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Light-ing the Way: Normalcy in Keiko Tobe’s With the Light

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Keiko Tobe’s book, With the Light- Volume 6, uses strategies of both form and content to create a discussion of autism. Her novel tells of one boy’s experiences with autism and the reactions of those around him to his perceived behaviors. As Tobe does not try to speak for the autistic character in her novel, she is able to emphasize the lives of those who are presumably ‘normal’ in his family and community. By doing so, she dims the line between ‘disability’ as the focus of narrative and ‘normalcy’ as the narrative device which drives a story line.

As has frequently been reinforced in the Disability in Literature class discussion, there are narratives that deal directly with physical or mental function such as O’Connor’s “Good Country People” or Churchill’s A Mouthful of Birds. Other literature that has been read for class has taken a more ambiguous approach about the nature or even the existence of disability, such as Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men or Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” All of these writers use their characters as the focus for driving the plot of their stories. While Tobe includes her autistic character and gives him equal time in appearance in the book’s frames, it is the reactions of the other characters to the presumed disability and the drama of the other character’s lives that are the main focus of the book.

As a writer, Tobe should inherently understand the importance of Mitchell and Snyder’s claim in Narrative Prosthesis that “The anonymity of normalcy is no story at all. Deviance serves as the basis and common denominator of all narratives” (55). Yet she repeatedly questions this idea of ‘normalcy,’ driving her narrative as much by the adventures of her ‘normal’ characters as she does by her protagonist Hikaru, the boy who is autistic.

By inserting Hikaru into the narrative without presuming his own thoughts and inner voice, Kobe respects both the uniqueness of the individual and the present level of understanding of parents and science to comprehend the autistic mind. All the reader learns from Hikaru himself is that he does not use traditional language to speak, he sniffs hair, likes soft fuzzy objects and occasionally hides under a bench. It is the reactions of the other characters that define Hikaru as ‘normal’ or not. While there are no speech or thought balloons for his character his interactions with his little sister and his parents convey many of the same daily aggravations of any young boy who is curious, likes to explore and finds an energy release in annoying others—especially little sisters. The reader soon begins to question which of Hikaru’s actions are a result of his ‘condition,’ and which are the actions of a young boy’s energy and ‘normal’ development.

For many readers, the form of manga itself is a means of turning the notion of ‘normalcy’ on its side. While Tobe is a Japanese author and originally published the book in Japan, the conscious decision to leave the book in right-to-left format, combined with the nuanced manga form, leaves many western readers focusing much of their reading attention on the form of the book as much as its content. ‘Learning’ to read the direction, expressions, background direction and exclamatory cues offers much instruction in making one’s way through a world in which another language is spoken and emotions are expressed by means other than what is considered ‘typical’ facial expression. This enforces for the reader the idea that there is more than one path to understanding.

Hikaru’s daily encounters with the challenges of his autism are represented primarily by the assumptions of his mother. Even she admits that many times there is an ambiguity between what may be Hikaru’s development as a young boy and what may be an expression of his living in an autistic world. Episodes that focus on Hikaru and his dealing with family issues emphasize that the cognitively ‘abled’ should not assume that every struggle or encounter is caused by autism. For example, Hikaru ‘s reaction to Kanon’s getting her own room is given much emphasis through the mother’s doubts. Hikaru’s “urrrgh!” (Tobe 437) is the reader’s only indication that something may be awry. One may just as easily presume that this would be any person’s likely response to the feelings of exclusion by being kept out of a previously accessible space. Yet the mother attempts to determine what his internal reaction might be. She is the one who places the idea of ‘difference’ in the reader’s mind, not Hikaru’s reaction. Similarly, the grandmother’s favoritism of Kanon, which would be hurtful to any sibling, is given little attention by the parents. Instead their focus is on the grandmother’s lack of desire to offer Hikaru patience and her seeming inability (disability?) to attempt alternative means of communication with him.

A daughter-in-law’s insecurity, a mother-in-law’s busybody-ish insertion of herself into her son’s family and a husband’s temptations in the workplace are all the dramatic fodder for this novel. Hikaru is given a role of ambiguity in the narrative as other than through his reactions there is no way of knowing what he is really thinking. Yet even when characters speak directly to others there is cause for similar ambiguity. Hikaru’s father is reluctant to tell his assistant directly how it is that he understands some of the challenges her brother may be facing. His indirect nature and politeness lead the assistant to confuse caring with a more intimate interest. It may do the same for Hikaru’s father himself.

The stresses on daily life of attempting to balance work, home, children and family and social relationships are considered ‘normal,’ yet these are much of the source for the narrative’s action in Tobe’s book. The ‘difference’ of Hikaru is emphasized as much by the need for others to interpret his thinking and emotions and to define themselves through their interactions with him. By allowing this ambiguity of normalcy, Tobe gets the Light just right.

Written by kfabie

December 8th, 2010 at 12:07 pm