Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wandering Son by Shimura Takako (translated by Matt Thorn)

Starting middle school is difficult for any kid, but for fifth graders Shuichi and Yoshino, it's made even more difficult by the secret they share. Shuichi is a boy who wants to be a girl and Yoshino is a girl who wants to be a boy. Shimura Takako has created a manga that tells, in simply beautiful graphics a story that is anything but simple. In volume one of the series, we follow Shuichi and Yoshino as they begin to share their secret, first with each other and then with a classmate. In volume two, we follow the kids up to sixth grade. Shuichi's sister learns of his desires and Shuichi and Yoshino find a mentor in a transgender woman who takes the kids under her wing.

This basic plot description doesn't really do justice to this amazing series. To date, I have not come across any books that depict transgender youth so young, and I think this is one of the great strengths of the series because it allows the reader to focus more closely on the issue of gender identity as opposed to sexuality when so often these are mixed together. And of course, gender identity and sexuality inform and influence each other, but it's worth noting that they are not the same thing (at least, not from a queer theory critical view, something I've been studying here in graduate school land).

The stories are sparse. This isn't an action-packed manga, but I find the simplicity all the more powerful as it allows me to really contemplate the characters' lives. And even though the kids are struggling with their gender identity, this isn't an angsty drama. Well, it's not too angsty.

It's worth noting that this manga was written for an adult audience, and as an adult, it seems like this is what my story would be if I were asked to write a memoir of my middle school days. I could pick out one or two threads, and probably the trauma of puberty would loom large in the story. But don't let this scare you away from the story, and don't let it's apparent simplicity fool you. As you can see, I'm somewhat at a loss for words because these stories aren't chock-a-block action and drama. It's really difficult to talk about a quiet story, especially one with as much food for thought as Wandering Son.

So far, only volumes one and two of the story have been published in English. Volume three is due out in May this year. If you get these books, I suggest you take a look at translator Matt Thorn's essays at the back of each book. In volume one, he writes a brief essay about Japanese honorifics and personal pronouns. I had no idea of the many nuances in speaking to and about people, so different from the basic dichotomous system in English. In volume two, he includes a brief essay on what it means to be transgender in modern Japan. They provide a helpful context for the stories without being overly academic (which I also appreciated here in grad land).


Joe Cottonwood said...

Glad to know about this. Thanks for reviewing.

tanita✿davis said...

Oh, my goodness. This is absolutely amazing, from the perspective of thinking of a kid coming across this and being able to read a quiet and "not too angsty" story about transgender. Wow. This is really neat.