Homage as Provocation: Karen Tei Yamashita’s Sansei and Sensibility

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What happens when an author transposes an iconic plot into a new cultural setting? In works as varied as Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young (based on King Lear), Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (based on the Faust legend), Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (which draws from Mrs. Dalloway), and others on a list that could continue into the thousands, an implicit compliment rings clear. The new project assumes that the original story touches on dramas so quintessential that a shift of time and place is possible. The source text is broadly applicable. And a bridge forms—thanks to the presumed universality of certain feelings and experiences—between the original work and the book it inspired.

At first, the Jane Austen-themed stories in Karen Tei Yamashita’s exciting new collection, Sansei and Sensibility, seem to exist within this largely congenial literary tradition. The tone is often easy and jesting. Darcy is the heartthrob captain of a high school football team, “God’s gift to sansei women,” and the main conquest of a PTA mom living vicariously through her five Japanese American daughters. Emma is Emi, “intelligent, headstrong, privileged, and cheerfully positive,” although, as Yamashita’s version hedges: “Privileged depends on what you mean, slipping past the barbed wire of wartime incarceration into the third generation could be construed as privilege.” The story “Monterey Park” gives us not “Fanny Price” but “Fanny Rice,” a half-Japanese girl trying desperately to fit in with her wealthy cousins. And Catherine of Northanger Abbey is a Goth teenager with a new driver’s license who uses her freedom to escape a restrictive family life, eventually embroiling herself in the world of a Little Tokyo café.

As Yamashita describes in the book’s Afterword, the connection she made between the “J.A.s”—Japanese Americans and Jane Austen novels—was initially coincidental (Yamashita’s sister becomes a “Janeite,” a member of a Jane Austen enthusiast subculture) and then inevitable. As she explains, speaking of her own sansei generation, who are the grandchildren of Japan-born immigrants:

You grasp for some kind of relationship, and it occurs to you that maybe you can compare this Janeite society to growing up sansei… Your parents’ generation, the nisei, were generally closed-mouthed, diffident people who had been burned big-time. Everything that should have been obvious about American society and its promises of freedom and the future was on a standby basis, depending on you. And everything the nisei passed on to sansei was unspoken innuendo about what kind of people you were supposed to grow up to be.

It is a surprising and intriguing juxtaposition that Yamashita makes: between the unspoken demands of the nisei generation, which tie back to the pain of Japanese American internment, and the strict rules of behavior that dictate the lives of every Austen protagonist. The result is that, when Yamashita’s sister becomes a “Janeite,” she is simultaneously an American harkening back to the time of the British Empire, with its sex-based hierarchies of power, and also a Japanese American woman who has, in her upbringing, answered to the nisei generation’s exacting codes of behavior. In both cases, the aim of these “rules” and “innuendos” is for the young people to secure a comfortable and economically viable place for themselves, and within a ruthless culture that does not truly value them, or forgive a step out of line.

However—and this is a big “however”—what makes Yamashita’s collection even more remarkable is that the book doesn’t stop short at a benign act of comparison. There is, in fact, a deep irony and suspicion actually laced into the very act of connecting Austen’s novels and the Japanese American immigrant experience—all of which had me going back to read these stories differently the second time through. Don’t be fooled by first impressions, in other words. This book is not aiming for homage, or even for the universalist message that often accompanies connecting experiences from one historical era to another. The tone of Sansei and Sensibility is lighthearted, yes, but under the surface is outrage against persistent racism and hierarchies of cultural influence that make evoking Austen here less an act of playful transposition and more a provocation.

“So pretend for a moment you’re American,” is the affecting ending of the story “Japanese American Gothic,” in which characters are relentlessly hounded for who they are and what choices they’ve made, and are worn down by an environment of soul-crushing prejudice. “Pretend you’re Japanese. Pretend you’re nisei. Pretend you’re kibei. Pretend you’re sansei. Pretend if you mix and shake it up enough, no one will know the difference, that even you won’t know.”

A poignant, even desperate, desire roils through the passage: the desire that, in remixing and blending cultural identifiers, the unseen character might be seen by the community, by the country, by the reader who is reading the passage. But additionally, as if on a second plane, the story itself is simultaneously engaging in its own game of make-believe. Pretend you are Austen. Enact an Austen novel. And what will happen? Perhaps long-entrenched assumptions about what is considered “universal art” or a “relatable character” can also be disrupted.

Halfway through Sansei and Sensibility, for instance, we get a timeline of major events in the J.A. sphere. But instead of Jane Austen’s life (as would preface a biography), we have a timeline of the major events for Japanese Americans. Near the end is: “2010, Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel becomes National Book Award Finalist.” Yamashita’s books, published over the last thirty years with Coffee House Press, have garnered critical praise, awards, and a devoted fan base. And yet. In order to enter the canon, it is sometimes necessary to literally write yourself in.

Occasionally, the strength of these stories can be their weakness. It is difficult to forget that together writer and reader are conducting an experiment and, as a result, for the reader to always fall fully into the world of the illusion. Part of this is the nature of the project, which condenses expansive plots into ten-page stories, but it is also due to a kind of jauntiness in the telling that summarizes, for instance, the emotionally charged coming together of Yamashita’s Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth in a flippant beat: “Moments later, Anne appeared with a spray of yellow chrysanthemum. Fred jumped up and did a twirl over the hospital linoleum. I’m just a love machine.”

But Yamashita is a highly versatile prose writer and, in other places, she makes artful pivots from humor to tragedy. Especially in the non-Austen inspired stories, which comprise the first half of the collection, there are many heartbreaking moments. In these, Yamashita brings to life the experience of first- and second-generation Japanese Americans, though here often with a historical specificity that provides a context for what comes later. One standout story, “A Gentleman’s Agreement,” describes the deal between the American and Japanese governments to bar immigrant Japanese laborers in 1907, and the resulting boom of a Japanese community in Brazil. In another story, “Indian Summer,” amid dreamlike fragments, we get the piercing experience of realizing that your home country might never love you back:

You were born into one of the few Japanese families in a small rural town in Montana… As you came of age, you and your family represented an enemy from a place you have never known. To compare the small, tight-knit fishing villages of your parents to the rugged, mountainous cowboy town of your upbringing is to imagine a folktale about two distant and exotic lands. If only it were a folktale and not a navigation through territories of hatred.

What kind of a book is Sansei and Sensibility? It is very different from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the reigning Austen-inspired fiction. But those who loved Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations—which reimagines stories by Gogol, Borges and others, and features swapped-in female protagonists—will find new delights here, as will the many admirers of Carmen Maria Machado’s experimental writing in Her Body and Other Parties. (Does Yamashita turn a colonoscopy into a live-action metaphor for colonization and the destruction of native cultures? Yes, she does.)

As in Galchen’s and Machado’s collections, too, Yamashita’s fiction simmers with a rage against conventional narratives that is endlessly compelling. “History has failed us,” begins Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko, about generations of a Korean family in Japan. The statement is, of course, vastly applicable, and signals here just how complex, pernicious and morphing instances of large-scale racial prejudice can be. The characters in Yamashita’s book, for instance, can be the progeny of one Empire and, on the other side of the world, the victims of a parallel system. The strength of this book is in its ability to allow these echoes to remain suspended and present, without ever forcing them to coalesce into a single note. As in Edward Said’s “Jane Austen and Empire” (which Yamashita mentions in her Afterword), praising here the artfulness of Mansfield Park:

A lesser work wears its historical affliction more plainly; its worldliness is plain and direct, the way a jingoistic ditty during the Mahdist uprising or the 1857 Indian Rebellion connects directly to the situation and constituency that coined it.

Yamashita’s stories—ironic, wry, playful, with bright, shimmering surfaces and undercurrents strong and political—deserve the same compliment. Historical affliction is on every page of Sansei and Sensibility. But her moves are never rigid or simple, and the dance is one you want to join.

Ariel Djanikian is the author of the novel The Office of Mercy (Viking/Penguin, 2013). Her stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Alaska Quarterly Review, West Branch, and Tin House, and her essays and book reviews can be found at the Kenyon Review Online, the Paris Review Daily, and The Millions. More from this author →