Karen Tei Yamashita’s invisible planet

Karen Tei Yamashita: Fictions of Magic and Memory

Edited By A. Robert Lee (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2018, 216 pp., $72, hard cover)

On the multi-tiered bookshelf that my father made for me decades ago, I have a weathered plain green advanced reading copy of Karen Tei Yamashita’s “Through the Arc of the Rain Forest,” her debut novel that I had received while serving as editor of The Rafu Shimpo in 1990.

At that time, I tore through the novel’s pages, captivated by one of the tale’s protagonists, Kazumasa Ishimaru, a Japanese railroad engineer who was now a transplant in Brazil. His most unusual characteristic: a talking ball that floated around his head since childhood. In some ways, the novel seemed to employ elements of magic realism, but the pages were also filled with wry commentary on American capitalism and the exploitation of Brazil’s natural resources. With the publication of Amy Tan’s bestselling novel, “Joy Luck Club,” a year before, I had never read such a book by any Asian American author at that time.

Since the publication of her first novel, Yamashita has continued to surprise and rejuggle narrative, with all eight of her full-length books being published by one outlet, Coffee House Press in Minneapolis. She has also produced original performance pieces in a number of various locations throughout the United States. A finalist for the National Book Award for her epic “I-Hotel,” Yamashita is the most notable Japanese American author to have written creative works spanning the 20th and 21st century. It’s no surprise that Yamashita’s oeuvre is the subject of one academic’s examination, Jinqi Ling’s “Across Meridians: History and Figuration in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Transnational Novels,” and more recently a collection of essays, “Karen Tei Yamashita: Fictions of Magic and Memory,” edited by A. Robert Lee.

Lee, formerly of the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, was a professor of American literature at Nihon University in Tokyo from 1996 to 2011. For his collection, he has gathered together academics from around the nation, testifying to Yamashita’s literary importance on a global level. Lee’s personal enthusiasm of Yamashita and her point of view is evident in how he has quoted from different addresses that she made on speaking engagements in Japan.

The essays are all steeped in literary analysis, probably too challenging for a casual reader seeking more of a biographical treatment. What I personally found fascinating was how contributor John Gamber contextualized Yamashita’s work, especially in “Through the Arc of the Rain Forest,” in the tradition of American Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was also unaware how much Yamashita was impacted by “Moby Dick,” so much so that she had titled one of her talks, “Call Me Ishimaru.”

Most enjoyable and actually illuminating for me was to read Yamashita’s essay, “Reimagining Traveling Bodies: Bridging the Future/Past,” a revised version of her address at the Aoyama Gakuin University Joint Research Institute for International Peace and Culture. While providing some of that autobiographical facts of her own family’s history, Yamashita also discusses the fruitlessness of genealogical and scientific research (DNA tests) in her own family’s history and lineage. Instead, she argues for “invisible cities,” “sites of experimentation, innovation, and creativity.”

“In all of this, I think contact matters, real contact between real people, even when we feel discomfort. Exchange and gestures matter. It is not only about diplomacy and good relationships or market exchanges; it is about empathy and our common humanity, our common place of living — this invisible planet.”

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