Mackerel
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Looking For Home

LOOKING FOR HOME: A DOUBLE-REVIEW

by Melissa De Silva and Marc Nair
7 February 2018

Featuring:
I Want To Go Home by Wesley Leon Aroozoo
(2017), Math Paper Press


One Man's Quest
by Melissa De Silva

This is a narrative nonfiction account of filmmaker and lecturer Wesley Arozoo's journey from Singapore to Onagawa, Japan, to meet with a man who goes diving in the sea to look for his wife, who disappeared in the 2011 tsunami during the Great East Japan earthquake.

Some of the writing is beautiful and the insights affecting:

'If love is blind, then losing love is like triggering all the other senses to follow suit, to shut down. Suddenly, it doesn't matter what's for lunch; advice from close ones fall on deaf ears; familiar scents of the other half slowly fade away and you wish you could hold onto your loved one for just a minute longer so that everything will return to how it was.' (p.1)

Wesley does a superb job of articulating himself as a character on the page, conveying with vivid charm his introspective nature, his sensitivity to others and the world around him, and a careful reticence prompted by the clear cultural divide between himself and Mr. Yasuo Takamatsu.

Another pleasure of the book is the gentle humour that flashes throughout:

'According to belief, if you pay a visit to the old Shinto shrine once a year for three years, you will have no financial difficulties for the rest of your life.  The island is also home to a number of deer and Japanese macaques that are coincidently also debt free.' (p. 96)

Wesley’s own wife, who remains in Singapore while he and his camera person and ex-student Jon Chan travel in Japan, is a strong presence in the story due to the author’s constant thoughts about her and anecdotes about their life together. I felt it would have contributed to the narrative if more had been made of her presence, teasing out its significance so it contributes more directly to the meaning of the story, perhaps in drawing a parallel or contrast with Mr. Takamatsu’s former relationship with his wife, or some other significance.

I would also have loved to have delved more deeply in Mr. Takamatsu’s head, into his thoughts, preoccupations, fears, regarding his wife’s loss and absence, perhaps through an extended interview reported in direct speech. Even though the story is ostensibly about him, at times I felt his presence was a bit obscured, not only because of the need for translation via the character Miki Hawkinson, who was the translator accompanying them on the trip, but also because of what appears to be the natural reticence of Mr. Takamatsu himself when he did reply to questions posed by Wesley. At times I wished the author had asked him more direct questions about how he felt about certain things or about his motivations, though I appreciate the challenge that might have posed when one feels obligated to observe niceties and be respectful of the interviewee’s privacy.

What I also felt could have added to the narrative was more reflection on why the author was drawn to this particular man’s story. It would have been great to read more of the author's insights throughout on what compels this man to continue diving for his wife's remains. No doubt, it is intriguing, as the sort of thing that would make the news, but I am interested in what particular hold the story of Mr. Takamatsu’s quest had on Wesley. Was there something in Wesley’s past, his present, his fears, that found their resonance in Mr Takamatsu’s experience of losing his wife and dedicating his life to looking for her, through the not exactly convenient, if not downright frightening means, of deep sea diving? I found I had many questions about both Wesley’s motivations for pursuing this story, and about Mr Takamatsu’s motivations for pursuing his wife’s remains as I progressed along the story, and would have liked if I could have found the answers in the narrative through the author’s musings, which is one of the joys of creative nonfiction.  

Still, the human story presented is mesmerizing—how a man does not give up on the search for his wife's remains, how an ordinary, mild-mannered Japanese man makes himself do extraordinary things, like learning to dive, and continues making underwater forays in all kinds of weather in this never ending search.

An area where this book really shone were the details of the trip, recounted to make every moment so tangible, from the author’s irritation that the passenger in front of him on the plane had the window wide open to the glare of the afternoon sun, to a madcap grocery store dash to stock up on before they traipse off on an expedition. They had me nodding or smiling as I could relate to these very human experiences.

Mr Takamatsu. Photograph by Jon Chan. Reproduced from http://bit.ly/2nO89K0

Mr Takamatsu.
Photograph by Jon Chan. Reproduced from http://bit.ly/2nO89K0

Diving into Saudade
by Marc Nair 

Much like speaking underwater, there is a muffled, not quite clear voice that seeps through the pages of I Want To Go Home, Wesley Leon Aroozoo’s recount of his journey to interview Mr Takamatsu, a man who lost his wife in the 2011 Japanese Earthquake. 

Aroozoo and his team journey to Onagawa after a protracted period of communicating with Mr Takamatsu through a translator and setting up a few days in which he would meet and interview him in Japan. It is certainly no mean feat to chase down and realise what started out as a chance encounter in a story that Aroozoo read and decided to act on. 

The construction of the narrative is simple, with the narrator (Aroozoo) opting for a chronological account of the few short days he spent with Mr Takamatsu. Interestingly, it is interspersed with personal reflections of his own life, his relationship with his wife and parallels to growing up in Singapore. 

The rest of his team have clearly defined roles, such as his translator, Miki Hawkinson and his cameraman, Jon Chan, but they don’t have any interiority beyond their functional selves, which leaves the book hanging in a strange space, because we’re left with more of a sense of who Aroozoo is than anyone else, especially Mr Takamatsu. It might be a way of showing the latter’s reserve, or the fact that retelling the events that led up to that fateful day of the earthquake are stirring enough that we don’t need to have a deeper insight into his life. 

Here is an example of Aroozoo’s reflective tone that runs throughout the book: 

In our e-mails, when asked if he would change anything about his childhood, Mr Takamatsu responded that he would want to change his personality, as he felt he had been too gentle at times. This resonated with me, as I too had been meek when I was young. In my primary school, a notorious bully named Sheikh Mahdi had stabbed my thigh with a pencil when I beat him at eraser tossing - a popular kids game in the 1990s (p. 19). 

I must confess I don’t quite understand the need to include personal reflection, as it does detract from the emotional core of the book, which is Mr Takamatsu’s story. 

The story itself is simple, yet very moving, with the greater tragedy of the town embodied in Mr Takamatsu’s tale of how his wife was swept away that fateful morning. Mr Takamatsu responded to this loss by learning to dive. He goes weekly to the sea in search of his wife, an act that is both symbolic of hope and suffering, In fact, the Portuguese word, ‘saudade,’ which roughly translates to the feeling of longing for something or someone loved that has been lost most aptly depicts Mr Takamatsu’s emotional state. His love remains, evidenced by his weekly dives, a terrible metaphor brought to bear in stark reality. As he says, 

When I think of her out there in the sea, I hope she’ll be the one to find me. When we separated during shopping she was always the one finding me. But you know, things are not that simple (p.62). 

This bittersweet sense of hope and pain is in the tenor of the town, in its surroundings and even breaks through into the film that is a companion to the book. One wishes that no one should have to experience such searing loss, but at that same time, there is much to admire about Mr Takamatsu and the tenacity and faith of the human will to carry on. 

Available at leading bookstores in Singapore and online at Books Actually. 

A screening of I Want To Go Home will also be taking place at the Arts House as part of the Textures weekend in March.