Karen Tei Yamashita: A Twist on the Mix

Interview with novelist Karen Tei Yamashita, Loggernaut.org (September 2005).

“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.

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