Hiromi Goto's The Kappa Child is an intriguing, magical mix of generic fantasy, Japanese mythology, magic realism, alien abduction stories, and what Samuel Delany would call a "literary" interest in the psychological. Goto asks "what if the kappa, a trickster character from Japanese folklore, were transplanted to the dusty landscape of the Canadian prairies?" And, "what if the protagonist, who is still struggling to come to terms with her childhood, meets a kappa and becomes pregnant?" These are the two big leaps of speculation that drive the novel, although they are not, in any real sense, what it is about.
Thematically, it seems to me that Kappa Child is really about families, both the ones you're born into and the ones you make for yourself; it's about the difficulties and joys of human relationships, of friendship, of sisterhood, and of love. And, finally, it's about the way in which the past transforms the present. The novel develops this theme by switching back and forth between the protagonist's adult present and her childhood past, between the apparently mimetic and the apparently fantastical. In fact, Goto's play of past and present, fantasy and reality, reminds me very strongly of Geoff Ryman's argument, in the afterword to WAS, that we need to distinguish between fantasy and history, if we are not to be deluded by the one and controlled by the other, and then to "play them off against each other." This is precisely what Kappa Child does with the story of its pajama-clad, nameless Japanese-Canadian protagonist.
The Kappa Child is Goto's second novel for adults and the winner of the 2001 Tiptree Award for a work "that explores and expands gender roles in science fiction and fantasy." It was also nominated for the Sunburst Award and short-listed for the Spectrum Award, which celebrates "works in science fiction, fantasy and horror which include positive explorations of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered characters, themes, or issues." These honours are well-deserved by Kappa Child although, in each case, they celebrate only a portion of the complexity of this brilliant novel about the troubled, mundane and yet ultimately magical life of the novel's protagonist, a cucumber-eating collector of lost shopping carts. Her narration of both her present life, with all its complications, and her past childhood invites the reader into a world that is a marvelous mixture of history and fantasy, of realism and magic. Told in the first person, the protagonist-narrator's story unravels bit by bit to reveal surprises that are only made possible by the novel's defiance of generic convention -- this is particularly true of the protagonist's encounter with the kappa, the mythological Japanese creature that gives the novel its name.
The unnamed protagonist is one of four Japanese-Canadian sisters who are transplanted from the lush wetness of the British Columbia coast to the dry, flat and mostly inhospitable prairies. Of course, it is not only the landscape that is inhospitable, although it could hardly be more unsuited to the father's dreams of rich, wet fields covered with the luxuriant verdure of Japanese rice: the family struggles through years of hardship and failure, exacerbated by their position as a visible ethnic minority in an unwelcoming, largely WASP culture. But even the family home is not a refuge for the four sisters, as the father takes out his bitterness and rage on the helpless girls and their frightened, subservient mother.
This is, however, not a realist novel about the hardships of immigrant life on the Canadian prairies, although that story is certainly counterpointed within the novel, primarily by the protagonist's childhood obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. The deliberate comparison between Laura's hardy, hearty pioneer life and the narrator's is almost purely ironic, suggesting to the reader that in the end it is the Wilder novels (and the tv series based on them) which are really a fantasy of pioneer life in contrast to the harsh reality experienced by the narrator's family. Even so, what the protagonist, who initially describes herself as an "ugly Asian" without friends or loving family, learns from her experience with the kappa and her resulting pregnancy is that life is richer and fuller than she has allowed herself to believe, despite the difficulties of family, work, and love, and that it is possible to come to terms with one's past. As the reader comes to learn more about the kappa, both the possibilities and difficulties of the protagonist's transformation start to make sense, including the question, deliberately unanswered throughout the novel, of whether or not the protagonist is ever "really" pregnant.
The narrative itself is complex, moving as it does between the protagonist's present as a pregnant cart collector whose one asset is an ancient milk delivery van, her recent past, and her difficult childhood. It is a story peopled predominantly by women -- the three sisters, the protagonist's friends and her eventual romantic interest, and the mother and her friend and neighbour, Janice Nakamura. The three sisters have "English" names given to them by the protagonist as a child: the eldest is Slither, the two younger sisters are Mice and PG, short for Pig Girl. The mother is referred to by the protagonist as Okasan, although, like the sisters, she too reclaims her own name before the close of the novel.
The protagonist's friends are Genevieve, whom she meets at the opening/closing sale of a pajama store as she purchases the first of what is to become "the most extensive collection of pajamas in the western hemisphere" and Midori, whom she first encounters in a tussle over a discarded couch. Shopping cart collectors don't make a lot of money, but they can make friends, despite the protagonist's initial assessment of herself as the kind of person who doesn't have good friends. The remaining friend and potential lover is Bernie, the woman who owns the Korean grocery store where the protagonist buys the Japanese cucumbers that feature so prominently in the novel. And finally, there's the kappa for whom the novel is named.
Like Goto's children's novel, The Water of Possibility (2002), the kappa is the figure at the centre of Kappa Child. The kappa, according to the note at the end of the novel, is an "aquatic, frog-like creature with webbed hands and feet, a small turtle-like shell, a beaked mouth, and a bowl-shaped head." The bowl holds the water that endows the kappa with its supernatural properties. A little shorter than humans, kappa have a fondness for playing tricks on people and engaging them in sumo-wrestling matches.
In this case, the narrator meets a stranger in a red silk wedding dress when she inadvertently crashes a wedding banquet at a Chinese restaurant and accompanies her (him? Kappa, as the reader eventually learns, have no gender) to Calgary airport to watch "the last totally visible lunar eclipse of the twentieth century." Somewhere between the runways, much to the narrator's anxiety, she and the stranger -- is it really a kappa? -- engage in something that may be sex and may be sumo-wrestling and that leaves the narrator pregnant, albeit with a pregnancy no-one else, including doctors, can detect. It also leaves her with an incurable urge to eat pound after pound of Japanese cucumbers, which she buys from the local Korean grocery store. This insatiable urge for the green, watery vegetable seems to be as kappa-induced as the pregnancy; in one of the novel's many moments of slyly understated humour, the protagonist first encounters the joys of Japanese cucumbers when she's breakfasting at a truck stop after her encounter with the stranger. She's picked up the stranger's leather jacket and now she starts to explore its pockets, finding in the left one something
[l]ong, thin, and strangely bumpy. I bravely gripped the object in my palm. Pulled it out, realizing too late that it was a dildo and all the other customers would see the ugly Asian in the pajamas and leather jacket, one shoe only, holding a dildo in the fluorescent brightness of a twenty-four-hour truck stop.
"Well," the Beaver Lumber-hat guy boomed and I cringed. Maybe I should run to the washroom?
"Isn't that just the freshest-looking Japanese cucumber I've seen around these parts in a long time. . . ."
"Thanks," I mumbled, blushing because it wasn't a dildo.
Go figure. (146)
The craving for cucumbers also results in the protagonist's meeting with Bernie, whose interest in her is apparent enough to the reader but not to the protagonist herself. She's so caught up both in the problematic "abnormal" pregnancy and in thinking of herself as undesirable, that it takes her a long time to realize that Bernie actually does desire her.
The ambivalence of the pregnancy is part of the trickster quality of the novel. Written as it is in the first person, the reader has to choose between accepting the narrator's own conviction about being pregnant or deciding that it is some sort of illusion -- or both. An imaginary pregnancy might indeed be part of the narrator's way of coping with the reality of her disorderly family life -- I suppose the pop-psychology term 'dysfunctional' would apply here, but it's not really adequate to describe the particular eccentricities of the four sisters and their parents. Ultimately, though, the novel asks for and gets that particular suspension of disbelief that allows each of us to understand the protagonist's pregnancy as both a psychological and physical reality, even if it is one which cannot be detected or explained by medical science.
This is a novel to which it is very hard to do justice in a book review. Because it focuses on the psychological state of the characters, it is less plot-driven than most generic fantasy or SF; the nearest comparisons would be other novels of character and circumstance with a tinge of magic realism -- Geoff Ryman's WAS springs to mind as a novel that, despite very different settings and issues, has a similar flavour, as does Karen Joy Fowler's Sarah Canary. In emphasizing many of the fine qualities of this novel, it is easy to overlook, however, that it is also imbued with a quiet, often eccentric humour. This is both a serious book and a funny one.
I want to finish by saying that I had some qualms about undertaking this review, only because Hiromi is a good friend. It would have been impossible had the book not been one I admire without reserve. It won't please those who like a hard-edged plot and a lot of technology in their SF, nor yet those who like quest plots and magic swords in their fantasy, but it is a novel which has much to offer those adventurous enough to stray beyond the hard boundaries of genre.
And finally, I'd just like to note that this edition of Kappa Child has one of the best, most subtle covers (designed by Duncan Campbell) I've ever seen on a novel; if you haven't found the kappa yet, look out for it.
Copyright © 2003 Wendy Pearson
Wendy Pearson is a Ph.D. student with a particular interest in SF. Her article "Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer" won the SFRA's Pioneer Award for the best critical article in 2000. She has published a number of articles on sexuality and gender issues in science fiction. Her most recent article deals with the figure of the hermaphrodite in SF novels by Melissa Scott, Stephen Leigh, and Ursula Le Guin. Her previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.