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March Was Made of Yarn

A diverse group of writers lend their talents to the search for meaning after Japan’s tsunami.

By Terry Hong / March 6, 2012

March Was Made of Yarn Edited by Elmer Luke and David Karashima Random House 240 pp


March 11, 2011, 14:46 Japan Standard Time: A magnitude-9.0 earthquake lasts six minutes, followed by a 50-foot tsunami that, within 15 minutes, plows inland six miles and causes meltdowns in five nuclear plants. “In one’s wildest imagination, this is beyond conceivable,” write editors Elmer Luke and David Karashima in their introduction to March Was Made of Yarn.

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One year later, writer/editor Luke and novelist/translator Karashima have pulled together a diverse collection of new and previously published nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and a manga to create “an artistic record” of a people’s response to an unimaginable disaster. The writers are mostly Japanese – including major names like Yoko Ogawa and Ryu Murakami – translated into English by an impressive list of powerhouse translators. Although the quality of the final product is mixed – as is often the case with anthologies – the impetus behind each individual piece is heartfelt.

Two stories are standouts, each for the naked vulnerability they display. In “The Charm,” by Kiyoshi Shigematsu (translated by Jeffrey Hunter), a woman plagued by guilt for “her comfortable, carefree life in Tokyo” returns to a town “devoured by the ocean” where she spent a year of her peripatetic childhood, hoping to contact any of her former classmates. Her search takes her to a hilltop playground where she witnesses two young girls sharing a “charm” – a chanted promise – so personal that it makes her feel that “now everything was all right.”

In Shinji Ishii’s “Lulu” (translated by Bonnie Elliott), a nocturnal dog who lives in a “municipal children’s facility” watches “translucent women” magically bestow “the gift of rest” to children traumatized by disaster. Lulu, who has led the cruel life of an unwanted dog, empathizes with five children unattended by the magical women; one by one, with the sheer unconditional love that only dogs can offer, she “pull[s] each of them out of darkness and back into the land of peaceful sleep.” Twelve years later, 32 of the children gather for a reunion at which Lulu is named and remembered.

Many of the other pieces, if not as memorable, share powerfully resonating moments. In Yoko Tawada’s “The Island of Eternal Life” (translated by Margaret Mitsutani), devoted doctors in an isolated futuristic Japan “gather swarms of fireflies” to create light in order to continue their saving work after dark. In Hiromi Kawakami’s “God Bless You, 2011” (translated by Ted Goosen and Motoyuki Shibata) – an updated version of his 1993 story – a man decides that hugging his bear-friend is more important than being exposed to any radiation trapped in the bear’s fur. In Natsuki Ikezawa’s “Grandma’s Bible” (translated by Alfred Birnbaum), a man gives up a potentially easier life in the United States to help rebuild his late brother’s leveled town where “Grandma’s Bible is still somewhere here on the ocean floor.”


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