Several times a year, the narrator of Hiromi Ito’s The Thorn Puller boards a Transpacific flight to care for her elderly Japanese parents. She ferries her mother to and from the doctor. She keeps her father company. She buys him a dog. She reflects on her childhood.
In the meantime, she is also responsible for her family in the US. Her teenage daughter Aiko. Her husband, who is almost three decades her senior and rapidly aging, too. Her college-aged daughter who is suffering from a mental illness the narrator can’t do anything about.
The Thorn Puller is a masterpiece. A poet’s lyricism shines in the novel.
Hiromi Ito is both the narrator and the author of The Thorn Puller; both Itos overlap, even though they aren’t exactly the same. As translator Jeffrey Angles writes in his thorough introduction, the plot “blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction, between realism and surrealism.” The author Ito really did travel between California and Japan in 2006-2007 to care for her parents. The narrator Ito’s husband is based on the author’s long-term partner, whom the author herself never actually married. Ito wrote the work serially almost as the events depicted occurred in her own life—more-or-less.
Ito the narrator reflects, “Everything is a metaphor.” In that metaphorical space, the truth of Ito’s life becomes something bigger. The bodhisattva Jizo, for example, is a constant presence in the novel—sometimes embodied and tangible, sometimes a memory or a symbol. Ito and her family have visited Jizo’s shrine in Sugamo for generations because “Thorn-Pulling Jizo” is supposed to have the ability to pull thorns of suffering from his believers. Theirs is a family that has suffered.
Jizo is the most abiding presence of Ito’s life:
I have no strong feelings about religion one way or the other. But it’s a whole different story when it comes to Jizo. I’m not sure if I should call it habit or belief or what exactly. It’s like how I want to use Japanese when I really need to express myself, like how I want to eat when I get hungry—Jizo is like that for me. I keep coming back to him because it’s the natural thing to do.
Ito conscientiously takes part in a Japanese literary tradition that goes back more than 1700 years.
The Thorn Puller is a masterpiece. Ito writes with the dark humor of someone who knows how to laugh at herself. Nevertheless, she is first and foremost a poet. A poet’s lyricism shines in her novel—in English, thanks to Angles’s deft translation.
Ito also conscientiously takes part in a Japanese literary tradition that goes back more than 1700 years. She borrows heavily from the “voices” of other writers—not just novelists and poets, but also medieval monks, mangaka, and even contemporary singer-songwriters. Most, though not all, are Japanese. (She credits her sources in an “author’s notes” section at the end of each chapter. Angles claims that most of these references aren’t available in English; a surprising number are.) Allusions go all the way back to The Kojiki, one of the oldest surviving written texts in Japanese. By writing a semi-autobiographical novel that “blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction,” she also consciously explores Japan’s I novel genre, a genre some critics consider the greatest accomplishment of 20th-century Japanese literature.
What makes, say, “Japanese literature” Japanese?
Fans of translated fiction are sometimes stymied by what makes, say, “Japanese literature” Japanese. What books belong in a Japanese literature class or on a Japanese literature shelf at the bookstore? Maybe a book is “Japanese literature” based on the language in which the author wrote the original. Or perhaps it is a matter of the author’s nationality or race. This kind of question may sound like tedious academic speculation, but it masks issues of publishing profit, cultural value, and even nationalistic pride.
It’s easy to think of authors and books that make almost any definition problematic. Yoko Tawada, for example, is an internationally-renowned author born and raised in Japan. She won Japan’s coveted Akutagawa Prize in 1992 for her novella The Bridegroom Was a Dog. But she writes literary fiction in multiple languages. Does her 2016 Memoirs of a Polar Bear qualify as “Japanese literature” even though it was written in German? (Susan Bernofsky’s translation into English won the first ever Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2017.)
Nationality, too, is fraught. Akutagawa-winning Yu Miri, for example, was born in Japan and has never called any other country home. Legally, though, she—like virtually all Zainichi Koreans—is a citizen of Korea and not Japan. Surely her work is “Japanese” literature nevertheless. Similarly, Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Japan, but has spent most of his life in Great Britain. He has always avoided the label “Japanese author,” favoring “British author” instead.
And yet, by any of these definitions, The Thorn Puller is unquestionably “Japanese literature.”
On the other hand, Jeffrey Angles claims The Thorn Puller also “deserves to be recognized as a contemporary masterpiece of Asian-American literature.” Notably, his claim is more plausible now that he has provided an English-language translation.
The author Ito has been based in the US since 1997. She has been a US citizen since 2018, about a decade after she finished The Thorn Puller. Much of the novel’s action takes place in California. Many of Ito’s reflections about race and culture are “of the moment” in contemporary American literature. For example, Ito lies to her American friends to meet their expectations about Asian immigrants. (“We Asians always have Tiger Balm,” she flippantly tells them.) In one humorous interlude, Ito rushes home from a trip to Japan to celebrate the holidays with her family.
[My husband is] Jewish and I’m Buddhist, so it was crazy we gave a damn about Christmas at all, but hey, that’s how our household works. Welcome to my world.
The Thorn Puller invites the question how useful categories like “Japanese literature” or “Asian-American literature” remain for some contemporary fiction. Yes, her novel fits as a work of “Japanese literature” by almost any definition. And, yes, it probably fits as a work of “Asian-American literature” by a Japanese immigrant to the US—at least now that it is available in English. It is also well-positioned to be an important contribution to both literatures.
But while Ito’s novel may meet the demands of both “Japanese” and “Asian-American literature,” it is encompassed by neither label—or perhaps both. And it is more than the sum of its parts. The reader wonders, in a world where a growing number of people live their lives in many places, do narrow national categories still make sense? If so, whom, exactly, do these categories benefit? Just like Ito, both author and narrator, the novel sits in-between cultures, languages, and labels. In a world increasingly affected by globalization, it seems likely the number of category-defying works like The Thorn Puller will continue to grow.
The Thorn Puller is a book about a person who lives her life across two continents. It’s a novel about some of literature’s greatest themes—love, human connection, death, and the meaning of suffering. The Thorn Puller is a truly wonderful book, no matter where it is shelved.