Several years ago I read “Grafting,” a short story by Mariko Nagai and it has stayed with me ever since. The best kind of haunting. And so I was delighted to find that “Grafting” opened Nagai’s 2010 story collection from BkMk Press, Georgic.
“Grafting” is based on an old Japanese folktale (with likely older origins) called ubasute-yama (姥捨て山) , which literally translates to something like “the mountain where you abandon the old woman” or “the mountain where you throw away your old mother.” The folktale is about sending the old people away from the villages to fend for themselves in the forests. Nagai’s version of this story does not waver much from the original tale—a rural setting, a pressing and terrible need for a small village to reduce its number of mouths to feed.
But Nagai makes this folktale real, she makes it something that happens and could happen again. Despite the rural setting and historical feel, this is the story of every generation and how it must find a way to let their elders go. The violence in the idea of ubasute-yama isn’t made stronger in comparison to what happens in our lives here and now, it serves to remind us just how violent our “kinder” and humane abandonments really are. It may seem a very strange association but I couldn’t help thinking of Houellebecq and his obsession with the humiliation of aging, and the discussions of assisted-suicide he works into several of his books.
There are ten stories in Georgic and each is as unsettling and complicated as this first one—in “drowning land” a young boy sleeps for three years and then miraculously, suddenly, saves his village; “Confession” is about the after-effects of World War II and the trials of Japanese soldiers and civilians; in “Autobiography” a mother tells and re-tells her story, fashioning an autobiography of herself and a biography for the child she sold to save herself and the child. Each of these stories touches on something much more complicated than the historical event or story it embraces on the surface.
And Nagai’s writing is extremely textured, unsettling at times, clear and direct at others. She mixes poetry with straightforward emotion, like here in “autobiography”:
If they are to see your palms, they will claim your life fortunate, unmarred by misfortunes and fickle gods. They will not see how the rivers are dry, how the streams are cut in the middle twice: one for the husband no one talks about and one for the child who may still live in another country, blaming you for her fate.
In “Confession” she plays with framework, slipping back and forth between two stories, two manifestations of the same narrator actually and two events she lived and is living, and through this Nagai teases a difficult story forward:
A woman coughs in the dark corner. Another mutters a prayer of hope. Of salvation. Of deliverance. For my daughter. What is true in the sunlight is no longer visible, no longer visible in the darkness.
(I am done for.)
A woman coughs in the dark corner. Another mutters a prayer of hope.
(And is this not a dream? A woman coughs, but only in a dream; another mutters a prayer, but is this really a dream?)
It is her style that carries most of this collection, in the sense that without her careful writing it would be too easy to background these stories into a too-far past, to deny them their relevance to a contemporary setting.
The stories in Georgic are not easy stories—they are deeply emotional (I had to take them very slowly, so as not to be overwhelmed), unafraid to look directly at ideas of human need and personal justification, and interested in the effects of imposed poverty, both material and spiritual. Nagai is also doing something very interesting in terms of fictionalizing history.
Nagai has a book of poetry, Histories of Bodies (Red Hen Press, 2007) and another book of fiction, Instructions for the Living (Word Palace Press, 2012) and she has a novel forthcoming in 2015 from Aqueous Press.