On Feb. 7, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented British Columbia author Hiromi Goto reading from her latest collection of short stories, Hopeful Monsters. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.
I want you to step inside the water and lean against its back. If you took one more step you would see the shape of my head darker than the water. The mud between my toes is cool and slides slick between revulsion and pleasure. A tiny mouth nibbles the skin on my calf and I almost giggle.
from "Osmosis" in Hopeful Monsters
by Hiromi Goto
One hundred "hopeful monsters" recently came to hear Hiromi Goto read from her latest collection of short stories on Feb. 7. Presented by York’s Canadian Writers in Person series, Goto was as much performer as writer. Her reading was dramatically vocalized: anyone listening from outside the room in the Accolade West Building might have thought someone was actually giving birth in class.
Left: Hiromi Goto
Though Goto resists the idea of being categorized by genre ("that’s what academics do"), her work has usually been called speculative fiction or slipstream.
The setting, events and characters will generally be realistic but one or more elements will slip out of the mainstream into the realm of the unreal. A girl metamorphoses into a levitating creature, a woman encounters a mythic Kappa while camping near a lake, and a mother gives birth to a child with an unusual appendage. "What can happen on the page is wide open. What we think of as reality is just as artificial and constructed."
Goto’s characters likewise slip in and out of different identities, like cultural amphibians. "Osmosis", the title of the short story quoted above, suggests that culture and language are semi-permeable barriers. Only by making identity more fluid, like water, can one pass through them. Goto often uses Japanese words and phrases in her stories without translating them. For bilingual readers these phrases are not a barrier as they would be for Anglo-Canadian readers. By leaving the work of translation to the reader, she chooses not to hide her difference while inviting readers to step across the boundary of cultural limitations.
Goto’s characters likewise make choices that determine their identity, refusing to be limited by their visible markers. In The Body Politic, she says that "I hold my culture in my hands and form it on my own so that no one else can shape the way it lies on my body." Goto stretches the boundaries of her exploration of "racialized bodies" to include the monstrous, the misshapen, and the malodorous. What defines these qualities is a matter of perception and the choice involved is usually a shift in self-perception. Her characters might identify with Gandhi’s famous quote: "Be the change you want to see in the world."
Choice is also something the readers bring to the story. This is why she ends many of her stories ambiguously: "The writing is not finished until the reader has brought their reading to it." When asked about other elements of her writing process, Goto said that she usually starts with a scene in her head, like a movie clip. Short stories usually end after that one scene is fully developed but the space of novels allow for a more layered experience. While not entirely autobiographical, she often draws on what she witnesses and experiences in the fragments of daily life.
One subtle piece of the author is on the book’s cover: her dental X-ray. While being absolutely unique as all dental records are, it is a monstrous image we all share whenever we get a dental exam. The point being, we all carry that monstrosity within ourselves: "The monster isn’t the other, it’s the other self".
The hopeful part is that this understanding leads to new choices for identity.
The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts.