A deep dive with queer fish

Shima
by Sho Yamagushiku

Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2024
$22.50 / 9780771010927

Reviewed by Harold Rhenisch

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Shima is a book of the sea from an island village in the Okinawan archipelago, and a portrait of that community from the sea. It is about taking a breath and swimming between them. There is also a forest.

The book rises from the Ryukyuan diaspora. It eventually steps back from the turned shoulders of some of Sho Yamagushiku’s ancestors and goes to sea. Before him, there were the Amas, the free-breathing, deep-diving fisherwomen of Okinawa who have been sustainably harvesting shellfish from their ocean for thousands of years. 

Yamagushiku’s poems are equally interwoven with the shore forest. Poet and divers together are a model for anyone moving forward with hope into a damaged earth and a barren ocean to bring them and human spirit to life. 

And yet Shima is a book of separation. It is the diaspora. It is a young man set adrift and looking to fathers and uncles for strength—and not finding it. It is a long meditation on Yamagushiku’s father stroking his hair when he was a boy, and then vanishing into history as a ghost.

Yamagushiku finds strength instead in women. They are not ghosts. When he looks to his great-grandmother, she is still alive in her story, and in him, in the company of a multitude of other ancestors.

It is a community story. Two million Ryukyuans are exiled from their home waters. They are often unaccepted in Japan, yet their language survives exuberantly in Brazil. Poverty and political suppression drove them away. Yamagushiku’s great-grandfather went to Mexico as a labourer over a century ago. Eventually, the family moved to California. Now Yamagushiku is in Victoria. 

Author Sho Yamagushiku (photo: Victor Silva)

It’s a good landing. If you’ve ever walked on Botanical Beach at low tide, where undersea and shore worlds mingle, or if you’ve swum in the stories of undersea human ancestors so richly spread along this coast, you know what I mean. 

The sea and her children here are lucky to have such a poet, speaking for such ancestors.

At its heart, Shima is an outlier in the Canadian tradition of reclaiming family. Ancestors are often blocked, not only by family circumstances and the invisibility of diasporan life but by the linear effects of English language and history. The Okinawa Archipelago, including the island of Shima, lay under direct US military occupation until 1972 and continues under Japanese control, with 25% of Okinawa still covered by active American bases alone. Many of its life-giving corals continue to be blasted to create barren concrete foundations for military bases. Yamagushiku’s Shima—defined, variously, as “1. A village; a community. 2 One’s home village. 3. One’s fief. 4. An island.”—has complex denotations.

Yamagushiku’s ancestral dreams and divinations are haunted by the mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. History is large here. It makes Shima a reclamation of an ocean world. All its pain (and concrete) and all of its surface and subsurface readings of humans are included. 

This writing is deeply informed by visual art. Its words, flat as they are in early twenty-first century English, are paint. This canvas, this book, opens within them in a folding wooden screen that approaches film: 

I walk until one morning I stop, fall and begin again like water. Something is promised
to me. An osprey plummets into the ocean and my father begins to sing.

That is an example of one of Shima’s four motifs: prose, cut like jointed wood and as transparent as the world. It is flat (dead, planed wood is) and shows us surfaces, such as the surface of the world, the surface of expectations, superficial histories, the surface of the sea and the surface of language. A diasporic community has to somehow fill them with culture once held by more tightly-woven calligraphy, including the language of the Earth and the sea. 

This motif is full of punctuation. “Departure hoists its tattered flag,” Yamagushiku writes. “I vacate the subject of my sentences.” So does one man caught in a diaspora embrace the diaspora to find his way out of it.

The second motif is a series of waves crashing on shore and staffs pounding the Earth in ritual ceremony. It speaks the Earth as a drum, as a rumble of earthquake and eventually as a beating heart underfoot. Its images are troubled, insistent premonitions:

I greet my uncle at the harvest festival.

            He turns his back.

The village spreads itself for

            the feverish water dream.

Their visual space replaces an aural one: simple sentences gaining complexity and nuance through arrangement in fields of memory and discovery. It’s like placing stones or shells in ritual patterns on sand. It is a dance and calligraphy meeting the page. 

The third motif gets closer to the physical world. It is formed of women diving and coming back in bubbles and shells, rising (or falling) in a page that is now water. Here’s an example:

There are the concrete blocks of the US military occupation, blocking the fluidity of the sea and of sea-based knowledge:

The visual nuances of this calligraphy capture relationships that words in normal, contemporary line-by-line sequence can’t, or don’t, or just won’t. I wish there were more. 

One of Shima’s archival photos.

The fourth motif is archival photography: snapshots out of time.

The motifs do not, however, unify into a whole. That’s not Shima’s goal.

It finds form as all things, not as a humanist representation of ancestral knowledge (so twentieth century), but as an embodiment of ancestors, most importantly Yamagushiku as a young boy.

There is no end punctuation in this world: 

the boy who never speaks grasps my hand

with his dawn, I have a slivering chance

to be reborn as sick fish with strange fins

                                  we might-have-been ancestors

          jump against the moonlight

And so the man who was a boy finds himself in a school of fish, mutated (by military and industrial fallout), the fish that women swim among, which men, caught in a world of industrial labour, don’t recognize as their own,

queer and

           barren of offerings

But it is not offerings Yamagushiku needs to bring to the ancestors. That is the lesson he has learned. He, and his separations, are the offerings. In the end, the father who stroked his hair is revealed as the father who clutches it and the boy, a ghost now, is released into the sea. It is a Ryukyuan version of a Noh play, in a cinema that is the world. Yamagushiku dissolves. He swims. He drops like a stone. All and none. He is the sea.

I recommend following him.

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Harold Rhenisch has written some thirty books from the Southern Interior since 1974. He won the George Ryga Prize for The Wolves at Evelyn (Brindle & Glass, 2006), a memoir of German immigrant life from the Similkameen to the Bulkley valleys. His other grasslands books are Tom Thompson’s Shack (New Star, 1999) and Out of the Interior (Ronsdale, 1993). He lived for fifteen years in the South Cariboo and has worked closely with the photographer Chris Harris on Spirit in the Grass (2008), Motherstone (2010), and Cariboo Chilcotin Coast (2016), as well as on The Bowron Lakes (2006), all published by Country Lights; and he writes the blog Okanagan-Okanogan. He is working on Commonage, a history of the Okanagan region, highlighting the American history of Father Charles Pandosy and situating the roots of the Commonage land claim in the North Okanagan in American colonial practice in Old Oregon. [Editor’s note: Harold Rhenisch has reviewed books by Bradley Peters, Aaron Tucker, Dale Tracy, Dominique Bernier-Cormier, Selina Boan, Joseph Dandurand, Délani ValinRobert Bringhurst, Rayya Liebich, Sarah de Leeuw, Roger FarrStephan TorreDon Gayton, and Calvin White for BCR. His book Landings (Burton House, 2021) was reviewed by Luanne ArmstrongThe Tree Whisperer (Gaspereau, 2021) was reviewed by Adrienne Fitzpatrick. ]

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The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (nonfiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie


Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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