Sally Ito's The Floating Shore, nominated for the 1999 Alberta Book Award, is a series of short stories that follows the transient, dislocated lives of characters traveling the estranging yet seductive paths between Japan and Canada. There is feisty Tane Tsuruta, a pregnant prostitute caught overseas at Sakhalin during the war who manages to escape to Canada, and Teruko, a listless Japanese travel agent who leaves for Canada only to become entangled in a violent relationship while working in a group home. There are honeymooners visiting Banff, and Japanese Canadians searching for their roots while site-seeing in Kyoto. And then there are those looking to come of age and learn English in North America, while their counterparts make the reverse journey to Japan to learn the language or work as translators. All the stories are marked by quiet poignancy and vague hope as their protagonists struggle to achieve a sense of love and belonging through a kaleidoscope of broken language, impassioned gestures, and awkward silences as others pass through the quiet shadows of their lives.
All the main characters are young and struggling with the challenges and disappointments of "first love". In "Furyo", the Japanese Canadian narrator is looking for her roots in Kyoto when she meets Peter Arakawa, a Sansei from Seattle. The two gradually build a close relationship while on weekly site-seeing adventures until Peter abruptly moves on to Korea. The narrator is left with only her travel journal entries which mark her growing attachment to both Peter, who is no longer there, and a "Japanese" identity that she can embody but cannot recognize as her own. Ito's ability to intimately describe both the meetings and the sites carries the story.
The characters seem to encounter one another, history, and culture at a distance, as casual site-seers might visit a monument, a ruin or a great work of art. In "Foreigners", a Japanese Canadian visitor says of Japan: "Here, unlike any other place, fate works its hands on you, drawing you to people you would have never met except in circumstances such as these".
The Floating Shore is Ito's second book. (Her first was a volume of poetry, Frogs in the Rain Barrel, published by Nightwood in 1995.) The short story form seems better suited to the author's talents and narrative drive-her desire to offer brief, lyrical glimpses into the lives of her characters. Strangely, Ito's anthropological desire comes off, like history and culture in her work, as an earnest relic from another age. The book is not, however, a glass case through which we view a culture, but rather an important didactic note left on an abandoned museum's wall. The sign tells us that we have left this way of thinking about ourselves behind but that we still traffic in empty signs.
In the contemporary Asian Diaspora, one circulates among all the failed clichés of "East meets West", and history is often worn on the skin as a scar or tattoo, or hangs around the neck like a kitschy bobble or exotic gem. In terms of representations of contemporary Japan, one need just think of the yakuza films of "Beat" Takeshi, the camp and excess of the animation industry, the cinematic-style writing of Haruki Murakami, the dizzy, placid living spaces in the work of Banana Yoshimoto, or the music of Shonen Knife, Cibo Matto and the nihilistic groove of the chemical scene. While these representations do not appear in Ito's stories, nevertheless, like graffiti, they scratch and needle the insides and outsides of the group homes, schools, tourist sites, books, and clothes labels. It is not so much that they demand to be included within the imagery of Ito's stories, but they might suggest that her characters are looking for love in all the wrong places-or at the very least that language and the form of the short story can be made for other accommodations beyond the anthropologist's museum-gaze.
That said, The Floating Shore writes the limits of its own anthropological desires with impressive skill. Ito's knowledge of both Japanese and Canadian history, as well as her abilities as a translator, provide her stories with a subtle, nuanced depth that lends itself to a provocative, if at times uneven, read. One always has the sense that Ito is on to something.
In "Ronin", Kazu, the son of a wealthy Japanese family sent to Canada to come of age, listens to a Vietnamese friend describe the horror of being a "boat person". Listen to the quirky mind and the emotional distance of this lordless samurai: "Kazu," we are told, "looked at a thin stream of black water flowing down the gutter to the grate. He imagined what it must have been like floating on that boat. Endlessly, forever, never arriving. The sensation was dark, but not without pleasure." Strangely, the same might be said of Ito's The Floating Shore.
Scott Toguri McFarlane has written extensively on the politics of race, especially in relation to Asian Canadian art and writing, as well as on multiculturalism. He is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at Simon Fraser University.