March Was Made of Yarn

Title: March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on
the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown
Editors: Elmer Luke and David Karashima
Publication Year: 2012
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 216

As the March 11 anniversary of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami draws closer, Japanese bookstores have begun to promote retrospective magazine-books. These publications are filled with huge glossy photographs of destruction, and the number of people killed is printed in bold characters across their covers. Although such disaster porn is disturbing, it helps to illustrate a definite aspect of the reality of what happened a year ago in Japan.

March Was Made of Yarn helps to illustrate another aspect of the reality of the earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear crisis. If pictures and body counts inform the physical reality, then this collection of fiction and nonfiction offers insight into the emotional reality. Thankfully, March Was Made of Yarn is infinitely more gentle and subtle than sensationalist reporting and sentimental recollections of heroism and despair.

Even though all of the short pieces brought together by this collection address the events of last year in some fashion, many do so obliquely, and the themes of the pieces are universal. What is it like to live through a crisis? What is it like to know that other people are living through a crisis? What does it feel like to worry about the future? What does it feel like when science fiction becomes reality? What happens when you’re so sick with worry that you can’t fall asleep at night? What happens when words can no longer express truth or meaning?

March Was Made of Yarn features the work of internationally renowned Japanese writers such as Ogawa Yōko, Murakami Ryū, Kakuta Mitsuyo, Furukawa Hideo, and Tawada Yōko. These writers don’t cut corners in their craft simply because they happen to be responding to a topical issue; and, although none of them are writing “happy” stories or essays, their work is a pleasure to read. Kawakami Hiromi, who rewrote her debut story “Kami-sama” (translated as “God Bless You”) to address the incidents at the Fukushima reactor, reminds us that, even though we live in a world shadowed by the fear of radiation and environmental poisoning, we still need to eat, and we still want to go outside. The title story, Kawakami Mieko’s “March Yarn,” deals with the strange ways in which people process their memories and their understanding of their relationships with each other. Tanikawa Shuntarō’s poem “Words,” which opens the book, poses the question of how we can even write about things for which there are no words (yet still “Words put forth buds / From the earth beneath the rubble”). The translators who contributed to this volume are among the best in the field, and their skill illuminates the entirety of the collection.

March Was Made of Yarn isn’t just an excellent anthology of work related to the Tōhoku disasters; it’s an excellent Japanese literary anthology period. The range of authors represented by the book has the most even distribution of gender, generation, and genre I’ve ever encountered, and the English-language contributors, such as David Peace and John Burnham Schwartz, bring an added level of flavor and diversity. This collection is also accessible to casual readers, as few of the stories are any longer than twenty pages, and it has been beautifully published by Vintage. I don’t know how so many good things were able to come together to create this amazing book, but I am extraordinarily grateful that it exits.

March Was Made of Yarn should be available at all major bookstores in North America, Britain, Australia, and Japan, and it’s available on the Kindle Store as well.

If you don’t mind reading entirely in PDF digital format, please consider checking out Waseda University’s Japan Earthquake Charity Literature Project, which has some overlap with March Was Made of Yarn. It’s free to download and read the PDF versions of the stories and essays on the website, and the reader is encouraged to make a donation to disaster relief efforts afterwards.

7 thoughts on “March Was Made of Yarn

  1. Your review makes me want to read this even more. I’m very much looking forward to getting my hands on a copy.

    And thanks for the shout-out for the Waseda Charity Project. All the stories will actually be collected into a bilingual (trilingual in a couple cases) print book pretty soon, so digitally averse readers can still get the chance to support relief effort through literature.

    • Kathryn says:

      I’m really looking forward to the publication of the Waseda Charity Project! I hope it’s available outside of Japan. Is there anywhere where people can go to find out more information about the publication status?

      • As far as I know, right now, the only place outside of Japan it’ll be on sale is at Kinokuniya, but they are looking to get it into more shops through some on-the-ground work by their loyal cadre of translators and other worker bees. And they’re also getting it into libraries and Japan-related institutes in many countries, so you’ll be able to read it if not buy it.

  2. gradland says:

    This looks amazing–have been looking for some writing on the disaster that moved beyond “disaster porn” (terrible phrase, but very accurate). Looking forward to reading it.

    • Kathryn says:

      “Disaster porn” is a terrible phrase, you’re right. But unfortunately accurate. I found myself in the Nihonbashi Maruzen the other day flipping through the earthquake mooks they had displayed, and I found myself growing increasingly uncomfortable. There I was, standing in a classy bookstore filled with people, browsing through collections of exploitative photography with overlaid text that almost seemed to celebrate the destruction. I felt like I was doing something gross in public.

      Anyway, March Was Made of Yarn is a really good story collection (and it seems especially so much of what was published immediately after the events was so poorly written and edited). Since this particular collection stands on its own so well, I hope it doesn’t go out of print as soon as the 2011 crisis is no longer topical…

      • gradland says:

        Just got it on Kindle and have been reading–a lot of really beautiful stuff. Especially like the title story, really fascinating image, I like the idea of a world that falls apart and then knits itself back together into different shapes.

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