In Sifton Tracey Anipare’s debut novel “Yume,” readers are thrown into a delightful world of monsters, food and stunning visuals, all of which makes a fantastical fall read. “Yume” takes us across the Pacific Ocean to Japan, where Ghanian Canadian Cybelle is teaching English in a town outside of Osaka.
Cybelle is experiencing boredom at work and exhaustion due to her neighbors. Cybelle is surrounded by people who fear or suspect her because she is a gaijin, or foreigner. Not only does Cybelle have to deal with microaggressions, but she also struggles with blatant racism, such as a child who screams every time he’s in a room with her.
“I found, when I lived in Japan,” Anipare said, when we spoke about her novel, “I met a lot of people who thought they knew everything there was to know about the culture, whether they had done east Asian studies before they arrived or four or five years of JET [Japanese English Teaching]. And then something would come along and metaphorically say, ‘here is something new.’”
Anipare shared that a lot of what Cybelle goes through was pulled from her own experiences and those of other Black expats who lived in Japan. Despite having literally lived abroad in Japan, Anipare made it clear she doesn’t know everything and there is always more to discover.
It is when Cybelle gets used to the wearying monotony of her life that she is drawn into the terrifying world of yo–kai — monstrous demons that can be as small as a finger or large as a house and live in dreams. Anipare drew inspiration from dreams she had when revisiting Japan, as well as from gifts from coworkers, students and their parents. She blended yōkai lore with the media she was exposed to, creating the lush dream world that Cybelle and the readers get to know.
In this dream world, she meets Zaniel, a half-Japanese man who can walk between dreams and reality. Like Cybelle, Zaniel is struggling not only to reconcile his identity and different looks with Japan’s homogeneous society, but also with a pact he formed with the demon known as Akki, who is the embodiment of traditional Japan.
The same way that Cybelle’s coworkers are reluctant to teach anything but Wall Street English, Akki hesitates to change the nature of his relationship with Zaniel, even after 10 years. The demon was a samurai in his life, but now he is faced with the prospect of people forgetting the yōkai and embracing globalization. As Zaniel’s interest in Cybelle grows, so does Akki’s fear of the unknown.
But even demons aren’t able to stand against the relentless march of time, and monsters aren’t just in nightmares anymore. For Cybelle, monsters could be a drunk man at a club pulling on her hair without her consent or a smelly toy at the school that comes back each time she throws it away. And when faced with these hardships in person, why would she think a demon in her dreams could do any harm?
Although Cybelle is surrounded by hostile forces, from her coworkers to literal yōkai, she truly enjoys herself. One of the ways she does this is through food. Pastries, soup and delicacies I’d never heard of until now were featured prominently in “Yume.” Anipare’s gift for description left me wanting to taste every food she talked about until it felt like a character itself. Cybelle revels in the food around her. It is not merely sustenance but something to be delighted in. Anipare explained to me that she wrote in all the food that she liked to snack on. As she wrote and ate, it became a part of “Yume” itself.
At its heart, “Yume” is about when worlds collide: foreign and local, dream world and waking, Black and Japanese. Cybelle and Zaniel are united by their love of both the traditional and the new. It is a fantastical story featuring a Black woman taking control of her destiny and learning about herself and her place in different worlds, using a classic Japanese genre of stories: isekai.
Isekai literally means “other world” and is popular in anime shows and games. It’s also the perfect genre for this book — otherworldly adventures for our protagonist, both in her adopted home in Japan and the dream world. Isekai as a genre is also primarily filled with thin, pale women and strong, flawless men. Cybelle is the hero of her own story, and Zaniel is openly vulnerable and anxious, fighting the stereotype of what a love interest is supposed to be. In Anipare’s world, there is always room for more.
“Yume’’ is a love letter to all of Anipare’s experiences in Japan, both good and bad. It also manages to be a love letter to the strange and nerdy Black girls who are willing to embrace life’s oddities and adventures. Anipare’s whole-hearted enthusiasm makes the book a solid read, even if the pacing in the first half was a bit rocky. This is common in debut authors, and I’m excited to read what she does next with even more experience under her belt.
This is a novel filled with monsters and demons, but Anipare approaches them with wonder rather than fear. There are antagonists, like Akki, but there are friends among the yōkai as well. “Yume” is a fun and vivacious ride that left me genuinely laughing out loud and wanting to read it again, wondering what else the book might offer me if I read between the lines.
It turns out that is exactly what Anipare wants. “My intention was to kind of get readers to think about what possibilities exist outside of their own bubble. What’s happening in the other room, what’s happening outside of my house, what’s happening in this part of the world, what happens when I turn off the light? What’s going on in that room that I haven’t even thought might exist?”
Read more of the Oct. 27 - Nov. 2, 2021 issue.