When pursuing love means crossing color lines and breaking sexual and gender hierarchies

QUEER COMPULSIONS: RACE, NATIONS, AND SEXUALITY IN THE AFFAIRS OF YONE NOGUCHI

QUEER COMPULSIONS: RACE, NATIONS, AND SEXUALITY IN THE AFFAIRS OF YONE NOGUCHI
By Amy Sueyoshi (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2012, 248 pp., $40, cloth)

Amy Sueyoshi, an associate professor at San Francisco State University, has produced an important and timely study of racial, class, sexual and gender hierarchies at the turn of the 20th century in America through illuminating the life of Yone Noguchi (the father of the more famous sculptor, Isamu Noguchi). As the courts, nation, and no doubt Asian American communities are deeply embroiled over the issue of same-sex marriage, history might be useful in providing the all-important context for this conversation to take place.

For Asian Americans, it might be useful to recall a time when they were denied the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” in California (until 1948) and nationally (until 1967) through various anti-miscegenation laws; just as odious, was the Cable Act (which stripped citizenship from any woman marrying an “alien ineligible” to citizenship — a code for male Asian immigrant).

Beyond the legal barriers, “Queer Compulsions” begins to shed light and uncover another aspect of the “buried past.” Sueyoshi uses both English and Japanese sources, and more than 800 correspondences between Yone Noguchi and Charles Stoddard (poet, novelist, and co-editor of the Overland Monthly, among other things). Their correspondences go beyond conjecture and innuendos about the romantic and erotic nature of their relationship. Moreover, what makes Noguchi’s sexuality even more complicated is that during this time of legal barriers and social taboos concerning crossing the “color line,” he manages to impregnate writer Leonie Gilmour and proposed marriage to journalist Ethel Armes, and ultimately he returns to Japan to marry and live a “normal and respectable” life.

Sueyoshi is not so much interested in “outing” or labeling Noguchi’s sexual orientation, but rather demonstrates the intricacies of racial, sexual, and gender hierarchies in American society as they play out in his life. Noguchi realizes early on that his racial and cultural differences will relegate him, even among the elite “bohemian” society of San Francisco, as a perpetual foreigner — the “other.”

Noguchi realizes that he cannot escape being an object of entertainment and viewed through the gaze of orientalism at the turn of the 20th century. More importantly, Sueyoshi, in recovering the “buried past” of one Issei man, explores the distinct possibility that other “penniless bachelor” Issei may have found alternative ways to navigate their sexual orientation and desires in America.

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