Book Review

Takako Arai’s Factory Girls is a protest book, whose patchwork of poems and narrative voices weave together the story of what it means to grow up in a world pursued by the specter of industry and the ghost of production. These, for Arai, are egregious masculine entities that take over and threaten all of us because we have allowed ourselves to believe in them—like ghosts:

It’s running! Look,
            The specter
                        Is running
                                    Through your eyes
                        Across your floor
            The girl and her gossamer illusions (from “Specter!”)

The poems in this collection are split into three sections: “In the Factory,” “Into the World,” and “Of Gods and Small Animals.”

The first section follows semi-autobiographical accounts of Arai’s and her childhood friends’ lives growing up in Kiyru, a location known for its textiles industry. The poems are plagued by factory fires, gruesome deaths of employees caught in the machines, women stifled by their expectancy to yield to male superiors, and recollections of formative childhood experiences haunted by ghosts of the women who suffered in this system. The section quickly becomes a comment on how a Japanese woman’s industrial future—working for the nameless patriarchal machine—is primed by the “gestures” which “sink into the bodies / Of those who manipulate the machines” (From “When the Moon Rises”). The girls who play chase in the shadowy spaces of the factory in “Bobbins” are pursued by the ghost of production that turns innocent girls into threads that will feed the system. Childhood innocence and experience unfold while women surrounded by their male bosses’ pin-up calendars are harassed for having sexual desires and are slowly turned into “marionettes” (from “The Healds”), who must selflessly adhere to any demand.

It is the traditions of the past in Factory Girls which threaten the future women are made to inherit. Even upon leaving the factory world of her hometown in the second section of the collection, “Into the World,” Arai’s narrators find themselves faced with the dangers of living a “half-life,” where the spinning factory has simply been replaced, over time, with a nuclear plant. The technology has advanced, but it provokes and aspires to the same sort of erasure of individuality through the constant need these masculine systems have for appeasement and adherence:

                                     Just look
                        At that fission
            They say they can’t get any fusion
Between those sperm-like neutrons. . . .

                                                No nuclear dome?
                                    Then we’ll make electricity
                        In our con-domes
Is a half-life
Good enough

For us? (from “Galapagos”)

Arai’s Factory Girls suggests that the industrial future we cultivate for women and ultimately for all people is a societal structure we have stitched together, and it is one we are responsible for dismantling together if we wish to ever see change. We forge our own doom if we adhere to the patriarchy or have faith in it. It seems the “fire” that burns down our enthusiasm and lust for life is coming for all of us. It is even written in the folk tale of “Mohei’s Fire” in section three, “Of Gods and Small Animals,” and it is repeated as a self-fulfilling prophecy—something made to look inescapable. Despite its foreboding surroundings, Factory Girls reads as a violent protest book and doesn’t employ voices that are easily defeated. Arai does not hold this future to be infallible unless we allow it to be. The third section invokes insects and metamorphosis to suggest we may yet shed this system, even if the change we undergo is gruesome:

Have you ever seen a caterpillar shed its skin?. . .

His own skin
Swelling and peeling
Swelling and peeling
Transforms into pure green, hard, chrysalis
Becoming a chrysalis
One of the phases of shedding (from “Caterpillar”)

The translation edited by Jeffrey Angles and translated by a collection of writers, including Jeffrey Angles, Jen Crawford, Carol Hayes, Rina Kikuchi, You Nakai, and Sawako Nakayasu, does something especially interesting because it creates an opening into the multifacetedness of the text. The multiple authors, further working to weave Arai’s single voice, who is herself collecting the voices of many Japanese women, split and diverge as they expose the text as a faulty attempt at building one solitary product—the book, the unified collection of poems. The translators of the text could be said to be the weavers of their own spinning factory, working to stitch together an identity that inherently expresses unique desires, contradictions, and cannot be made singular. By translation’s design, the voices fail as much as they succeed in creating anything truly uniform—some double the text by including the kanji and kana, while others aim to make the text more rigidly fluent. The translation effectively points to the flaw in thinking people can be made the same. While the traditionalist fate looms over us as something inevitable in Factory Girls, Arai (and the unique openings created by translation) reminds us we also inherently possess the protest tools to resist systematic erasure because we have individual voices and desires.

Factory Girls is Takako Arai’s, the feminine, and perhaps Japan’s or, even more broadly, the world’s, living industrial nightmare as much as it is a recounting of her (and maybe our) childhood memories, hopes, and dreams, interrupted. The danger is that when we “kick open the doors of the birth canal” (from “The Morning Child”) we have to find a way to navigate beyond a past that insists it is inseparable from our present and future—a masculine-centered past that pursues and frightens us like a specter. That’s the key. Otherwise, “the world of our existence” may be the same as “the world of our afterlife” (from “Existence”). We will be unmade.

About the Reviewer

SA Viau holds an MFA in poetry from Louisiana State University. His work has appeared in New Delta Review, HASH, and In Parentheses, among others. He is a French and Spanish teacher in Baltimore, MD, where he lives with his family.