Zenna Henderson’s “People”, Japanese Style


Having fallen behind on my reading, I had a chance this weekend to do some catching up... quite a stack to choose from, and instead of picking up one of those books just itching to be read, I happened to notice my copy of 光の帝国ー常野物語 (Hikari no Teikoku – Tokono Monogatari) by Onda Riku (恩田陸) jumping up and down, demanding to be read for at least the third time. Wimp that I am, I fell for it.

I first read Hikari no Teikoku back in 2003 or 2004, at the recommendation of a friend... and she was quite right, it is a really superb book, worth publishing in English. Before I started she warned me not to read it on the train or in other public places, because I'd probably cry. She was right about that, too, because it is a very powerful book, and quite sad in places.

Onda Riku, of course, is sort of a wonder child in Japanese literature. She appeared on the literary scene in 1991 or 1992, and has been writing an absolute flood of books and short stories since, in science fiction, fantasy, mainstream and other genres. And winning a healthy stack of justly-deserved awards along the way, I might add. Her page at JLPP has a good introduction.

As Onda writes in her own introduction, she modelled the series after the famous "People" series by Zenna Henderson, now available in a complete edition, thanks goodness! It is not intended to be a successor to the People series, but rather a very different interpretation of the basic themes and conflict in the Japanese milieu. Both authors write about a group of special people with special powers (read ESP), trying to live within human society. They interact with normal people, and their powers make it much easier and simultaneously much more difficult to live normal lives. Especially for the children this presents real problems, and both authors drag the reader into their stories, and the character's problems, by their heartstrings. I read The People: No Different Flesh (as it was called then) many, many years ago and still recall how it moved me. Hikari no Teikoku affected me the same way.

It has since been followed up by two other volumes, by the way: Tampopo Sōshi – Tokono Monogatari (蒲公英草紙ー常野物語) and End Game – Tokono Monogatari (エンド・ゲームー常野物語). Personally, I hope she continues writing in the series, even if most of the stories are not directly connected to each other.

Onda suggests that there was once a unique clan in Japan with these special powers – flight, telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis, something called "tsumuji" legs, which translates as maybe "vortex" or "whirlwind" and is what she calls being able to run(?) very rapidly. They had problems with Imperial Japan during World War II, not surprisingly, and in modern Japan are scattered throughout the country, still doing their best to live normal lives.

We met with Onda in 1994, and over a delightful fish dinner at Ikkokudo in Fukuoka talked about publishing the book in English. Unfortunately, we were unable to agree on just how it should be published. Too bad, but I reallly hope this book does eventually get published in translation because it richly deserves to be. Until then, at least I have a signed first edition, which reads "Let us both keep loving SF in our lives," or words to that effect (これからもSFを愛して生きていきましょう). Sounds like good advice to me.


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