Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Re-Reading Project: Dragon Sword and Wind Child

In her dream, Saya was always six years old. Long fingers of flame rose up against the darkness, lighting the sky above. Fire blazed spiteful and triumphant above what she had once thought most secure–her home, that safe, warm refuge that she was so sure would always be there. The glowing hearth; the single room in which her family lived permeated with the smells of cooking and familiar people; her own wooden bowl; her mother’s soft, plump lap covered in rough-woven cloth–all were consumed by the flames. The child Saya had somehow managed to find her way to the marsh at the edge of the village, but with no one there to lead her by the hand, she could go no farther. Crouched in a clump of dying reeds, she trembled with terror, choking down the hard lump of fear in her throat, unable even to cry.

I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Noriko Ogiwara. I know it was before I started keeping my reading record at age 13, because the first time this book appears on the record is in 2004 when I re-read it while staying with my parents, at age 22. While I don’t know how old I was when I first read it, I do know that I discovered this book at the Cobb County Public Library, at what is now the main branch, what was at the time the massive new building that replaced my beloved little library in the town square where the children’s books were housed in an attic alcove you had to climb several staircases to get to. Judging by the comments on Goodreads and also on Tales of Magatama, a fan blog, my experience with Dragon Sword and Wind Child is not unique. Many of the comments reference chancing upon the book at the library as a child, as I did.

The original cover is striking and I imagine that it’s what first drew my attention, all those years ago. Translated into English by Cathy Hirano, the book is a retelling of a Japanese creation myth, a story that centers around fifteen year old Saya. While it contains a lot of the familiar tropes and imagery common to mythic tales, it was a mythology completely foreign to me. Though it’s told in the relatively flat tone also common to mythology, it resonated personally with me. The familiar comforted me and the foreign thrilled me. A lot of it would’ve sailed over my head on my first reading, but I always remembered it as a favorite book.

dragon sword and wind childFor many years, copies of the English translation were almost impossible to find, selling for over $100 online. When I wanted to re-read it ten years ago, I discovered that the Cobb County library still had the same copy I read as a child. In 2007, it was released in a new paperback edition with new cover art. While I think the new cover is beautiful, it doesn’t really strike me as relevant to the story as the original.

new dragon sword and wind childThe book never felt open-ended to me, so I was surprised to learn that it was the first in a trilogy, Tales of the Magatama or The Jade Trilogy. The English version of the second book was released in 2011 as Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m curious, but reluctant, too. So far, the third book hasn’t been published in English and I think this is part of what makes me hesitate to read the second book.

By chance, I was visiting my parents at the beginning of February, when I planned to re-read Dragon Sword and Wind Child, so even though I own a copy of the reprint, I decided to check out the original from the Cobb County library and compare them side by side. Unfortunately, I learned that the book had been officially discarded from the library system. Because I’ve been volunteering with my local library, dealing with discards for the book sales, I can understand why this happened, why it was probably necessary, and yet I have to say I was emotional about it regardless. It probably happened shortly after the 2007 reprint. The original hardcover was no longer as valuable and probably had suffered a significant amount of wear over the years. Probably the new cover appeals to today’s children and teenagers more because it looks very manga-like.

Unable to compare the two copies, I dove into my copy of the reprint, which nicely contains an Afterward written by Ogiwara in 2005. It was a weird experience, something like recovering memories after amnesia, I imagine. As I read, I would remember characters and elements of the story right as or right before they were revealed. As an adult, I felt impatience with Saya that I probably didn’t feel as a child. She’s very passive, in fact it’s an integral part of her character: it’s her job to “still” the dragon sword. She’s surrounded by people who know more about the eternal battle between the Light and the Darkness than she does and she constantly looks to them for answers and protection. I had to remind myself that this is true of most children—they have less information than the others around them, they look to others for guidance and they have to make mistakes in order to learn.

One thing that I very much enjoyed about the story, and I’m sure this drew me as a child too, is that the standard Western tropes are often reversed. If there is a “bad guy,” it’s the side of Light, not Darkness (though the Western standard of male = sun and female = moon analogy is present here). Princess Teruhi is the more fierce of the two twin children of the God of Light. Her brother, Prince Tsukishiro, is the more conciliatory of them. There is a hint of the maiden-mother-crone triumvirate at work in the story and (SPOILER!) they all die.

Someone with an expertise in Japanese mythology and literature, as well as world mythology, could probably write a book about Dragon Sword and Wind Child’s place within Japanese literature and the larger mythological canon. I’d love for there to be an annotated edition of the trilogy for Western readers one day – that would be simply incredible. In the meantime, what I know is that Dragon Sword and Wind Child, being the complex and beautiful book that it is, finding me when it did, helped influence my love of fantasy and myth. It’s a big reason why I love books that unite fantasy and mythology, books like George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, The Neverending Story, Kai Meyer’s books, Ronlyn Domingue’s Keeper of Tales trilogy and at least one book I’ll re-read later this year. Dragon Sword and Wind Child remains a beloved book from my childhood.

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Re-Reading in the World: Harriet the Spy in EW

I considered re-reading Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy last month for the Re-Reading Project, but ran out of time (I ended up re-reading twice as many books in January as I’d originally planned). Reading through my Entertainment Weekly yesterday, as I religiously do, I saw a great book essay by Hillary Busis about Harriet the Spy (as well as Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) turning 50 this year.

Busis writes about how influential Harriet was for her, growing up 30 years after the book’s 1960s setting:

…I identified so fully with Harriet–her emotions, fear of change, frustration, and loneliness–that she instantly felt like an old friend. Inspired by her, I even started keeping a journal in which I carefully wrote mean things about my friends. During a fateful fifth-grade camping trip, that choice came back to bite me…hard. (P.S. Katy, Julia, Whitney, Kate–I’m still sorry.)

Despite that episode, Harriet wasn’t a bad influence. My bond with her was so strong precisely because her faults and virtues mirrored my own.

It occurs to me that troublesome female characters like Harriet (and Gilly Hopkins and Sammy Keyes) are especially important for young girls, who so often absorb society’s message that their job is to please others, which usually means not pleasing themselves. They’re not supposed to be nosy, or stubborn, or rambunctious, but they often are these things, or feel these things, and they need heroines who show them that it’s okay to be however they are, to ask questions and accept no one’s answers but the ones they find for themselves.

Have no fear, there will be a Re-Reading post for February–I’m working on it now. And I’ll have a guest post from my sister soon (together, she and I were little girls much like Harriet, Gilly and Sammy and we remain partners in crime today). If you’ve been enjoying theses posts, I hope you’ll consider re-reading an influential book and writing about it, like Maurice has done and Aimee is doing.

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The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: Lolita

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

During my twenties (1997-2007 R.I.P., my twenties), I was looking for the greatest books ever written and found a few that I would come to cherish.

In 2004, I came to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita with some trepidation. A Russian who wrote a poetic exploration of the soul through the vessel of a story about a pedophile? Hurray! Sign me up. I expected the book to be icky, filled with choppy English and twenty-page long scenes wherein the author described waves crashing upon craggy seashores all while ignoring the dark issue at the center of the book.

Of course, I was wrong.

I bought the annotated edition because I heard that Nabokov wrote allusively like James Joyce or the writers of The Simpsons TV show. In other words, Nabokov had no problem quoting (and remixing!) obscure 17th Century poems while ripping the pop singers and movie idols who were popular with teenagers at the time. This sounded like fun to me because it’s the way my mind works. You mention Nelly the rapper and I might quickly think of Nellee Hooper, the movie Starship Troopers, WWII fascists, and the Greek warriors who died at Thermopylae (those guys in the movie 300) …but I digress.

The annotated edition was a good call because the scholar who added the notes had been a student of Nabokov’s in the 1950s and had complete access to the author. So much access that the annotations and scholarly essays take up about 200 pages. For a geek like me, this is better than free king cake.

Maurice and LolitaBut the centerpiece of Lolita for me during that first read was Nabokov’s skill as a writer. The topic was sensational and gut-wrenching, but I was more impressed by Nabokov’s way with words, his ability to create effects that are usually the province of master painters and opera composers. I was so stunned that I finished the book and let out a sigh of relief. The writing was so unquantifiably wicked that I could relax; I had no reason to even hope I could ever write half that well myself.

Also, I was taken by Humbert Humbert. He’s one of the most villainous characters in all of fiction, but by imbuing him with a (usually) honest eye and quick wit Nabokov reminds us that even monsters are human. Humbert’s evolution over the course of the novel is the reason I read fiction in the first place.

My second read certainly felt different. I found myself squirming during the first sections of the book. When Humbert abuses Lolita the way that he does, I was sick to my stomach. I wondered why. The book isn’t graphic. The words haven’t changed. However, I’m nine years older and wiser. I stumbled into the middle section of the book worried that my favorite novel of all time was no longer that. I was angry at Humbert, wanted to take him outside and pummel him. But then something strange happened. I realized that I was more angry at myself because on the first read I had been sucked into Humbert’s way of seeing the world. As such, Lolita was little more than a prop for me back then. But now that I could focus more of my attention on Lolita I saw the full horror of what she was going through. And then another odd thing happened. I forgave myself. With the new ability to see Lolita and Humbert in all their humanity, the novel took on a new dimension of pathos and complexity. And, can I tell you, it was good. In fact, it was better than the first read.

By the time I reached the last page, I was on the edge of tears. I felt a personal loss. I felt Humbert’s loss. Mostly, I felt Lolita’s loss. But even moreso, I felt more human than ever before.

***

Maurice Carlos Ruffin is a writer living in New Orleans. He most recently published an essay in Unfathomable City, A New Orleans Atlas. Maurice is writing a novel.

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