By Terry Watada. Arsenal Pulp Press, 268 pp, $21.95, softcover
The night before Yoshiko Miyamoto leaves her family and Japan forever, she asks to hear a story, a story about fox spirits. "They can do anything, go anywhere, be anything they want," she enthuses. "But they're so mean," her mother replies. "Nothing good comes from foxes.”¦They never forgive if you cross them, and they're always plotting."
Yoshiko's mother relents and tells her "The Fox and the Jewel Maiden"–or, rather, the first half; Yoshiko falls asleep before her mother finishes. Twenty years and half a world pass by before we hear the second half, when Yoshiko, herself a mother, finishes the same story for her daughter.
A lot happens in those 20 years. Yoshiko comes to Vancouver as a mail-order bride. (The title refers to the Japanese for "black current", the wave that brought immigrants to the New World.) She arrives in 1920 to discover that her husband is a violent lech and a drunkard. Watching over them–and the rest of Vancouver's Japanese immigrants–is enigmatic crime boss Etsuji Morii, motivated by both money and a fierce desire to save his community from losing face with the disdainful whites who frustrate him at every turn. (The 1907 riots are featured, but internment is still a few years off; whites otherwise are secondary characters.)
Toronto historian and poet Terry Watada re-creates Vancouver between the wars as the backdrop to Yoshiko's domestic troubles and Etsuji's empire-building, sketching an insular and impoverished community critical of anyone who dared put personal happiness above the common good; in this respect, Kuroshio is no different from any story of inner passion set against larger questions of duty and disapproval. Watada's story rises above genre in its details of Depression-era life among first-generation Japanese Canadians. Would, then, that Watada had chosen these details more judiciously; where one description of traditional clothing or custom is engaging, 20 become a burden, and a brake on the narrative. Just as his tendency to use cliché ("fears and doubts always circled on the edges of her senses like a restless pack of wolves smelling prey") and rhetorical questions ("Why did he do it?”¦Why did he continue to care? These were concerns that perplexed and plagued him ever afterwards") does his twin stories no favours.
Yoshiko finds a kind of closure to her personal version of "The Fox and the Jewel Maiden", and if her mother was right–foxes never forgive; nothing good comes of them–then Yoshiko, bloodied by circumstance, is still going where she wants, becoming what she wants.
Terry Watada launches Kuroshio on Tuesday (November 27) at Think Coffee Lounge & Bistro (4512 West 10th Avenue), beginning at 7 p.m.