Gonna buck a recent trend on my blog and review something that is both NEW and published by a non-independent publisher. I know, right? What happened to the Scott Manley Hadley aesthetic???
Don’t worry, though, it’s still something quirky, still something achingly liberal, still something most of you probably haven’t heard of, and still something absolutely fucking great. It is My Brother’s Husband, a Japanese graphic novel (manga) published by the Little, Brown spinoff Blackfriars. The book is drawn and written by Gengoroh Tagame and translated by Anne Ishii.
My Brother’s Husband doesn’t contain violence, magic, anatomically detailed sci-fi porn or any of the other things I saw on the occasions I flicked through the large manga collection of my ex’s younger brother, but it is instead a gentle, domestic, piece about grief, relationships, sexuality and contemporary Japanese society. As you can perhaps guess from the title, it is about someone’s brother’s husband, and thus deals with insidious homophobia and gentle, but firm, prejudice, all in the aftermath of a death.
Yaichi is a single father living with his daughter, Kana, following an amicable divorce from her mother. Yaichi doesn’t really have a job, instead living only off the rent he gets from an apartment he inherited after his parents’ early, accidental, death and – presumably – alimony from his professional, implicitly successful, ex wife. Yaichi had a twin brother, Ryoji, who has recently died. This is a protagonist who is used to grief lol.
Yaichi and Ryoji were not close, and Ryoji had moved to Canada about nine years earlier, long enough ago for Kana to have never met him. The real story of My Brother’s Husband begins after all this death, when Mike – adorably described on the blurb as “a cuddly Canadian” – arrives at Yaichi’s front door. Mike is Ryoji’s grieving husband and he is about to turn Yaichi and Kana’s little world upside down.
I’m making the book sound triter than it is, and I’m being incredibly unfair. My Brother’s Husband is one of the most poignant books about self-growth I’ve read in a long time, and almost certainly the most moving graphic novel I’ve ever encountered. The book is mostly, but not entirely, told from the perspective of Yaichi. We see his thoughts and his dreams/imaginings as well as his actions, and the book is about his growing understanding and acceptance of his brother’s sexuality and societally normalised homophobia. Mike is kind and caring and fun, he is courteous and considerate, he speaks Japanese, he exhibits grief for his lost husband and he is good with Kana. Kana is incredibly excited by Mike: not only is he her unexpected, new, uncle, but he is a foreigner from a country she knows nothing about, and – most interesting of all – he is a man who was married to a man, something which does not happen in Japan.
And this is the narrative. Mike is seeking to understand his husband’s youth and childhood, and so he explores the neighbourhood where the twins grew up, sometimes alone, sometimes with Yaichi, sometimes with Yaichi and Kana. Mike is grieving, and the drawings and the dialogue make this clear through his postures, his expressions and the language he chooses to use which – here – is a complex multiple translation. Mike is a fictional character speaking in a second language whose second language has then been translated back into the fictional man’s first language, for the purpose of this English edition. Actually, that’s not so complicated, but still: this is an exercise in cultural communication, cultural exchange, from heteronormative Japan (although this heteronormative society does exhibit a more liberal – i.e. up-front and hookuppy – attitude to sexuality, eg between Yaichi and his ex-wife) to socially liberal Canada. Wait, I have to go to work, will finish when I get back.
OK, I’m a bit under the weather after a very very tiring week, so I went straight to sleep after work (and a cheeky little chamomile), but I need to wrap this up, I’ve got other things to do:
My Brother’s Husband is a beautiful piece of fiction, offering deep engagement with a man’s growing awareness of systemic prejudice that he had previously been unaware of. It is a narrative popular in real life atm, whereby someone who has not suffered discrimination becomes aware of its existence, its actuality, when things get close to them. However, when we read this narrative in the media, it is almost always framed as a “bad thing”: i.e. “this selfish man is bad because he never believed in gender discrimination until he compared his son’s and daughter’s payslips”, “this person didn’t believe in racism until they fell in love with a POC”, “this former TERF didn’t change her mind about what made a woman a woman until her son became one” or, as here, “this heterosexual man didn’t believe in his own homophobia until he met and made friends with a gay man.”
The reader sees Kana, a child, bond enthusiastically with an adult who intrigues her because he is different, and because, as a child, she is unaware of adult preconceptions. She sees the novelty in Mike’s homosexual marriage, and reads no problem in it. As time passes, Yaichi begins to question his own discomfort, especially when confronted with the far more homophobic behaviour of the parents of one of Kana’s friends, and also when a local teen comes to seek advice from Mike on how to live as a gay man, because he – the teen – has never known of anyone else in real life who was openly homosexual. It is within the beginnings of this storyline that the book ends, with presumably more to come, more that I would very happily read. This is nuanced, moving, writing, and it’s bloody great.
HOWEVER, I do have a foible:
Mike is presented as celibate, which does somewhat cloud the text: Yaichi grows to approve of and condone his brother in law without engaging, properly, with his sexuality as a sexuality, rather than as a marker of difference, a cultural signifier. Yaichi worries about identities, rather than acts, and his disapproval of his brother seems more rooted in his decision to “live as a gay man” rather than “be a man who fucks men”. I don’t know if this is the point, if these things are one and the same, or if Japanese culture prises repression and secrecy ahead of behaviour. Is it better to be married with kids and still fuck men – if “nobody” knows – than it is to be a happy, content, homosexual man? This, I suppose, is what further volumes of this text will explore, this cultural divide between attitudes in Tagame’s society and attitudes in our – at least in terms of laws – more liberal parts of the world. Yaichi’s response to Mike’s sexuality – rather than his sexual identity – is something I feel it would be interesting to explore, but as this is the beginning of a text, rather than a complete narrative, there will surely be space to do so.
In My Brother’s Husband, Gengoroh Tagame has created vibrant, living, characters and he moved me to tears many times.
PS: Yes, I haven’t been posting much recently, but I’ve been very busy, not being depressed and actually like living my life a little. Watching more films and plays with other people, reviewing books for websites other than my own, working on my poems and discussing them with other people, playing squash, socialising, visiting a friend in Cambridge, walking my dog, trying to sort out some legal things, working for cash money, going away to Cornwall for a few days, and – probably most significant – doing a bit of romance, which is going great, thanks, if you’re asking.
Not being depressed, I’d have to say, is fucking great. Turns out that there’s a whole fucking world of good things that you can access once you’re comfortable with leaving the house. Wish I’d worked this out fucking years ago, tbh.
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