Recently I saw the film Wonder Woman, which draws on ancient Greek mythology to depict an intersection of mortal and immortal dimensions in a World War I setting. Like Wonder Woman, Koi, the main character of this 2017 novel by my daughter’s friend, K. Bird Lincoln, brings super-human powers into the human realm. And they both pit female power against the male deities that would control them and the rest of humanity.
Unlike Wonder Woman, Koi, a Japanese American, has grown up in the human world of contemporary Portland, Oregon. She is only partly aware of her paranormal/supernatural/mythological ancestry and lives in fear of human touch, which triggers her power to read people’s dreams. Also, while Wonder Woman invokes Western myth, Dream Eater draws on non-Western sources--Japanese, Middle Eastern and Native American.
Because of her fear of human touch, Koi has isolated herself, even from her family. In an effort to build a normal life, despite the continual flashes of other people’s dreams, she begins working toward an accounting degree at Portland Community College. One day she crosses paths with a Japanese Kitsune (fox) shape-shifter, who, she later learns is on a mission from the mythic “Council” to retrieve her father. At about the same time, Koi bumps into a professor and reads his dreams of murder. Later, the professor enlists Koi’s help in translating her family’s obscure Japanese dialect. Meanwhile, Koi’s sister, Marlin, who has a real job, calls on Koi to take over temporary care of their father, who apparently suffers from Alzheimer’s, so she can get some work done. It seems the Kitsune, Ken, has experience with elder care, so he offers to help, not revealing his ulterior motive.
From this point on the narrative resembles an action adventure, which is played out as much in Koi’s body as in external reality. Her proximity to Ken stirs erotic sensations while the professor arouses fear and horror. When the professor kidnaps Marlin, Koi and Ken, with Dad in tow, are off on an adventure involving rescue, encounters with such mythological powers as the Middle Eastern Ullikemi and Native American Thunderbird, deception, multiple battles, and eventually Koi’s discovery of her own superhuman powers. Throughout it all, we vicariously experience Koi’s psychic drama, as well as the physical action. There is constant turmoil, made all the more chaotic by the ambiguity of just who is good and who is evil, who is the ultimate power and who is the surrogate.
Allegorically speaking, this urban fantasy can be read as a coming of age narrative, in which Koi, innocent of her full power, encounters the evil in the world, discovers her true identity and learns that she can not only read dreams but eat them, that is, take their power into herself, and, if the dreams are evil, she can use that power to fight evil. In other words, she discovers, not only the evil in the world, but also her own capacity for evil. The moral allegory is thus no simple tale of good vs. evil, but a complicated interrogation of power, in which good must know evil in order to defeat it.
The novel is also a budding love story, as, parallel to the action adventure, Koi also battles her increasing attraction to and attachment to Ken. Her journey of self-discovery becomes a sexual awakening, as well as a lesson in the power of relationships and interdependence, thus overcoming her initial isolation. And it is not only the relationship with Ken that ultimately breaks through Koi’s isolation, for her primary motive in the action adventure is to rescue her sister and protect her father. Thus, as her relationship with Ken develops, her family relationships are restored. She is able to honor both her Japanese Baku (dream eater) father and her human Hawaiian mother, and thus her own hybrid nature.
What is most striking about the novel, besides the blending of non-Western mythological traditions, is, as noted earlier, the way in which so much of the action takes place in Koi’s body and psyche. Her sensations, including physical cravings for coffee and dark chocolate; distinctive smells, especially spices; powerful images and sounds; erotic attraction; emotional turmoil; and the non-human sensations of dream fragments, dream-eating, and ultimately the wielding of dream power. Dream-eating is paralleled by human hunger for pizza, burritos, and her father's Bi Bim Bap. All this is conveyed in a language that juxtaposes contemporary vernacular with ancient traditions, just as Koi’s human self is juxtaposed with her mythic self.
At one point Ken makes specific reference to Joseph Campbell and his book The Power of Myth, based on the PBS documentary with Bill Moyers, and its theory of universal patterns that cross the boundaries of culture and society. Thus, Japanese Baku are paralleled by Morpheus in Western myth, Ojibwe dream catchers, Slavic Nocnitsa, and medieval succubi. Campbell would argue that universal cross-cultural images and narratives reflect shared human experience and a common human nature.
With the rise of postmodernism in the later 20th century, Campbell’s theories fell out of favor. Postmodernists highlighted difference in human experience, culture, and society, even going so far in some cases as to deny human nature. Human belief and behavior is individual, arising out of culturally specific influences, distinct social environments, and unique individual experience.
Rather than reducing this debate to an either-or choice, I prefer a both-and approach. While cultural, social, and individual differences are significant, they are not necessarily definitive, and it is our shared humanity that enables cross-cultural communication and understanding. While we are always mired, to some extent, in our own history, experience, and culture, we are capable of transcending, to some extent, those limitations in order, not only to co-exist, but also to participate in a shared human community.
Whatever cultural limitations define Wonder Woman and Dream Eater, they both serve as images, not only of female power, but also of the intersection between the human realm and that of imagination, of history and myth, of time and infinity, society and vision. They both participate in Joseph Campbell’s universal hero myth of trial and quest. And they both interrogate, not only female power, but all power, using power-from-within and power-with to defeat power-over.
Dreams, like myth, exist in a borderland between human reality and mysteries beyond human comprehension. In Dream Eater dreams are the gateway to self-discovery, empowerment, connectedness, and higher consciousness. Eating becomes a trope for fully participating in both worlds. As Koi says in the end, "That's what people did, wasn't it? Eat evil, battle dragons, and then go home and make sushi." So, as K. Bird says, “Dream without fear…” And, when back in reality, “…drink coffee without limit."