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.