The Other “F Word”: A Review of Jordan Okumura’s “Gaijin”

Each foreignness is an open secret.

Gaijin’s etymology is chiseled from a 2 kanji composition: outside, person. An outsider. A person from the outside. An Other. Over a period in time this sliver of argot has come to wear both derisive and dispassionate undertones and yet its colloquial usage won’t limit its influence anytime soon.

In Jordan Okumura’s Gaijin, the Outsider switches between being herself, her grandfather, and other members of her family. The Outsider shape-shifts frequently as a multitude of identities are cobbled, starved, and then resurrected in a hymn for the kind of homelessness that transcends the physical architecture of trauma into something we can neither perfectly spell nor swallow.

My own grandfather died earlier this year. A man of velvet-edged libraries, Nehru jackets, and the finest Shiraz. A man who anointed Faiz and Darwish for me. A prolonged exit at the mouth of dawn – death too reluctant to capsize, life too stubborn to ebb. I frequently return to the mental diorama of that precise morning when I first heard of his passing. I recollect that brief moment where the imbalance between how deep an hour can be despite its smallness, rammed against me like an unmanned vehicle. My ribs stutter in a continuation of ruptures. The immediacy of my own ache made Okumura’s fragile unfolding into a dire aria I needed my ears to obsess with for a while.

To state simply – Gaijin is a linguistic séance; a copious apparatus to commune with that which is gone. Its velocity registers in a percussive thaumaturgy, in rigored howling, in repetition that is both coda & cadence. I recited it as The Girl and with The Girl. Jordan’s Girl. A duality that slithers through the length of the book where I positioned myself next to her echoes because I wanted its vantage as my narrating window.  I wanted its Bone. Skin. Blood. Hunger. Breath. A cache of words that reoccur in sometimes desperate, sometimes calculated voltages of naming and unnaming. This alchemy is full of rooms that are alive with knife-curved lullabies mapping the trajectory of a childhood that is both invisible and eternal. The bloodless pallor of memory is reincarnated in a bone-taut canvas for The Girl who sets out to interrogate the thickset compass of all the anonymous exiles she has been born into.

Here the body doesn’t speak of violence, instead, the body is violence. It is a constellation of contradictions, lineal scarring, the blue moans of ghosts The Girl can neither question nor quit. We are profane in our inversion of tradition, Grandpa whispers. His death is my hiatus. Loss is a Siamese twin – she tugs at its feeble contours, hoisting it on in the heat of her hip from Sacramento to Phnom Penh – sometimes led by it, unprotested, at other times dragging it like a phantom limb morphing into a belated malignancy. The Girl refuses to become the summary of her losses even as she arranges and rearranges them in the most pitch-black recesses of her mouth like an ivy hall of hexes. She is this antithesis even as she laments the split-lipped weakening it tenders her into. History with its umbilical prequels wraps around her, unclear in its intention to feed or throttle.

Grandpa and The Girl run parallel like voltages shooting through two synchronous power lines. I too am reading this book as my inheritance of carefully singed foreignness – Fire and a third generation burns. Hearts doctored to tinder, the wraithlike camphor of anamnesis. The book becomes an altar for bodies flung into the deepest drowning. In “A Nest of Quiet”, Anna Kamienska claims  – “I received the grace of shadows. The grace of remaining in the dark. The grace of shadows is a puzzling assemblage, the archetypal ship of Theseus. An immigrant’s body. The body conspired, nuanced and devastated in a clockwork acquisition and alienation of language(s) that never fully slacken their legerdemain. This is Jordan’s mastery – reconstructing the body inside the poem.

I am at last a concubine              of your language, Grandpa.

A woman of colour has to relearn her origin story frequently, has to master her own myth and know when to use it is a veil and when as a mask. Difference: a veil conceals, a mask reveals. Similarity: both are not her face. Language is both trestle and ax-blade. The eating of my tongue to find a way of speaking. Its domino effect can’t be reversed once its pulse has quickened to the glass-rimmed circumstance.  As a social scientist I sometimes find it difficult to think of a schema, a mental model, as anything but a prelude to a psychological trapdoor leading to a constant falling. Our Otherness is at best an afterthought, at worst a failure. The Girl addresses her hells with a clear, untethered throat – Blue blood cataclysm. Instead I hold us down for slaughter. Gravity in how time keeps her imprisoned in her own body. She can’t thwart its brutality so she seeks a tortuous intimacy with it.

This book doesn’t question the invasion of Time; it annuls it instead. An iridescent poignancy suddenly gurgles forth from what originally seems like dormant, lapsed iterations of a galvanic past. Okumura doesn’t stamp surrender as weakness, instead, she travels through its spine-husking lengths with the patience of a desert creature.  The pages goad you out of the safety of their own deft lyricism and make you question the status of your trigger warnings. It is a compulsory nakedness you must step into before you are cleansed of that which continues to remain pervasive and yet obscured.

I am your ventriloquist.

You are my loss.

When I think of immigrants, I think of the tightrope walkers populating the Friday evening street corners of rural Rajasthan in India. I think of Rohinton Mistry’s lucid rubric – A Fine Balance. To see how far we can go with how much and how little. How much is weighing our body down, how little is left to lifting of our soul. The Girl is sutured with the thin-veined inheritance of hyphenated names. The seed sleeps itself into a stone. The heart hardens into a truth. Like a bird of prey, Grandpa is a visible often & only as a clawmark on the surface of silence.

And my wounds are open mouths.

And this body is speaking ahead of me.

A while ago, my consciousness was drummed out of its complacency by what I read of Sina Queyras –  “I want the poem to unfurl like a thousand monks chanting inside me. I want the poem to skewer me, to catapult me into the clouds.” 

Gaijin is a trebuchet for the somnolent consciousness. It entered me like a foreordained insomnia after an opiate withdrawal. I read it through an erratic medley of nights fighting chronic muscular spasms. Still, it came to inhabit my awareness like a sharp, translucent awakening into all that I had chosen – so far – to bury into whatever red earth I sung to as my own swan song. Gaijin is at once a baptism and an elegy; it launches you to the middle of a confluence of tangents – woman of colour, immigrant, American, Japanese, queer, gull, grave – but most importantly it seeks to investigate the blurring silhouettes of victim and survivor. Is choice the same as consent? Where do we go when all our movements  have been fated into an ageless circle?

As the last chapter – Interlude – begins, The Girl declares – I resigned to be a body in the ground. To untouch.

Sand down the lacuna I shield along bone.

There is a clichéd binary to how we classify those who have suffered as children. It avows that they either become predators or they should embark on the path of a savior. For those of us who have stood in this burning field, tapping our knuckles against its fault-lines, we know that to be alive is to confront. Alone. Explicitly alone. Halcyon and hell spreading wings through the braingray.

Gaijin scatters its net right to the pith of this abyss and a scintillated, untranslatable empire of wreckage floats up to the shoal. Sentences are placed as bandages on the long cuts its lack of belonging brings. At one point as I arrived close to its conclusion, I watched a stray dog limp its way through a dirty puddle the colour of badly brewed tea. Right then my friend – an experienced surgeon – remarked that whatever is broken within an animal has the power to heal itself over a period of time no matter how deformed it might look at inception, it mostly can be patched back to a functional equilibrium though not always in ways  it was originally designed. An attempt to re-fuse. Refusal.

So, I wonder, if Gaijin is a form of fusion through refusal. An archive that eclipses its genesis.

We have judged the past of words.

The Girl as Gaijin has turned the apple into the arrow, chosen to eat on the floor instead of turning the tables, planted her foreignness into the quicksand without regrets.

Perhaps as a woman who shuffles between being a pilgrim and a stranger to her own past, this is the best way to remember what she can’t undo.

Scherezade Siobhan is an Indo-Rroma social scientist, community catalyst and hack scribbler of 2 poetry collections - Bone, Tongue (Thought Catalog Books, 2015) & Father, Husband (Salopress, 2016) & 1 poetry pamphlet, to dhikr, i (Pyramid Editions, Forthcoming in 2017). She is the creator and curator of "The Mira Project" - a global, cross-cultural dialogue which uses expressive art and storytelling to dismantle gendered violence and street harassment. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Feministing, Wasafiri, Berfrois, Rattle, DIAGRAM, Queenmobs, Word Riot among other digital and print publications, anthologies, exhibitions, art galleries, and sometimes even in the bios of okcupid users. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee for writing and can be found squeeing about militant bunnies at or @zaharaesque on twitter/fb.

Italicized quotes from Jordan Okumura’s Gaijin. (CCMPress 2016)

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