The tales in Ao Omae’s People Who Talk to Stuffed Animals Are Nice are about sensitive people trying to navigate an unjust world. Take Nanamori, the protagonist of the collection’s title story. The characters in “People Who Talk” are members of the university Plushie Club. Members justify the club to university officials as an organization that collects and crafts stuffed animals. In reality, they use the stuffies for a kind of informal talk therapy.
Nanamori is deeply troubled by the way society’s expectations shape relationships between men and women. (As a first-year college student, his day-to-day life makes the issue especially pressing.) When gender is the only lens available, Nanamori notes, “In time, you [end] up conscious of turning people (and being turned) into something consumable.” In fact, that’s part of the appeal of the Plushie Club. The more time he spends there, “the fainter his sexual energy [becomes], and the more the genderless part of him [grows].”
Omae’s stories deal with gender in remarkably nuanced ways. He’s interested in the way gendered world views wound all people. Nanamori, for example, is straight, cisgender, and male. No, he isn’t traditionally “masculine”; at just 156 cm and 45 kg, he’s a very small man. (Some girls at his high school described him as “cute, like a girl”.) Still, the simple fact he is a man protects him from some of a gendered society’s worst abuses. He knows his gender is an arbitrary advantage, just as much as he knows there are times he was guilty of casually going along with a sexist highschool crowd instead of speaking up or acting. The shame—some deserved, mostly not—builds as the story moves to its moving and thought-provoking climax.
People Who Talk consists of four short stories, also published as a collection in Japan in 2020. Taken as a whole, it is a book not only about gender but also about relationships and shared suffering. Characters talk about their troubles to stuffed animals or bottles of purified water so they don’t emotionally burden one another. They question the ways social media impacts the way people interact online and in person. It’s a strong collection, but “Hello, Thank You, I’m Okay” is the other stand-out story. It’s also the story that strays the farthest from strict realism.
The story’s narrator is Marumi, but its protagonist is really her older brother, who spends all of his time in his room on his computer “communicating”—even though the family doesn’t have internet service. (The translation doesn’t use the word hikikomori, but it’s implied. The older brother seems to be one of hundreds of thousands of socially withdrawn people in Japan who rarely or never leave their homes.) When he invites his friends over to celebrate his birthday, Marumi and their mother are forced to pretend to see four people who don’t seem to be there at all. Over the course of a story, he slowly transitions his body into another world where his friends really exist.
Again, People Who Talk debuted in Japanese in 2020; the English translation comes just three years later. Books by Japanese authors who are more-or-less unknown in English normally take much longer to appear in translation. The quick turn around means these stories seem markedly timely. For example, one narrator’s sister writes “fake news” part time. In another story, a mass shooter releases a statement that “with the expansion of rights for women, minorities, immigrants, and so on, men like him were losing rights that naturally belong to him.” The freshness of these stories presumably also comes from the author’s relative youth; Omae was born in 1992, making him at least a decade younger than almost any other Japanese author being translated into English this year.
Translator Emily Balistrieri is an asset to any story he brings to English readers. (Balistrieri is also responsible for recent translations of Eiko Kadano’s Kiki’s Delivery Service and Tomihiko Morimi’s Tatami Galaxy and The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl.) In all of his translations, Balistrieri reliably balances fidelity to the original text, comprehensibility, and respect for the reader. (He’s spoken out about how “readers don’t need to be babied as much as [translators and editors] think they do.”) To note just one example, the characters in People Who Talk use LINE—more prominent in East Asian countries–in the English translation because he trusts his English audience to understand what LINE is from context. Another translator might “gloss” LINE as a social network or even adapt it to a social medium more familiar to an English-language audience. Not only are Balistrieri’s choices apt, his affection and respect for the original shine through on every page.
People Who Talk is a book that tackles difficult and painful issues like gendered expectations and loneliness in a way that isn’t so much comfortable as a step removed from the everyday. There are no platitudes here, but a safe space to think about difficult topics.
The idea that people like Nanamori and Marumi exist, trying to make a place for kindness in an unjust world, is reassuring. As the founder of Nanamori’s Plushie Club explains, “People who talk to stuffed animals are nice. There are benefits to just having someone to talk to. That alone makes life a little easier.”