Jun 23

Torikaebaya Monogatari

(This text was originally posted on LiveJournal. It has been reformatted (awkwardly) for use on WordPress.)

I finished Torikaebaya Monogatari/The Changelings/If Only I Could Exchange Them a while back. This is a book written during the Heian era about a brother and sister who are “by nature inclined to act as the opposite sex,” and just happen to look exactly alike.

Guess what they do.

They eventually switch back, after several years, a lot of angst, and no actual, physical gay sex.

The author is unknown, and there’s apparently a debate about his/her gender. I will now conclusively put an end to this debate through the application of my giant brain:

The author was a straight guy because the thwarted-buttsex was comedy and the lesbian stuff was completely serious.

You may now sit in silent awe of my brilliant and I’m sure completely original analysis. Tears may, if necessary, spring to your eyes; no sniffling.

( Slightly more serious analysis behind the cut. )

No one has ever heard of this book (Sensei hadn’t – he stood there flipping through it looking bemused for a while when I showed it to him), and it’s impossible to buy cheaply. My copy’s from the library. I probably shouldn’t put it to immoral internet purposes.

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(This text was originally posted on LiveJournal. It has been reformatted (awkwardly) for use on WordPress.)

I finished Torikaebaya Monogatari/The Changelings/If Only I Could Exchange Them a while back. This is a book written during the Heian era about a brother and sister who are “by nature inclined to act as the opposite sex,” and just happen to look exactly alike.

Guess what they do.

They eventually switch back, after several years, a lot of angst, and no actual, physical gay sex.

The author is unknown, and there’s apparently a debate about his/her gender. I will now conclusively put an end to this debate through the application of my giant brain:

The author was a straight guy because the thwarted-buttsex was comedy and the lesbian stuff was completely serious.

You may now sit in silent awe of my brilliant and I’m sure completely original analysis. Tears may, if necessary, spring to your eyes; no sniffling.

Looking at it really scientifically, there’s also numerically a lot more of the one than the other. The sister marries a woman and hits on three others, getting behind two of them’s blinds to see their faces – sort of the Heian-era equivalent of looking up their skirts – and convincing her wife and one of the others that lying next to each other all night meant that they’d had sex.

The brother, on the other hand, has only two male suitors, doesn’t know about one and doesn’t want the other, and seduces a woman within twenty-five pages – just so the author can prove right off the bat that he ain’t no faggot, I guess. This entire encounter takes two paragraphs, and having accomplished it, he disappears until more than halfway through the book.

The sister doesn’t get involved with a man for another another fifty pages after that, and she doesn’t, of course, initiate it.* She is, in fact, raped by her best friend when he finds out she’s a woman, but that’s what you call “a whole separate thing to be getting into” if you are like me and cannot talk.

* “Of course” because Heian women don’t initiate sex with men – not even the ones who do sometimes initiate pseudo-sex with other women.

I’m having trouble thinking that it could have been written by a woman of any orientation, just because the author thinks that orgasm is impossible without a penis being somehow involved. (I have assumptions.) At one point, sitting with one of her girlfriends, the sister tells herself that the woman is “wasted on her,” and thinks enviously of her penis-equipped friend, who would be able to take advantage of the situation. The siblings’ gender identities – or, in the sister’s mind, their “unusual bodies” – are repeatedly called “punishment for sins committed in past lives;” the author thinks the sister did something really bad.

In the translation, by Rosette Willig, the sister is called “he” and the brother “she” up until a little before the end of the novel. This means we get sentences like, “Large with child, he seemed to be feeling very oppressed and pained.” Most of the reviews I’ve seen call this “an interesting interpretation” or a “strange/brilliant/adjective touch,” which I guess means the people who wrote them didn’t spend all last year banging their heads against untranslated Murakami trying to figure out whether the girl or the guy or the fork or the zombie was the subject of that sentence. Cough.

Japanese sentences are often all predicate – male and female pronouns do exist, but they aren’t used much. The only gendered terms which the author would have had to attach to the siblings semi-regularly were the words “brother,” “sister,” “son,” and “daughter,” and their court titles (“Middle Counselor” and “Head Lady-in-Waiting”), which I’m assuming carry about the same amount weight in gender-baggage as words like “Baron” and “Duchess.” (I need to ask Sensei about that.) I’m not clear whether the original text actually called the sister “brother” and the brother “sister,” the way Willig does, but it did call the sister “Middle Counselor” and the brother “Head Lady-in-Waiting.” That’s more important, since titles are treated like names. A Japanese reader opening to the middle of the book would have read the sister as male because she was called “Chunagon.” Willig’s way is just the most reasonable way of dealing with the pronoun issue.

No one has ever heard of this book (Sensei hadn’t – he stood there flipping through it looking bemused for a while when I showed it to him), and it’s impossible to buy cheaply. My copy’s from the library. I probably shouldn’t put it to immoral internet purposes.

2 Responses to “Torikaebaya Monogatari”

  1. Omg! Torikaebaya! I love it. I’m currently researching this story right now for my Heian literature class and it’s so hard to find good sources. Would you mind discussing the story/sources with me? my email is abryant28@gmail.com

    Unfortunately, I can’t really suggest any secondary sources. I know I downloaded a couple articles about it from JSTOR at some point, but I’ve dug around my computer and it looks like I didn’t keep the files, so I can’t give you any titles. (I’ve graduated now, and thus can’t get into academic databases.) I’d try just searching all the academic databases available to you and seeing what pops up.

    (Oh, and there’s also this guy’s paper here, which mentions Torikaebaya.)

    Sorry I can’t be more help.

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