Coach House Press, 1985
(2nd edition 2000)
First published in the Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
I would like us all to take a moment to consider the charms of small things. Small presses, to be specific. So many of their attributes are ones we traditionally hold dear in this country – sturdy independence, cheerful optimism in the face of withering odds, self-sufficiency, inventiveness, fervent championship of the underdog, and the ability to fashion great things from non-existent resources. The beaver, I think, would be well advised to keep a wary eye out.
According to the National Library of Canada’s excellent on-line reference site (1) the small press movement in Canada began in 1943, in Montreal, with First Statement Press. It was the 60’s, however, that really saw the phenomenon flower, with names like Rattlesnake Press, Imago, talonbooks, Gryphon, Quarry, Oberon, Fiddlehead, House of Anansi, and of course, Coach House Press, amongst many, many others, popping up across the country like dandelions after an April rain. Together, the small presses were responsible for giving many of the current and past BIG CANADIAN WRITERS (like Layton, Purdy, MacEwen, Atwood, Matt Cohen, Richards, to name a few) their start, or early support. Coach House, in particular, according to the NLC summary, “was the publisher of almost every important Canadian poet who came of age in the 1960’s.”
It’s fitting, then, I think, that the subject of our first small press review, Almost Japanese, by Sarah Sheard, is a Coach House offering. The recent reprinting of this book (it was originally published in 1985, also by Coach House) is a distillation of the small press ideal in action. Without Coach House, this funny, wise, gentle and endearing tale of adolescent rites of passage and youthful obsession might a) never have been published, and b) been lost to all those of us who were otherwise occupied in the 80’s.
The story is told through a series of vignettes from Emma, the narrator’s, past which flit here and there, as memories do, first through definitive moments of her early childhood, and later her growing obsession with a Japanese symphony conductor, Akira Tsutsuma, who moves in next door. Readers with a memory like mine, which tends to meld all past experience into a vague totality, can be forgiven for feeling, at this point, that the plot seems terribly familiar, but may be, as I was, confusing it with a Peter Sellers movie, in which a young girl develops an infatuation with a concert pianist, entitled The World of Henry Orient, based on a book by the same title, written by Nora Johnson (II) in 1964. The two are, as they say, no relation.
At fourteen, Emma is poised to fall in love and so she does. Enthralled by her new neighbour, the conductor, when she first sees him perform on a birthday present visit to the symphony, she is determined to meet him. A precocious child, she wangles the meeting with a batch of brownies delivered as a welcome gift. (It took three tries to get them perfect.) She is instantly smitten, falling headlong into adolescent rapture, that confusing turmoil of wildly careening emotions, agonizing self-consciousness, and gothic euphoria, that is so universal, yet so intensely personal. Soon she is spending her allowance on symphony tickets, keeping a scrapbook, and monitoring Akira’s movements through her bedroom window, while, as Emma herself describes it, she “inhaled the scent of everything Japanese that could tell me something more about him.”
A perceptive child, she is a keen appraiser of human nature and social particularities. She times her second assault on Akira’s outer circle (an attempt to get backstage after a performance) with all the cunning of a New York society doyenne, reasoning that, “A suitable length of time had elapsed for me not to seem over-eager but I didn’t want the brownies to wear off altogether, as it were.”
Today’s reader might experience a twinge of concern when Akira responds positively to Emma’s overtures — inviting her in for tea, offering her rides home from performances and securing complimentary tickets for her. Happily, the other foot never falls, and he remains the soul of decorum in his relationship with his new young friend. The greatest potential danger for Emma, it seems, comes from within, as her interest veers towards true obsession when she begins to collect “Akira relics”– including hair from his hairbrush and a drinking glass he had used. As fertile a ground as adolescence is for humour, this serves as an unsettling reminder that passage through is neither guaranteed nor totally secure.
The Japan-obsessed Emma, does not, of course, fit well into her middle-class Canadian family or neighbourhood. Her insistence on using chopsticks at Christmas dinner and wearing a cotton kimono bunched under her school uniform, serve as hilarious examples of self-imposed teenage alienation and isolation. Having no experience of the actual Japan, her idea of it is mythical, and very much entangled with emotions surrounding her first love and her teenage quest to define herself as distinct from her parents. “My father,” Emma remembers, “…howled on all fours when I put on my Kabuki record.”
Eventually, of course, the peripatetic life-style of a symphony conductor wrenches Akira away when he accepts a position with a European orchestra. There was nothing premeditated about it, Emma insists, concerning the head shaving incident that followed shortly thereafter, but as amusing as her account of it is, one can’t help but be reminded of some of the more extreme rites of widowhood.
Years pass, and Emma matures and she manages to view her past relationship with increasing detachment. Nevertheless, the idea of Akira and his Japanese culture continue to dominate her life far more than would seem reasonable – like something vaguely parasitic that had burrowed under her skin. It takes a visit to, for Emma, the holy land, Japan, and a final meeting with the aging Akira, for her to finally excise her obsession, to accept that while she is definitely not her parents, neither is she Japanese, and return to a life that is all her own.
Sorting through my experience of the book for dramatic highlights, I’m hard pressed for examples – it’s a gentle, unassuming little tale, about one girl’s more or less normal experiences negotiating her adolescence, which unfolds in a straightforward, unhurried, diary-like manner. It’s rewards come from Sheard’s microscopically accurate, and economical portrayal of what it’s like to be a smart, perceptive, willful young girl, who, nevertheless, still has to do this stupid thing called growing up, of that intense and confusing ache when a crush first forces you to consider yourself as others might, and the ambivalence involved in fashioning an identity distinct from the amorphous family unit, even when you love said family unit dearly.
It’s a small treasure from a small press – and its resurrection something to celebrate.