An Interview with Karen Tei Yamashita


Jean Vengua Gier and Carla Alicia Tejeda

University of California, Berkeley

Copyright (c) 1998 by Jean Vengua Gier and Carla Alicia Tejeda, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the authors.

  1. Karen Tei Yamashita first traveled to Brazil in 1975 to study the history and anthropology of Japanese immigration to Brazil. After interviewing and gathering information from Japanese commune members, Yamashita found fiction a more suitable genre for exploring the Japanese diasporic experience. The result of this experience was three novels: Through the Arc of the Rainforest, winner of the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, imagines the contact between technology and rural culture through the lens of magical realism; Brazil-Maru, Yamashita's second novel, traces the rise and fall of a Japanese experimental community in the Brazilian interior. Her third novel, Tropic of Orange, continues in the vein of magic realism, mapping the multi-layered grids of meaning in Los Angeles and the borders between Latin America, Mexico, and North America. Prior to her work as a novelist, Yamashita wrote multi-media performance pieces about Los Angeles, where she was raised, including Hannah Kusoh: An American Butoh, Noh Bozos and Tokyo Carmen vs. L.A. Carmen. Yamashita currently lives in Santa Cruz, California with her husband, Ronaldo Lopes de Oliveira, son Jon and daughter Jane. She teaches creative writing and Asian-American Literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

  2. Although Yamashita calls herself an "Asian-American" writer, her subject matter, and her formal approach to it continue to defy the geographic and canonical boundaries implied in that label. Her works engage the question of hybrid identity and the politics of mobility. In Tropic of Orange, for example, the character, Arcangel, literally drags the Tropic of Cancer north, past the border between Mexico and North America. This literary act unsettles our notions of national boundaries, but perhaps more surprising, it extends the border narrative beyond that of Mexican/North-American polarities to consider its effects on Latin American, Asian and Southeast-Asian migrants, and neighborhood locals and transients in Los Angeles. At the same time, Tropic of Orange and Brazil-Maru question our assumptions about cultural and national definitions of literature. Yamashita herself observes that the notion of what is "Asian-American" must change, for, in fact "the geography is changing, the map is changing."

  3. The first section of the interview, "Writing as Praxis," examines Yamashita's researching and writing process through the metaphor of the map. This section asks her to consider how certain characters serve as fictive embodiments of her writing process, which itself seems to function dialogically with the postmodern condition, its proliferating technologies, intelligences, and diverse and migrating populations. One character, Manzanar, embodies her process specifically by "conducting" (itself a kind of mapping) and ordering the postmodern chaos he witnesses on the freeways of Los Angeles. In section II, "Teaching and the Creative Process," Yamashita describes how her role as a writer extends to, and has been formative in, her teaching. Section III, "Social Concerns and Aesthetics," asks Yamashita to comment on the negotiation between social critique and fiction writing. She examines the personal influences on her shift from anthropology and research to fiction, and the social imperatives that inform her subject matter. In the last section, "Critical Reception," the author responds to our queries about what constitutes "Asian America" in light of the rapid shifts in the Asian diasporic landscape. For Yamashita, these concerns are often best expressed through her engagement with metaphor.

  4. In interviewing Karen Tei Yamashita, we were struck, not only by her foregrounding of her role as writer/researcher (as opposed to critic, or even writer-critic), but also by her openness to the various tributaries of thought and criticism that her works seem to provoke among readers. Thus, discussions about the intersections between literary production and social and critical commentary seem to be especially pertinent for Yamashita, who sees her work in dialogue with scholarly inquiries into the politics of mobility, media culture and the commodification of human creativity and resourcefulness. Through tropes of mapping, mobility, and communications (both high and low-tech), her novels address the issues that inform the imperatives behind a number of disciplines (Asian American studies, border and cultural studies, postcolonial studies, cultural geography) concerned with postmodern ethnicities and national identity.

  5. Your novels provide glimpses into disparate, sometimes dissonant psyches affected by social, economic, and political forces. Manzanar, a transient in Tropic of Orange, is one such character who, despite his marginal status, "orchestrates" the pulse and lifeblood of the city. Would you agree that your fiction writing bears a certain resemblance to Manzanar's freeway symphony conducting?

  6. Is the question about his marginalized status, or that he's creating a symphony?

  7. It's really both--his marginal status and his crucial role in the novel as a creator, or artist.

  8. I think there might be that similarity between us, from the perspective of somebody who might be marginalized, and in that sense, yes, that project is there to give voice to those who don't have voices. Formally, I tried to structure the book as a symphony, where movements or certain instruments come into play.

  9. Manzanar seems to find an order in all the chaos of Los Angeles, and on the freeways of the city, but at the same time, his project imposes order; do you see any way in which that paradox relates to your writing?

  10. Yes . . . I'm trying to take disparate elements from the city to organize them into a work of fiction. I think that I might illustrate what I mean by discussing how the book was organized and by describing my writing process. Because I have so little time to write, I structured this work into sections for easy access, as shown in the "map," or structure of the book. I was continually reading the non-fiction of the city (newspapers and articles) and fiction, the "literature" of Los Angeles, and trying to piece it all together. This research was in different places: articles in boxes, and many of them in notes, in files, or on scraps of paper, and all of this had to come together. And yes, you're right, it was my way of organizing this chaos.

    I don't believe that there is any one voice that can represent that city; I wanted to experiment with multiple voices. In the course of looking at Los Angeles as literature, I look at detective noir, the genre most associated with Los Angeles. That has been the myth, or the Hollywood representation of Los Angeles seen in L.A. Confidential, for instance. I began to wonder about that vision of the City; could that be the only one? So I wanted to hear different narrative voices, see different visions or points of view representing the City. There are seven characters and seven days, but the seven characters are also seven subjectivities. That's why the Pan-Asian character, Bobby, was created. That's why Rafaela has a magical-real--actually a satirical, magical-real--vision of the City. That's why Arcangel is a Pablo Neruda-figure with a sense of the history of Latin America coming to Los Angeles, and Emi has this very media, consumer-driven, fast current-events vision of the City. I wanted all these visions to intersect in some way.

    At the same time, Manzanar's work is a celebration of the City. He can see the traffic and turn it into a romantic vision. This is life: to celebrate the traffic and the people, and humanity and all of those layers of the geography. He would celebrate it all.

  11. There's an interesting transition there between Manzanar's previous profession as a surgeon, one who knows the arteries of the body, and his present role as a transient who comes to know the transportation arteries and the sewage system of the city, which exists as a corpus . . .

  12. . . . as a body, yes. I don't know why that came to me at some point. All of this is sometimes serendipitous.

  13. Moving from Manzanar's celebration of the City, Gabriel, a reporter-figure who speaks in the "I," and is also tapped into the pulse of the city . . .

  14. Gabriel is a detective figure, exploring the "nitty gritty" or noir elements of the city. He speaks in the first person, walking the streets, looking for the truth by asking questions and talking to people. At the same time, he has affinities to a past that is similar to my past, with the Asian-American movement or the Chicano movement. He has an idealism about it, and his purpose as a detective is to reveal something that's important, and give voice to those who haven't one. But that vision gets disturbed. He gets sucked into the internet (and high-tech communication). His production is similar to Manzanar's, because he's following what comes naturally, but only a literate group of people who read English will understand Gabriel. Manzanar is on another level.

    I'm trying to think about how this works . . . when O.J. was riding in that Ford Bronco, everyone knew that it was happening. There were people on freeways who came out to see if the Ford Bronco would pass. So it was a media event, but it was also a physical event; it was accessible. People went out to see if they were near a place where he would pass. They held signs out, waving at O.J. Or when the L.A. riots happened, people were going to sites they knew were near fires. So there was this conversation between the media (what was happening on television) and this physical event. There was an uncanny sense that the City had a "brain," or collective understanding. I think that it's similar to what's going on here both for Gabriel and for Manzanar . . . but you'll have to figure it out for me: that's your job! (Laughter).

  15. Would you say that the character Arcangel is representative of a place or a body where the borders are being redrawn?

  16. Oh, Arcangel is based on Guillermo Gomez-Peña. In fact, he says things that Gomez-Peña says. The first time I saw and watched him perform and read his work, I was fascinated. I've had this sensation that, in Los Angeles, he has been, in some ways, rejected--I'm not sure. Arcangel is a literary interpretation of Peña. Arcangel's performance is grotesque, freakish, yet Christ-like, accounting for 500 years of history in the Americas. He's also like Neruda, who, through his great poem, Canto General, expresses all of Latin America. He takes the poetry, and also the political conscience and history across the border.

  17. You make reference to Mike Davis's social and historical mapping of Compton, a sub-section of Los Angeles. Buzzworm laments "Quartz City's" inability to "put down all the layers of the real map . . ." (80-1).

  18. I really liked Mike Davis' book. It was one text I read that had gone beyond most of the discussions of the City. So it's not that Buzzworm is dissing the book. But, of course, it's an old map. Gabriel has torn this out of the book, ostensibly to give it to Buzzworm to say, "look, this is where the Crips are, and this is where the Bloods are; Buzz, give me the coordinates on this; is this true?" Buzzworm's looking at this map, and thinking, "well, wait a minute, this is an old map," and cogitating on this idea of what the map could really be. For him, there's a whole list of things that the map could possibly tell you, more than to say that the Crips and the Bloods occupy this area, this is their territory. Mike Davis's map made me think about other possibilities for defining these territories.

  19. Do you see your novel as a way of expressing all those layers?

  20. (Hesitates) . . . More layers. The idea of extending what is on the ground, who occupies Los Angeles, and how that's constantly changing. It's not more real, but more ample and complex.

  21. So you are continuing [the mapping that Davis is doing] . . .

  22. Yes. But I wanted to bring in places and things that may not have been mentioned before.

  23. Where else do you see the possibility of articulating or expressing all or more layers of the "real map" in literature and performance?

  24. I've written multi-media performance pieces about Los Angeles. One was called Hannah Kusoh: An American Butoh. It was about Asian-American women: female stereotypes. There was a second, male counterpart, called Noh Bozos. It's done in a circus format; it's about Asian men in Los Angeles. It divides the City up into four quadrants, and there are Asians representing each of these sections of the City. On the westside are the westside guys. There's the Valley Asian; his vision of the city is very White; and the eastside kid is a low-rider, but they're all Asians and reflect parts of the City.

  25. Do you see any examples by other artists?

  26. Do you know the work of Sesshu Foster? He's a poet from the eastside . . .

  27. City Terrace: Field Manual . . .

  28. Yeah, City Terrace. He's taken that space on in interesting ways. And there's Luis Rodriguez's book, a memoir called Always Running. He's a poet who now lives in Chicago, and runs a press there. He talks about his growing up in Los Angeles. I was excited to see that: one of the first books with a Chicano vision of L.A. Then there's Gary Phillips, an African-American who writes detective fiction set in contemporary L.A. In performance, Luis Alfaro and Culture Clash . . .

  29. What authors, artists and/or scholars have influenced you as a writer?

  30. I think you can tell the authors that I enjoy are Latin American: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa. But I think that the principal artist who has influenced my work is probably Ronaldo, my husband. He's an architect, and he's an artist. His ideas and thoughts, and the collaboration we've had has made a large difference in what I write and what I do. Working off his stories, talking things over, his ability to change directions in mid-stream; that's been very wonderful for me.

  31. As a writer, do you differentiate between your positions as author, scholar, and teacher? Do these roles inform and contribute to each other and how does that work with respect to your own teaching?

  32. I've only become a teacher, formally, very lately. I didn't do it sooner because I needed to be selfish, and because I knew pretty much that I could be a very good teacher, and that I would like it. I knew that I couldn't do that and write. I don't think of myself so much as a teacher, but as a facilitator.

  33. There are a number of characters that come in and out of Brazil Maru, taking various teaching roles, and they also combine those teaching roles with other things that they do. Did interviews with informants for the novel inform your own teaching process?

  34. Probably what informed my own teaching process were the teachers I had. On the other hand, it probably has a lot to do with being in Brazil, and being in a place of --how do I say this--of great social comfort. What I found in Brazil were people who were comfortable with their bodies in many ways, and people who were comfortable with each other, and extremely generous with their emotional and psychological storytelling and wanting to be with other people. I'm sure that changed me a great deal. That willingness, that generosity of being with people, that ease made me comfortable in a way I'm not sure I can define . . . but it's something I want to bring to a situation. If I can get that feeling to happen again in a workshop with students, if I can get them to feel comfortable about being there, and can translate that excitement of making contact (especially for writers), even if it's only with one other person in the class: that's important.

  35. Aside from teaching creative writing classes, you've also been teaching literature courses. How have you reconciled the writer's interest in the process of writing literature (in your creative writing courses) with the scholar's interest in critical analysis and the end-product in the Asian-American literature courses you've taught?

  36. I probably teach these classes like a writer. The students know I'm not a scholar; they're very understanding about my limitations. They must notice I try very hard, that I love to talk about the literature. In the Asian American literature class, many of the authors we read are friends or writers I know personally. It's been interesting and fun to "teach" their work, to see their writing from the point of view of the student. I've been impressed with the body of work we as Asian Americans have created over the past ten years. I believe it's some of the most exciting work being written in America today. As for scholarly writing on this literature, it's been instructive for me to follow this thinking, to try to help students see the literature through such analysis.

  37. You address a series of social concerns in your work, such as disparity in wealth, and the excesses of technology. Do you feel that writers, particularly writers of color, have a responsibility to use their writing as a political platform?

  38. No. Not at all. I'm interested in that, but I don't think other people have to be interested in the same thing . . .

  39. What do you think about how that expectation does get placed upon writers--usually by scholars--and do you find a comfortable medium between these projected expectations and your own concerns?

  40. The time I have to write is really limited, so if the issues aren't important, I don't want to continue with them. I don't have time to waste writing something that might be frivolous. It stems from my work ethic. At the same time I appreciate the word on the page, how it's created, finding the grace, the crafting of it; I'm fascinated with that, as much as the content . . . you have to have a balance.

  41. Your novels, especially Brazil-Maru and Tropic of Orange place a special value on experimental and exploratory processes. This is evident in the idealistic experiment of the Esperança colony in Brazil; also in the "harmonizing" freeway community established by the homeless among the abandoned vehicles left from the freeway disaster in Tropic of Orange. The character, Emi, called it "Les Miz á la L.A." These communal experiments seem to take place outside of the capital-intensive system. Your work seems to be creating a literary space for idealistic, meta-textual social systems. Can you comment on this strategy?

  42. When I landed in Brazil to explore the Japanese immigration there, I discovered the basis for Brazil-Maru, which was a commune, and I studied their history and their system. I really wanted to know what this project could be, and I had a fascination for it. And I wanted to know that it was possible to be idealistic and to create a different system or a new way of living--indeed I wanted to see that work. I was coming out of a period in the United States when many college-educated people of my generation wanted to try that kind of experiment, to come together to divide our work, to have more leisure in doing it, and not be as concerned about capital; a social experiment of that nature. To meet with people who had tried this from the early 1920s--people who could've been my grandparents--was fascinating.

  43. Are you still exploring in that same area. . . ?

  44. On the freeway?

  45. Yes; do you think that you'll be continuing in this direction?

  46. Maybe a little, continuing to explore this idea of grassroots development, where people create these moments when they do help each other, and create structures that are harmonious . . . but living in Los Angeles is about living in cars, so that cars become our homes. I was probably more interested in the irony of making them into homes for the homeless.

  47. Brazil-Maru seems critical of the colonizing experiment, especially in light of the subsequent "failures" of leadership and financial management of Esperança, as described in the novel. Was that something you were also consciously developing? If so, what would be the significance of such a critique?

  48. As I said before, I really wanted to see that communal experiment work. This is not just a critique that these kinds of experiments fail; it is also a look at why this particular experiment becomes troubled. It's generated by the charisma and ego of one person who believes that his cup should brim over, but hasn't got a clear notion of everyone else who has to bear the burden. He embodies a romantic notion that you should live to your full extent. But how does everyone get to do that? How do you measure it? This was my way of trying to learn that balancing act between what's common sense, what's practical, who gives up for others, and how do you create a family or society in which everybody gets to realize their potential or their dreams? I don't know the answer, but I think that's the question: what is happiness?

  49. The question of human dignity is especially resonant in your work. Many of your characters strive for that with varied degrees of success. How important is this issue to you as a writer, and having this as your subject matter?

  50. It's about character. And in all of these cases, what I want for the characters is complexity. Despite Kantaro's negative character and his arrogance, I really like him. I know there have been people who, when they read the book and get to Kantaro, just stop reading... In fact, I don't feel that way about him. There's a level at which I really appreciate what he did. And I'm trying to figure out why I was attracted to that sort of character. And it is about his dignity. It is about his humanity despite his failures. So I think that is a project of the book. It is about the dignity of the characters.

  51. In Tropic of Orange, Emi has dignity as well, despite her sometimes abrasive character.

  52. One of the things I wanted to do was to create an Asian woman who is "off the chart": she's bad. She's also a mouthpiece for the book. If there's anything to be said that's a cliché, she twists it, or she denies it. She's the rebel of the book, and she's also my mouthpiece for saying things that normally should not be said. She's the one who says that "multi-culturalism" is bullshit . . .

  53. . . . because of the socio-economic conditions which belie the true disparity in affluence and political control?

  54. Right. The way multiculturalism is sold in the form of "United Colors of Benetton" or "We are the World" Coca-Cola.

  55. Emi is sort of a trickster . . .

  56. Yeah, she's the trickster of the book, and it's also to complicate the idea of the Asian woman: to give her a strong voice, and make her powerful, even bitchy, and proud of it. I like her. She lives in this very executive, social, superficial world. Her vision is filmic, always. In her last scene, she sees her death as this incredible film. I kept stuffing that last chapter. Many of the people who read the book early on didn't want her to die; even the publisher asked if I could resurrect her. But to me the best scene about her in the book is this long death scene. I kept going back to that scene and adding more (laughter) . . . so that Emi orchestrates her long death, which takes pages and pages. She gets to say all these things about film, noir, her boyfriend, and Los Angeles.

  57. It just seemed that, somehow, she would surely get resurrected . . .

  58. But she is resurrected, because she imagines. There's this image of TV recording her death. Hers is the shot that calls out again and again; her death is seen over and over . . . she doesn't die . . . she knows it (laughing).

  59. You have the option to write about the micro-effects of transnational economics in an empirical and realistic manner, but your decision to address these issues creatively in the "fantastic" propels them into a different realm. Do you see the fantastic addressing concerns that realism can't?

  60. When I got to Brazil, I started by doing oral histories of Japanese women who immigrated from 1908 to 1920. So, you can imagine: in Brazil during these first few months, going from house to house, talking to elderly women, asking them about their lives, and putting them on tape. At some point, always, in the middle of these things, the tea would come out or the coffee, and someone--usually the husband or brother--was waiting in the house somewhere. He would slip in to have coffee too, and would start to tell his story. And I would think--"God! I'm doing oral histories of women from 1908 to 1920, and what is he doing here? Should I turn the tape recorder off? Should I leave it on?" But then, I realized that women did different work, and I needed to know the work that men did. He could tell me things that she could not tell me. He could tell me how much they paid for the land, when they moved, why they moved, what was the structure of the community at the time, and what were the politics. At some point I became frustrated and wondered why I was doing this at all. I decided to take my project into the rural interior and take a look at Japanese farming.

    I got letters of introduction to work on two Japanese Brazilian communes. So, I get to one of these communes, and meet the head of the commune, and he asks, "well, what do you do?" I start to say, I'm studying the oral history of Japanese women . . . but I bit my tongue and thought, if I say that, he'll put me in the kitchen, and I'll never see anything else. So I said, "I write." I just lied. And he said, "well, what do you write?" And I had written a story for Amerasia Journal. I figured it was about fifty pages, so I said "it's fifty pages." And he said, "Oh, you write a lot! Come with me!" (laughter). So for the next five days, day and night, I had all my meals with him, and all the rest of the day I sat there, and talked to and interviewed him, and took notes. He said, "Write this down; this is my life." I was thinking, this is really fascinating . . . what am I going to do with this? He kept telling me stories. At the end of five days, I left that commune, and went to the second commune where they asked me, "What have you been doing?" I said, "Well, I met so and so, and he told me this really interesting story." And they said: "All lies!"(laughter). And that was it; that changed the course of everything that I did there. And I began to follow that story. We're really far away from [the original question]. (Laughs).

  61. But in a way, we're not . . .

  62. Yes: "all lies!" From that point on, I began to look at my project in a very different way. I thought, "OK, if I were an anthropologist or an historian, I would have to read Japanese, and my Japanese would have to be more than just conversational; I would really need to know when people weren't telling the truth. And because people were using a language that I was deficient in, they could control whatever they were telling me. I was very aware of that. That's why I turned to the novel.

    The other thing is, unlike a project in which I would focus on one area of these communes, one history, one story, one anthropological theme or idea, I began to see an entire world. I began to see subjects that really interested me: ideas of social systems, use of land, environment, philosophical questions; all of those things came into play. I began to know who these people were in a very different way. If I were to do something more academic, or a sociological study, I would have to prove everything. And I could not do that. But I knew that what I was thinking about was important enough to get down. How could I do this? It had to be fiction. I could create complex characters out of the many people that I met, and their oral histories--and their story could be as embellished as they wanted.

  63. Your novels contain migrating characters and, in many instances, these characters are searching for a home and/or community, for example in the founding of Japanese agricultural colonies in your novel, Brazil Maru. However, in Tropic of Orange, the landscape itself moves, distorting the geo-political grid that defines the region. How does the trope of mapping allow you to explore the reality and the romance of transnational mobility?

  64. In Tropic of Orange, I used the metaphor of the land moving, but actually it's the humans who have moved. The geography has changed because humans have created this transition. I suppose it's fantastic and more radical to talk about the land moving, in terms of the artistic or visual effects of the book. But the real message is that people are moving. And that has changed the landscape entirely, because they've taken their culture and their landscape with them. I really have been aware of this because of the fact that I've moved so many times (for example, when Ronaldo immigrated, and I migrated back to Los Angeles). That's probably why I wrote this book; it was so striking to me that this change in Los Angeles had occurred, and that we were a part of that change. It was a way of documenting it, as well.

    One thing about Tropic of Orange: I've been working on Tropic since 1991. But I really never understood some things about the book, in scholarly or academic terms, that I now understand. I remember talking to graduate students after I did an interview with them: There were words I began to hear that I had never heard before, or I didn't understand in what context they were being made--words like "postmodern," "colonial," "frontier," "borders." Soon after, I moved to Japan for six months and I had a long conversation with my sponsor, in which many of these ideas surfaced, and I thought, "Oh, so that's what it is." And yet, in 1991, when I began this project about Los Angeles, about the movement of the Tropic of Cancer into Los Angeles, and was trying to articulate it on the page in a very experimental, non-conventional way (which I insisted on doing), it could not be published in any other venue except a small press like Coffee House. They were the only press who would accept that project. Any other conventional press found it too experimental and didn't want the politics. They wanted me to cut out sections of this book. I've finally come to some understanding about what the project may mean to others and why indeed it is of interest. It's an interesting thing to come to this point: to talk about the book in this way, in an academic setting, and know that in 1991, if you had said I was doing a "postmodern project," I'd have thought, "What the hell is that?" I've since had to think about it in more critical terms.

  65. And hearing about how scholars have used your book, do you feel that it's taking it in directions that are interesting to you, or do you think they may be misreading it at times?

  66. No, I'm fascinated by it. Because, in fact it was always a project for me to begin to understand something. I'm really fascinated that it could generate so much thinking. It's my disclaimer as a writer. I've always been interested in ideas. This has been my way of coming to terms with ideas--hunting and gathering, and then trying to develop this project, my process of fiction.

  67. Through the Arc of the Rain Forest and Tropic of Orange both represent the news media as forms of economic, psychological, and even spiritual control. Could you discuss your decision to address how the news media operates in both texts--in Through the Arc as the medium by which religious and economic forces are changed in Brazil, and in Tropic with the homeless takeover of the news camera satellite hookup on the Harbor freeway in Los Angeles?

  68. In Brazil, it's a reality. The use of the media to control people as religious or as political medium is tremendous and pervasive. For example, there's a religious leader, Davíd Miranda, who can attract hundreds of thousands of people into a stadium. Miranda works his miracles over the radio. Some woman might be on, saying that she had been cured over the radio: she had put a glass of water next to the radio while Miranda prayed. She drank the water, and had been cured. In Brazil, radio is a powerful medium of communication, and I wanted to use that. There are basic technologies in the book: the radio, the carrier pigeons. And, as the homeless control the spread of information in Tropic of Orange, it is also grassroots. But still, Emi's there with the satellite-broadcasting truck, so all of this is also seen through her vision of the media, marketability, commercial time, and cut-tos. Even though Buzzworm and the homeless control the nature of the material that goes out on the air, eventually they're co-opted; it isn't a nice message. Even if the possibility exists for people to have control over the media, they are also controlled by it.

  69. Do you feel that those novels function as a critique of that media control? In Through the Arc, for instance?

  70. Yes, I'm critiquing the media and the control it has over our lives, not only obviously in its sifting of the information we receive, but in the way we project its vision of reality on everything else. There is also the creative energy of the project that grows and thrives and captures the imagination of many more people. For example, in Through the Arc, Chico Paco mobilizes this energy to become a kind of media mogul, but his understanding of his success is blind and without complexity in the same way the media has made us blind and un-complex. Chico Paco is a sympathetic character, but he's also innocent. In a sense, all the characters are innocent. Their innocence is a good thing--but it's also not a good thing. Indeed, their innocence is what forces them to stumble on to their own destruction. It's like the myth of the forest, which is both beautiful and innocent. It attracts its own destruction.

  71. In "Re-viewing Asian American Literary Studies," King-Kok Cheung notes that Through the Arc of the Rain Forest has been "elided in both ethnic studies and multicultural studies" because it doesn't "dwell on being Asian or Asian American" (19). What does such an elision say about what constitutes "Asian American" literature?

  72. I don't necessarily think of Through the Arc as an Asian-American book, although I'm an Asian-American writer, and I don't have a problem with that. I think, though, that Asian-American literature is changing. It has to be more inclusive because the geography is changing, the map is changing. People are moving very quickly and over a shorter period of time, because of the globalization of the Pacific Rim economies. So, I'm sure that Asian-American studies is going to be more inclusive, and it's going to require more facility with languages--to address the Asian diaspora in the Americas. In order to study this thing, whether or not we call it Asian-American--means that we're going to have to know a lot more about it than just talking about the United States. For instance, the year that Through the Arc came out, Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters came out. It's situated in the Philippines, but it's an imagined Philippines.

  73. In what way do you mean that Hagedorn's Philippines is "imagined?"

  74. In the way that Salman Rushdie addresses "imaginary homelands" in one of his excellent essays. This is not my idea; it's Jessica's. I heard her reread his essay while inserting Manila for Bombay. I believe this is a wonderful way to see her work, to understand the revision of our homelands through our immigrant memories and imaginations. And I don't think people understood what she was trying to do at that point. I think that, now, people have more to say about it.

    Scholars like King-Kok have graciously used my book, Arc, in Asian-American literature classes to contest this question of what is Asian-America. And that's rather exciting. Although, the book that I think is Asian-American is Brazil-Maru. Whether it's situated in Brazil or not, it is Asian-American in an interesting way.

  75. Do you see Brazil-Maru as Asian-American primarily because the story of the Japanese in Brazil is inextricably tied to the Japanese in America?

  76. Brazil-Maru came out when Redress, for the Japanese who had been interned in the concentration camps, became an issue in the United States. The fact that the novel talks about Japanese in Brazil who believed that Japan had won the War--or who fought among themselves over that rumor--is problematic for the whole project of Redress in North America. So I think there are obvious connections to the Asian American community.

  77. How have critical responses such as the one Cheung articulates affected the publishing and marketing of your books?

  78. I don't see the numbers. But I do think that Asian-American studies keeps all of us alive as writers.

  79. Bobby's multi-ethnic identity seems representative of the proliferations of cultural identity that Tropic of Orange explores. How do you see your work addressing a pan-cultural agenda, especially in light of Tropic's own interest in the U.S. Mexico border?

  80. That's been my interest from the moment I "stepped across" and entered Brazil. I can't seem to get away from it. I thought that Brazil-Maru was a finished book, that I had met my responsibility to that story, and to the hundreds of people that I'd intereviewed to produce that book. But at about the time that we migrated to L.A., there was a large migration of Japanese-Brazilians who went to Japan to work. Now, some 200,000 Brazilians live in Japan, living in "Braziltowns," and their presence has made a difference. Now Japan is experiencing the turmoil of immigration, as in California, and all the same symptoms--the backlash, prejudice against these people and violence. In 1990, the Japanese changed the immigration laws so that foreign descendents could immigrate to Japan with unskilled work visas. So if you are second generation, or nisei, you can get a work visa for three years; if you're a sansei you can get it for one year. Japanese business and factories needed workers, but they didn't necessarily want the workers they were getting from the Philippines, Pakistan, and India. They thought it would be more homogenous for the society if foreign workers were Japanese descendents. Already at that time, there were Japanese nationals with Japanese passports, who were raised in Brazil, post-war, and who were returning to Japan to work. Because of the severe economic difficulties, Brazil has been unable to provide work for professionals and people coming out of universities. Japan has received this brain drain, this influx of Brazilian workers and laborers who are either Japanese descendents, second generation and third generation, or Brazilians married to Japanese descendents. They send their earnings back to Brazil to support families there. A similar situation exists between Central America, Mexico and the United States. Or between the Philippines and the United States, or again South Korea and the United States.

  81. Can you comment upon the critical receptions you've received internationally?

  82. Well, actually it's really only been translated into Japanese. There was a translation in Dutch, but I don't think it was published. There's currently a Portuguese translation of Brazil-Maru, but I don't think it's published yet. That's one that I'll be very curious about. I'd like to see Brazil-Maru's reception in Brazil, especially at this time of movement between Japan and Brazil. The year that Through the Arc came out in Japanese, Ronaldo and I were in Japan, and I was interviewed by several reporters there. I was really impressed by the sophistication of their questions; I've never had those kinds of discussions about that book here in this country; I guess it has to do with Japan as a place where publication and translation of foreign works is extensive. It's incredible the amount of material that is published and translated in Japan. I was really amazed that they have that kind of extensive literary vision. By comparison, what do we translate from Japan? Banana Yoshimoto. And yet, I'm told they are producing some very interesting ethnic writers whom we never hear about.

    It is interesting to see, how, by comparison, the United States is very provincial. Through the Arc, for example, is understood as an environmental message. The book was marketed the year Chico Mendes was killed. There were other books out about the Amazon and the destruction of the environment. It was difficult to get American readers to read beyond this theme. The Japanese read it in more interesting terms.

  83. What did they find most interesting about the book?

  84. They were able to talk about the role of technology in the book, corporate culpability, about magic realism, and to relate the work to other writers. They also talked about their own travels around the world.

  85. Why do you think that Americans tended to focus on the ecological crisis?

  86. It was the thing of the moment. When Through the Arc came out, I was really afraid to go into a bookstore and not know about the Amazon and about Chico Mendes. I would be invariably asked about it. People had expectations about the subject matter because of the title. At the same time, one of the ways for me to get people "into" the book was to talk about the land and environment.

  87. Do you think that American audiences tend to be parochial?

  88. Yes.

  89. In Border Matters, Jose Saldivar invites his readers to "redraw the borders between folklore and the counter discourses of marginality, between 'everyday' culture and 'high' culture, and between 'people with culture,' and people between culture." Do you see your work in dialogue with this project?

  90. I think that those things have been redrawn anyway. There are now 200,000 Japanese-Brazilians who are in Japan. They're Brazilians, but they are of Japanese descent. Or least, they are there because of their relationship to Japan. Every summer, in the town called Oizumi there is a matsuri or festival. Oizumi has thousands of Brazilians living and working in the factories in the outlying districts of the community. They participate in their own festival called "samba matsuri," reenacting carnavál, with all the slinky dressware, and feathers, drums, music and songs. They have escolas de samba. Japanese from all over the country flock to the place to see this Brazilian samba matsuri, gawking at women wearing the skimpy clothes, and doing the samba. You hear the Brazilians in the crowd yelling at the dancers in Portuguese. They are saying things like, "Get rid of the breaks!" Meaning, "You can't dance! When are you going to really samba! When are those hips going to really move!" The Japanese-Brazilians are supposed to reproduce a stereotype of Brazilian culture in Japan--do you see what the complication is? It's a stereotype they have adopted as their culture, which they reproduce to show difference, or that they are unique. But in fact, this is not something that they would be doing in Brazil in August. In August, rural Japanese communities in Brazil are doing the matsuri, dancing all of the traditional Japanese dances. In some cases, if you go deep into the interior of Brazil, you may see performers actually singing and doing the dances in a pure form no longer performed in Japan. The high culture of these folkloric dances probably are preserved with greater authenticity in some outlying village in Brazil. And yet, nisei in Japan are caught in this confusion. It's about nostalgia; it's about a place that's neither here nor there.

  91. In her review of Tropic ("Fruit Salad"), Molly Rauch states that "[Yamashita] moves north with a vengence. The hybridized godchild of Gloria Anzaldua and Guillermo Gomez-Peña" (28). We were wondering what you thought about that sort of comparison, despite her dismissive phrasing.

  92. I'm a big fan of both Anzaldua and Gomez-Peña. I'm pleased at the association.

  93. Are you working on another novel?

  94. I'll probably try to do a series of short stories. And those will be based on Japan, where I lived last year, and on the Brazilian workers there. I decided that it's not a novel, because that migration is too new. As far as I'm concerned, in a novel the issues should be big, and should merit a novel. There are too many scattered issues here. I think that short stories can address those issues better than a novel. The next novel I want to write is about the Asian-American movement. Then, there's a bigger project that should get me to China.

Works Cited

Cheung, King-Kok. An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Foster, Sesshu. City Terrace: Field Manual. New York: Kaya Production, 1996.

Hagedorn, Jessica. Dogeaters. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Murashige, Kenneth. "Karen Tei Yamashita: An Interview." Amerasia Journal 20:3 (1994):49-59.

Rauch, Molly E. "Fruit Salad." The Nation (2 March, 1998): 28-30.

Rodriguez, Luis. Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone, 1993.

Saldivar, José David. Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies. Berkeley, Los Angeles: U California P, 1997.

Yamashita, Karen Tei. Brazil Maru. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 1992.

---. Through the Arc of the Rain Forest. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 1990.

---. Tropic of Orange. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 1997.

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