Karen Tei Yamashita: A Twist on the Mix

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 loggernaut"I have heard Brazilian children say that whatever passes through the arc of the rainbow becomes its opposite. But what is the opposite of a bird? Or for that matter, a human being?" So begins Karen Tei Yamashita's first novel, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, a magic-realist take on the follies of capitalism and the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. Yamashita's mind works on her material like such a rainbow arc, or perhaps like a kaleidoscope, casting ordinary objects into a colorful myriad of previously unimagined configurations that challenge and delight. Through the Arc of the Rain Forest received the American Book Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Award. It was followed by Brazil-Maru, a story spanning half a century in the lives of idealistic Japanese immigrants in Brazil who form a rural commune, and Tropic of Orange, another magic-realist adventure set in a media-saturated Los Angeles replete with supernatural oranges and archangels stuck in gridlock. Most recently she published Circle K Cycles, a compilation of essays, journal entries, short stories, and found items that ruminate on the particularities of identity, culture, and life in a Japanese Brazilian community in Japan. Yamashita is currently an associate professor of literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz. -Wendy Cheng

Loggernaut Reading Series: Three seems to be an important number in your books. In Through the Arc of the Rainforest, one of the protagonists, J.B. Tweep, is a three-armed entrepreneur who revolutionizes the business world through "trialectics," and meets his love-match in the three-breasted Michelle Mabelle. Scholars have written about how you bust up East-West, U.S.-Asia binaries by introducing a third locale, Brazil—introducing a North-South orientation, as well as pointing to the ways in which global capitalism collapses national identities in time and space. Were any of these outcomes conscious intentions on your part?

Karen Tei Yamashita: Hard to say what a conscious intention on the part of any writer might be. That my work would introduce a third location on the South American continent I guess I always knew. When I began my research in Brazil, I was very aware of a kind of triangulation of experiences, comparing Japanese communities in the North and South, and I was immediately captivated by the Brazilian Japanese rendition of "Japanese-ness."

LRS: What did you have in mind when you wrote about "trialectics"? Poking fun at academics? Updating Hegel and Marx? Is there something special, analytically or creatively, about thinking in threes?

Yamashita: I don't and didn't know enough about Hegel or Marx to presume to update them in any way. I was simply futzing around with J.B. Tweep's condition and wondered how the limitations of our physical beings also limits our thinking. Creative thinking often requires non-linear, non-oppositional, layered, parallel, holistic, 360-degree, dimensional and/or spatial thinking. Tweep, however, isn't deep about this; he just "chooses" the middle possibility, whatever that is.

LRS: What about the Brazilian version of "Japanese-ness" so captivated you?

Yamashita: Maybe Japanese-ness is not the right way to say it because what I think I encountered was a twist on the mix. You get your community culture, the sense of an extended family, the potluck, the shared experience (that being the war years, prejudice, immigration, second-class citizenship), but then in Brazil, among Japanese Brazilians, I sensed a louder gregariousness, a generosity without hesitation, a more comfortable engagement with intimacy and touching. It would seem to be a stereotype of the Brazilian or Latin American, but it was palpable and real to me, a more reticent American and a sansei who had been recently in Japan and trying to perfectly mimic the myriad social rules.

LRS: What first led you to Brazil? And then, what kept you there?

Yamashita: I got to Brazil on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. The Watson funded a year of traveling to research the anthropology and history of Japanese Brazilian immigration. Actually I was able to pursue this project for three years since the funding was so generous. I started the Watson in 1974, traveling first to Japan and then to Brazil. In 1977, I married Ronaldo Lopes de Oliveira, a Brazilian, and we started a family in São Paulo.

LRS: So what were some of the differences you noticed between Japanese communities in North and South America?

Yamashita: Japanese immigration to the US took place a generation earlier than to Brazil. My grandparents came to the US at the turn of the century (around 1900) while Japanese to Brazil arrived generally in the 1920s and after. There was a historic jump in the Japan these issei were leaving, and that changed the way they saw the "new world" they had come to settle or immigrate into. My grandparents left as Meiji Japanese, from a country that was purposefully opening its doors to the West. The next generation was Taisho and Showa, and the Japan they left was becoming an industrial power, won a war against Russia, and was turning nationalistic.

Of course, the US is different from Brazil, and you can see this particularly in the social/racial/ethnic relationship that Japanese have with their receiving countries. While the US has a history of racial and







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purchase selected works by Karen Tei Yamashita:

Tropic of Orange

Through the Arc of the Rain Forest

Circle K Cycles


I Hotel

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