After my parents moved me into my dormitory for my first year of college, I remember looking out the window and seeing groups of people my age gathered on the sidewalk, their voices carrying clearly up to the floor where I now lived. It felt odd to be contemplating my existence a thousand miles away from where I grew up, though I had been excited to leave home for the first time and experience the realities of life for myself. After a few weeks, I began to feel comfortable and started to enjoy myself instead of hiding in my room and reading to avoid speaking to anyone. Despite this, I was somehow consistently stricken that first year with a deep loneliness, stuck with the lingering questions of whether everyone liked me, if they saw and accepted me when I was feeling so out of place.
Li Kotomi’s Solo Dance, elegantly translated from the Japanese by Arthur Reiji Morris, explores the despair of being consumed by such thoughts to the point of changing how one perceives their own identity. After a violent assault, Cho Norie leaves her old life in Taiwan behind and moves to Tokyo in an attempt to escape her trauma. The novel alternates between scenes of Norie’s life before the attack and her present life in Japan, during which she becomes withdrawn as she attempts to come to terms with what happened to her. Now twenty-seven and working a mundane office job, Norie struggles with both the concept of her permanence in the world and the need to keep her identity as a gay woman hidden from her coworkers. Regardless of her efforts to run from her past, her grief is ingrained into her everyday routine, causing her to wonder, “Surely people can’t just accept every single painful thing that comes their way? Surely it’s not so wrong to hide away from a pain you can’t accept?”
As a child growing up in Taiwan, Norie, who in her country of origin goes by her given name of Yingmei, is a quiet, bookish child who is aware that “the way she felt was clearly different from the other kids around her.” The death of a classmate, Shi Danchen, at the end of fourth grade, marks the beginning of the darkness that surrounds Yingmei throughout her life. She becomes introspective about death—both what it means and what happens afterwards. Despite never having any significant interactions with Danchen, Yingmei is still overcome by an overwhelming feeling of sadness. After Taiwan’s great earthquake of 1999, she begins to feel as though her soul has become fragmented. Haunting visions of Danchen plague her dreams as she copes with the loss of the person who she now considers her first love. Her parents try to understand her increasingly abnormal behavior, seeking counseling as a way to help their daughter, but Yingmei resists. “They could never possibly understand my pain,” she thinks to herself. “I loved Danchen, but now Danchen is gone.”
Yingmei’s character as a child is exceptionally compelling; though quiet and solitary, she has a vivid inner life that makes her curious about the world. She is described as different from the rest of her peers—perhaps a bit strange—but her complex perspectives on death and living make her incredibly captivating. Her pain is eloquently described, as well, the grief weighing her down so profound that it is palpable: “An unfamiliar force was bubbling from the depths of her heart, suddenly swallowing her emotions whole.” The agony that seeps inside her informs her relationships with other women as she grapples with her own feelings. It is her love for Danchen that cultivates her love for writing and Qiu Miaojin, whose works, “full of a suffocatingly self-destructive despair,” shape Yingmei in her high school years and lead her to meet a woman named Yang Haoxue.
The sections on the relationship between Yingmei and Haoxue, who is affectionately nicknamed Xiaoxue, were some of the most difficult for me to read. Though both share a deep-rooted passion for literature and art, they also have a disturbing fixation on death that rests at the core of their bond, with Xiaoxue even telling Yingmei, “If you were set on dying, I wouldn’t stop you.” As I persisted, however, I found myself moved by the imperfections of their relationship. All each woman wants is to make sense of the enduring loneliness they feel as a result of their isolation from society. They promise each other that “neither of us are allowed to die until we find a meaning to our lives.” The writing, beautiful and lyrical in its depictions of their shared sadness and love, evoked an intense, melancholic feeling that left me hollow in the aftermath.
Yingmei and Xiaoxue begin to break away from each other after Yingmei is brutally raped in a homophobic attack. The scene smartly comes and goes in a brief, dizzying flash with a fleeting description of the attack and sharp language, though even this short segment was enough to make my stomach turn. As a result, Yingmei withdraws into her darkness. “Love, fiction, all those things she once viewed as beautiful were unreachable from this abyss—all that existed around her was a cold, unending dark.”
In college, away from Xiaoxue, she isolates herself from her peers and refuses to talk to anyone or join any extracurriculars, deciding to simply go to class and return to her dorm room to read. When Xiaoxue asks why, Yingmei tells her, “They probably think I’m dirty.” The fear of being talked about behind her back as a result of the assault begins to consume her everyday life.
I often felt this way at the beginning of school, unsure of how to create a new life for myself after having left my previous one behind. I had made friends who cared about me, but I continuously alienated myself from them. It seemed like everyone already knew who they were, except for me. Much of Solo Dance is painfully evocative of this loneliness of young adulthood and how it feels to try and find your place, again and again, in the world. The depiction of mental illness is powerfully affecting and memorable. Yingmei’s grief is heavy, trapping her in a life of aching despondency. She is aware of how her increasingly erratic behavior has hurt herself and those around her, and yet her refusal to face herself again, though frustrating and hard to read at times, is painstakingly human, an atmospheric portrayal of someone who lets themself sink into their own depression. Even when she seeks treatment and begins to make friends in the Sign Language Society, she suffers from low periods that make it hard for her to function. She cannot shake off the idea that she needs to escape her country and current identity.
Thus, Cho Norie is born. But even after moving to Japan and letting herself wallow in what she deems to be the insignificant conversations of everyday life, she still finds it difficult to keep her personal life hidden. The novel intelligently depicts the emotional spiral that Norie goes through. “Why should I have to feel this burden when it’s everyone else who doesn’t understand me?” The past continues to haunt Norie in her relationship with Kaori, a woman she meets through a dating app. In one of the most heartbreaking sections of the book, Norie is unable to become too intimate with Kaori, despite being in love with her and wanting to, because the memory of the night she was raped is still impressed in her mind. At times, the scene teeters on the edge of being cliché and expected; and yet, as I was reading, I found myself moved by the way Norie’s thoughts were written: “Why is this thing still beating? Pathetic. Squirming like a fish whose head has been cut off.” It is a cutting description of the fear of rejection, impacted by the past.
The novel’s intensity is at its highest when most of Norie’s coworkers and friends receive a strange email that lays bare the trauma of her past and shatters her mental state: “Cho Norie’s real name is Zhao Yingmei. She is a lesbian. She was with a girlfriend in high school. After graduating high school, she was raped. She had severe depression and came back from seeing a psychiatrist.” Once again, the fear bubbles up inside of her, swallowing her whole. She is debilitated and she decides to make a plan to end her life. “Death was no longer reserved for some indeterminate point in the future, and she felt far more relaxed knowing when she would leap into its embrace.”
What follows are poignant images of Norie traveling on her own through Australia to follow through with her plan, and listening to stories about the lives of others. Morris’s translation of Kotomi’s writing masterfully shows Norie’s growing fondness for the world and the beauty she finds in it, despite her constant suffering. For someone who has spent much of their life fantasizing about death, the novel lets a glimmer of hope peek through for Norie as she admits that “she was enraptured by the beauty of this world, how much she loved it.”
The brilliance of Kotomi’s book shines the most here. There is an incredible wonder in seeing the lead finally be unafraid of the world and her identity, finally able to live without hiding. In this way, Norie is able to carve a place for herself in the world, still hopeful after everything she left behind. Even so, Norie’s depression is not miraculously cured. There are beautifully written, poignant instances when she is hit with a wave of grief in the middle of her happiness. But even with all of its powerful, expressive imagery of the way the burden of a mental health issue can thread through life and weigh on relationships and the self, there are times when the ending of Solo Dance feels a little too clean.
And yet I felt an inkling of hope that in the end, Norie’s life will go on. That she will be okay, with her new appreciation for the beauty of the world—“The sky was still bright, and soft white clouds hovered in the air.” After all, even on my own loneliest days, for just a moment, I, too, could look out the window and watch in awe as life continued all around me.
© 2022 by Sambhavi Dwivedi. All rights reserved.