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A collection from Tokyo’s nests of creativity

by Stephen Mansfield

More “like a machine than a city” is how Paul Theroux recently characterized Tokyo, a city many of us see as a breeding tank for creativity. True, the more subtle voices of the megalopolis are often drowned out in the din, but this is where artists can help, by adding warmth, depth and texture. Among the city’s interesting life forms are its expatriate writers.

JUNGLE CROWS: A Tokyo Expatriate Anthology, edited by Hillel Wright. Printed Matter Press, 2008, 227 pp., ¥2,500 (paper)

Editor Hillel Wright contends that, like jungle crows, those highly visible airborne pests that have taken up residence in Tokyo, expatriate writers are “tolerated by the local population as somehow necessary to the ecology of the bio-region, but hardly ever actually liked.” As far as the Japanese are said to welcome foreigners, but only those who mind their manners, this is a fair assessment.

By bringing diverse talents together into an anthology, Wright has created a snappy compendium of some of the most gifted expatriate authors in town. While writers here like Donald Richie and Leza Lowitz need little introduction, there are many who will benefit from having their names appear in this collection.

Writers need to air their work. There are very few authors who really mean it when they make the implausible disclaimer that they don’t care if they are successful or not, or whether people read their work. After they have scoped out the new terrain of their homes, writers need to announce their presence, and the exposure offered by anthologies is an excellent way to do it.

Here we find submissions by Michael Hoffman, who delivers a story of brooding violence and magic realism, set in a sleazy meta-city. Patrick Rial writes about what happens when someone else’s reassuring structure is removed from your life. In “Idol,” Brian Howell writes about the sensations that assail those who release themselves into Tokyo’s strong currents, skin acting as a conductor for the moods of a city conducive to obsessive desire.

Mong-lan teases the palette with poems that are homages to tofu, rice noodles and green tea. No one, neither Lao Tsu, William Safire nor his eminence the pope, is spared the invective of Wallace Gagne. John Carroll adds to the mix with his narrative of the swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.

Some entries touch on the contentious. It is far easier, of course, for expatriate writers, largely ignored by Japanese readers and opinion groups, to take on the prevailing taboos. A Japanese writer with the courage to do the same would either be silenced by his editors or judged and sentenced in the invisible but ever- present court of Japanese rightists, for whom the past really is a different country.

The past resurfaces in the work of several of these Tokyo-based writers. As if the dead are capable of bringing out the best in the living, Hillel Wright and Morgan Gibson rise to powerful heights of expression with their tributes to two deceased poets. There are more short stories and poems on Borges, Dostoyevsky, Robert Frost and Jack Kerouac.

Crows, as you would expect, pervade the anthology: In a poem by Leza Lowitz, an extract from a travel book by Leigh Norrie, and in the illustrations of Akemi Shinohara, including the striking cover, where a bird stands at the entrance to an apartment, door ajar, about to cross the threshold. To enter prohibited space.

Like jungle crows, expatriate writers must dig their claws in. Tough and enduring breeds, both species are finding ingenious ways to survive in a habitat that encourages extinction.