Paul Giffard-Foret reviews “Toyo” by Lily Chan


ToyoBy Lily Chan

Black Inc

ISBN: 9781863955737



In the Folds of Making: A Review of Toyo by Lily Chan


Upon a close reading of Melbourne-based, Japanese-Australian author Lily Chan’s debut novel and memoir Toyo, a word cannot fail to strike our attention, returning like a litany throughout. It is the word “fold”: fold of the body as legs gently repose on the tatami in traditional Japanese fashion (183) or as the skin becomes wrinkled (240) and twisted (236) with old age; animal/vegetal folds as one coils in reaction “like an abandoned dog” (103) or curls back inwards like the petals of a flower (14); artfully folding and unfolding fans (52); folded cloths following the lines of a kimono (50, 60, 168), a pair of pants (80) or a shirt (136) or a string of tissues hidden in sleeves (232, 243 and 245); paper folds, yen notes appearing and disappearing magically (60), an old photo stuck in-between the curves of a curtain (63), hastily scribbled messages stuffed in someone else’s clothes (236), or the folds of the origami, the Japanese art of folding paper into decorative shapes and figures (10, 214).

    A fold is neither a wrap nor a box. If the latter simultaneously conceal and reveal, the former possesses an “elastic” quality working at “the extremity of the line” between closure and disclosure. As French philosopher Gilles Deleuze commented in his work on Leibniz and the Baroque, “the unfold is thus not the opposite of the fold, but follows one fold until the next” (1991: 231), in the manner of origami. As suggested by, and as opposed to, the French idiomatic phrases “cela ne fait pas un pli” (there’s no doubt about it, literally meaning “it does not fold”) and “c’est un pli à prendre” (it’s something you’ve got to get used to), Deleuze traces here the contours of a subject whose form and content are neither straightforward nor linear, neither the one nor the other, but instead tortuous and tortured, and imbued with the prospect of limitless, multiple selves: “[This] labyrinth of continuity is not a line which would dissolve into independent points, like sand flowing in grains, but is like a piece of fabric or a sheet of paper which divides into an infinite number of folds or disintegrates into curved movements” (231).  

    Toyo narrates the story of a woman whose life as an exile would involve many detours. Toyo was first exiled from her origins and in particular her father, whom she met only twice, being the fruit of an illegitimate relationship needing concealment; exiled again from the safety of home in the face of war, poverty and the horrors of the atomic bomb, or the sexual abuse coming from various predatory men taking advantage of the situation – American soldiers but also a family doctor. In the event of her mother’s death, Toyo is compelled to attach herself to a new family and husband. This man is Ryu, who himself must face daily estrangement for being doubly crippled. A lame person posited within the diasporic folds of the Chinese community in Japan, Ryu struggles through discrimination with a level of strength and determination only those struck by proportionate ill fortune seem to possess: “They [the Chinese] were excluded from the healthcare schemes and prohibited from working in the public service; they had to register their businesses with the government department regulating alien residents.” (83)

    Upon marrying Ryu, Toyo is asked to give up her Japanese citizenship. A new identity pass and a new name, Dong Yang Zhang, are issued to her, so that “she felt as if her body had been crossed out, as if she no longer existed” (88). Against all odds, Ryu succeeds in setting up coin-operated Laundromats across the entire city of Osaka, where none had existed hitherto, in a post-war, fast-modernising Japan ripe with hope and renewed opportunities. However, Ryu’s baroque eccentricities brought upon by wealth, his public gambling, drinking and flirting in particular, as well as the fatigue that hard work necessarily entails, makes him neglect his inner health in turn, only to die too soon of a simple kidney infection. As Deleuze has argued, “baroque architecture can be defined by that scission of the façade and the inside, of the interior and the exterior, the autonomy of the interior and the independence of the exterior effected in such a way that each one sets off the other.” (234) It is this precarious equilibrium, in-between “the coils (replis) of matter” and “the folds (plis) of the soul”, that Toyo, following a series of deaths within the Zhang family, will seek to achieve in her new life in Western Australia and her adoption of Eastern Indian spirituality – a balance sought out by Chan herself within the very skeleton of her memoir.

    While the first part of the novel is chiefly concerned with replis, which as Deleuze’s translator explained, “evokes the movements of a reptile…the idea of folding in on oneself” (227), the second part of the novel set in Perth and in the country town of Narrogin, where Chan grew up, deals instead with the multifarious plis that migrant resilience and pliability imply. The reader may scoff at Toyo’s and her son Yoshio’s New Ageism, from nomadic trips to India to meet with Indian Guru Sai Baba, to the building of a communal ashram in the middle of the West Australian wheat belt. However, we must remind ourselves how personal questing through the teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism had proved extremely popular across the West back in the 1970s and 80s when we can infer the action to take place, this despite the elusiveness with which the historical fresco of Toyo’s life is depicted (one of the memoir’s chief limitations according to Alison Broinowski). The state of Western Australia’s sheer magnitude and Perth especially, one of the most remote cities on earth, have in literature often taken on an added religious dimension, as is the case in Toyo: “In Perth the temple seemed to be everywhere; the sky was a vast blue rooftop covering the entire city.” (180)

    Perhaps the best way of grasping Chan’s insistence on Eastern spirituality is by looking at the corresponding thematic centrality of old age in the last sections of the book. Descriptions of an ageing, Alzheimer-struck Toyo following her return to Osaka after many years away, “where she felt like a tourist in her own city” (228), have given way in my view to the most interesting, most moving passages in the memoir. Here, the reader comes to understand how Chan’s book is, beyond being a memoir, primarily a fictional account of her grandmother’s “own hallucinations, dreams and fragmented recollections” (252). For a literature routinely plagued by discourses of cultural/historical authenticity/veracity, “how to break the mould of diasporic fiction and offer readers something unique is the challenge Lily Chan faces in her first book” (Broinowski 2012). Keeping this in mind, Broinowski’s subsequent criticism of the book’s ahistoricism feels strange, and her assertion that “most memoirs are of people who in some way were public figures or agents of change [while] Toyo is neither”, seems not only misplaced but factually wrong.

    In effect, the genre of the memoir has more often than not been a prime vehicle for the emergence of erased stories by minorities – women, Blacks, indigenous peoples, as well as “ordinary” citizens of all kinds. These “micro-narratives” however deserve to be universalized due to the fact that matter “offers a texture that is infinitely porous, that is spongy or cavernous without empty parts, since there is always a cavern in the cavern: each body, however small it may be, contains a world insofar as it is perforated by uneven passageways” (Deleuze 1991: 230). The trans-generational nature of the memoir allows for a form of historicity that is neither fully personal nor “cosmological”, residing instead in the interstitial play of signs, the subterranean or subconscious “cave of making” (Bhabha 2009) that is at the origin of discourse. A dying, speechless Toyo will thus seek in her youngest grandchild a mirror to her own existence and a means of communication as she felt the irrepressible urge to speak to him, for “[she] saw, suddenly, that he was part of the constellation, that his very soul was flaring and bursting, and in the trajectory of his life, she could see her own intersect with his, the tenuous point of connection flickering like a sparked wire, yet to come into being” (258).

    A word must be said here on the allegorical, poetic prose of Chan’s writing, before I return to the problematic of the fold as a matter of conclusion. As Delia Falconer has argued, “it’s a shame Chan’s overrefined prose stifles their [Chan’s characters’] “lifeness”…as she strives too often to pin them to artful similes.” This is missing the fact that, mentioned several times throughout the memoir, the art of kabuki has provided the cultural and formalistic framework through which Chan was able to give life and resonance to each one of her characters. A kabuki is “a form of traditional Japanese drama with highly stylized song, mime, and dance…using exaggerated gestures and body movements to express emotions, and including historical plays, domestic dramas, and dance pieces.” Style being another aspect of diasporic fiction by which the literary establishment regularly condemns or relegates the latter to the dusty archives of life-writing, it is not surprising to find, yet again, reluctance in the face of the fact that,

“it is the way in which matter [content] folds that constitute its texture [form]…defined less by its heterogeneous and genuinely distinct parts than by the manner in which, by virtue of particular folds, these parts become inseparable. From that one gets the concept of Mannerism in its operatory relation to the Baroque” (Deleuze 1991: 245).

    The end of the book reverts in a roundabout way to Toyo’s illegitimate birth, but, unlike the image of a dog endlessly chasing its own tail/tale, Toyo at the dusk of life and for the first time felt fulfilled. As Deleuze again wrote, “the perfect harmony of the scission, or the resolution of tension, is effected by the distribution of two stories, which both belong to one and the same world (the line of the universe). The matter-façade tends downwards while the soul-chamber rises. The infinite fold thus passes between two stories.” (243) There would be quite a lot to say about Toyo’s stereotypical view of Australia, or her Orientalist (if not at times racist) appraisal of India – “India was dirty. Brown. Hot” (198) – or yet still, her complete ignorance of Aboriginal spirituality, but eventually, Chan’s writerly gift is to have shown us a life with multiple entries and folds, which is what distinguishes a rounded from a flat character.

    If Chan chooses to leave the reader with a sense of plenitude, it is because Toyo, unlike her mother, born in a small farming village and who due to unforeseen circumstances was never able to realise her dream of becoming a nurse, has been given the opportunity to travel, be mobile while reinventing herself and grow old to share her knowledge and experience with others, which is no small feat. Altogether, quite a baroque life indeed:

Toyo taught her grandchildren origami…She carried boxes of coloured paper squares to the three primary schools in Narrogin and taught them how to fold samurai hats, boats, masks, jumping frogs. The children watched her fold the coloured paper and gasped in wonder when she held the finished pieces up. She liked to wander around the classrooms and examine the children’s bent heads, their industrious fingers folding and unfolding…Children ran to their parents at the bell, brandishing their boats and birds and frogs and sumo wrestlers. She felt complete. (214)

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. 2009. “In the Cave of Making: Thoughts on Third Space.” Communicating in the Third Space (Karin Ikas & Gerhard Wagner eds.): IX-XIV. New York: Routledge.

Broinowski, Alison. 2012. “Rare Asian Family Study.” The Sydney Morning Herald, December 29.

<> (Accessed 13 Sept. 13).

Chan, Lily. 2012. Toyo. Melbourne: Black Inc.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1991. “The Fold.” Yale French Studies 80: 227-247.

Falconer, Delia. 2012. “Homing in on an Extraordinary Life.” The Australian, October 20.

<> (Accessed 13 Sept. 13).

No Author. 2010. “Kabuki: a definition”. New Oxford American Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


PAUL GIIFFARD-FORET  completed a PhD at Monash University. His work appears in Westerly, Transnational Literature and Mascara.
He teaches in Paris.