Saturday, December 25, 2010

Reflections: A Drifting Life, by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Published: April 2009

First read: May 2008

Finally got around to it (again): December 2010

First thing’s first: this is not a review. In fact, do not trust my critical opinion on this book at all. I’m in love with it, and I have been since first laying my hands on the original Japanese manuscript and the Microsoft Word translation document back in May 2008. If you want my opinion, anyone with even a passing interest in graphica and/or manga and gekiga should pick this brick of a book up. It’s epic, sweeping, and an absolute joy to get caught up in.

But again, might be best to make up your own minds on this particular piece, as I have had more of myself invested in this project than in any other book I’ve worked on to date.

Back in May 2008, as part of my Masters Degree in Publishing, I embarked on an internship with Drawn & Quarterly in Montréal. It was to be a three-month stint, after which I’d come home, write up my thesis, and hang up my educational spurs (until I finally decide to torment myself further by tackling a PhD… one of these days).

My second week at work for Drawn & Quarterly, I was handed two rather obscene stacks of paper. The first was 820 pages of photocopies—the original Japanese-language version of the 48-chapter epic (then tentatively titled A Drifting Life in Gekiga), and the second was the printed page-by-page translation, written out to minimal effect in Word. I was given three tasks: the first was to read through the story with the translation in hand, to make sure it read well and was compelling; the second was to catch any and all parts that, editorially speaking, made little sense (including basic grammatical problems and structural issues and matching each section of the translation with each panel in the text—something that the translator neglected to do); and the final part of this multi-stage reading was to catch the inconsistencies between Japanese and English structures—namely, seeing which panels had to be flipped, to ensure that the speech bubbles work properly in each scene to read the dialogue and action from left to right and not right to left, as is how Japanese books are read.

Upon completion of this work, the documents cycled between us in Montréal, the translator in Japan, the editor-in-chief of the project in Los Angeles, and eventually myself back in Vancouver. Interspersed with all the other work I was doing at Drawn & Quarterly, A Drifting Life always came back to me at another stage of its progress. It wasn’t long before I realized two things: I had my thesis topic buried in the construction of this book, and I would see it to the end, no matter what. And that’s exactly what I did.

I left Montréal late that August, a changed man in many ways, with A Drifting Life in tow. The next three weeks were a caffeine-fuelled haze as I input the English-language text into each and every speech bubble across more than 800 pages, simultaneously noting the items needed for an appendix (things that couldn’t be translated because they were a part of the artwork). Once that was finished, I immediately followed up one marathon with another and got to work on my thesis—a paper documenting the history of comics and manga, the correlations between the two, and the production of A Drifting Life from start to glorious finish.

From the fall, through the winter and into the early stages of the following spring, I finished my work on the book, giving the project and its appendix a round of final proofs, and completed work on my thesis, which was accepted in December 2008, bringing my whirlwind Masters Degree in Publishing to a dramatic close. Around February or March 2009, I received a package in the mail from Drawn & Quarterly. My heart practically stopped as I pulled out a copy of the book, which was then and is today the most beautiful book in my collection. Even with everything I’ve had my hand in since, in a lot of ways my work on A Drifting Life has come to represent a very precise period in my life—a period of great change, a tremendous amount of growing up, and a time when I discovered what I was truly capable of (and how many hours it was possible for me to go without sleep).

In May of 2009, I was able to bring the work full circle, when I flew out to Toronto to meet the man himself, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, and the editor-in-chief of the project, Adrian Tomine. The signed copy of the book (with an original illustration no less) that sits on my shelf at home is the one item I would race to grab if my apartment were on fire. There’s little in terms of material objects I treasure more, and there’s nothing I’ve worked on that has as much of myself poured into it, save for my own writing projects.

Yet with all this, I had not read the book. Let me clarify: I read it more than a dozen times while working on it, and subsequently writing about it, but I had not once read the finished product for enjoyment.

I corrected this three days ago, sitting in a Second Cup on Jasper Avenue in downtown Edmonton with a gingerbread latte in one hand and the book in the other as I waited the four or five hours I had before my flight home for Christmas.

As I read the book, seemingly for the first time as a reader and not a student/editor/production grunt, I was struck by how much I was still in love with the story. Chronicling the author’s youth and introduction into the manga scene in 1940s post-war Japan, there is a lot of A Drifting Life that I feel a kinship with—namely the struggle one has with their artistic desires in a world that will forever value practicality and production first and foremost. But what I was happiest about, reading it again, in some ways for the first time, was that I was able to detach from it—to enjoy it for what it was, without my interaction with the book being at the forefront of my brain. I wasn’t looking for mistakes, or areas where I could have done a better job; rather I was losing myself to the narrative without having to force myself to do so.

What I did feel, reading it in that extended coffee shop sitting, was a strong sense of reflection. In many ways, A Drifting Life is representative of the many turns my life has taken in recent months and years. I was able to live, albeit for a short time, a dream I had had since elementary school: working with comics. As someone with strong visual and narrative ideals, the form has the ability to represent the best of both worlds. I was certainly changed by the experience—and the location—which fostered so much personal growth and a divergence from the safety I had come to surround myself with.

After completing my degree, I hit a wall. I couldn’t find work in publishing if my life depended on it. Sure I was able to get freelance editorial gigs here and there, but something stable and dependable with a 9-5 schedule? Ha!

For two years I applied, interviewed, and got nowhere. Maybe I didn’t know the right people, maybe I just lived in the wrong location, or maybe I just wasn’t good enough. Either way, the literary fish weren’t biting. But late last year, I had an opportunity I never thought would come—an offer from a filmmaker friend to write a spec script on an idea he had brewing for some time. I took the chance and tackled the project. Over several months, from the end of 2009 to the middle of 2010, I wrote like a mad fool. In between editorial contracts and job applications, I wrote the script, and really fell hard into short story writing. I began submitting my writing work after completing and selling the script, and eventually, in the middle of this year, gained traction—finally getting a story published. Since then, my world has taken off, albeit in an unexpected direction.

A bite, from a small literary publisher in Edmonton, Alberta called NeWest Press. In August, I picked up my life and moved one province to the east to begin work as the production and marketing coordinator for NeWest, finally giving myself not only the stability I was craving, but also the opportunity to expand upon my writing and freelance editorial work. Since moving, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know many authors and to increase my presence in the publishing community, which I had sought to become a greater part of for several years. I’ve seen several books through at various stages of their production, and I’ve had a chance to dip my toes into marketing in a way that I had not ever had reason to before. I’ve even had the tremendous opportunity of dealing with publishing on a national stage as one of our books has been thrust into the limelight as a 2011 CBC Canada Reads finalist.

All of this has given me such a push, a feeling of momentum that I had been missing for so long. Since beginning this job, my freelance work has picked up, the film has gone into pre-production, and I’ve begun posting my short fiction and book reviews online, to increasing exposure. I’ve stepped out of my shell, my comfort zone, in ways I had never expected, and in the process have met people from around the industry—and around the world—that have changed me in incredible ways.

To look at myself only two years ago and to look at myself now is to look at two completely different individuals. But to trace the path from one to the next is to start in the simplest of places—with one hell of a thick book and a level of devotion I never knew was in me.

A Drifting Life was the starter pistol in a new chapter. I stumbled for the first few metres, but eventually I found my footing and only now the race has begun. As I’ve reached this point in my life and met several long-term goals, I can look back on this stretch of time and the growth included—both good and bad experiences alike—and see how much I’ve changed for the better, how much stronger and more experienced I have become, and most importantly, that I have absolutely no idea what’s next.

I’ve been adrift for long enough. And like Hiroshi, the protagonist of the book at the heart of all this, my focus—my passion—is what it has always been. Only now I know that I’m capable of achieving it.


  1. All I can say is kudos and congratulations! I can't wait to hear more about this next leg of your journey!

  2. Thanks, Monica! I'm planning on 2011 being a year of rapid change. The end of 2010 felt more akin to a prologue than anything else, and now that I've got a moment to reflect on what needs to happen next to take advantage of all this change, I think I know what to do (like put my money where my mouth is and finish the first draft of my YA novel).

    In the meantime, I'll continue to review, continue posting stories, and accumulate as many followers as I can!