[Review] Memory, Trauma, Love: Wesley Leon Aroozoo’s I Want to Go Home/帰りたい

{Written by Michael Tsang, this review is part of Issue 39 (March 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Wesley Leon Aroozoo (author), Miki Hawkinson (translator), I Want to Go Home, Math Paper Press, 2017. 222 pgs.

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A sincerely written, beautifully produced book, I Want to Go Home帰りたい records Wesley Leon Aroozoo’s journey to Japan to meet Mr. Yasuo Takamatsu, who lost his wife Yuko to the tsunami on the day of the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, because her evacuation point was not high enough above sea level. Since then, Mr. Takamatsu routinely dives into the sea to seek to bring her body back. He has also taken Yuko’s employer to court for improper evacuation decisions (albeit losing in all trials and appeals). Assisted by interpreter Miki Hawkinson (who later became a translator of the book; more about the translation below), Wesley and his cinematographer Jon spent about a week with Mr. Takamatsu in Onagawa where he lives, and produced both a written (the book under review) and filmic record of the visit, the latter of which premiered at the Busan International Film Festival. The book was published with an English version and a Japanese “translation” under one binding, separated in the middle by photos taken on the trip. The title, I Want to Go Home or 帰りたい (kaeritai) in Japanese, came from one of Yuko’s last text messages sent during her evacuation.

For a project which involves so much personal commitment and dedication on Wesley’s part, it seemed only appropriate that I, the reviewer, try to reciprocate that sincerity. On a work trip to Singapore, I found time to meet up with Wesley in a café at his workplace.

Before meeting him, I had assumed the book was a novel—though based on real people and events, and an actual journey to Japan. The narrative comprises many small episodes about a certain moment during the journey, and although the narrative is linear, it has no chapterisation to suggest a reading order. At first this may seem a little too fragmented, making the book feel wanting for coherence. However, within each episode, the author includes a mixture of field notes, observations, dialogues and personal reflections to dig deep emotionally into every moment of the trip. I’d concluded that the episodic form suggested a deliberate effort to present the story through consciously literary techniques.

However, Wesley looked surprised when I called the book “a novel.” He said the form came to him naturally and unconsciously. It then struck me that to him there was little “fabrication” in the work. It was not a work of “fiction,” simply a story, a book, a record.

I realised then that the episodic form had a different function. What is central to the book are the ways we deal with the trauma of losing a loved one, and Mr. Takamatsu’s diving routine—almost a ritual—speaks volumes about this process. If the memory of a person we love will gradually fade away, Mr. Takamatsu seeks to remember his wife—and the fateful day she disappeared—through his body and actions. Every movement in the sea—every stroke, every kick, every turn of the head—is a physical way for Mr. Takamatsu’s to record the memory of his wife. Corporeality preserves memory.

In the book, Mr. Takamatsu’s trauma and coping mechanisms seem to be been passed on to Wesley. The more Wesley comes to know how Yuko was taken away, the more he also yearns for a rendezvous with his own wife who, in fact, will be visiting Japan once his visit to Onagawa is finished. While this may seem inconsiderate, the subconscious desire to cling onto whatever we have upon witnessing the misfortune of others—a natural feeling of carpe diem—may in fact be a sign of affect, a moment of empathy during which we do not let others suffer alone.

The episodic structure of the narrative is, then, Wesley’s way of comprehending the feeling of immersing himself in another person’s trauma, and it provides a subconscious parallel to Mr. Takamatsu’s physical strategy for coping with the loss of his wife. By confining each moment in its own right as a short episode, the pages become a space for the narrator to comb through his candid thoughts.

***

While the Japanese version is supposedly the “translation,” I took the unusual approach of reading it first. Miki Hawkinson’s Japanese “translation” is impeccable and as natural as can be. There is a sense of maturity in her version, evident in her confident use of Japanese honourifics in presenting the differences in age and roles between Wesley, herself (as an interpreter) and Mr. Takamatsu.

You will notice that I have been using “translation” in quotation marks. This is because it is unclear in this case which is the actual translation. Mr. Takamatsu’s story was covered in Anglophone media before getting Wesley’s attention, and when they met in Onagawa, Mr. Takamatsu spoke in Japanese while Wesley spoke English. Thus, as far as Mr. Takamatsu’s words are concerned, the Japanese version is the original, even if the narrative was originally written in English.

Given this complexity, it is only fitting that the book has been published bilingually, and correctly from left to right in horizontal lines for the English version, and right to left in vertical lines for the Japanese. Seldom does one find a work where both versions show no clear labels of “source language” or “target language.” The book thus provides an ideal example of intercultural communication, in which no language shows clear dominance over the other and both versions are read as equally important.

To illustrate the ambivalence of which language is a translation, I will end the review using the title, “I want to go home,” as an example. As mentioned this was a text message Yuko sent during her evacuation. At that point she was outdoors, so “I want to go home” is a sufficient literal translation from Japanese to English. By the middle of the book, however, it becomes clear that the central focus is on how Mr Takamatsu’s diving routine helps him hang onto the connection he has with Yuko. On the day, the retired Mr Takamatsu went home quickly after the earthquake to check if things were alright. Hence: With him at home, perhaps Yuko’s message was more likely to mean, I want to come home. Rather than to go home, to come home also sounds like a more fitting description of Mr Takamatsu’s manifestation of his love for Yuko, as in, he wants Yuko to come home through finding her body in the sea. Here, the Japanese phrase kaeritai, as Yuko’s original message, can technically be translated into either, showing little differentiation to the nuance of the more literal go home and the more emotive come home.

***

Wesley told me he would be screening the documentary to the Japanese community in Singapore this March to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the earthquake/tsunami. The world’s attention is gradually shifting away from that disaster to the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Yet the plan to hold the baseball events in Fukushima Prefecture, where the nuclear disaster occurred, serves as a reminder that the aftermath is not over. Wesley’s book ends with the line, “the fight must continue,” referring to the unfortunate loss of Mr. Takamatsu’s final court appeal. If the legal establishment is not ready to change yet, then this is by no means only a fight for Mr. Takamatsu or those who lost families in the tsunami. It becomes a fight for us, too, and we fight our part by refusing to forget what has happened. It is a fight to keep the memory living on.

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Michael Tsang.jpg

Michael Tsang is a native of Hong Kong, and holds a PhD from the University of Warwick, researching on Hong Kong English writing. His broader research interests are on postcolonial and world literature with an Asian focus. He writes stories and poems in his spare time, and is always interested in languages, literatures and cultures. Michael is a Staff Reviewer for Cha and a co-editor of Hong Kong Studies. Visit his Warwick profile for more information.


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