**Trigger Warning: This article recounts experiences of homophobia, suicide, physical abuse, and rape.

BOOK REVIEW EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ELLA KELLEHER WRITES – “Love conquers all” – we are often taught this maxim as children. We are persuaded to believe the very essence of love can solve all life’s problems. Yet, for those of us who do not fit the heteronormative ideal, individuals on the fringe of the already unstable fabric of modern society, love is not safe. On the contrary, it is dangerous, deadly, and can cost us our freedom and even our lives.

We first meet Yingmei Zhao when she is in the fourth grade at a prestigious girls’ school in Taiwan. When a beloved classmate dies, Yingmei quickly realizes that she can only fall in love with women. Beautiful as first love may be, for people like Yingmei, it carries with it a dark, shadowy veil of hardship. She cannot marry. She cannot start a family. She knows that many of her peers will not accept her if she chooses to live honestly. So after college, Yingmei decided to move to Japan under a new name, Chō Norie, and build a future for herself in the land that sprouted some of her favorite authors like Osamu Dazai and Haruki Murakami.

Author Li Kotomi

Li Kotomi is a Taiwanese-born fiction writer who writes in both Mandarin and Japanese, making her work a complex and poetic blend of two linguistic and literary cultures. First published in Japanese in 2018, Solo Dance has finally reached an English-speaking audience with the help of translator Arthur Reiji Morris who expertly weaves the intricacies of both Mandarin and Japanese sentiments into a brutally honest English narrative. Kotomi and Yingmei hold many similarities, both being Taiwanese-Japanese and members of the LGBTQ community, which makes Solo Dance both stunning and traumatic in its honesty.

Norie, formerly Yingmei, carries with her the burden of several identities. Despite her many faces, she always stays true to her inner self. Intelligent, brave, and self-conscious, Norie connects with various other characters and weaves a string of relationships that remind her of Han and Tang Dynasty poetry. The literary figure that Norie persistently connects herself to is Taiwanese novelist Qui Miaojin, who notably wrote Notes of a Crocodile – a sacred text for Taiwanese lesbian culture. However, Norie is inspired by more than Miaojin’s literary capabilities. She is also enamored with Miaojin’s death by suicide at the age of twenty-six.

Solo Dance – World Editions, London, U.K. – 2022 – 149 pages

The most tragic event of the story occurs before Yingmei decides to start anew in Japan. On a night out with her girlfriend at the time, the two decide to part ways, and Yingmei walks solemnly down a dimly lit alleyway. Unbeknownst to her, a horrid man has been following them and violently assaults Yingmei. Before he flees the scene, the assailant spits venomous words at his victim: “Don’t like men, eh, you fucking dyke? Well, I’ll show you a good time.” Yingmei, left distraught and physically violated, is shamed by her peers at university, who inevitably learn of her assault. Despite being the victim of a heinous crime, Yingmei cannot help but blame the entirety of her assault on herself and her sexual identity.

Yingmei promptly moves to Japan after university and metamorphosizes into Chō Norie. Mortality encircles Norie’s psyche and creates an unhealthy, romanticized obsession with death. Norie decides that to bring true meaning to her life, which she views as tainted after her assault, she must end her life herself. After a strange encounter with a fellow queer colleague’s obsessive former girlfriend, who decides to leak Norie’s past assault to all her new Japanese friends and coworkers, Norie is forced back into the darkest time of her life. She is alienated by those she holds most dear and can no longer run away from that violent night in a dingey Taiwanese alley.

Norie decides to pack a suitcase and travel to six different places she has always wanted to visit. She buys a return ticket to Tokyo without the intention of actually using it. At the end of her travels, Norie plans to throw herself off a cliff and end her life once and for all – to have what she deems her “final trip… [her] solo dance. And now that the dance had begun, she had to see it through to the end.” Her journey brings several eccentric characters into the narrative fold. A gay couple in Sydney who inspire her with the seemingly pure mutual affection they hold for each other and an enigmatic fellow lesbian who Norie shares a night of passion with that later proves to change her perspective on her final decision.

Kotomi’s decision to set the story mainly in Japan, a country with one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world, brings an invaluable element of social relevance to Solo Dance. If life for the average Japanese woman is not without its strife, Kotomi dares the reader to imagine the existence of someone living at the nexus of queerness and womanhood – two fundamental aspects of Norie’s identity that are structurally repressed within Japan and greater East Asia.

Norie’s story is a powerful representation of the countless queer female voices silenced by systemic oppression. As the twenty-first century leans closer toward being an Asian cultural renaissance, we must be wary of the flaws in each nation that require change. “There is nothing writing cannot cure,” writes Lai Hsiang-yin, another literary titan praised by Norie. Kotomi changes the very nature of her story by giving her characters literary visibility – this is no longer “the story of a solo dancer, alone in the dark.”

LMU English major graduate Ella Kelleher is the AMI book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.

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