Annotation: Ruth Y. Hsu’s “The Cartography of Justice and Truthful Refractions in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange” (2006)

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Hsu, Ruth Y. “The Cartography of Justice and Truthful Refractions in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange.” Transnational Asian American Literature: Sites and Transits. Eds. Shirley Geok-lin Lim, John Blair Gamber, Stephen Hong Sohn, and Gina Valentino. Philadelphia, PA: Temple UP, 2006. 75-99. Print.

Hsu begins her essay with the observation that Karen Tei Yamashita’s work in general “evoke[s] those familiar tropes or landmarks that have been staged in Asian American literature and scholarship,” while de-familiarizing them in new often global, transnational contexts (76). She asserts that the de-familiarization at work in Yamashita’s novels helps to productively distinguish Asian American immigrant experiences from those of the “quintessential American immigrant,” counteracting the reductive homogenization of notions such as the “melting pot.”

In this essay Hsu particularly focuses on the representation of Los Angeles in Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, emphasizing that the narratives presented are told from the perspective of historically marginalized, racialized characters and directly challenge the dominant white supremacist perspective of many Euro-American narratives about LA. She also explores how Yamashita “appropriat[es] and redeploy[s] hegemonic tropes of cartography and geography in ways that maps Western colonialism” (77). Hsu claims that Tropic of Orange is structured according to the “physics…of quantum theory” (78). She asserts that characters’ motivations and actions “are ultimately mapped along the key principles of chaos…and fractal theories,” where the linearity of cause and effect is broken and severed (78). Hsu suggests that it is difficult to predict or fully know the consequences of an individual character’s decisions as they “affect the world in ever-widening ripples of power and influence” (79). In this respect, she asserts that Yamashita deliberately “challenges readers’ typical understanding and…experiences of time, space, and an orderly universe” (80).

Hsu goes on to describe how colonizers have deployed cartography to impose “their own grids of reality, in both material and symbolic ways” on indigenous land and lifestyle (81). She argues that Western maps place emphasis on the superficial topographical features of a given environment, while many “non-Western thought systems” acknowledge the multiple layers beneath the surface and understand that there are different, various modes of existence not entirely bound to rationality (85). Hsu connects Western cartography to Enlightenment beliefs that the world is fundamentally knowable, which contributes to the colonizing mentality that the land can and should be quantified, controlled, mastered.

She asserts that Tropic of Orange offers a history to counteract the history of Western colonialism, calling attention to how “people of color have predated white settlers and the ways that indigenous peoples continue to play crucial roles on that continent” (87). Hsu points to one scene where Buzzworm studies a map, recognizing its colonialist legacy as an instrument of politicians, urban planners, etc to organize the city along racial and class lines, segregating the rich and the poor and effectively containing potential riots in certain areas. She asserts that beyond the concrete freeways, characters such as Buzzworm and Manzanar recognize that people are and can be connected in other ways (89). Hsu describes how Manzanar, for example, is able to see the city in layers of multiple maps that depict different temporal and spatial realities simultaneously. He sees the past and present, familiar and unfamiliar spaces converging in highly dynamic ways.

Hsu then goes on to describe the two tables of contents Yamashita offers her reader. The first is a more conventional, linear depiction of the plot that suggests the easy, traceable flow of cause and effect. The second, however, is a Hypercontext Grid which “calls up the idea, in chaos and complexity theories, of open systems, or systems not in equilibrium” (92). She accentuates how this table calls attention to the characters within the novel are “propelled by random events,” their lives converging in completely unexpected, uncontrollable ways (93).

Hsu concludes by asserting that Yamashita offers a new “model of human connectivity” based on quantum physics chaos theory (94):

Not only are we connected or related to people we do not ‘know,’ we have, in a sense always known them. Not only are we connected to so-called strangers in an ever-widening matrix of complexity that defies logical, deterministic mapping, one’s actions change perhaps the texture, or the organization, or the meaning of that matrix, at specific locations, which in turn ripple out to change the totality of this nonlinear structure. (94)

Hsu pointedly distinguishes chaos from anarchy, insisting that the characters’ lives are guided by systems of order but that the trajectory of their paths are not always easily predictable. While she never mentions globalization in her essay, I would argue that the material effects of geopolitical relations and the transnational flows of goods and peoples very much precipitate the chaos in Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange.

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Annotation: Scott Kurashige’s The Shifting Grounds of Race (2007)

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This annotation was written in reference to my paper on Nina Revoyr’s Southland, as yet, still untitled.

Kurashige, Scott. “Introduction.” The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. 1-12. Print.

In the “Introduction” of his book, Kurashige accentuates the need to examine the complex interrelations between Black and Japanese Americans that helped transform Los Angeles into a multicultural “world city” (11). He traces the historical trajectory of these two minority groups, noting that while both experienced similar forms of racial oppression before WWII, they “were subsequently thrust onto different historical paths” in the post war era (4). Kurashige contextualizes this divergence by demonstrating how white hegemonic discourses that classified Japanese and more generally all Asian Americans as the “model minority” was an “ideological construction” used to uphold the success of US liberal democracy and spur divisive antagonism between minority groups. The myth suggests that if Japanese Americans were able to attain a middle class status in the United States, then Blacks should assume responsibility for their own failure to achieve similar socio-economic success. Kurashige emphasizes that the popularization of the “model minority” narrative not only problematically obscures the lingering, haunting effects of internment on the Japanese American community but also perpetuates the erasure of those who were never able to attain upward mobility. In his “Introduction” Kurashige also attempts to expose and recover the largely overlooked” history of Black and Japanese American solidarity in the Westside, ranging from West Jefferson as early as the 1920s to postwar Crenshaw as late as the 1970s and beyond” (10). He powerfully demonstrates the deep interconnections between these two minority groups in his example of “Little Tokyo,” which after the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans, become a predominantly black community that “African American entrepreneurs and community leaders dubbed Bronzeville” (1).

Kurashige emphasizes that while many people predicted that the with the end of internment and the war, the return of Japanese Americans to Los Angeles would spark “violent turf battles,” the two groups completely astonished the public as activists from both sides began to work together to achieve “interethnic political cooperation” and stimulate more interaction between the two communities (2). Kurashige demonstrates how this cultural exchange and syncretism allowed LA to emerge as a multicultural “world city” that can boast of a “Crenshaw institution like the Holiday Bowl,” where people can order from a menu containing both African and Asian cuisine and bowl in this diverse environment (11).

In Southland, Revoyr presents the story of Jackie Ishida, a Japanese American girl, who is initially ignorant and entirely detached from her family’s past and immigrant roots. She is disturbed to see so many black faces at her grandfather’s funeral and only registers how different they are from her own. As the novel progresses, however, Jackie begins to steadily uncover the complex history she shares with members of the black LA community not only in terms of shared experiences of racism and oppression but also intimate family relations. I argue that in this this respect, Revoyr’s Southland does the same work as Kurashige’s book in tracing the connections between Black and Japanese Americans in LA and how specific historical processes compelled a “forgetting” of these ties.

Annotation: Mike Davis’ “Fortress L.A.” (1992)

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This annotation is for a paper I am currently writing for my ENGL 391W course at Queens College on Science Fiction. I will be conducting an analysis of the science fictional and magical realist elements in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange and the novel’s implications on contemporary discourses about globalization. See my prospectus here.

Davis, Mike. “Fortress L.A.” City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Print.

In “Fortress L.A.” Davis examines the “destruction of accessible public space” in Los Angeles, asserting that traditional Olmstedian views of parks and open areas as essential for social and cultural mixing have been replaced by violent efforts towards privatization (226). Analyzing various architectural structures, from libraries and malls to new bus benches, he claims that “democratic space is all but extinct” (227). Instead, what we witness in LA and other major cities is a militarization of the streets that seeks to confine racial minorities and members of the working class to dilapidated neighborhoods, thereby protecting the privileged upper classes from mingling with the “unsavory” masses of urban poor. Davis’ essay provides an important glimpse into LA’s intensely hierarchical and divided society and therefore allows me to better picture the complex cultural and political environment from which Yamashita writes Tropic of Orange. However, in addition to offering significant background information about the city, the language Davis employs throughout “Fortress L.A.” evokes science fictional imagery, which becomes most evident in headings such as “From Rentacop to Robocop” or “The L.A.P.D. as Space Police” (244, 250). In the opening to his essay, Davis even explicitly remarks that “Hollywood’s pop apocalypse and pulp science fiction have been more realistic, and politically perceptive” in portraying the violent destruction of LA’s public spaces than “contemporary urban theory” (224). This article therefore provides another important link between science fiction and “reality” that I hope to explore further in my analysis of Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange.