Solo Dance is a novel about identity. Yingmei Zhao is in the fourth grade when she develops a crush on a girl in her class. In the years that follow, she realizes her life in Taiwan isn’t going to look like everyone else’s. She won’t marry. She won’t start a family. When sexual assault shatters her sense of security and self, she decides to start over in Japan. Even though Japan is “a queer desert,” she has fallen in love with the country through the literature of Osamu Dazai and Haruki Murakami.
She tries to make herself at home in Japan through a series of new identities. Yingmei Zhao becomes the Japanized Norie Chō. She has separate usernames for LGBT dating sites based on both her Chinese and Japanese names. If she isn’t quite comfortable living this way, she at least navigates her different identities with aplomb. This is how she introduces herself to new coworkers:
“Hello everyone, my name is Chō Norie. I’m from Taiwan, and sorry to ruin your stereotypes but I hate bubble tea and pineapple cake”… Of course, she had refrain[s] from talking about her being a lesbian, about the incident, about her mental illness, about how she had come to Japan in order to escape from Taiwan, about how Norie was a name she’d made up to sound more Japanese.
Some of the novel’s power comes from author Li Kotomi’s empathy for her protagonist. (Kotomi is also Taiwanese Japanese and a member of the LGBTQ community.) Her choice to interweave Norie’s identities through a series of flashbacks makes both equally immediate. Norie is the present. But for the reader, Yingmei is never far away.
Norie carries with her the heavy burden of many identities, and yet she is always herself. Her intelligence dances across the page. She is anxious, neurotic, and self-conscious. When she connects with other people, it is through a tangle of obscure literary allusions to Han and Tang Dynasty poets. The most persistent reference is to Taiwanese novelist Qui Miaojin. Miaojin’s best known work, Notes of a Crocodile, has become a cultural touchstone for Taiwanese lesbians. Miaojin’s suicide at only 26 reinforces Norie’s lifelong preoccupation with death.
Solo Dance is not for the faint of heart.
In a forward, translator Arthur Reiji Morris explains the difficulty of translating a character with a fraught identity:
Our main character has many names, many faces, yet “she” still remains the same person, no matter her struggles. It was a challenge to translate this aspect smoothly into English, a language which is ever so reliant on pronouns…
Solo Dance is Morris’s debut as a literary translator. While the translation is occasionally stilted, it shows enormous promise. Morris is lyrical, for example, when he conveys how Norie lives in language. (She speaks not just Mandarin and Japanese, but also English.) At a moment of crisis
Words are floating through the air. Some in Japanese, some in Chinese. She reaches out her hand to touch them, but they scatter and disappear.
Solo Dance is not a novel for the faint of heart. It is a heavy book—a book about the protagonist’s obsession with death. Death is the novel’s most prominent motif. The word “death” even opens the novel.
Norie finds her only real relief through literature, both as a reader and a writer. She spends most of the novel wondering whether it is death, perhaps the chosen death of an artist like Miaojin, that gives life meaning. She ponders the metaphor of the legendary thorn bird, depicted in the deceptively light-hearted cover art by Peter ter Mors—“in exchange for its life, it gives the world the most beautiful song.”
The novel also takes a frank look at Norie’s ongoing mental illness. In Solo Dance, depression isn’t performative or glamorized. It isn’t funny. It isn’t pretty. It hurts to look at Norie’s pain. And while the novel offers some for a way forward for Norie, it doesn’t end on a particularly sanguine note.
Solo Dance isn’t a hopeful book, at least in the most conventional sense. It is, perhaps, an uplifting one in its quiet reassurance that the self matters. It is an important book by a queer author in Japan who isn’t ethnically Japanese tackling identity and mental health. And it is, certainly, a work of art as both a book and a translation.