Winner of the 2009 G.S. Sharat Chandra Fiction Prize
Silver Medal , 2011 Independent Publisher Book Award, Short Fiction category
Finalist, 2010 Barnicle Fiction Award
Longlist, 2011 Frank O'Connor Fiction Award
Finalist, ForeWord Magazine Prize
georgic: stories (2010)
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Nagai's debut collection loosely blends elements of Japanese folktale and historical events whose characters struggle to survive poverty, famine, and war on dire, barren landscapes. "Autobiography" looks at a mother's harrowing decision during the Soviet invasion of Manchuria at the end of WWII. When her soldier husband is killed, and she is unable to provide or care for her infant daughter, she is left with no other choice but to sell her child. In the title story, a rural village loses all its men save one in the war. Eventually, the devastating effects of starvation drive the female survivors to desperate measures. In "Bitter Fruit," a young girl is forced to leave behind her parents and their remote village. In a new, unfamiliar city, she becomes a prostitute named Monkey. Years later, bound in debt to the brothel's madam, she is forced to confront the reality surrounding her unborn child. Nagai's 10 tales offer haunting depictions of human endurance and spirit as well as the anguish that can accompany survivors.
Playing on a classical form of poetry celebrating the labors of the farmer, Nagai (Histories of Bodies) sets these 10 haunting tales within a rural landscape ravaged by war and famine and denuded of bucolic splendor. In "Grafting," a village in the grips of a drought that has already reduced the number of mouths to feed by selling off the village's daughters now turns to dispense with the old people. The narrator knows she must have no mercy as she carries her old mother up the mountain to leave her with the others. In the title story, a village is nearly stripped of men thanks to a war and "a promise of gold." With the land fallen fallow and ravaged by locusts, the protagonist feeds her starving children by prostituting herself to the one man left, the Idiot Son. Other stories directly refer to history, such as the plight of Manchurian women at the end of WWII ("Autobiography"), and a prisoner's chilling account of murdering an American pilot ("Confession"). Starkly recounted with a clear, cold tone, these stories carry the weight of a survivor bearing witness.
- Publishers Weekly
Mariko Nagai re-imagines the georgic, a pastoral form pertaining to rural life, to create a searing portrait of the cost of war, social and political strife, with sadness sharp enough to cut the tongue and grief so unbearable, the journey toward new life is so remarkable-it takes your breath to see such tenderness and truth. Through the palpable beauty of the natural world which envelopes the struggles of her characters, Nagai reveals the most profound mysteries of living and dying. Nagai has a voice and vision to be reckoned with. There is wisdom here, ancient and modern. It has never left us, it simply awaits the discoverer who cannot turn away, who must not let history be rewritten, who must bear witness as each generation has, to the cruelties and kindnesses, the observances that shape our lives.These stories will change you, change what you know, change how to imagine the lives of people around you. To read Nagai's tales is to remember why we always need stories, especially in times of war, when our humanity is so at risk, especially now.
Judge, G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction
Mariko Nagai's stories are truly terrible: exact, sparse, full of unfamiliar horrors and a most unsentimental, but most deeply felt empathy. She works in a shadowland between headlines and fairy story, where children are sold, the old have to be abandoned so others can eat, settlers are the wrong people in the wrong place, prostitutes calculate their next days and lepers huddle on the edge of villages; but although her remote Japanese settings mean shes' dealing in very foreign manners in a foreign place, shes not interested in being exotic. Instead, she brings each story to the scale of real life and makes us recognise the fact while rooting it in a history that we ought to know. We live her stories, minute by minute. We feel the sorrow, feel the pity, and feel an unmixed admiration for the way she does not waste a word, and the words are so beautifully right. She has the courage to be direct and the language to make directness sing.
- Michael Pye
Based on dire events in Japanese history and the key of folk tale Mariko Nagai has written stories of a stark and unforgettable human landscape. War, imprisonment, hunger, and betrayals are in these timeless narratives. In the last story, drowning land, a young man who has spent his life sleeping and dreaming hears a voice whispering, It is time to wake up. The past has finally counted and enough change has come from his dreaming life to get him to act. Now, there is the possibility of release and change - of body, soul and mercy uniting with what is essential in order to grace communal life. This is a deeply thoughtful and beautifully written work.
- Gioia Timpanelli
Between writing the “Eclogues” and the “Aeneid,” the Roman poet Virgil composed the “Georgics,” published circa 29 B.C., which deals with rural lives, agriculture and all things bucolic. In the “Inferno,” Virgil acted as Dante’s guide through the nine circles of hell.Likewise, Mariko Nagai blends the infernal with the rustic, and the damned with the innocent. These are bleak stories but realistic ones, showing the pain and suffering of people in times of famine, war and repression.Like Angela Carter, Nagai uses myth as a template for the horrors of existence, as a base to explore the violence of history, and as an arena within which human grace battles suffering.With a prose that is exact and, at times, beautiful in its depiction of loss, the author cajoles emotion rather than bludgeons us with parables, allowing us to engage our own morality rather than provide us with neat lessons on how to read both fiction and history.In the opening story, “Grafting,” hunger forces a young woman to abandon her elderly mother in the wilderness, the starving villagers must sacrifice the old and young to stay alive.Babies are born deformed because of the lack of food, pre-pubescent girls sell their bodies for sex, and mothers kill their children rather than have them starve. Grafting is living. Grafting is surviving.In the chilling “Autobiography,” a woman’s husband is killed in Manchuria during World War II; she is forced to become a prostitute for food and then to sell her baby to return home. Here, Nagai questions the ties and trusts of mother and child, of home and heart, of faithfulness to yourself and your loved ones.Gender politics arise in the author’s non-naming of her female characters. Victims of history and circumstance, these women are not so much abused by men as tortured by life.In “Bitter Fruit,” Monkey, a prostitute, raped in a brothel after being sold into it by her parents, assumes the identity of ultimate outcast. Ugly and unwanted, she can be bought for less than the price of a trout.The stories that follow layer sorrow upon sorrow and explore the variations of physical and psychological horror, as in the Kafkaesque “Confession,” in which a group of villagers murder a downed American pilot.These stories are traumatic and depressing, but the horrific poetic language in which they are composed allows us to witness death and violence anew. “Bodies began to arrive by the dozen, filling the river banks with bodies of men, bloated, like salmon bulging with eggs they must get rid of, their bodies so tightly stuck in the shallows the water could not come or go.”In this sentence, taken from the title story “Georgic,” Nagai conjures images of the Sumida during the Tokyo fire bombings of March 9 and 10, 1945, and the experiments of Unit 731 during the Second Sino-Japanese War.In “Fugue,” reminiscent of Joe Brainard’s “I Remember,” the narrator begins each paragraph with the words, “When I was a child,” and relates a heartbreaking story of hunger, envy and love.Moving away from visceral realism, “Song” opens with the lines “Once upon a time,” and invokes a world of gods, the Enemy, a storyteller called Hog, of confinement and darkness, of time, birth and death.Nagai’s “Georgic” explores the harshness of nature, the violent nature of humankind, and does so using the circularity of the savage seasons. An impressive blend of metaphor and history, “Georgic” maintains power and form from sentence level, through paragraph, to the execution of each well-constructed tale.
- Steve Finbow