Oct/Nov 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Karen Tei Yamashita

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

For all readers interested in the global exchange of cultures and economics—including, especially those in Santa Cruz, Brazil, and Japan—Yamashita's body of work is a must-read. In books like Yamashita's, the future of the international village comes clearly into focus.

Karen Tei Yamashita, author of Circle K Cycles (2001), Tropic of Orange (1997), Brazil-Maru (1992), and Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990) (all Coffee House Press), is a Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She was the recipient of the American Book Award in 1990 and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Award in 1992 for Through the Arc of the Rain Forest. Her short stories have been included in several anthologies including Charlie Chan is Dead 2, At Home in the World: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction, and Multitude: Cross-Cultural Readings for Writers. Her story "Asaka-no-Miya" placed first in the James Clavell American-Japanese Short Story Contest in 1977-78. She was awarded a Rockefeller Playwright-in-Residence Fellowship in 1977 and a City of Los Angeles Cultural Grant in 1992.

Born in Oakland, California, raised in Los Angeles, and educated at Carleton College in Minnesota, she now lives in Santa Cruz, California, a place she says feels like home and describes "as a strange encounter, the crossroads of an old and continuing experiment... a place of... alternatives and mix ups, exchanges and choices, possibility and freedom."


Check it out, ése. You know the story? Yeh, over at Sanitary Supply they always tell it. This dude drives up, drives up to Sanitary. Makes a pickup like always. You know paper towels. Rags. Mop handles. Gallons of Windex. Stuff like that. Drives up in a Toyota pickup. Black shiny deal, all new, big pinche wheels. Very nice. Yeah. Asian dude. Kinda skinny. Short, yeah. But so what? Dark glasses. Cigarette in mouth. He's getting out the truck, see. In the parking lot. Big tall dude comes by with a gun. Yeah, a gun. Puts it to his head and says, GIMME THE KEYS! It's a jacker. Asian dude don't lose no time, man. No time. Not a doubt. Rams the door closed. WHAM! Just like that. Slams the door on the jacker's hand. On the jacker's gun! Smashes the gun! Smashes the hand, Gun ain't worth shit. Hand's worth even less. Jacker loses it bad. He's crying. Screaming. It's not over. Asian dude swings the door open. Attacks the jacker. Pushes him up to the wall of Sanitary and beats the shit out of him. Dude don't come up to the jacker's nose. But it don't matter. Got every trick in the books. Bruce Lee moves. Kick. VAP! WHOP! Damn. Don't mess with this man. By now Sanitary's called the police. Crowd's seen it all. Jacker's a mess. Blood everywhere. Never seen so much blood. But not a drop on the Asian. Not a drop. Never took off his shades. Never even stopped smoking.

That's Bobby.

(excerpt from Circle K Cycles, Chapter 2: "Benefits—Koreatown")


EG     There's a quote on the cover of your book: "Irreverently juggling magical realism, film noir, hip hop, and chicanismo, Karen Yamashita presents an LA where the homeless, gangsters, infant organ entrepreneurs, and Hollywood collide on a stretch of highway struck by disaster."

Would you say you are an irreverent writer?

KTY     In the context of that quote, I suppose so, since I paid no reverence to those forms (magical realism, film noir, etc.) ripped them off, parodied, and satirized the genres as useful to the narratives. Maybe writing is an irreverent business by necessity. At the same time, thinking about it, I think I'm pretty reverent about much of what I write.

EG     What are your books about in general, and specifically Tropic of Orange and Circle K Cycles?

KTY     Both Circle K Cycles and Tropic of Orange are about migration and border crossing and the consequences for those who cross and for those who find themselves in the mix.

EG     I love the atmosphere of the tropics you created in this passage from Chapter 1 of Tropic of Orange:

Rafaela Cortes spent the morning barefoot, sweeping both dead and living things from over and under the beds, from behind doors and shutters, through archways, along the veranda—sweeping them all across the deep shadows and luminous sunlight carpeting the cool tile floors. Her slender arms worked the broom industriously through the air—already thickening with tepid heat—and along the floor, her feet following, printing their moisture in dark footprints over baked clay. Every morning a small pile of assorted insects and tiny animals—moths and spiders, lizards and beetles—collected their brittle bodies tossed in waves along the floor, a cloudy hush of sand soil, cobwebs and human hair. An iguana, a crab, and a mouse. And there was the scorpion, always dead—its fragile back broken in the middle. And the snake that slithered away at the urging of her broom—probably not poisonous, but one never knew.

Tropic takes place in both in Mexico and Los Angeles. Do you think much has changed in LA since the book's publication?

KTY     It will be ten years now since the publication of Tropic, and even as it was being published, things were changing, the most obvious being technology, in particular cell phone and Internet/computer use, and of course, the styles of cars. In the human geography of the city, there seem to have been subtle and even intense changes in the cultures/ethnicity/class of neighborhoods that I don't really know about but suspect.

It's been suggested that the book could be updated, but I don't have any urge to read through it to find those sections.

On the surface, LA seems much the same, though in areas grimier and more congested during more hours of the day than I remember. Also, LA's imagination of itself seems to be changing; I had written the book in response to a very narrow vision of Los Angeles as Hollywood and a racially divided city between blacks and whites, but maybe the current response to the book is precisely this changing recognition of LA as Latino and a crossroads for global migrations.

EG     A book is set in a particular time and place. Why would anyone ask you to update this book or any book?

KTY     Good point!

EG     What do you think LA represents to people?

KTY     Hmmm. I guess the book itself is my trying to figure out that very question, but that question asked of folks who have not in the past been necessarily represented in the literature about LA: Latin American and Asian immigrants, African Americans, and homeless. I guess what in part I try to say is that the city is a layered geography traversed and negotiated every day differently by different people, and those layers may merge or be distinct yet also represent the city. The city is nothing without its people, and every new group of immigrants appropriates the given structures and infrastructures to take ownership of a new home. The city is thus forever changing, but it is home, and this also means that home is also not fixed but changing.

EG     I felt that changing of the city and the characters in the novel. Everything in the story and everyone was moving quickly and in search of something or someone. The visual had an aural aspect. It was like a translation into music of the sights and sounds of the LA freeway and the town in Mexico near the Tropic of Cancer. The idea of Manazar conducting the sounds of the movement from a bridge overlooking the freeway added to the high piercing frenetic energy of the story, as did the language of characters like Bobby.

Bobby is "Chinese from Singapore with a Vietnamese name speaking like a Mexican living in Koreatown."

Did you think about the pace of the story, or did it happen without your direction? It felt like you must be some kind of receptor of every frequency there is in multicultural Los Angeles. Do you speak many languages?

KTY     It's a compliment that you could "hear" the music in the writing. I worked a great deal at creating narrative voices that might capture this rhythmic sound sensibility. As you might see in the table of hypercontexts, the movement of the days/chapters was very carefully plotted out. Everything had to happen in seven days. I also speak Portuguese and some Japanese, and maybe it has to do with having to physically reproduce the cultural attitudes that accompany any language that makes me a bit of mimic. I also wrote for the theater. Paying attention to syntax and speech patterns is maybe something I've absorbed over time.

EG     What fascinated me about the story was the idea of the Tropic of Cancer being moved to LA. Are you a fan of magical realism, and if so, what authors do you like? How did you come up with this idea?

KTY     I don't know if I'm a "fan," but yes, I've enjoyed Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Mario de Andrade, John Irving, Toni Morrison, Italo Calvino, Jose Saramago, Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, to name a few whose work circles the genre.

The idea belongs to my husband, Ronaldo Lopes de Oliveira, who had suggested a short story about an orange with the Tropic of Capricorn growing through it. The Tropic of Capricorn runs through São Paulo, Brazil, where we lived, and through the City of São Paulo, which, similar to LA, is a techno-industrial mega-metropolis of migrating people. Since we were living in LA, I asked if I could move the orange to the northern hemisphere and then discovered that the Tropic of Cancer runs through Mazatlán in Mexico.

EG     As the tropic was dragged north, space and shape altered as did the climate. This elasticity of landscape was what made the book breathe for me. Nothing is permanent, even the earth. In a time of global warming, your story is even more relevant. Did you intend to express a concern over the vulnerability of the earth as well as human social structure in the book?

KTY     The book previous to Tropic is Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, which engages environmental issues, so this has been an ongoing concern, although probably not the center of my attention in writing Tropic. And I had to study what the tropics really are, how the tilt of the earth in relation to the sun creates our seasons and weather patterns.

EG     Tropic of Orange has seven main characters: Rafaela Cortes, Bobby Ngu, Emi, Buzzworm, Manzanar Murakami, Gabriel Balboa, and Arcangel. Manzanar is a former surgeon who stands on a highway overpass directing the music of the city's motions. Buzzworm is a black man who helps Chicano reporter Gabriel to get stories for his paper. Manzanar and Buzzworm are favorite characters of mine. Here is an excerpt about Manzanar:

Manzanar Murakami had become a fixture on the freeway overpass much like a mural or traffic information sign or a tagger's mark. He was there everyday, sometimes even when it rained, but it rarely rained. After all, this was LA... The Japanese American Community had apologized profusely for this blight on their image as the Model Minority. They had attempted time after time to remove him from the overpass, from his eccentric activities, to no avail. They had even tried to placate him with a small lacquer bridge in the Japanese gardens in Little Tokyo. But Manzanar was destined for greater vistas. He could not confine his musical talents to the silky flow of koi in a pond, the constant tap of bamboo on rock or manicured bonsai.

Were Manzanar and Buzzworm's characters based on anyone from real life?

KTY     No, Manzanar and Buzzworm are entirely fictional. Buzzworm was in some sense purposely based on a stereotype that I pulled apart and tweaked into existence. A friend of mine claims to be Manzanar, but of course he's not, but he's close, so we figure I didn't get it too wrong.

EG     Emi, the Japanese-American weatherwoman, was another character that interested me. She seemed to have no connection to her heritage. She was totally immersed in the media culture. Would you say this is true and common for children of Japanese Americas?

KTY     I think Emi does have a connection to her Asian-American family, although it's not foregrounded and may seem incidental or nonexistent to you. It's there, but of course she isn't romantic about heritage in the way Gabriel is. No one should think Emi represents Japanese Americans who are both dispersed across the nation and varied in their connections to community and heritage. I, for example, am very connected to my family and community.

EG     There were no white people in the story as main characters. What happened to the white people from LA in the story?

KTY     Ha ha. Someone asked that in an initial reading of the book, and I said, they're all around; they're just not main characters. Isn't this the way people of color are treated in the media? We're just incidental characters or background material, and we're usually stereotyped and get killed off before the end. I wanted to turn those tables.

EG     And you did. Did anyone accuse you of racial stereotyping the characters in the book?

KTY     No, but they could because I freely admit that that's where they were born. They all started as "types," even as caricatures, in the same way the media represents us.

EG     Each of the seven main characters whose lives were transformed in the story lived in LA or were led back to LA from Mexico to the freeway for the final scene. Not an easy feat. How did you keep track of each character's journey?

KTY     As I said, the hypercontext at the beginning of the book was a spreadsheet that I initially used to map out the book. There were seven characters and seven days. Each character had to be recognizable by a narrative voice, and the story arc was that the orange had to travel from Mazatlán and end in LA That was the plan.

EG     Archangel, the performance poet who dragged a truck and bus from Mexico to LA, was a powerful and mythical character. He was the catalyst for the contaminated orange from the tree in the garden in Mexico coming to LA. I read several reviews of the book and realized I was not aware of the references to other books in the story. Is your story a symbolic tale, or do you think your story stands whole as a "magical realism, film noir, hop hop, chicanismo story" without a reader grasping the underlying message? Is there an underlying message?

KTY     I hope that the book can be read on several levels. Every reader takes away a different read, a different book. As for underlying messages and symbolism, some of that is implanted purposely, but much in writing just seeps in, and the author who tries to control the material in the end gives in to unconscious representations and the imagination of others. I often say that if the writer really knew what the book was about, he/she wouldn't bother to write it, that it's a process of discovery.

EG     In the Prologue to Cycle K Cycles you write that you went to Japan during the early seventies to research your family history and could trace it back 14 generations. It seems assimilation and integration and keeping true to one's original essence are topics that interest you being from a "pure" Japanese heritage. Is this true, and what is "pure" Japanese?

KTY     I guess the point I was trying to make is that there is no such thing as "pure" Japanese, not in Japan or outside. For purposes of conversation among Japanese, it simply refers to a bloodline that is entirely Japanese and untainted by other, non-Japanese people. In this respect, I happen to be by bloodline entirely purely Japanese, but what difference does that make? And what does Japanese DNA look like? The idea of expecting purity is simply racist. Raised in the U.S. and having lived in Brazil and absorbing languages and cultures and other histories, I've become, well, me.

EG     In Circle K Cycles the immigration of Brazilians who immigrated to Brazil from Japan for work and then returned to Japan for temporary work, during a Brazilian economic slump, is the topic. Included in the series of short stories are your personal writings on balancing the very different Japanese customs with the Brazilian ones. Can you give an example of how a Japanese custom came in conflict with Brazilian customs and or vice versa?

KTY     There's a chapter in Circle K Cycles entitled, "Rules," where I explore these differences and encounters between Japan and Brazil. In one section, I tell a story about "touching," how Brazilians expect to touch, to kiss, and to embrace. However, one Japanese man decides that should allow him to embrace a woman to feel her breasts. Well, there's more going on here, but she beats him up with a metal pipe. This is during work in a factory. The thing I don't tell in this story is that this Brazilian woman felt great remorse for her actions because she put the Japanese man in the hospital with serious injuries. Every day, during her lunch hour, she went to the hospital to feed this man his food. I think violence, tenderness, and sexual attraction as expressed and repressed in the two societies get pretty confusing between the two cultures. Brazilians are supposed to be sexually explicit and Japanese implicit, but these are stereotypes assumed or performed.

EG     Are you working on any writing projects?

KTY     I've been working on a new novel about the Asian-American movement based in the San Francisco Bay Area around the International Hotel, more popularly known as the I-Hotel. During the 1970s, it was the center of Asian-American political and community activism, as the hotel was slated for the eviction of the tenants and demolition for redevelopment. Activists fought off the eviction for a period of ten years, creating in the meantime radical political collectives, community health centers, oral history projects, art, theatre, and film production, and formalizing Asian American Studies in the academy. There was in this community from about 1968 to 1977, I believe, a very vibrant kind of renaissance of political and artistic thinking and activity.

EG     Thank you for answering my questions.

KTY     Thanks for asking!


Excerpts from Tropic of Orange reproduced with permission from Coffee House Press.


Through the Arc of the Rain Forest
Coffee House Press (September 1990)
ISBN-10: 091827382X
ISBN-13: 978-0918273826
192 pages

Coffee House Press (September 1993)
ISBN-10: 1566890160
ISBN-13: 978-1566890168
332 pages

Tropic of Orange
Coffee House Press (September 1997)
ISBN-10: 1566890640
ISBN-13: 978-1566890649
275 pages

Circle K Cycles
Coffee House Press; 1 edition (April 1, 2001)
ISBN-10: 1566891086
ISBN-13: 978-1566891080
220 pages


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