Book Review: Wandering Son, Takako Shimura (Trans. Matt Thorn)

I’m a rather inexperienced manga reader, but I was drawn to Wandering Son by the art, and the theme: A story about two transgender children crossing paths and exploring their gender together and with their friends. While I’m surrounded by people who read and love manga, I have to blame my friend Y for dragging me into the comic book store and then allowing me to wander around unsupervised until I ‘accidentally’ ended up with a pile of books, including the first two volumes of this series (there are currently seven in all).

It’s not just manga that I’m unfamiliar with — graphic novels, comics, and other forms of graphic books are largely alien territory for me, though I own and love a few works like V for Vendetta, Transmetropolitanand From HellIt’s a literary genre that always pushes my boundaries, because while I love art, I am not a strong visual thinker, and I have trouble tracking stories told through a visual narrative. When I read graphic novels, I am caught up in the visuals and I struggle to follow the story, often finding myself flipping back and forth to reestablish narrative points and identify characters (because people often look similar to me in drawings, as they do in life, a consequence of being faceblind).

Manga is even more interesting for me as a reader because, of course, it’s ‘flipped’ to Western eyes, being read right to left, which requires a fundamental adjustment of my reading brain. I have to rethink the way I relate to the text and it takes time to get into the rhythm of reading and processing the text — and because I get caught up in how to read, I lose track of the narrative. (And it’s equally hard to shift back into left to right reading when I return to Western books, a problem I also used to have when I studied Arabic and my brain would get confused about which way books opened and which direction text was supposed to be read in.)

I give you this lengthy preamble because I think it’s potentially interesting contextual information — as a Western reader, my approach to any text is going to be mediated by the books I was socialised with, by my brain training, and, of course, by the translator’s influence on the book, since I didn’t read Wandering Son in Japanese. (Given that I, er, don’t speak, read, or understand Japanese.) As readers we tend to exoticise texts rooted in different cultural and literary traditions, but we don’t think about the impact this has on how we read them, how that heightened awareness influences the way we relate to the book, the characters, and the author — the experience becomes about us, the readers, rather than the story that is being told, which is a pity, because the story is the fascinating part.

Wandering Son explores the lives of a trans boy and a trans girl as they start to develop complex relationships with their gender, realising that their unconventional gender expression runs deeper than just behaving unexpectedly. As they grow to understand themselves, they encounter each other, and they also meet a mentor: An older trans woman, who provides them with advice, a safe space to hang out, and an environment to explore gender without explicitly pushing gender issues on them. As they play with gender, they get drawn into things like a gender-swapped play, the strictures of their own communities, and more.

These texts are an interesting glimpse into growing up trans in Japan, though of course they’re hardly an authoritative and definitive documentation — and I wish that I could read critiques from the Japanese trans and gender nonconforming community in response to the series and their depictions of trans life. Many of the experiences the characters have are achingly familiar to me, speaking to commonalities of trans experiences across cultures, while others are clearly set in a different cultural context. Takako Shimura does an excellent job of exploring a sensitive and complicated subject, though I can’t speak to the validity of Thorn’s translation (he does, at least, provide a discussion of his own thoughts about the text and translation style at the beginning of each book, so readers do have something to work with).

I’d recommend Wandering Son to those who love graphic novels, to those interested in exploring the trans experience, and to those who want to push themselves culturally to read outside Western traditions and norms. While it can be uncomfortable and complicated to be confronted with the realities of lives outside the West, Wandering Son pushes at gender identity, culture, and society as it weaves a story that is by turns familiar and radically different. Challenge yourself.

If you haven’t read manga before because you’ve been put off by it or convinced yourself that it’s ‘for kids’ because it has pictures in it, think again. Wandering Son is a great read whether you’re a ‘kid’ or a teen or an adult, and it’s a fantastic introduction into the world of this particular iteration of the graphic novel genre — having read this, I’m now much more excited about reading more manga (and I’d love your recommendations, gentle readers who are rolling your eyes because you’ve been reading manga for years!).