When I was in school, my extended family members used to mock me during the summer for the stack of books I always had on my nightstand, which often extended pool-side. I’d get deep wrinkles on the backs of my thighs from sitting on the cool deck for hours, my legs dangling in the water as I devoured book after book even though “I didn’t have to.” Now, when I pack for taking weekend trips to my parents’ house in New Jersey, where my old room has become a de facto library, I still bring not one, but two books with me—in case, God forbid, I finish the first one, and all the others on my six-shelf bookcase.
I finished reading the dystopian debut short story collection Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein on February 26th. It was recommended to me by a friend whose taste is highly regarded in my industry, and I enjoyed it myself so much I passed it on to a friend with similar word-spreading intentions. Ordinarily, my hands wouldn’t need much instruction to choose the next book on my reading stack(s), and the day after I finished I stood before my shelf expecting to feel that usual anticipation. What should I read next? is a question that inspires as much excitement in me as what flavor ice cream should I get or what shoes should I buy might in others. There are so many options, and yet what one reads in a given moment can so much influence over…everything. A book can make you obsessed, disgusted, a hermit with no intentions to do anything else until you finish, or an extrovert dying to get in front of someone just to talk about what you’re reading. It’s a big choice. And unlike many other choices one makes during the day, one that feels truly volitional.
So are you ready to know what I chose to read on February 27th?
I didn’t pick up a book for pleasure until March 26th, the longest I’d gone without reading for as long as I could read. I won’t go too far into the the whys and hows of this choice, but a concise way of putting it would be that I thought it best to “take a break” from my relationship with books. Part of me felt like it had died, the reader in me became an endangered species. It was scary, and I filled my time with social engagements, meditation, and side projects to keep me from thinking about this near-extinction of a huge part of my identity.
I nonetheless kept up my stack of books in preparation for when the urge to read would return. When it did, my hand reached for a paperback, also highly recommended, that I knew would be just out-of-the-box enough to not quite feel like reading. It was Memoirs of a Polar Bear, a Japanese novel originally written in 2014 and translated into English two years later. It’s fanatically literal in the sense that the book, at least in part, is about a polar bear writing her memoir. She’s a Canadian ex-pat who’s a performer in a circus, recalling not only her time on stage, her rise to fame, but also how she felt compelled to and struggled with putting her story to paper. It takes a true leap of faith to believe this narrator, who loves seals as readily as she does humans, who struggles with learning to speak and write in German, who is part of a polar bear union when her comrades begin to stand up for their mistreatment. She is anxious about being the only white girl in a sea of brown bears, even as she hardly realizes that she is a female in the first place. The reader is never given the opportunity to question how any of this could be true, because the alternative reality where humans and animals interact on a somewhat even playing field is presented as utter truth.
As the media feeds us a relentless stream of “fake news” and situations that seem plagiarized from decades-old dystopian fiction, this novel was speaking to my need to escape and also accept the fact that what’s real often feels anything but. It gave me permission to accept that maybe what I thought was true about myself, too—that I always needed to be reading—didn’t have to be true.
Part 2 of Tawada’s novel shifts perspectives and time periods to follow a young female (human) circus performer, Barbara (a name noted for its similarities to “bear”), who becomes close with the daughter of the first polar bear we meet. Tosca is, like her mother, a success and star on the stage, and she and her human friend develop a relationship epitomized by the title of the section, “The Kiss of Death.” It’s in this part of the book that the story becomes more political, more contested—more real—than the rather fantastical world we enter the book into. These two women are up against similar pressures and expectations to do and be more: to twist and bend and perform and sparkle, even when they would rather be dull, ordinary, and just together.
In The New York Times Magazine, Rivka Galchen profiled Tawada in a piece called “The Profound Empathy of Yoko Tawada.” This section of the novel epitomizes that quality of this writer’s work, for it shows human and animal interacting and respecting each other in a way that the others around them don’t necessarily understand, in fact render into a scandal. Part of their shared act becomes the subject of intense media scrutiny as toward the end of their dance—Tosca towering over Barbara, the two gently swaying—Barbara places a sugar cube in her mouth, which Tosca removes gently. The sugar is a symbol of innocence—pure, white, melting—something that any bear would be drawn to because of its sweetness. Taking the cube need not be motivated by love, but in this case it is. When the creative team of the circus search for an alternative, they decide “to show the audience simple, quotidian scenes . . . We’d come to the conclusion that it was already glorious enough if we—humans and bears, such different creatures—could join together and meet the challenges of a day-to-day life without slaughtering each other . . . I thought: I can put on an ordinary acrobatics show anytime—that’s what would be boring.”
Besides their kiss, Barbara and Tosca share another bond that elevates the level of their union. Inspired by hearing about her mother’s famed narrative, Tosca decides to write her own autobiography but doesn’t know how. Barbara offers to help, but in the end the two switch places as Tosca becomes the writer. Barbara’s ashamed for taking up too much space in the narrative so far, telling her own life story, to which Tosca replies:
“That’s all right. First you should translate your own story into written characters. Then your soul will be tidy enough to make room for a bear.”
“Are you planning to come inside me?”
We laughed in one voice.
When I went on my reading hiatus, part of me was simply unable to take in any more of the unending stream of nonsense that seemed to flow into me from the news and out of me from a general sense of unease and anxiety about my own life. There were so many stories being told, and taken away, by the people and institutions that were meant to protect the sanctity of each human’s story. Choosing to ingest even a story pulled from a writer’s imagination would mean risking overflow, implosion.
But Tawada so fluidly integrates two stories that are seemingly incompatible, biologically and linguistically, with an assured narrative stance that transcends the necessary fantasy of its premise. Polar bears and humans, creatures with white fur or skin, do not speak the same language. Or do they?
People from a hot and arid continent, whose skin is a different shade, do not belong here. Or do they?
On March 28th, I woke up early to finish some work I had left from the night before. Usually I read The New York Times every morning over breakfast, but I was distracted by my assignment and had my eyes fixed on a manuscript on my iPad instead. Over the course of that day at the office, I overheard the whispers that had been circulating throughout the country and Internet for hours: Trump had effectively dismantled the EPA. When I got home that night, I read the headlines and cried. This was my biggest fear of the election result, the thing that couldn’t be “undone” by reversing policy or legislation in four (or fewer) years. The Earth would not wait for a new administration to realize that science is real, that the accumulation of damages human behavior has wrought upon our shared home is real.
The final section of Memoirs turns to Tosca’s son Knut, who was abandoned by his mother after her own fame ostensibly lead her astray from traditional motherhood. Knut is raised in a zoo by a male (human) “mother,” Matthias. He teaches Knut all sorts of things, which makes him the star at the Berlin zoo. When Knut goes about town, he first blunders by too literally translating the language Matthias taught him and referring to himself in the third person. He’s not sure how to identify as an I, especially when everyone else is I, too. The erasure of his past also complicates Knut’s identity, and as a captive, as an attraction, he’s identified more by others’ gazes than his own. When Matthias dies suddenly, he’s left even more alone despite the fact of having been introduced to his real mother, and to a mystical Ur-mother who appears to him in his mind like a hallucination. Knut somehow embodies all those who came before him, all their stories, and yet is still expected to tell a different one because of his species. He’s not the North Pole bear they all expect—his people are from the GDR—and he’s not the star who would “influence society, maybe even more than a politician. I dream that one day Knut will be like Joan of Arc, holding a huge SAVE THE EARTH banner in his hand an leading a massive demonstration.”
Should we be disappointed in Knut for failing to deliver on this promise, on the symbol of his fate? His mother and grandmother performed as they were expected to, and they were tortured for it, their emotions stripped from them out of human fear. I read about Knut in the wake of the EPA thinking about how much damage we had done to his world and non-home, and the way I’d instinctually also want to sentimentalize him as an image of what we now need to do to protect what’s left of the planet. Do you love bears like Knut? Do we have compassion for other living things? If so, we can’t do this. Because sooner or later we’ll be the only ones left, and there will be no one to fight for us.
Knut’s autobiography is instead one that highlights the value of each individual, separate from his or her past or outward appearance. At the end of the book, winter arrives slowly and Knut dreams of a place where the city’s oppressive heat wave would abate: “One day a cold wind would finally blow even here where I was. There must be a distant place where the cold can protect itself from the city’s heat and survive. That’s where I want to be.”
We all have our own wintry snow globes of escape. Books, nature, relationships, there are so many things that illustrate how within our own selves we have the capacity to be and feel so much more. Choosing to take that in is an act of bravery and compassion that makes us not just human, but alive. Why would you choose anything else?