Week-end Book Review: Tomo, Edited and with a Foreword by Holly Thompson

Edited and with a Foreword by Holly Thompson,
Stone Bridge Press, 2012.

Ages: 12+

‘Tomo’ means ‘friend’ in Japanese and the purpose of this Anthology of Teen Stories is to offer friendship to Japan following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 11 March 2011: specifically, the book is dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives and to “all the young people of Tohuku”.  Author Holly Thompson (The Wakame Gatherers, Orchards) has gathered contributions from creators of prose, poetry and graphic narrative, as well as translators, whose shared connection is Japan.  Their work makes for a remarkable collection.

Many of the contributors’ names such as Alan Gratz, Wendy Nelson Tokunaga, Debbie Ridpath Ohi,  Shogo Oketani, or Graham Salisbury may already be familiar to readers; others such as Naoko Awa (1943-1993) or Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) will be less so, though famous in Japan.  A great deal of Tomo’s success lies in its blend of expertly translated older stories with contemporary, new writing, and this is true also of the stories’ content.  Many modern Japanese phenomena colour the stories, such as the particular fashion of Harajuku girls (“I Hate Harajuku Girls” by Katrina Toshiko Grigg-Saito) or the Purikura photo sticker booths (“Signs” by Kaitlin Stainbrook), yet these sit easily alongside more traditional stories such as the magical Ainu fable “Where the Silver Droplets Fall”, transcribed and translated into Japanese by Yukie Chiri (1903-1922) and translated into English by Deborah Davidson.  The anthology is all the richer for its varied array of writing, and its success is also in a great part due to the skill of the different translators involved.  The excellent Tomo blog also contains interviews with the contributors and offers readers further insight into Japanese culture.

The thirty-six stories are divided into sections: Shocks and Tremors, Friends and Enemies, Ghosts and Spirits, Powers and Feats, Talents and Curses, Insiders and Outsiders, and Families and Connections.  The opening story, “Lost” by Andrew Fukuda, is the gripping account of a girl regaining consciousness in a hospital bed following the Kobe earthquake in 1995; the other four stories in that opening section, including Tak Toyoshima’s graphic strip “Kazoku”, all have the raw immediacy of being set in the aftermath of the March 11th disaster.

Among the other stories, readers will find stories to suit every mood: thought-provoking tales of conflict, spine-tingling ghost stories (I’m glad all these happen to have fallen to my reading in hours of daylight!), ostracism and friendship, romance, magic and surrealism.  Yearning to belong is a thread running through many stories, and the intensity for those characters seeking their identity is heightened where they are part of a bicultural family.  Nor does the collection flinch from addressing racial prejudice or the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.

As with all good short-story anthologies, Tomo needs to be read slowly in order to savour the intense individual flavors of its contents.  Framed by an extract from David Sulz’s translation of Miyazawa’s thought-provoking poem “Be Not Defeated by the Rain” as well as Holly Thompson’s moving Foreword, and a glossary and note on the book’s contributors (a rich mine for future reading), Tomo is a very special book.  While its immediate context is very much rooted in Japanese culture, it offers a glimpse at universal teenage concerns that will increase empathy among readers wherever and whoever they are.

Marjorie Coughlan
July 2012

Proceeds from the publication of Tomo are going to organizations assisting teens in the quake and tsunami hit areas of the Great East Japan Earthquake, 11 March 2011.

One Response to “Week-end Book Review: Tomo, Edited and with a Foreword by Holly Thompson”

  1. Edi Says:

    I’m glad you’ve given this a good review. It’s sitting on my coffee table, just waiting for me!