking more and more about just who it is who reads the things I write. This may be simply due to the relatively poor sales of my own books, of course, but it may also be due in no small part to my recent pondering of what larger meaning a novel's existence might bear. After all, statistically speaking, the number of people reading novels is decreasing, part of a general decrease in the sales of literature, but I think the real problem may be that fewer and fewer people really read any more, really consume literature as if printing the words on the interiors of their bodies.
As I've continued my professional writing career, I've come to think of it as an art that wavers, like a heat shimmer, between joy at the prospect of becoming something else and despair at knowing that such a transformation is ultimately impossible. One could say that a novel's words trace the pattern of scars left by the struggle between these two feelings. Which is why a novel should never be seen as a simple expression of an author's self.
For this reason, I use my novels to write about things other than myself. But I am nevertheless always aware that what I end up creating will never be more than a portrait of my own imperfect transformations, that what the reader is deciphering while reading my novels is merely my psyche. And as they do, they'll also be reading their own psyches, which are likewise caught in the process of trying to become other than themselves. A true experience of reading is always located in the territory where these two forms of consciousness intermingle.
The moment this intermingling occurs, a professional writer becomes a professional reader. I myself have written more than few critical essays about the work of others, and have even earned money reading the rough drafts of aspiring authors. In the majority of cases, what I find in their works is an arrogant assertion of the author's self at the expense of all else. Or, alternatively, an author covertly draws attention to the spectacle of his or her attempt at transformation, thereby inadvertently creating a one-sided assertion of authorial self anyway. It's been said that as the number of readers has dwindled the number of authors has swelled, and I would add that this is linked to the proliferation of ferocious posing among these authors. On the Internet, within fanboy culture, anyone can pose as anything. But I increasingly get the feeling that no one is truly attempting to become something else, or rather, that no one has anything in particular to aspire to be, that they don't have any real idea what they want to become at all. It's impossible for anyone who's never truly attempted to become something else to comprehend the despair of inevitably finding oneself unable to. Someone who has never felt the despair of trying every means possible to do the impossible has no way to imagine the unhappiness of another. So there's no reason to think such a person could ever truly write a novel.
Of course, if one asked them, "What do you want to be?" or "What do you want to do?" one would receive perfectly normal answers, such as, "I want to become a creator, and work for myself," or "I want to find a job that will allow me to maintain a stable household," and such answers would indeed be the result of earnest consideration. But this resolve reveals its fundamental unsteadiness once push comes to shove, once one's conviction to pursue whatever goal is forced to stubbornly weather seeming impossibility to persevere. One could say that most people are only living their lives halfway when compared to the passion of someone like the Paper Woman, whom I met a year and a half ago. Or at the very least they could be said to be missing out on an essential part of life.
The Paper Woman was another of these writers attempting to become a novelist. She wrote a fantastical tale about a woman who could eat only paper and eventually became entirely composed of the stuff, and it moved me enough that I took it upon myself to contact her and set up a meeting.
As I surveyed the teashop where we agreed to meet, I picked her out at a glance, saying to myself, "Aah, that has to be her." She was as pale as if she were the woman in the story come to life, her short hair dyed a beautiful silver. Of course, her diet turned out to include more than just paper, and she brought Darjeeling and orange-marmalade -slathered scones to her lips with relish. "Do you sometimes dribble soy sauce onto sheets of paper and wrap them like seaweed around your rice?" I asked, and she replied with a touch of contempt. "I'm not a literal bookworm, I don't actually eat paper. Besides, no matter how much paper a bookworm eats, it's still just a worm in the end, no? Wanting to become paper and eating paper are two different things."
"Good point. If eating paper turned you into paper, all a little kid who wanted to be a soccer player would have to do was eat other soccer players to succeed."
"Have you eaten many authors, Mr. Hoshino?"
"No, no, I've never spent any time wanting to become an author. Become a novel, maybe."
"If you're still saying things like 'I want to become a novel,' you've got a long way to go, I'd say."
"I mean, I was thinking things like that when I was still in elementary school and keeping a diary. I realized that diaries were lies, that they were filled with omissions and inaccuracies, so if I wanted to write the details of my days precisely, down to the smallest second-to-second fluctuations in my mood, my life and my writing would have to overlap exactly. In other words, I'd have to become a novel."
"You were quite precocious."
"I was just a bookish little girl. And you were a late bloomer, right, Mr. Hoshino?"
"So how is wanting to become paper different than wanting to become a novel?" I asked, getting a bit more serious.
"If you took the matter a bit more to heart, I think you'd see what I mean for yourself. But to answer you anyway, in elementary school I was working with some papier mâché and I realized that it was a lot like brains. You know how you make papier mâché, right? You soak newspaper in water until it gets soggy and starts to mash up, and then you add some glue. So, in other words, within this gluey substance are countless words and letters all smashed together. It's like my brain as I read books and then think, my thoughts forming out of the mashed-up words I've put into my memory that I rearrange to make something new. Brains are just so much papier mâché."
"So your brain is hardened and stiff?"
"I just have to make sure it isn't exposed to the air. Anyway, I began to think of myself as formed out of papier mâché, which made me better able to understand how it must feel to be paper itself."
"Such anthropomorphism is quite typical of young girls."
"It's not anthropomorphism. Pay attention. What I realized was that the feeling of having no feelings was how it felt to be paper. In other words, I was attracted to paper, but paper itself, as banal as it sounds, has no inner self, can only absorb characters and words into itself without assigning them meaning. That's how I wanted to be, I realized. And I simultaneously realized that the more I wanted to be paper, the farther I got from actually being like it, which made me sad."
"So that's why you wrote that story."
The little girl protagonist could only eat paper, which upset her stomach and made her pale and thin. One day she went to school and almost no one noticed her, and she was caught off-guard by the reflection she glimpsed of her profile in a window out of the corner of her eye. She was almost invisible from the side, as thin as a page. She began to worry that she was more paper than girl.
"Have you ever thought much about mermaids, Mr. Hoshino?"
"Well, to a certain extent. There's a part of me that's always been rather enamored by fish. I even wrote a story called 'The Mermaid Myth' when I was in grade school."
"You should publish it sometime! I went through a Mermaid Girl phase myself, though it was in high school in my case. My boyfriend at the time had what you might call a 'mermaid fetish,' to the point that everyone called him Merman, actually, and he always told me that I'd make a good mermaid. It sounds like a joke when I say it now, but at the time I did all these things to please him, growing my hair out until it reached my butt, wearing a bra made of scallop shells, making myself a spangled tailfin. I would invite Merman over when my parents were away and wait for him on the bed dressed like that."
"Costume play, huh? Do you have any pictures?" "God forbid."
"And you're right, it makes for a funny story, but you can also feel the special sadness of the mermaid myth, too. What makes them so attractive, so moving to contemplate?"
"It's the impossibility. But it's also a gender issue, I'd say. These days there are all sorts of people who are neither man nor woman, or who are mixed racially, and it seems like it wouldn't be too huge a leap to think about humans mixing with animals, or even mixing with plants and trees. We can imagine these things precisely because of the times we live in. Mermaids are simply ahead of their time. It makes their sorrow all the more palpable."
"I think I understand. You want to become a hybrid child of human and paper."
"Indeed. Well, paper doesn't have blood, so I couldn't really blend with it that way. I think I want to intermingle at a level deeper than blood."
"So, at a spiritual level? Though paper doesn't really have a 'spirit,' either, so ..."
"It's difficult, right? What does it really mean to be paper? There are so many things I've yet to learn."
It was a few days afterward that we began living together, and it was four months after that when we married. I called her Paper. Indeed, she became my Paper Doll.
It didn't feel as if I'd literally wedded myself to paper, of course, but I was happy all the same. Paper conformed to my personality with almost alarming speed and soon came to resemble me almost exactly. It wasn't just a matter of liking the same food or music or places. She began to resemble me in all ways, getting hungry at the same time I did, growing annoyed at the same things and in the same way, using the same words and phrases I would when discussing a movie we'd just seen. When I'd display my pleasure at this, she'd just reply happily, "I have a lot more blank pages left in me!"
And truly, I was happy and comfortable. But I worried that I was the only one who really was. Was Paper able to tell that in my heart of hearts I didn't really feel that she was paper, and did this make her sad? And was she on the verge of slipping into a vortex of depression from that very emotion, since feeling sadness was itself simply yet more proof that she wasn't really paper?
So I made every effort to treat Paper like actual paper. I got a hint from a British movie I saw for an erotic game we could play. We called it "The Earless Hoichi Game." I'd use a variety of pens and brushes to write stories all over Paper's skin. At first this tickled her, but soon Paper's pale skin would grow flushed and sweaty, her breathing ragged. Goosebumps would appear and she would murmur hoarsely, and from time to time she'd open her eyes and watch my hand move across her, trembling as she did. When I'd still my hand and read what I'd written aloud, she'd be overcome again, her body twisting and turning, gripped with a new type of excitement. There was no need to make her earless like the real Hoichi, so I used a fine-tipped pen to inscribe the lobes and curved inner surface of her ears. She was especially sensitive there, and seemed to orgasm under my pen.
I, too, was filled with an uncommon pleasure as I wrote. Egged on by the heat that would rise from Paper's body, from the perfume of her sweat and other fluids, from the sound of her moans, I would write and write and write. My whole body would flush with heat as a tingling pleasure engulfed it, and my nerves grew so sensitive that I could no longer bear to wear clothes. At the same time, I felt a clarity within me that made me feel like I was not one man but ten. Was this what omnipotence felt like? Writing was making me all-powerful.
We'd end the game when I finished writing, or when I'd run out of space on her body, or when one of us grew too tired to go on. And that was when I'd punish Paper. If you were really paper, you'd feel nothing, you'd just lie there and allow yourself to be written on. You're a counterfeit Paper Woman. You don't deserve to be written on. I'm erasing it all. Berating her like this, I'd dunk her in the tub and wash her body clean. Paper would always weep then, wrenchingly, despairingly, and murmur her desire to be tattooed.
Surprisingly, Paper would remember the things I wrote across her body perfectly. By "perfectly," I mean down to the exact characters I chose. She claimed to remember them with her skin. She said the feeling of the pen moving across her skin would return sometimes, and even though she fought against it, she'd feel pleasure as it did. So I'd type what she told me I wrote on her into my word processor. Soon our "Earless Hoichi Game" became the method by which I wrote everything. I became unable to write anything that didn't have Paper lying beneath it. I wrote my stories during this period as if painting them. And you could say that Paper was my muse in this sense.
Our tragedy, as is usual with these things, began with Paper's pregnancy. We'd been having sex without taking precautions since even before we got married. So it was hardly a shock when we got the news eight months after the wedding, but Paper became withdrawn nonetheless, sighing to herself while gazing out at the setting sun from the veranda. I tried to placate her at first, saying things like, "It's perfectly natural that paper would become pregnant," or, "A child of paper might turn out to be paper too," but Paper would just look up at me and say, "That's not what I'm concerned about," refusing my comfort.
"You know I don't literally want to take the shape of paper. Don't talk to me like a child."
"I'm sorry. I guess I just overestimated how alike we'd become, thinking we'd merged completely, body and soul. It seems I've been neglecting my efforts to get even closer to you."
"Don't say such things. It makes me want to die. It's me who's lost the ability to become you."
"What are you talking about? Your ability is nearly supernatural!"
"But I understand now. I've lost my ability to be made into things. So I've gotten pregnant. Becoming a mother is the same as becoming an author. I can no longer just accept the words of others, now I have to produce my own. My time as paper has come to an end."
I understood Paper's sadness. It was the same as the terror that haunted me as a writer. One trades one's self-hood for the ability to write. It's the choice one makes the moment one decides to be an author. Or, not just an author. Taking one's place in the world involves a choice like this for everyone; no one is exempted.
"If that's how you really feel about being pregnant, maybe it would be better to get an abortion. I'd feel sorry for the child."
"I can't do that. I've made the decision to accept anything, to hybridize spiritually, physically, in every sense, and so I can't decide to expel something from me as if cleansing my blood. It's not our place to decide who deserves pity.
"Tomoyuki, it is up to you to save me."
"I want to become more paper-like too, just like you."
Paper ended up loving the little boy she birthed and raised. Naturally, she didn't try to make him into paper, and we gave him a normal enough name, Kazuyoshi, by reversing the characters for Hoichi. I helped her raise him too, of course, and while he slept I'd use Paper as paper like always, caressing her with my pen, drawing illustrations and completing manuscripts on her body, reading her favorite stories to her as she closed her eyes to relax. In order to become more like paper myself, or, to put it more precisely, to become more like Paper as she strove to become more paper-like, I began to read much more than I had previously. I read all the books Paper told me she'd read, one after another. I tried to guess what she was thinking when she stared blankly into space, using all the information about her that I'd gleaned to attempt to replicate her thoughts down to the letter. Whenever I'd succeed in expressing Paper's feelings even better than she could, or supply her with the exact word she was grasping for, she'd smile like an artificial flower blooming underwater. I loved this smile of hers above all.
Even so, the void inside Paper never filled. Its edges spread wider and wider, and I found myself unable to keep up. Paper taught Kazuyoshi words, and though he couldn't speak yet, he could recognize and point at them with his finger, but as she stared at her child trying to vocalize, her expression would darken, the skin on her face would harden, and she'd appear to fall into that deep hole within herself out of which she was unable to crawl. Perhaps taking after his mother, Kazuyoshi's ability to memorize words was astounding. But this seemed only to add, however slightly, to Paper's sadness. When I asked about it, Paper told me that faced with her child's genius, the shining white of the blank pages in her memory would dim, seem dingy. "My pages are ripping out," she'd lament, weeping.
"Don't the pages filled with writing outnumber the ones ripping out?"
Excerpted from We, the Children of Cats by Tomoyuki Hoshino, Brian Bergstrom. Copyright © 2012 Tomoyuki Hoshino. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPREFACE To All of You Reading This in English,
Paper Woman (2000),
The No Fathers Club (2006),
We, the Children of Cats (2001),
Sand Planet (2002),
Treason Diary (1998),
A Milonga for the Melted Moon (1999),
AFTERWORD The Politics of Impossible Transformation,
What People are Saying About This
“These wonderful stories make you laugh and cry, but mostly they astonish.” —Helen Mitsios, editor, New Japanese Voices
“I see [in Hoshino] an ability to truly think through fiction that recalls Kobo Abe. This superlative ability makes even the most fantastical details and developments read as perfectly natural.” —Kenzaburo Oe, Nobel Prize–winning author, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids and Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness
“Wonderfully translated, selected, and presented, this collection of works will be required reading.” —Rebecca Copeland, author, Lost Leaves: Women Writers of Meiji Japan
“The loosely linked stories collected in We, the Children of Cats home in on everyday events of millennial Japan only to slowly pan out onto alternate realities—voyages, crimes of passion, cultural histories of treason, sudden quarrels, and equally sudden truces. These stories explore the longing to be somewhere, sometime, or even someone else so strongly that reality itself is, before you know it, transfigured.” —Anne McKnight, author, Nakagami, Japan: Buraku and the Writing of Ethnicity
"Every story and novella in this collection startles, confuses, yet finally energizes the attentive reader. The editor and translators are to be congratulated on presenting us with such an impressive sample of this brilliant contemporary writer." —Japan Times (January 2013)
"Nearly every character in Hoshino's collection of short stories and novellas yearns to escape the boundaries of their gender, national identity, or, in many cases, their own flesh. Hoshino is an avowed lover of magical realism, and the transformative, dream-like aspects of that genre wield a heavy influence on this work." —Publishers Weekly (November 19, 2012)