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This month’s Sunday short, “The Ryukyuan” is an excerpt from Darcy Tamayose’s latest short story collection, Ezra’s Ghosts. It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher, NeWest Press.
“The Ryukyuan” concerns a newspaper reporter in Ezra (stand-in for Lethbridge) who investigates strange happenings concerning Kousuke, who may be the oldest man on the planet, and who is also growing wings.
In the early 1900s Kousuke crossed the Pacific as part of the Ryukyuan labour diaspora. There was great poverty, and in small geographies one can be displaced by dominant powers only so much before flight is necessary. Further back in time, the once-flourishing island kingdom had lost their sovereignty to Japan’s Satsuma warriors in 1609. Then there was the eventual annexation by Meiji Japan in 1879, accompanied by heightened efforts to assimilate, industrialize, and Westernize. A cyclical narrative as old as creation stories, mythology, and fairy tales. Then tetsu no bofu. The bloodiest campaign of the Second World War staged on the largest of the islands, Okinawa, where one of every four islanders died. Followed by American occupation, Indigenous land appropriation, and militarization — parasitic forevermore. In various diasporic waves many islanders migrated to places with a similar climate like Hawaii, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, and the Philippines. But in 1907 Kousuke Kana travelled from Yomitan all the way to Canada with little money and a small bag of island seeds and plant slips. After months on the ocean, the Monteagle docked first in San Francisco, where Kousuke saw so many different kinds of people. He soon came to realize that learning a new language was the least of his adaptation challenges — there were other things that mattered in this country, such as the colour of his skin and hair, his small stature, his facial features. The passenger ship carried on up the Pacific Northwest to Vancouver, Canada, where it met with anti-Asian race riots upon landing. He didn’t settle there as many from mainland Japan did; he carried on by train through the Rocky Mountains and beyond the foothills where there was work with the railroad, coal mines, and farming. It was a place where wheat fields blanketed the land, stretching long toward what must have been the end of the earth.
For several months he simply wandered through the prairie, destitute. Acclimation proved a long and lonely process for Kousuke. Smelling his new world. Hiding. Starving. Watching. Listening. He was a quiet boy who seemed to arouse suspicion and draw curious stares wherever he went. His eyes were large, amber, and elongated, his shoulders unusually broad. His skin was not white or black, and neither was it quite the tone of Blackfoot or Cree. A newer category of skin colour always posed a taxonomy problem — especially for immigration forms and the gradients of discriminatory practice to be doled out. Chinese. Japanese. Korean. Taiwanese. It didn’t matter that he was from the Ryukyu Islands. The hemispheric subtleties, longitudinal and latitudinal increment, not a concern here. All the same colour of categorization: yellow. What is your ethnicity? Asian. But even in the Japanese-Canadian subcultural community it was known that Kousuke was from those islands and therefore silently, quietly, categorized all by himself in an unmentionable subaltern class. The first and the only. He was a Ryukyuan.
There was little known about his background — or about the obscure island chain he was from, for that matter — for over time, much of the provenance of his people, along with a quarter of the population, including his entire family, had died in that war, their histories erased. He was part of the history silenced, and silent.
Oddly, there was one thing he wished for in the beginning that would have made him feel like he belonged. He wished someone would have asked if he was hungry, asked him to sit down and share a meal. His mother said these words all the time throughout the day, afternoon, and evening: you must be hungry, boy, sit down. But no one ever said that to Kousuke in the early years in this new land. You simply cannot trust someone who is different. Never mind inviting them into your home. The dust, you know.
Admittedly, language was key in establishing relationship here and young Kousuke spoke little English. His forms of communication were comprised of the island language of uchinaaguchi, some Japanese, and an ability to draw. He was eager to connect and establish relationships in this place where working with the land and sky were so important. Kousuke knew the language of land and sky. He had come from a place that prayed to the land, mountains, sea, and air. A place where little things such as a speck of dirt, a wisp of wind, or a raindrop held minor gods within. He understood and respected the cycle of planting and harvest. In a region where agriculture meant everything, that knowledge could open the door of opportunity. But skin colour. Who would take the time to learn that this young man possessed such knowledge? It was a risk to let a Ryukyuan in.
It was difficult for Kousuke to find a job. Struggles and obstacles presented themselves in many ways. For so very long he was alone in developing his own theories of harvest in the prairie landscape. Reinterpreting through a Ryukyuan lens, he set about trans-frameworking numerous ideas of ocean harvest to prairie harvest. Though his personal life was drought-ridden, his ideas for enriching the land budded and stretched in novel ways and he even contemplated augmenting irrigation systems with the practice of geomancy and divination in this arid new world. He drew out his ideas on oilcloth, discarded rice bags, even faded old newspapers — all became valuable palimpsests. Finally, he struck metaphoric gold in scavenging an old schoolhouse chalkboard and saved enough money for a box of white chalk. And the curiosities grew.
He had extraordinary perseverance in his aloneness (aloneness among people who reject or ignore you for reasons that don’t make sense is the bravest kind of brave) and kept inching forward through a path dotted with myriad failures. But through failures and insecurities there was no denying that he had a gift: he possessed an innate relationship with the land that he was feeding in an unorthodox way. Over time his prairie knowledge blended harmoniously with his island knowledge, and it was all at once pragmatic and mystical. He grew critical in his own unique way to the prairie landscape and the business of agriculture. Kousuke could smell water, smell the dirt, smell the weather, and he could still smell the island in the air. Looks of contempt were replaced with understanding — one man at a time, one family at a time, one cultural articulation at a time. Kousuke, it turned out, became likeable despite his foreignness. In time he found a niche and almost miraculously became a successful prairie farmer whose land acquisitions grew exponentially and incredibly, based on merit.
But his story started in 1888: over a century ago. Yes, Kousuke Kana was, at one hundred thirty years old, the oldest man on earth.
Mm-hm, the oldest. Is that a problem?
“The Ryukyuan,” by Darcy Tamayose. From Ezra’s Ghosts. NeWest Press, 2022. Reprinted by permission of NeWest Press.
Darcy Tamayose is a writer, graphic designer, and PhD student. Her work, which includes the novel, Odori, and youth fiction book, Katie Be Quiet received the Canada-Japan Literary Award and has been shortlisted for both the Alberta Writers’ Guild Georges Bugnet Award and Foreword Indie Juvenile Award. Born and raised in the prairie landscape of southern Alberta, Tamayose lives there today surrounded by daughter, family, and friends.