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Witches in the Family

Reading Shadow Life this month felt very personal and, at times, emotional for me.

Kumiko’s behaviour and interactions are all too familiar: the thoughts she has about people on the bus, her stubborn independence, and the appreciation for specific daily pleasures. I don’t know if these qualities are generalizable to all single, elderly Japanese women, but my nana has always said it’s in the Miyagawa genes. “It” being her fussy, borderline anal-retentive, character (her words—not mine).

That is to say that if she didn’t enjoy even the colour of the walls at a senior home, she would be checking herself out before she let her bags touch the floor. Currently she is putting down new vinyl floors in her apartment kitchen (all by herself) because she grew tired of the dirty-looking cream colour her landlord chose.

In the summer she repainted her bathroom three times, shooing me away as I begged her to throw out that rickety stool that she broke her hip falling off years ago and to open more windows for the fumes.

“It’s a perfectly fine stool,” she says every time I clench my teeth, watching its warped hairpin legs wobble back and forth.

As a kid, I’d cringe in embarrassment and look around to make sure no one from my school was watching as we dragged in an old milk crate or inspected a piece of furniture in the alley.

It’s interesting to me, in retrospect, that even as a child I had judged this as deviant behaviour based on a very normative understanding of consumption. I also never thought my nana looked the way a grandmother was “supposed” to look.

Today I love her style and even wear a lot of her clothes, but as a kid I remember constantly judging her witchy hair texture and round hippie glasses.

My understanding of how elderly people behaved and what they looked like was largely tied to whiteness and heteronormativity. Grandmas bake cookies and wear colourful sweaters. They sit at home reading books and share a bed with their husband.

They don’t go to protests or have crushes on Ice Cube, and they certainly don’t have any ex-husbands—who would they have to take care of them?

I feel guilty for ever having these judgmental, normative expectations for my nana. I admire her unwavering deviant individuality—her witchiness .

Although my nana, as far as I know, is not a queer Japanese elder, the familiarity of Kumiko and the foregrounding of her experiences made Shadow Life an emotional read. I feel that Goto has legitimized Nana and Kumiko’s quirks by reframing them not as deviances but strengths to fight back against normativity, fate, and the shadows.

Note: written for GSWS 321 at Simon Fraser University, Professor Nadine Attewell (November 24, 2021). 

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