The Kappa Child

In a family not at all reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, four Japanese-Canadian sisters struggle to escape the bonds of a family and landscape as inhospitable as the sweltering prairie heat. Their father, moved by an incredible dream of optimism, decides to migrate from the lush green fields of British Columbia to Alberta. There, he is determined to deny the hard-pan limitations of the prairie and to grow rice. Despite a dearth of both water and love, the family discovers, through sorrow and fear, the green kiss of the Kappa Child, a mythical creature who blesses those who can imagine its magic …

Over the past few posts, we have explored various aspects of Canadian identity and literature, so today I wanted to talk about a book that reflected the transnational (and transitional) aspect of Canadian identity. For that though, I feel like I should start with the writer. Hiromi Goto, is one of the first Canadian writers I got to read and she is also one of my favourites*. I had actually encountered her writing in an undergraduate Asian Studies class about adapting Japanese classics. Her experiences as someone who was born in Chiba, Japan and who immigrated to Canada in 1969 when she was just a child were very interesting, not least of all because it coloured the way she told the story of The Kappa Child. The book is just so cleverly done and I feel compelled to point out (though this is a bit of a tangent) that even the cover is brilliant. It is one of those covers that are actually indicative of the way in which the novel has been written and can be read. You can’t tell unless you are holding the book in your hand but the prairies either serve as the only picture you see/read or as the backdrop for a near-transparent, hidden kappa.

Which brings me to what kappas actually are. If you have read a lot of fantasy or manga, you would know that kappas are creatures from Japanese folklore who vary somewhat in their physical descriptions given that folklore is largely part of the oral tradition. Some common descriptors include- child-like torso, amphibian green body, a shell on the back, and bowl of water on their head. The way to trick (and escape from) a kappa is to bow to it, and when it bows back, the water on its head (which presumably gives the kappa its energy) is knocked down. Depending on who’s telling the story, they could look anything like this …

or like this …

There’s lots you could read up about kappas and then read into The Kappa Child, but the book is as much about the protagonist and her family as it is about her being un/pregnant with the kappa’s child. (I guess now would be a good time to mention that this is not exactly children’s literature, but definitely would have been a book I’d have picked up in my late teens?) Also, the book was published in 2001 and I really don’t want to tell you about the plot and discuss whether or not the characters made the right decisions etc because plenty of people have already done it. I want to point out some of the less talked about aspects of the book:

  • The adaptation of a figure from Japanese folklore into a science fiction/fantasy genre set in North America could also symbolize the way in which the protagonist is being adapted (or not) into the Canadian landscape.
  • This is very much in keeping with the way that Goto’s protagonist reads Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie as a child, and how differently she reads it later as an adult. As Linda Hutcheon says in her book A Theory of Adaptation: “We engage in time and space, within a particular society and a general culture. The contexts of creation and reception are material, public, and economic as much as they are cultural, personal, and aesthetic” (28 Hutcheon). And so adaptation is an eternal process and this book is what happens when you stop and examine a few moments from this eternity.
  • The occasional usage of Japanese words is both surprising and lovely to behold. This is what Goto had to say about it: “I … integrate Japanese words for my Japanese Canadian characters who are bilingual … Much of it remains untranslated in my texts because, although books often make transparent the translation for narrative purposes, language in everyday life doesn’t work that way. We don’t live with universal translators. If you don’t know the word, meaning is not always accessible. What then? You ask someone or you look it up. Or you don’t bother and you never know. I’m not interested in writing novels that ultimately narrow down into a “We’re actually all alike” kind of mentality. Very real differences exist across all spectrums of human interaction. I’m interested in making language “real,” not smoothing over the difficult terrain.” [X]
  • In the same interview she talks about how this book is not about bridging Canada and Japan, but trying to negotiate hyphenated identities. Goto is writing about being from Japan and figuring out what it means to be Japanese in Canada. She is also, inversely, thinking about ways of being Canadian without having to sacrifice one’s “Japanese-ness”. The protagonist’s struggles with her body, her family, and her country really does reflect this feeling of duality- of being split and being whole as well.

Basically, the never-ending search for identity is something that we all do and something that marks most literature, but if you want something that explores Canadian identity (or Japanese identity) and the experience of immigration and transition- well, this is the book you’re looking for.

*She is also the writer of Half World, a book I am using for my thesis alongside Coraline– but that is a story for another time.

**While the body is given a great deal of importance both in the way it is mentioned and the way in which it is not, the genders of the protagonist and the kappa remain kind of fluid. Which, of course, is just the best thing ever.

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