Fifty Years Ago, Yukio Mishima First Staged Death as Spectacle

I wrote this piece last year, but I think its message is still relevant.

            During a 1961 session with photographer Eikoh Hosoe, the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima shared his special gift: He could keep his eyes open, without blinking, for up to two minutes. This ability came in handy when modeling and could serve as a metaphor for his novels. In particular, his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, completed nine years later, fixates on the violence of watching. It seems almost inevitable, in hindsight, that on the day he finished it, Mishima would force the world to watch him die. We’ve been speaking of the male gaze for decades, but Mishima pioneered the forced gaze.

I specialized in modern Japanese literature during graduate school, and when I lived in Japan, people would query me about my favorite writers. I learned quickly never to mention Mishima. He’s the country’s disowned child. He drew attention to Japan for all the wrong reasons, and even today, his name is a billboard for national shame. Continue reading

The Ten Most Shaming Summaries on Netflix

“A 1939 American Civil War epic known for its racism. To learn more about Black lives in America, search for ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
(Actual description of Gone with the Wind on Netflix)

  1. Gone with the Wind, continued: That you would even click on this disgrace is testament to your deplorability. You’re the reason Afro-pessimism exists. Ta-Nehisi Coates should pen a long letter gently excoriating your white privilege. And no, lusting after the Duke on Bridgerton doesn’t mean you’re woke.
  2. Schindler’s List: You like your Holocaust fare lite, don’t you? What, you’re too busy to watch Shoah? If you’re going to indulge in this pro-German, apologist kitsch, you might as well slap a Camp Auschwitz t-shirt on yourself and descend on Capitol Hill.
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From Flesh to Word: Female Disembodiment in Literature

I’ve been thinking a lot about disembodiment lately, probably because I spend hours holding court in Zoom’s kingdom of floating heads. As I discuss literature about illness with my students, I savor the irony: we’re discussing texts obsessed with the body even as we’re estranged from each other’s.

Literature glories in disembodiment. In fiction from around the world, limbs disappear. Whole bodies fade. Human flesh is lost in fabric or spirited away to spectral form. Sometimes, these happenings serve as political allegories or erotic fantasies. In other cases, they dissect notions of identity, memory, gender norms, racism, or cultures of violence.

Inspired by our current predicament, I decided to anatomize the literary body of works about female disembodiment through fiction and nonfiction by Yoko Ogawa, Yasunari Kawabata, Carmen Maria Machado, Gaurav Monga, Anne Boyer, Murasaki Shikibu, and Toni Morrison.
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Favorite Books and Television of 2020

I didn’t read as much as I ordinarily do this year, despite the quarantines. Instead, I taught 12 courses, designed two new literature courses, did major revisions of my two books-in-progress, wrote a handful of new essays, and bought my first home. Exhaustion and exhilaration went side by side. But believe me, I know how lucky I am to be busy with work during a pandemic.

I also watched fewer new films, but I did indulge in a ton of television, and I enjoyed many of the books I did finish. So here goes:

Favorite Novels 2020

Yu Miri, Tokyo Ueno Station

Aoko Matsuda, Where the Wild Ladies Are

Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police

It’s the year that Japanese female novelists came out in translation, in full force, in all their wild, unapologetic glory. 

Richard Powers, The Overstory

Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation

Designing the course, “Literature of the Anthropocene,” opened up a whole new world for me and introduced me to these two novels.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Seiobo There Below

Exalting from the first sequence, a meditation on a Kyoto heron. 

Favorite Nonfiction 2020

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

An Indigenous botanist sings the beauty around us. Read it.

David Lynch and Kristine McKenna, Room to Dream

My husband bought this book for me as I was working on a personal essay about Twin Peaks (to be published in 2021), and it inspired me far beyond that project.

Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble

I’m down for sympoiesis.

 Simone Weil, Waiting for God

Weil has much to teach all of us.

Favorite Television 2020

  • Schitt’s Creek: Delightful. I’ve long loved Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, but Levy’s son is a talent too, and Annie Murphy is awesome.
  • Better Call Saul: All this time, I thought I was watching Jimmy’s moral collapse, but I was actually watching Kim’s.
  • Kim’s Convenience: Speaking of Kims—these are lovable.
  • Watchmen: Almost unbearably timely.
  • The Good Place: We can’t make meaning forever, but until then, let’s love each other.
  • Ozark: Laura Linney and the actor who played her brother broke my heart.
  • Lovers Rock: Particular to a time in place but universal too. It captures the endless possibilities and disappointments of a night spent dancing with strangers.
  • Broadchurch: There is only one queen of British television, and her name is Olivia Colman. All hail.
  • Borgen: I convinced myself it was teaching me the finer points of parliamentary systems in preparation for my Canadian citizenship test next year.
  • Any time Baby Yoda—I mean, Grogu—was on screen in The Mandalorian

Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2020

12 Views of Mount Olympus

“Distance is the soul of beauty.”
– Simone Weil

“The best views in Victoria are of another country,” poet Nicholas Bradley said. In spring 2019, I invited him to speak to my class of international students at Royal Roads University, just outside of Victoria on Vancouver Island. Professor Bradley was delivering his talk in a third-floor room whose suite of windows offered a panorama of peaks he’d written about in his poetry, including that of Mount Olympus.

However, there is nothing to view, just a poignant vibration, at one important spot before Mount Olympus. Twenty kilometers down the Strait, as the crow flies, the Canadian border touches palms with that of the United States. Two nations straining at one another as if curious beasts separated by glass.

Having been born in the United States and recently become a Canadian permanent resident through my husband, I have one hand on each side.

Staring out the windows of that third-floor room, I saw the mountains surge toward me, their snowy peaks like memories foaming at the mouth.

“There’s something useful about being able to view your country from a distance,” Professor Bradley assured us.

Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay about regarding San Francisco, where I lived for a decade, from across the water in redwood-rich (and just rich) Marin County: “Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.”

I agree with both of them. Distance is clarity, sharpened on a far wind.

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Japanese Female Novelists Get to Work

The year 2020 has brought, along with the cataclysms of COVID-19, police brutality, and the U.S. presidential election, at least one consolation: a bento box full of translated novels by Japanese women. Mieko Kawakami’s Breast and Eggs dropped along with the cherry blossoms this past spring, and in October, Aoko Matsuda’s Where the Wild Ladies Are will infuse Japanese folktales with feminism while Hiroko Oyamada’s The Hole tumbles down fantastical rabbit holes. I just finished another novel by Oyamada, The Factory, and Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, which both appeared last year in English after being published and celebrated in Japan earlier in the twenty-tens. Using different styles and tones, the two books take stock of one of the many things COVID-19 has altered, perhaps forever: the workplace.

An international bestseller, Convenience Store Woman welcomes the reader into the brightly-lit embrace of that revered Japanese institution: the 24-hour convini. Just glimpsing the title flooded me with nostalgia for my years spent in Japan. Whether you live in Tokyo or some backwater town, the local 7-Eleven or Family Mart is the neighborhood cynosure. When I first lived in Tokyo a quarter century ago, before the smartphone era, one of the few ways to navigate a city of 14 million that lacked well-planned streets and sequentially numbered houses was by detailed maps. Convenience stores took pride of place on them, guiding lost travelers like lighthouse beacons. Even today, any rental listing in Japan will include the distance to the nearest convenience store.

Murata frequently compares these glassy oases to aquariums, but when you’re stumbling home from the last train, drunk and world-weary, and are greeted by one of their tinny-voiced salespeople while you purchase your Pocari Sweat, they take on the status of something more elemental and comforting—the quick-stop as bear hug. All is right within them because, as one customer keeps commenting in Convenience Store Woman, “This place really doesn’t ever change, does it?” In this way, convenience stores are the antithesis of the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware, an appreciation of beauty that changes and decays, which has supercharged the literary canon for centuries.

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When Good Language Goes Bad: My Thoughts on Canadian English

Canadian English is an abomination. At first, I wholly rejected its infiltration into my writing. But I’m currently working on one essay for an American editor and another for a Canadian, and I can’t deny it any longer: I’m starting to lose my grip on superior orthography. These days, my finger twitches near the “s” when I type “analyze.”

I refuse to apologize for my pride in American English. After all, the U.S. doesn’t have a lot going for it these days, especially compared to Canada. Up until recently, I could only find three things that were unquestionably better in my home country: the American work ethic, our post office (you do not want to see the prices and reliability of a privatized mail system like Canada’s), and our version of English. Needless to say, the post office is fast dropping from the list. So now I’m just left with the work ethic—try getting any work done on your new home during the summer here, pandemic or no—and American English. And in my case, work and language are inextricably linked.

Canadian English is more or less British English, with just enough fluidity across the Atlantic to make things truly unbearable for anyone trying to school young people in its tending.

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Logic Problems

  • One man says, “I loved the most beautiful woman in the world.” The other man says, “I loved a woman who wasn’t really beautiful but I saw something in her.” Both loved the same women.
  • Someone who looks like a certain celebrity looks familiar. Someone who looks like someone famous looks like no one else.
  • People are told that they are imprisoned for their own good.
  • The people I’ve met in psych wards are among the sanest and most self-aware I’ve known.
  • We mine cultural trends from those we marginalize and kill.
  • We can express love for a place the most by not journeying to visit it.
  • We can love each other the most by remaining six feet apart.
  • I am filled with joy even as the world starts to burn.

Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2020

Nine Ways to be Passive-Aggressive in the English Department’s Faculty Kitchen

Note: I wrote this a few weeks before the pandemic hit North America.
The idea of sharing a faculty kitchen now seems fantastical.

  1. Only bring your lunch to work when you have super-healthy leftovers. Then, as you’re beaming over your quinoa-and-kale concoction, glance at a colleague’s fare and comment, “I used to eat things like that.”
  2. Ask your coworkers questions about their research on Ezra Pound or David Foster Wallace when their mouths are full. As they are rushing to swallow and share, change course and launch into your latest abstract.
  3. Make a big deal of parceling out your garbage into the various recyclable bins. Smile pityingly when a colleague puts an item in the wrong one. Round it out by trashing the new environmental humanities hire.
  4. Drop each of the following terms during one meal: sustainable, small-batch, Proustian, plant-based protein, Pantagruelian.
  5. As she munches on French fries, tell your coworker with the autoimmune disease all about how an anti-inflammatory diet might really, really help her if she just commits to it.
  6. Loudly announce that you’ve already turned around the sixty Comp 101 papers that were handed in three days ago.
  7. On religious holidays of any sect, discourse on Caroline Walker Bynum’s work on holy fasts in medieval Europe as your coworkers are enjoying their sandwiches. Remark on how privileged we are to live in a post-agrarian society as you forego food yourself—not out of religious principles but because of the many promising studies on calorie restriction, which you hasten to recap.
  8. Clean up your area when you are finished eating, but only your area—exquisitely.
  9. Steal all the forks. It’s canonical.

Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2020

The Real Bodies Suffering from Trump’s Obsession with Hydroxychloroquine

May is Lupus Awareness Month, so in its honor,
I’m sharing an essay about how recent events are impacting lupus patients.
The optics haven’t been great when it comes to COVID-19, the United States government, and race. Trump has referred to it as the “Chinese virus”, and the barrage of anti-Chinese rhetoric in general is spurring outrage among many of my international students. Passengers from the coronavirus-afflicted Grand Princess were directed to disembark in Oakland, one of America’s most diverse cities, rather than San Francisco, its wealthier and whiter neighbor. Now, thanks to Donald Trump’s penchant for magical thinking, Silicon Valley billionaires, and metastasizing misinformation, a new population of people of color is imperiled.

Since mid-March, and after nudges from red-pilled Elon Musk and Oracle CTO Larry Ellison, Trump has been hawking the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine (sold under the brand name Plaquenil) as a coronavirus miracle cure despite little concrete evidence to support his claims. He is right about one thing, though. For many people with systemic lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, hydroxychloroquine is truly miraculous.

It has been for me. I’m one of those “with architecture primed for ruin,” in the words of poet Fady Joudah. Three and a half years ago, I was diagnosed with systemic lupus while teaching literature and creative writing in Kofu, Japan. The immune system of a person with lupus turns against her, attacking internal organs, joints, and/or skin; the disease is named after a rash common among its victims, said to resemble a wolf’s face.

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Five Classical Japanese Tanka for Lovers in Pandemics

We’ll weep into sleeves
Of richly patterned brocade
Beneath the full moon.
As the cherry blossoms fall,
Just don’t sneeze on me, okay?

Behind paper screens
You are barely visible.
It’s not a bad thing—
Distance will inflame desire.
No, really, stay over there.

The warbler wakes us.
As you dress, I ink a poem:
Love’s color may fade,
But I won’t forget the one
Who leaves hand sanitizer.

Sheltering in place,
We play the koto for days.
I’ll self-isolate
In the wisteria room.
You are getting on my nerves.

Summer irises . . .
Tweeting like the nightingale,
Our emperor claims
This warmth will banish the plague
Caused by Mongols or Chinese.

Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2020

Translating COVID-19

Social distancing. Flattening the curve. Sheltering in place. Lockdowns. R naughts. My vocabulary has exploded along with my stress levels these past few weeks. In addition, I had the grim pleasure of seeing the world introduced to “hydroxychloroquine,” a word I know all too well because this medication keeps my immune system from killing me.

Illness always changes language, just as the language we use for diseases colors our understanding of the world and people around us. Terminology encodes stigma as well as our hopes for assessment, understanding, and healing. This stigma runs deep. I’m convinced, in fact, that illness is the final taboo among otherwise enlightened people. No serious university will refuse to hire someone because of their sexuality, gender identification, race, ethnicity, or physical ability. But what if a hiring committee were to find out about someone’s history of mental or physical chronic illness? Unfortunately, I think such a history would make many otherwise smart people pause.

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The Wolf Tale: How a Disease Was Born

Giselle’s grandfather told her tales of a huge white wolf who prowled the woods. They were scary, but she didn’t think he told them to scare her. Over time, she understood he told them because he loved the telling, riding its rising tide of tension until it met with the bracing hearth of fear.

She felt wicked listening, because she should have been reading the Bible instead. Giselle was a child of God back then, not just in the way that all children too young to be anything but savage are, but because she was wet with love for the man she could not see. Yet she owed obedience to her grandfather as well as to redemption’s teasing tyrant, so she didn’t worry much.

God blesses the little children, after all. Continue reading

My Top Ten Lists of 2019

Ten Favorite Books Read in 2019

I was blown over by so many fabulous books this year!


Milkman, Anna Burns: Burns made impossible prose not just possible but heartbreaking, terrifying, and hilarious

Women Talking, Miriam Toews: A slowly swelling ode to joy amidst hideous abuse

EEG, Dasa Drndic: I was first beguiled and then floored by this stunning novel about illness, trauma, historical memory, lists, and the ravishing, ravaged Istrian peninsula, where my father-in-law was born, the place from which he had to flee and still loves

Disappearing Earth, Julia Phillips: Disappearing Earth reminded me a bit of Twin Peaks, a fictional narrative about lost girls in which the setting is a character, but it also speaks to concerns in Canada about how the authorities don’t seem to care when Indigenous women disappear

1984, George Orwell: I had never read it before. Well. Here we are. Continue reading

A Brief List of My Cat Kuma’s Favorite Things

  1. Hugh Jackman. See accompanying photo of Kuma watching X2 in our apartment in Lublin, Poland. Maybe he just knew that a few years later, his human mother would be teaching on the university campus that houses the X mansion. Whatever the reason, he’s spellbound when Jackman is on screen. I think a lot of us can sympathize.
  2. Russian composers, specifically Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev—but not, oddly enough, the zoophilous Peter and the Wolf (he’s more a Romeo and Juliet cat). Frankly, I was disappointed because I listened to a ton of Chopin while I wrote The Snow Queens, and I noted that Kuma couldn’t care less about that most beloved of Polish artists. But if I play anything by the above Russians, he comes and sits by the computer, listening quietly. And Kuma is not a quiet cat.
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Decolonizing Writing Practice, Part III

In July 2016, I held an event with my friend Alberto Albuquerque at the Intercultural Center, which he runs with aplomb, at Yamanashi Gakuin University. I was teaching at the International College of Liberal Arts, a department within Yamanashi Gakuin. Alberto and I hosted a butoh salon, complete with a screening of footage from Hijikata Tatsumi’s Revolt of the Flesh (Nikutai no hanran) from 1968, a performance by a local American who had studied the dance form, a display of photos and books about some of the most prominent butoh dancers and choreographers, and lots of conversation. (I included a photo of the event above, with my lovely creative writing student Samantha front and center.) When some people in the audience, including the brave young performer, learned that I had studied with Ohno Kazuo in the 1990s and published a novel that focused in large part on butoh, I was sweetly treated as the doyenne of the group. Continue reading

Decolonizing Writing Practice, Part II

September 2019

First, I wanted to share a link to my fourth and most recent essay for Electric Literature, “How Women Writers Are Reinventing Freud”.

And here is the second part of my essay on the subject of decolonizing writing practice:

In December 2015, I experienced one of my most humbling hours as an educator to date. In a glass building at the International College of Liberal Arts in Kofu, Japan, I delivered a lecture on atomic bomb literature to a group of 30 students from a prestigious girls’ high school in Hiroshima. This audience was the most engaged I’ve ever had; when I asked a question, 30 hands shot up. Still, I was terrified: I was an American giving a lecture on the writings of Hara Tamiki and Ibuse Masuji to young Japanese women from the first of the two cities to be bombed by the United States. The vectors of national tensions in that sunlit room could have strangled my speech.

I delivered the first part of my lecture in Japanese. The students and I then compared a text by Hara, who was a hibakusha, or a survivor of the bombings, to one from Black Rain by Ibuse, who did not endure Hiroshima’s bombing personally but instead relied on secondhand accounts to compile his narrative. Near the end of the lecture, I asked a question: Should non-hibakusha be allowed to write about the event? Almost all of the students said “yes.” A single girl said “no,” but firmly.

Her “no” haunts me. And in an age in which many people are strenuously objecting to actresses portraying people of different races and genders—hello, Scarlett Johansson—I think it’s time to ask the question: Who is allowed to write what? Continue reading

Decolonizing Writing Practice

In the fall, I’ll be teaching an online course for the first time. The subject is Academic Writing Across Disciplines, and five of my students will be from Nunavut, a land I can barely imagine. In June, I was fortunate enough to meet these students, along with their program coordinators, here in Greater Victoria. How alien their landscape would be to me was underscored by this brief exchange:

Another instructor: [apropos a discussion on accessing readings] They can download required readings from the website and then go read them under a tree.

Program coordinator: Except that there are no trees in Nunavut.

My mind was blown. Continue reading


I wrote this piece in honor of Dr. Kacem Zoughari, a martial arts practitioner with whom my husband
has studied. His Japanese martial art relies on moving in the shadows, while much of the Japanese literature I studied plays with the concept of voyeurism
and revelation.

This short essay attempts to flesh that difference.

Literature is predicated on what may be revealed, your art on what can be hidden. On how to hide.

I first fell in love with Japan in The Tale of Genji’s jeweled pavilions. Its
narrative pivots on kaimami (垣間見 revelation through stolen glimpses). A lustful man spies a fall of hair behind a screen. Fireflies illuminate beauties in dark rooms. Cats and wind push aside curtains to flash, for a few seconds, a face, the flicker of fate that becomes a memory, a reason to live. Continue reading