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Posts Tagged ‘Asian American’

Conversations: Karen Tei Yamashita’s “Tropic of Orange”

Posted by litdaily on March 9, 2011

SM: I first read Yamashita’s book Tropic of Orange during my first semester as a graduate student. Every time I have read it again, I have experienced new pleasures in its complexity. Yamashita’s deeply entangled web of the narratives of seven characters spanning seven days belies the order and coherence of the grid of “Hypercontexts,” with which the book opens up. The book presents complex, overlapping and ever-changing mapping grids as the dominant metaphor for the American multicultural city in the moment of globalization. Manzanar has the following vision of the city: “There are maps and there are maps and there are maps. The uncanny thing was that he could see all of them at once, filter some, pick them out like transparent windows and place them even delicately and consecutively in a complex grid of pattern, spatial discernment, body politic” (Yamashita 57). If the global city’s realities are magical, how do we read this novel: as a realist or a magical realist representation?

SD: There are many scholars who argue against a dichotomous and antithetical relationship between the real and magical.  For example, Kum Kum Sangari in “The Politics of the Possible,” makes the connection between the real, the marvelous, and the truth. She says: “If the real is historically structured to make invisible the foreign locus of power, if the real may thus be other than what is generally visible, if official versions are just as visible and visibly ‘real’ as unofficial versions, and if even the potentially real is a compound of the desired and the undesirable, than marvelous realism tackles the problem of truth at a level that reinvents a more acute and comprehensive mode of referentiality” (163).  This statement can easily be applied to Tropic of Orange where the distinction between real and marvelous or magical cannot be made with regards to the experience of internment, mobility, labor, and imperialism.  Manzanar, for all purposes, simultaneously exists within and outside of the grid due to the historical and official invisibility of internment.  The lack of linearity that his figure invokes alludes to a different kind of historical consciousness.

SM: It is interesting that the elements that make readers think of the novel as a magical realist one are manifested in its spatial representations: from the above example of Manzanar’s ability to visualize multiple maps at the same time, to Rafaela’s experience of the “elasticity of the land and of time” as she sees Gabriel’s property walls as “not straight,” and Arcangel’s pushing the Tropic of Cancer “ever northward” by means of “hooks and cables” in his skin (Yamashita 150, 152, 212). Parallel to your point that Yamashita does not portray the marvelous and the “real” as opposed categories, I would also suggest that in her representation of L.A. as the global city, she refuses “utopia” and “dystopia” as binary opposites. The freeway crisis in the novel illustrates this point. The space of the freeway is crucial to the geography of a city that wants to be a serious participant in globalization (Yamashita 82). When the freeway is brought to a standstill by an accident that brings together disparate plot elements, it is understood as chaos and disorder of dystopia by the car owners who are forced to abandon their cars and incur economic loss. But what is seen as crisis by the state and the wealthy is seen as utopia by the homeless, for whom the crisis presents an opportunity to claim for themselves the urban space that is responsible for their displacement and homelessness.

Yamashita’s compelling characters come from various racial backgrounds. But I wonder if it is taught as much in other ethnic studies courses as it is in Asian American Studies courses. Is there something in the text, besides the author’s racial heritage, that marks the text as Asian American? Also, Yamashita represents a moment when multiculturalism was still cool? Do you think we are beyond that moment in our culture and literature?

SD: Your insightful inquiries regarding multiculturalism and its tangibility in the present moment has prompted me to reconsider the years since Yamashita published her novel.  In the context of the Pacific coast, multiculturalism may still resonate because the population stems from a history of internal colonization, regional imperialism, and border crossings.  The sheer visibility of these histories in that region may positively impact the literary and cultural production that invokes images of Latino immigration into the United States. Recently, Alex Rivera produced a film titled, Sleep Dealer (2008), which deals with virtual labor and a global digital network that cuts across borders.  We will continue to see these kinds of representations about the influx of different kinds of subjects in the United States; however, I don’t think that these representations will necessarily lead people to think about their linkages with multiculturalism.

Also, precisely because of varying histories, certain cultures are granted more space in the American imaginary.  While Yamashita focuses heavily on trafficking between Mexico and California, I don’t think she is widely read in Latin American courses. This is certainly a problem of stereotyping where the author’s ethnicity hinders the reception of the novel.

Although I hope that we are not “beyond” multiculturalism in the United Sates, cultural and ethnic differences seem to either be contained within rigid structures or negated completely.  Isn’t this exactly what Yamashita counters with the powerful image of an orange that links different geographical spaces and people across non-linear time?

Works Cited:

Yamashita, Karen Tei. Tropic of Orange. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1997.

Posted in Books, Conversations, Literary Criticism, Literature, Miscellaneous | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Conversations: John Okada’s “No-No Boy”

Posted by litdaily on December 21, 2010

No-No Boy and the Debates around Asian American Literature

SM: I was intrigued by your central question in the blog-post “Asian American Literature”: What are the terms of inclusion for Asian American literature to be a part of the category of American literature? Since you have identified assimilation as a literary theme critical to this inclusion, and this past semester we both taught John Okada’s novel No-No Boy which explores the question of assimilation, I wanted to discuss how Okada’s novel can help us the define the contours of the relation between Asian American and American literatures. The novel is built around the historical events of Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that resulted in the evacuation of Japanese Americans on the West Coast and their subsequent confinement in internment camps.

I was pleasantly surprised that most of my students this semester had at least heard about Japanese American internment, whereas in the past any mention of internment was just met with blank stares. So how do we begin discussing inclusion of Asian American literature within American literature when significant events of Asian American history have been erased from the national memory?

SD: This question of assimilation and the inclusion of Asian American literature within the American canon is a tricky one.  Okada’s No-No Boy didn’t register with my students in any significant way – they thought the protagonist was incessantly “whiny” and “selfish” and they couldn’t see his personal struggles as social ones.  The issues of belonging, citizenship, and racialized identity – all tropes of assimilation – seemed outdated to their very experience of being American. Aside from these basic tropes, many felt that Japanese internment was a political anomaly of the past…until I reminded them of post 9/11 detention centers and the Patriot Act.

In terms of national memory, No-No Boy offers the perfect text that forces readers to critically investigate the relationship between nation and the act of remembering.  Okada’s “whiny” protagonist is one that internalizes a fraught complex of emotions that deals with remembering the United States’ imposition of rules for its citizens, non-citizens, and Others.

SM: The students find Ichiro a “whiny” protagonist because their other readings in American literature lead them to expect the central character to surmount obstacles after an epiphany and expect the protagonist’s conflict to be resolved in some way. But Okada’s novel never allows Ichiro much movement or a complete resolution. In her book Immigrant Acts, Lisa Lowe refers to No-No Boy as “antidevelopmental in the sense that its condensed, almost static portrait that takes place within the small period of several weeks…” (50). The novel is “antidevelopmental” because it challenges the dominant story that after progressing through various stages of cultural accommodation and adaptation, racial minorities can finally be assimilated into America. The dominant narrative states that all racial minorities and immigrants can become “American,” if they try hard enough or if they “give up their culture.” No-No Boy, on the other hand, suggests that such assimilation is impossible as it portrays that a similar fate awaits both Japanese American no-no boys and the veterans who fought in the American army. For example, Ichiro’s friend Kenji, who fought in the American army, explains the violence of Japanese American war veterans toward no-no boys, such as Ichiro, as follows:

The way I see it, they pick on you because they’re vulnerable. They think just because they went and packed a rifle they’re different but they aren’t and they know it. They are still Japs….The guys who make it tough on you probably do so out of a misbegotten idea that maybe you’re to blame because the good that they thought they were doing by getting killed and shot up doesn’t amount to a pot of beans (Okada 163).

Kenji’s words assert that fighting in the American army does not do much to change the status of Japanese Americans as racialized outsiders, who are always considered inassimilable and “forever foreigners.” For Lowe, the value of No-No Boy and Asian American literature lies in its power to critique the dominant story of assimilation, which is fed to us by all media and literature till we believe it as a self-evident truth of being American, and to offer an alternative account of American history (26). Does inclusion of Asian American literature in American literature or literary canon diffuse the power of this critique?

Your point of connection between Japanese internment and post-9/11 America is significant. Do you think No-No Boy is relevant in today’s world?

SD: Your analysis of No-No Boy and its critique of the dominant narrative is extremely accurate and pertinent to Asian American literature’s inclusion in the American literary canon. The textual tension that exists between Asian/American and American literature seems to be played out institutionally as well. Just as Lisa Lowe posits the contradiction of Asians as aliens who are linguistically and culturally outsiders that occupy a marginal place within the labor markets of the U.S., the American literary canon will always see Asian American literature ambivalently – as outside and inside American literary production.

For this reason, we should ask ourselves: has the status of Asian American literature changed since the publication and reception of No-No Boy? In my opinion, it has changed but shifted so that the overt racism that makes assimilation impossible for Ichiro has become insidious.  Similarly, the production and inclusion of such texts have also become insidious, from malignant racism to benign classifications that continually set Asian American literature apart. As far as I am concerned, there’s still a monstrous gap between “American” and “Other” (Immigrant, Third World, Postcolonial, Diasporic, Asian, Minority).

Posted in Books, Conversations, Literary Criticism, State of Academia | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Asian Americans Get Less Pay

Posted by litdaily on December 8, 2010

Toronto Sun reports on the gap in pay between Asian American men and white men…>>

Asian American men get:

(1) Overall, up to 29% less than white men

(2) About 8% less for U.S. born citizens who speak fluent English

(3) Up to 30% less for U.S. citizens, born and educated abroad

What’s really interesting about the article is not the disparity in numbers simply because all ethnic minorities should be aware that their labor is valued less than labor produced by white men.  This fact is part of American history – one that our nation doesn’t overtly acknowledge or want to redress.  The interesting part is that the researcher doesn’t know what causes the discrimination even as he relates it to anti-immigrant sentiment.

My question is this – is it too simple, too obvious, or too hard to say that the discrimination in work places are due to racism? All this rhetoric about immigration seems to evade the crux of the matter, which is that we are a racist, exploitative society.

Why would Asian Americans assume that the pay scale is the same when Asian Americans have been orientalized, stigmatized, and marginalized for over a century. Is it because Asian Americans think that their “educational success” erases racism?

Posted in Miscellaneous, TV & Media | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Ascent of Asian American Fashion Designers

Posted by litdaily on September 5, 2010

Asian and Asian American fashion designers including Jason Wu, Alexander Wang, Prabal Gurung, and Thakoon Panichgul are making headlines by winning awards and dressing Michelle Obama. Their financial success and leadership in an industry that has an eye on the developing fashion markets of Asia has made fashion design a lucrative and “respectable” career option for Asian Americans…more>>

Posted in Arts | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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