Writing Is a Ritual: A Conversation with Karen Tei Yamashita

February 15, 2021   •   By Abbie Reese

A QUIET AMUSEMENT underscores Karen Tei Yamashita’s 2020 collection Sansei and Sensibility, a meditation on third-generation Japanese American experiences. The book’s second section, which Yamashita thinks might especially appeal to Jane Austen fans, begins with an author’s note, “The following stories were published posthumorously and are dedicated to my sister, who, due to her powers of projection, thankfully destroyed all our correspondence prior to my despondence, making conjectures about our personal lives impossible. What we did and said is none of your business.” The playful missive, a nod to Yamashita’s real-life sister, is signed, “Respectfully, J.A.” “J.A.” for Jane Austen and Japanese American. 


Yamashita, who explores cultural silences in her writing, shared in a December 2020 conversation that she began chemotherapy for breast cancer the previous January. Surprised by the communal experience, with cancer patients sharing tips and storytelling in the same room, Yamashita regrets the way the pandemic isolated patients; her chemotherapy treatment became solitary. “It’s a secret,” she says of cancer. “And I think, no. We need to talk about it because there are too many of us.” “I’m going to be fine,” she adds. “And you’re gonna have to put up with me for a long time.”


Karen Tei Yamashita will present the Stephen Minot Lecture at the 44th annual UCR Writers Week, on a panel with Allison Benis White and Nalo Hopkinson, at 8:30 p.m. PT on Tuesday, February 16, 2021. See the full schedule of free events at https://writersweek.ucr.edu/schedule.


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ABBIE REESE: Can you talk about your interest in exploring characters in public and private spaces via rituals, like the bath?


KAREN TEI YAMASHITA: That bath story is the first story I ever wrote, pretty much.


Is that the one you submitted in, like, 1975?


Yes, I was living in Brazil. I wrote it in Brazil in the first month that I was there and just on a whim I sent it to Amerasia Journal, which was a new journal at UCLA in those years. It’s a fiction about me; it’s really about myself, and then I added my sister, so, serendipitously, she’s part of the story. I was in Japan in about 1971 or 1972. I was there for about a year and a half on an exchange program from Carleton College, just learning Japanese and being there. The year following, my sister arrived, and we had about two or three weeks together. Those are some of the incidents that happened when she was there.


I was trying to think about how to talk about being a sansei and trying to become Japanese in those years, and my confusion about it. I was really young, and I didn’t realize that I was going through a kind of culture shock and a shock of identity. And the other shock had to do with being a woman and understanding what my relationship to that fact might be, especially in Japan. When you speak Japanese, the language has all of these rules that Japanese women use, but men will never use. It’s possible to find a neutral space in the language, but in order to become a Japanese or a woman, I would have to use those rules. If I kept my conversations very simple, no one would figure out after a while that I was not Japanese. I could go into a store and I could fake it. By the time I left Japan, I had bought all my clothes there. I had really short hair and kind of goggle glasses in those years, and I got contact lenses and I grew out my hair and I probably looked like a Japanese high school student because I didn’t know how to look older there. I also knew how to mimic looking like a Japanese woman or a girl, I guess.


And sounding like —


And sounding like, at least for the first five minutes! I was an actress. It was important to me to learn the language. I wanted to learn the language. But then I also had to become this character, which was not myself.


I think, with Japan, maybe what was so wonderful and surprising was this disrobing, this exposure of the body which probably I felt embarrassed about and yet it was very normal and natural. It made me remember and harken back to my childhood and my relationship to my mother, my father, and my grandmother. We probably took baths with my grandmother and this was very normal. I thought, Oh, well, this is where it all comes from. In Japan there’s an enormous amount of propriety and kind of diplomatic conversation and ways of being with each other; many things are not said or spoken. And yet I would go with my great-aunt to this public bath and she’s scrubbing my back and there was an enormous sense of relief and kindness and joy in that. Despite the fact that I had to become a Japanese woman and I felt so confined and constricted by those rules, at the same time, there is this washing of the body, I guess.


It’s such a vast range of experiences, of keeping some things internal and then the exposure — the public exposure.


Now that you’re talking about it, I guess that’s the kind of thing that I was also feeling about the stories later — the war and the internment and the shame of that. The secrecy of that event was always a part of my life. No one would talk about it, so my sister and I didn’t find out until much later in our lives. We didn’t know that my parents were in prison during the war.


Wow. It’s like this aspect of hiddenness in the American experience. Would you be able to share or would you want to share what that unveiling meant? You’ve had multiple kinds of reconfigurations of who you are, where you come from.


I guess if we were to get together — the third generation of Japanese Americans — and talk about this, I think many of us didn’t know until we were in junior high school. Because our parents, when they would meet other folks, the first thing they would say is, “What camp were you in?” And we would listen to this and we’d think, Wow, this is how they know each other. They had fun. We’re not allowed to go to camp. We should go to camp! I think this is a sansei thing. And then we found out what it was; by the time I was in high school, I knew.


Of course, this was the ’60s — civil rights, the movement, was going on. That’s the story that I tell in my 2010 book I Hotel, which everything in many ways explodes. That’s the moment at which we become Asian Americans and we begin to think about race and how that has been relevant in our lives and in our citizenship. And so many things happen. For the Asian American movement, as with the Black and Mexican and Brown and Native American movements, all of these folks begin to move together to think about how to reconstruct a vision about this country and these past hurts. For Japanese Americans — sansei — it’s a point of memory. That understanding begins a number of things — for instance, a movement for redress, the movement for Asian American studies, returning to the communities to build institutions to help or to preserve culture or to preserve the Japantowns, from which Japanese Americans were removed and lost their homes. It’s also the same time that I go to Japan and try to be a Japanese woman.


Do you think that you took on too much at that time, looking back?


I didn’t know. What do you know? You’re just a kid. You go, Oh, we have to learn the language! But learning the language had all of these layers of necessity. At the same time, I was supposed to be becoming a feminist. I was supposed to be taking on my power, and I was also being Japanese American. And what’s this Japanese thing? Right?


If you don’t mind me asking, how did they begin to coalesce for you personally and as an author, as a writer — these disparate experiences and awarenesses?


Maybe I was always thinking about it. If you look at [the bath] story, I was writing about this a long time ago. In many ways the writing of it made me understand. I think maybe that’s what writing is for writers — to pursue a question that you really can’t answer except by working it through fiction or through storytelling, and then you begin to figure out, Oh, this is what happened. And this is why. So maybe writing itself is a ritual to understand.


You’ve said people might not understand why you were doing the Jane Austen thing. Can you talk about that, about why you wanted to do it?


My sister has for years been a Janeite. And I think we used to make fun of her. Well, we did, in fact; we have. And then at some point I realized she was really serious about it. But part of it was that she was really interested in the costuming — the period gowns and the dress, and she was recreating all of this herself on her little sewing machine. She’s not professional in any way, but she was committed to doing this. The first year, she went to the society conferences in the gowns, and every year they became more and more fabulous. I would go shopping with her — it wouldn’t matter where we were — we were in Japan and she would be buying notions to add to these gowns. Finally, I thought she hit her top mark when she started to make menswear, and she went in men’s clothing. The best thing, I thought, was this reproduction of Byron in that famous Middle Eastern or Turkish garb. I said, “What is that?” She says, “Byron. You don’t recognize Byron? It’s in the Portrait Gallery.” I was so impressed. It was really beautiful.


Every time I stayed with her, I would have to hang out and watch BBC presentations of Pride and Prejudice, or all the old movies and any new thing that came out. This was going on for years. I thought, you know, I was an English literature major! I decided one summer that I would just read all the books. I thought about our growing up and why my sister would be interested in Jane Austen at all. I mean, she’s probably one of the few Japanese Americans of our generation who participates in this. I think a lot of my friends do read Jane Austen, but they don’t participate in the societies and the clubs and all the readings. I wanted to think about why, and it brought me back to our own childhood, which may have nothing to do with why she’s enamored of it, but I began to make connections.


Would you call the stories tributes to Jane Austen?


Well, maybe they’re more tributes to my sister, but in the sense my sister thinks of herself as Jane Austen’s sister, then yes. I mean in this whole process, she would say things like, “If you don’t want your things to come to light, I’m going to burn them. If you want anything, if you want a posterity, just know I’m going to burn all your letters.”


She truly said that?


Yeah. She, like Jane Austen’s sister, was going to eradicate all the old manuscripts. Everything. So, in that way, I guess we both have sisters! I could never join the Jane Austen society; I don’t know anything. My sister will read all the critical scholarly material. She’s read all the histories of costuming and design of that period and etiquette and all of that; she knows everything. It’s rather amazing.


But I wanted to address some things that I thought were hidden in Austen’s work that have to do with slavery and all the tremendous wealth — this new wealth — and where that wealth came from. The cotton industry, and where the cotton came from. The sugar industry. The young men who were on ships and became captains. Those things are not necessarily said, but they’re understood. I was able to fool around with that, despite the fact that the Japanese American community is not as fabulously wealthy a community, and so we’re talking about folks who were very middle class and striving to change their lives.


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Abbie Reese is author of Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns (Oxford University Press) and director of the documentary film, Chosen (Custody of the Eyes). She has an MFA in visual arts from the University of Chicago and is a creative nonfiction candidate in the MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts program at the University of California, Riverside.