Translated Fiction Book Club: ‘Where the Wild Ladies Are’

This Thursday saw the latest translated fiction book club, and this week we were reading Where the Wild Ladies Are from Titled Axis Press, written by Matsuda Aoko and translated by Polly Barton. Once again, it was wonderful to be part of such a lovely discussion with readers from around the world, and so I thought I would write another blog post on the meeting.

Where the Wild Ladies Are is a feminist retelling of a collection of short Japanese ghost stories, however, the ghosts are not quite as one would expect them to be. The stories that these retellings are based on are rooted in a long tradition of Japanese ghost stories, passed down orally through generations, and normally told in summer around one-hundred candles. For each story told, one candle gets blown out, slowly making the atmosphere scarier and scarier. In most of these traditional stories, the ghost is almost always a ‘wronged’ woman, unable to reach the afterlife because of something still linking her to the real world. Aoko takes these discourses, and bringing them into contemporary society, introduces us to modern ghosts, with a whole heap of agency. Aoko subverts the typical narrative, and in fact, it is the ghost that is often there to help the humans navigate the issues and pitfalls that come with modern life – particularly the issues that come with being a woman in contemporary Japan. As well as usurping the ‘wronged woman’ trope, Aoko also deconstructs the horror genre, writing stories that are full of wit and humour, rather than shock and horror. It is clear from this collection that Aoko wanted to write an accessible feminist literary piece that addressed feminist issues in modern-day Japan.

The discussion started with us all sharing our favourite stories from the collection, mine being ‘Smartening Up’ which offers a criticism of Japanese ideals of beauty, perhaps influenced by Western ideals, and ‘Enoki’ an interesting and very short story that gives life to a tree named Enoki whose ‘sweet dew’ (sap) is believed to give women the power to start producing breast milk, an idea that even the tree herself finds ridiculous, ‘Give me a break!’ she says. We then moved on to discuss Aoko’s use of humour in the retellings, as well as the apparent importance of work and ‘the company’ and how this may reflect Japanese society. ‘The company’, as we slowly begin to discover through the subtle interweaving of the short stories, is a company comprised of both ghosts and humans, directed by the elusive Mr Tei. Not a great deal of information is divulged about the company, however, what is clear is that Mr Tei outsources ‘talented ghosts’ that can help humans that may be a little lost, or trapped by modern issues. This is where the subversion of the ‘wronged woman’ ghost trope really comes into play, Aoko flips the narrative, and rather than it being the female ghosts that are trapped in the living world, it is, in fact, the human characters that appear lost or confused. The ghosts have been sought out by Mr Tei for their talents, and use their powers to guide the humans who are ‘lost’ or ‘trapped’. The ghosts help humans navigate issues such as constructs of beauty, love, and jealousy.

I loved reading Where the Wild Ladies Are and found it to be a fun and unique collection of stories!

This session was yet another wonderful addition to the book club and was a great way to spend a Thursday night in isolation. Now, in time for next week’s meeting, I am off to read Fate published by Charco Press, written by Jorge Consiglio, and translated by Carolina Orloff and Fionn Petch…

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