Interview: Karen Tei Yamashita

Karen Tei YamashitaKaren Tei Yamashita is the author of Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, Brazil-Maru, Tropic of Orange, Circle K Cycles, and I Hotel, which was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award and awarded the California Book Award, the American Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association Award, and the Association for Asian American Studies Book Award.  She has been a US Artists Ford Foundation Fellow and is currently Professor of Literature and Creative Writing and the co-holder of the University of California Presidential Chair for Feminist & Critical Race & Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Yamashita is the recipient of an American Book Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Award. A California native who has also lived in Brazil and Japan, she teaches at the University of California-Santa Cruz, where she received the Chancellor’s Award for Diversity in 2009.

TCJWW: In Tropic of Orange, you often play with time and space, stretching, compressing, and otherwise distorting it. What effects or messages did you intend to create in doing so?

Yamashita: I’m not sure I have a clear answer for this, that is in the way of intent. Playing with the stretching of the Tropic as being physically dragged north into L.A. creates consequences of time and geography that push the storytelling, allowing for the re-imagination, for example, of our borders. A message can be derived about the imposition of borders and the crossing and migration of humans and other living species, but those interpretations are left to the reader.

TCJWW: Magical realism is one of the hallmarks of your writing and on page 197 of Tropic of Orange you write, “The virtually real could not accommodate the magical. Digital memory failed to translate imaginary memory.” In my review, I hypothesize that the magical functions as a counter to the virtual by reminding us of a shared reality free from the commercial interests and edits of the few. Is this what you intended?

Yamashita: I’m not sure I’d say that magical realism is a hallmark of my writing since what I think I did was to parody its construction in narrative. The multiple narratives were devised in part to demonstrate different ways of telling stories about L.A. But yes, in that scene when Arcangel moves across the “border,” the thought is perhaps to give credence and reliability to shared memory and the imagined.

TCJWW: You portray the Tropic of Cancer as a physical thread capable of movement, even of being dragged up north across the border into the United States. Was this portrayal meant to emphasize the physical reality of borders such as the Tropic of Cancer, their fluidity and flexibility, or both?

Yamashita: The Tropics, along with the Equator, are borders designated by the Earth’s movement and tilt in relationship to the Sun, and they create our sense of time, of seasons, as well as climatic regions with weather patterns that have defined environment, species evolution, human cultures, and civilizations. Of course their positions are not flexible. And though we are more concerned with political borders that define territorial rights, these borders define our relationship to light and time passing and to our place on Earth.

TCJWW: Tell us about your choice to include dialogue between Emi and Manzanar in Anime Wong. What was behind your decision to revisit these characters and extend their storyline, spilling it over into the pages of another book?

Yamashita: It’s actually the other way around. Manzanar Murakami was originally a character in a musical, Godzilla Comes to Little Tokyo, produced in  1992. Emi, in that same musical, was a runaway teenager.  I lifted their characters and put them into the novel.

TCJWW: It seems that Los Angeles, among other roles, serves as a middle ground between the U.S. and Mexico, North and South. Would you agree? How has your upbringing, and return to L.A., shaped your conception of it as a unique urban space?

Yamashita: The original idea for the story was actually set in São Paulo, Brazil, which is more exactly on the Tropic of Capricorn, but by the time I wanted to write this story, we were again living in Los Angeles. And the Los Angeles I returned to after living a decade in Brazil was a very different cosmopolitan place. Growing up, I lived in Central L.A. within an enclave of Japanese Americans within a larger enclave of African Americans; and on the east side of the L.A. River lived communities of Mexican Americans, all of us ghettoized by real estate covenants. In the 1980s, L.A.’s population had turned Latino, and my Brazilian family was part of that change. L.A. for me has always been an improbable, uncontainable, and fascinating urban experiment.

TCJWW: Characters like Bobby Ngu and Emi challenge simplistic notions of race and identity. What does race mean when it exists alongside so many other factors and when it can’t be attached to a single nation, identity, or story? Does it decrease in centrality?

Yamashita: That’s funny that you should say this, because in 1997 when the book was published, it was criticized for not having any Caucasian characters. And the characters in the book were criticized for not being “real,” which of course they are not. Bobby and Emi, like the other characters, initiate their stories as perhaps expected stereotypes to guide/implicate the reader; as you note, they eventually toss aside predictable attachments to nation and identity, and perhaps complicate what we think of as being racialized. But race and racism doesn’t go away just because we are seen as more complex people. It just gets embedded in other crevices and behind other masks.

 

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