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Sachiko as a Liaison in Keiko Tobe’s With the Light

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Keiko Tobe’s series of graphic novels With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child depicts the Azuma family’s struggles with caring for their autistic son, Hikaru.  The main narrator throughout the series is Sachiko, Hikaru’s mother.  In Volume Six specifically, Sachiko works hard to act as a mediator between Hikaru and the outside world during his junior high years.  Tobe’s representation of Sachiko as a liaison for her son provides a productive behind the scenes perspective that ultimately heightens her audiences’ awareness of the difficulties in caring for an autistic child.

In the New Oxford American Dictionary, a liaison is defined as “a person who acts as a link to assist communication or cooperation between groups of people.”  In this volume, Sachiko assists communication not between two groups of people, but between the people in the Japanese society and Hikaru.  By acting as a liaison, Sachiko allows for her son to feel more comfortable in this society.  Consequently, the people around him feel more comfortable, an added outcome of Sachiko’s efforts.  Sachiko’s role as a liaison is a difficult one that requires continual improvising.  It also is a very emotional process for her as a mother, because she always wants what is best for Hikaru and her efforts are riddled with both success and failure. Sachiko’s emotions involved in this process are especially evident in this novel because it is a graphic novel that allows readers to see her facial expressions and other indicators of emotion instead of just reading about them.

An example in which Sachiko acts as a liaison between Hikaru and the outside world takes place towards the beginning of Episode Two in Volume Six.  In this scene, Sachiko buys some knitting wool and makes it into a quasi-shoulder pad to go on Hikaru’s bag so that he can feel it whenever he wants.  Sachiko decides to do this after Hikaru touches the hair of the girl sitting next to him on the bus, which upsets the girl so much she says, “Ugh, yuck! How disgusting!” (50) before changing seats. Sachiko discusses this incident with her friend, who is also the mother of an autistic child and devises her plan to knit something for Hikaru.

By knitting this piece of wool for Hikaru, Sachiko allows for him to have something to feel instead of the hair of others around him.  She knows it is important to provide an alternative to Hikaru because it gives him something that is both appropriate within society and pleasing to him while fulfilling his need to touch soft things.  By limiting Hikaru’s socially unacceptable behavior, those around him would not feel as uncomfortable or upset.  Sachiko takes the public into account when knitting this for Hikaru because when she is talking about her knitting, she mentions, “even if someone looks at it without knowing what it is, they’ll probably just assume it’s a shoulder pad,” (65).  In this quotation, it is evident that Sachiko has both parties in mind, which is consistent with the role of a liaison.

Sachiko’s emotional investment in solving Hikaru’s hair-touching problem is obvious as represented by the drawings in the panels where she buys the knitting wool and finishes her knitting.  When Sachiko first touches the knitting wool, she cradles it in her hands and gazes at it with huge, doe eyes.  There are also flowers in the background of the panel and sound effects that are written in Japanese.  These sound effects are translated into “fluff, fluff” (64) and are most likely referring to how Sachiko is lovingly handling the knitting wool.  The word “Wooow!” (64) is sticking out of one of Sachiko’s thought bubbles as well, showing her amazement at what she has just discovered for Hikaru.  Once Sachiko is done knitting, the drawing depicts her lovingly rubbing the finished product against her face and, when translated, the Japanese sound effects say “rub, rub” (65) to emphasize this movement.  In these panels, Sachiko’s joy at having creating a potential mediator between Hikaru and society is unmistakable.  However, Tobe’s makes it quite clear that this is only a small aspect of Sachiko’s ongoing role as a liaison because as she rubs the wool to her face she thinks, “Maybe now there’ll be one less thing to worry about?” (65).  These lines of thought demonstrate how Sachiko is constantly looking ahead and recognizing that this is just one less issue she must mediate between Hikaru and society in her role as a liaison, not that it is a complete solution.  And, because the thought ends in a question mark, it is clear that Sachiko knows her plan might not even solve the hair-touching problem, which would call for more improvisation from Sachiko to find a solution that would.

This is just one example of Sachiko mediating between Hikaru and society.  Tobe’s volume is filled with instances such as these that are just as, or even more intricate than knitting a piece of wool.  Most of the other instances are also seemingly small ones but Sachiko cannot afford to overlook anything in Hikaru’s life because she wants to care for her son the best she can.  This is a productive behind the scenes look at Sachiko’s never-ending role as a liaison because it provides insight into the struggles and emotions of the mother of an autistic child who is constantly negotiating between her child and society.  Without following Sachiko’s story, people unfamiliar to autism might never see or know about this aspect of it.  Through Sachiko, Tobe provides her readers with a chance to better appreciate what goes into making an autistic child comfortable during seemingly simple tasks like riding the bus.  After gaining a better appreciation of just this one aspect of the difficulties in caring for an autistic child, readers might have more understanding if they encounter autism outside of the fictional world.

Source: “Liaison.” The New Oxford American Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.

Written by Susan

December 8th, 2010 at 2:35 pm

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