I’m rather glad my carry-on was stowed a few seats away – we had been among the last to board. And so when I finished reading one of the books I’d meant to tide me over the four-hour flight, I thought it was too much of a fuss to get up and get the other. This morning I’m rather glad I didn’t. I don’t believe I could’ve read that second book in full view of the public.
I know this dearth of reading material would not have happened if I’d had an e-book. I’ve had two of them, both presents from M, who prefers travelling with them. He’s got over 250 books stored in his, more than enough to keep him entertained for unexpected flight delays and travel for years. My first e-book accompanied me during fieldwork, as I’d anticipated 6 months of not having any access to entertaining reading in the remote mountains of Nueva Vizcaya. My second one was a hand-me-down from M, who’d acquired a Kindle.
If it were simply the mechanical act of reading that I like doing, then I would not hesitate to have all my favourites in an e-book. But it isn’t. I like holding a book – a physical, proper book — in my hand. I love feeling its heft, feeling the weight and texture of paper between my fingers as I turn the pages. How a book is laid out – the style and feel of its typeface, the spaces between the lines, the balance of text to paper, much as a painting is a balance of a filled surface to an empty space – these are what attract me when I’m choosing a book to read. And despite what they say one shouldn’t do, I like judging a book by its cover. A book’s cover is what initially draws me and makes me pick it up among others in a display: it’s what sets it apart. And then I read the first few lines or pages to judge if it is worth my time and attention. A book’s form gives me as much pleasure as its content.
I had no idea the three used books I’d acquired recently — Gail Tsukiyama’s The Samurai’s Garden, Isaac Shapiro’s Edokko, and Tobias Wolff’s Old School – were connected in some way. I had not read any of these writers before, nor had I heard of them. The Samurai’s Garden was the first one that caught my eye – anything with gardens or gardening in it always does. Its title is a trifle misleading, as there is no samurai anywhere in it at all. Edokko’s blurb offered a vicarious experience of living through the war as a child in Tokyo and this intrigued me. And Old School? – I imagined it would take me to another world, again through a child’s eyes. All three are written from the viewpoint of an outsider, someone who does not belong to the environment in which the story is set. I came to know this only after reading all three, but perhaps I, an outsider several times over, had been subconsciously aware of it when I chose these particular three to purchase.
Edokko and Old School are biographies of Jewish boys: one of Russian descent, born in Tokyo, raised in China, and educated in international schools in Tokyo; the other boy is American and narrates his experience as a scholarship boy in an exclusive school where his identity as a Jew is unknown. Samurai’s Garden is told by a Chinese youth sent to recuperate from tuberculosis to Japan, where his family runs a business.
It is a wonder to me how the Russian-Jewish family survived in Tokyo during the war, nor were they harassed by the Kempeitai (the secret police), though the protagonist narrowly escaped being cut down by a Kempeitai sword just as the Emperor announced Japan’s surrender over the radio. No one was supposed to be out in the streets as a sign of respect during the Imperial broadcast, but this irrepressible teen was out on his bicycle – the only one in the deserted streets, other than the Kempeitai. It is a feel-good autobiography: author Isaac Shapiro went on to become a successful lawyer in New York and president of the Japan Society for many years.
Old School is about a boy who has successfully disguised his identity as a Jew among privileged gentiles in the 1960s. It is profoundly touching and relevant to our times because anti-Semitism has resurfaced yet again. In its current reincarnation, it has grown in malignancy — metastasizing and spreading throughout the world, not only among the upper classes or within the countries where Jews had lived and been driven out, but in places where Jews had once been offered a safe haven just a few decades ago. Old School’s narrator uncovers his identity in a story. The story is plagiarized, however, and the boy becomes an outcast – he is expelled from the school.
It was only after finishing the book and pondering the boy’s tragedy that I linked it to the outcast lepers of the Samurai’s Garden. The lepers had been cut off from their community, including their own kin who regarded them as having brought dishonour to the family through illness. Though it is not mentioned outright, I recognized this as the Japanese traditional practice of ostracism or murahachibu (mura = village; hachibu = 80%; isolation from the village).
I know what it is like to be an outsider, as I said earlier, to not really belong in the community where I live. And I have encountered this even in my own birth country the Philippines where, because of the darkness of my skin as well as being of the non-dominant religion (Protestantism), I was made to feel an “other.” But never have I been subjected to physical abuse or outright ostracism or threat of death – verbal abuse, yes, having been called “negrita” and “coloured” — by elementary schoolmates, the latter being uttered to my face at a reunion just a few years ago. I was shocked into silence by it. It is appalling how prevalent these prejudices still are – despite awareness campaigns worldwide for equality – and among educated and intelligent people too, or at least I took them to be so.
What would it feel like to be an outcast, ostracized by the wider community – to live as one of the Untouchables in India, one of the burakumin in Japan, of the Dalit caste in Nepal, a Roma, or one of Baekjeong in Korea? Our world – not the greater world of nature, but the human world — has created many more outcasts than I have mentioned here. How does one navigate life under widespread opprobrium and scorn? How does it feel to live under vigilant self-defence or to hide one’s identity if one wants to avoid being hated by others or, worse, being beaten up or deprived of life?
And you may well ask — what has gratefulness to do with this fact – the bitter reality that there are hated and reviled and despised outcasts in our world? Ostracized not for anything they have done personally, but for simply being, for being born to this family, this culture, this nation – this particular one – and not any other.
Despite my sadness, I can still be grateful — grateful for these three books, two fictional and one from real life, for making me painfully aware of prejudice and injustice and making me feel and care about these issues. As I said, I was glad I did not read Old School on the plane, because I would not have been able to hide my sorrow as I pondered the connections between it and the other two that I’d just read, and the wider implications of those connections.
I am grateful for writers who are brave enough to reveal who and what they are, despite widespread prejudice and at the risk of being ostracized.
I thank these brave souls, fictional and non-fictional alike, for revealing the painful truth — about themselves, about ourselves too, about life — through these books and showing us and teaching us by example how to navigate the complex, tortuous, and often life-threatening paths to survival.
I am also grateful for a universal truth about life, one ascribed to Hemingway: Keep your friends, hold on to your friends. Don’t lose your friends.