Holly Thompson, a Kanagawa-based novelist, worked alongside other volunteers in the months after the March 11, 2011, tragedy, shoveling tsunami sludge, clearing away dead fish and struggling with the grief of traumatized teen survivors.
Their grief hardened her determination, and what started as a “far-fetched idea in the exhausting and unpredictable spring of 2011” became a superlative collection of young adult fiction. The stories in “Tomo,” friend in Japanese resonate beyond the confines of tragedy in the Tohoku region to reflect a generation who will grow up indelibly marked but not defeated by 3/11.
There is sadness and suicide, loss and, yes, the tsunami. But these stories equally cover everything important to the younger generation as entrance exams, ghosts, J-pop, love, divorce, baseball, gamers, ninjas and dragons coordinate to form a whole.
Thirty-six stories by writers somehow connected to Japan, five contributors with ties to Tohoku — each piece concisely aligns the disparate puzzle of the teenage map. Ten stories are translated from Japanese, including one Ainu yukar (traditional oral story). Together, Tomo reverberates with the authentic voice of Japanese and bicultural teens as they face down the confusing adult world before and after 3/11.
From the internment camps in Canada and back again to Honolulu and Pearl Harbor, from Tokyo to the mountains in Akita, from Kobe to Chiba, deep in the forests or on the tracks of the Yamanote line, the anthology surveys a wide terrain, leaving a chart of many Japans.
Stories are rendered from the eyes of ghosts, heard with the pon-poko-pon of a traditional drum, or drunk down with the creaminess of an A&W root-beer float in Okinawa. Thompson, the editor of the collection, groups the stories into seven separate sections by theme. All share authenticity of true teenage individuality.
Highlights include “Yamada-san’s Toaster,” Kelly Luce’s provoking look at the gift of prophecy, wryly popped out of a stainless steel toaster. The teen narrator struggles to understand death even as she observes the difficulties of life, reflected in the beery haze of her eccentric but wise neighbor.
Trevor Kew recounts history in “The Bridge to Lilloet”, imagining the struggle of Japanese-Canadians during World War II internment camps. Young brothers are emotionally united with their embittered father by a dirt field and a baseball bat.
Deborah Davidson’s translation of Yukie Chiri’s transcription of the Ainu tale, “Where the Silver Droplets Fall,” lingers in memory — the owl’s kindness amid human callousness a bittersweet reminder of the importance of unity.
Style and form differ widely as in Charles De Wolf’s historical story within a story and in Alan Gratz’s “The Ghost.”