Eating Culture: A Review of Sifton Tracey Anipare’s Yume
Yume. By Sifton Tracey Anipare. Rare Machine Books, October 12, 2021.
Sifton Tracey Anipare’s Yume is enveloped in a colourful haze. It is an odd novel, coupling the monotony of alienation with the curiosities of popular culture without quite delving deep into its complexities. Set in present-day Japan, Yume follows Cybelle and Zanielle–a Black woman from Canada and a Japanese American man, respectively–through their work, their restrictive hours of leisure, and through their dreams. The characters, trapped by geographical borders and racial identity, exist in that particular unequal relationship to “the West”, a signification estranging them from others even as it estranges their own selves.
The narrative takes a while to pick up. We follow Cybelle as she spends her sixth year teaching conversational English in Japan; she wakes up, bikes to work at an almost bankrupt school, ignores micro-aggressions and xenophobic comments, and seeks out meals at varied hours of the day. In another more-interesting world, sort of overlapping the ordinary, yokai (supernatural apparitions) claim territory, sit down to feast, and talk about human flesh. Zaniel appears here; he is a “dreamwalker”–capable of traversing through many worlds, including dreams and through the world belonging to the yokai. In the dreamscape, Zaniel is contracted to an immortal boar deity, Akki. It is at this periphery, between the dreamscape and the world of yokai, between waking and sleeping, that the lives of the two characters intersect; the narrative picks up rather quickly thereafter. The novel is paced well as it moves between the two worlds, but Anipare’s dialogue-heavy style soon becomes repetitive and overburdened with exposition. Fleshed out over five-hundred pages, the motivations of each character seem too simple, too matter-of-fact to warrant such recapitulations.
A part of this repetition can be accorded to the alienation and helplessness these characters experience. They thrash against their birth, class-position, bounded geographies, race, and within the accelerated march of globalization. All the characters, Cybelle included, feel out of place within their lives. Early in the novel, we enter the yokai world and meet forgotten sentient appliances like air-conditioners and tea-kettles, things of disrepair that have long been replaced by newer novelties. Another yokai comforts Akki when he mourns lost eras and nationalisms: “Sometimes I think about how lucky we yokai are. Still venerated. We have not been reduced to annual Halloween costumes or anime or cartoons on cereal boxes yet. Count your blessings, Akki.”
The yokai’s comment is ironic, since anime informs a significant part of this novel. The novel is resplendent with motifs and forms shared by anime such as references to Sailor Moon, Ghibli films, and even the global reach of anime is considered. Anime is also the most prominent modern source of yokai representations; the yokai is commonplace for audiences of shows like Natsume Yujinchou, Mushishi, Inuyasha, and the parallel world in Yume is a dominant theme in the sub-genre isekai. The novel incorporates this excessive engagement with anime in an easy-going, conversational but visually dense format, all of it traversed through a simple plot of self-discovery and a linear timeline. Cybelle and Zaniel must accept their estranged selves, defeating all the monstrous contracts that hold them in place.
Yume’s chapters alternate between two worlds. One belongs to dreams and yokai while the other is ordinary and mundane. In the latter, Cybelle navigates a dissonant culture that only recognizes her as foreign— “gaijin”— recoiling from her in fear or, if she’s lucky, asking her to parrot English phrases. In this world, Cybelle moves through Japan as an expat on a contract, recognizing fandoms and merchandise, dropping references to shows like Momotaro and Sailor Moon. Cybelle may be lonely but she recognizes the neon glare of mass culture: common phrases, food and drink, the large anime-eyes. She isn’t quite a tourist, nor is she a migrant or a refugee; she mostly belongs to that liberal ideal otherwise known as cultural-exchange programs. She is equipped with the cultural and linguistic familiarity that is good enough to pay the bills, but not enough to fit in.
These are the two strands running through the novel. The first explores the loneliness of navigating a new world by yourself, replete with all the complexities of alienation and assimilation, all the divides of nationalism and multiculturalism. The second, which I am more drawn to, shows how Japan is navigated through a visual culture in the form of anime. Whether through visuals in media or written descriptions, the force of that visual culture often tends towards an orientalist gaze of exoticizing and othering. This is commonly found in narratives about an encounter with a foreign land, culture, person, or all three. But anime (and Japan largely) has its own xenophobia and biases, especially towards black people. Cybelle’s character navigates this racism as she moves through Japan as a racially-othered woman. Cybelle, as a foreigner does experience a commodified and palatable Japan, but Japan too looks at her through its own ethnocentric gaze. Unfortunately, Anipare almost single-mindedly focuses on the racism Cybelle encounters, rather than contextualizing its presence in anime or questioning (the similarity or difference between) Japanese and American claims of racial supremacy.
Anipare’s navigations and circumnavigations through these worlds, however, also draw the reader’s attention to a cultural product—anime—which exists in relation to global consumption and a subtitled universality. It’s difficult to explain the phenomenon. I understand anime as a medium, an art form and a pop-cultural product that has acquired a vaulted status through American trade and influence. It is one of those rare media artifacts that simultaneously mediate and produce a social, economic, and cultural relationship between two imperialist nations and the rest of the world. Throughout the novel Cybelle will be asked if she is American, and she will politely correct them—no, she’s from Canada; the yokai sit in debate about globalization even as they find themselves emblazoned on t-shirts.
It is with respect to consumption that Anipare introduces a character who both exemplifies and destabilizes cross-cultural relationships: we follow a yokai who has the ability to manipulate reality in such a manner that all she wants becomes food—Tudor cottages transformed into gingerbread houses, demons into crunchables—which she then consumes. I could follow implicit threads that connected the story of the expat to the narrative of consumption, especially when Cybelle is encouraged to eat her way through Japan before she leaves. Later in the novel, the nationalism of an imperialist Japan is challenged by a yokai of unknown origins and inexplicable power. Unfortunately, these narratives, just like the characters’ unstable identities, never quite cohere. When the two worlds collapse upon each other, Cybelle returns to a confusing repetition of daily chores. It is the story of self-discovery, of making connections and living as an expat that is affirmed, while the challenging story that I was drawn towards faded into a jumble of timid resolutions about tolerance towards others.
I wanted to know whether a culture subsumes a person, rendering difference obsolete. Is that the cost of belonging? Does Anipare think that this is inevitable? Or, can you eat your way through a culture, wantonly consume it without hindering its own development? I wanted to know where a black woman from Canada stood with respect to two imperialist nations and their enmeshed cultures.
In its juxtapositions, I was offered challenging ideas but was often bored. I found simple kindnesses and the hospitality of sharing food and the myth of multicultural universality. Anipare’s novel was a little too long, a little too repetitive. I read it in quick gulps and found myself still starving. Yet, ignoring my particular hunger,Yume is a fun debut novel, warm and delicate, and all about finding one’s way in unstable geographies.
Shinjini Dey works as a freelance editor and writer. Find her at @shinjini_dey.
This review was commissioned by editor Casella Brookins in July 2020 from a hard pitch; the author and editor are acquainted through previous ARB work. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Dundurn Press.