The Latitude of the Fiction Writer: A Dialogue
Karen Tei Yamashita & Ryuta Imafuku


Ryuta Imafuku:
First of all, I'd like to explain some ideas in the agenda at hand. The first is to try to discover a new map behind the old map, to see a new image of the world in a new map instead of continually looking at our old, conventional image of the world. Certain complicit ideologies like imperialism, colonialism , nationalism, and the overall principle of the nation-state underlie our concept of the old conventional map. Nowadays as well, a kind of stubborn regionalism, exclusive nativism, and narrow-minded ecology movement favorable only for the world's elite, might also underlie this conventional map. If we can see an old map as representing these interrelated ideologies, then we are in a better position to think critically and clearly about the need for a new map.

The second idea in thinking about this new geography has to do with two different consciousnesses used to describe the world: historical consciousness and spatial/geographical consciousness. As we know, our socio-cultual theory today is already precisely historicized thanks to the significant works by postmodernist thinkers and newhistoricist theorists. But now I'd like to pose a new agenda for going beyond a highly historicized concept of culture. It is very important to enter history not through time but through spatial consciousness, and it is crucial to create a new consciousness, to grasp an image of the world which is spatial or geographical. We need to renew our geography.

Your new book, Tropic of Orange, has many geographical references or connotations and a tendency to look at things through spatial or geographical symbols or references. Perhaps you can give your perspective as a fiction writer with respect to this crucial agenda to shift temporal consciousness to a spatial consciousness in order to criticize contemporary culture. For example, in the depiction of one of your characters who is conducting the L.A. freeway traffic, there are many references to maps and geography...

Karen Tei Yamashita:
The character you refer to is Manzanar Murakami who is a homeless man who stands on an overpass, over a freeway system -- that great arterial system through Los Angeles -- and conducts as one conducts an orchestra. This image came about because one day while driving, my husband saw a homeless man conducting, and I imagined that perhaps this man thought he was conducting traffic. From this image, I created the character. Actually he was a character in a musical at first, and I later transported him into the novel because I thought he could express an idea of Los Angeles as an entity in musical terms. The sound of this writing is romantic and intensely symphonic. At the same time, Manzanar conducts through geographical layers in the city that he senses in musical terms. There is this interpretation of the world, of Los Angeles, through Manzanar's musical point of view.

Your mention of geography is of interest to me. In Brazil, I met several geographers. I was curious about their work because in the United States, geography had never existed for me as a department of study for undergraduates, at least. Now I've met geographers in the United States, but I never thought about it as a field of study. If I had known, maybe I would have become a geographer. I have always had interest in anthropology, but geography crosses into many more fields of thought. The geographers I met in Brazil were working in rural areas, looking at the conditions of farmers, at rural production, the economic conditions in the area, the politics, history, the social interactions, and of course the land itself. Their approach was broad in the same way I had to be broad to see the larger picture in order to write about the people I met.

I:
There are also many border issues here. The chapter, To Dream -- America, in particular has many geographical references in depicting the city that is Los Angeles. The beginning is the movement of the latitudinal line stuck on a particular orange in Mexico. As the orange is picked and travels north across the border, the Tropic of Cancer also moves northward and finally arrives in Los Angeles to transform its fauna, flora, population, and language. Here, I think your writing touches the crucial agenda of the "latitude of culture." I think the word latitude is very interesting because latitude can mean the line you play with by making it move to see a new map or new geography. But also latitude can mean freedom or capacity which is an essential concept when we discuss culture. In this moment of transcultural situations, concepts like freedom, capacity or tolerance must be reconsidered and redefined in new terms. As we are talking today, we may circle around the idea of the "latitude" of culture, which is a geographical line but is also a concept of freedom.

Having these premises in mind, could you talk about your ideas in creating the basic structure of Tropic of Orange?

Y:
I thought when I started this project that this idea of a changing geography would be a way to demonstrate very physically the change in Los Angeles. I grew up in Los Angeles in a small and confined community of Japanese Americans located in what would be considered Central L.A. not far from the USC campus. Japanese Americans had come back after the war from concentration camps to the city, and they essentially regrouped in a small ghetto of sorts to rebuild their communities. But that ghetto was also within an African American community in Los Angeles. Much of my early experiences growing up was therefore an African American one. But at the same time, there were pockets of Japanese American communities in other parts of Los Angeles -- East L.A., or example, or West L.A. Perhaps sanseis like me growing up in these areas at the time drew from a Chicano culture or white American one. Well, that's the city I knew and grew up in.

I:
How big was East L.A. at that time? Was there already a huge Mexican community?

Y:
It's an old community. Obviously it was absorbing new immigrants and growing, but things seemed much more spread out and distant in those days. To a kid like me growing up, East L.A. seemed far away, certainly distant from my immediate reality. I knew there was also pocket of a Japanese community in an area called Boyle Heights, now claimed by the Music Center and the Department of Water and Power. I remember having a kind of fascination about the memory of this area, thinking it might have been hilly and elegant in the same way that San Francisco is. My parents were originally from the Bay area. I grew up with this comparison of the two cities: L.A. and San Francisco. I was told that San Francisco preserved its buildings but that L.A. tore down the old. L.A. was perpetually new. I left L.A., went to school in Minnesota and then lived in Brazil for 9 years. When I returned in 1984 with my family, I saw very clearly that Los Angeles had changed, that the city had become Latin.

I:
This was after ten years....

Y:
Well, I had gone off to college, so say 15 years. I saw that Los Angeles would be a much more interesting place to live. And I was clearly happy about this because I was coming from a South American country. I was excited. The statistics were all saying that by the turn of the century more than half of the city would be Latin American. Well, that change is obvious.

Los Angeles has been cited as this Pacific Rim city, and there has been a lot of talk about what it means for the Pacific Rim, not just its Latin American influence but also Asian influence referring to the Chinese, the Korean, the refugee community. The geography is definitely changing. The ethnic character of the city is becoming very mixed. But at the same time, you can see that these groups are ghettoized within the city. When the riots happened in Los Angeles, the new complexion of the city was obvious as were conflicts between ethnic groups. At least, this is the way the media portrayed it.

I:
You mean the riots of 1992...

Y:
Yes. So, this is the city I came back to.

Then of course within the arts, the idea of the multicultural experience of Los Angeles was being touted, and many were in love with the idea that we were all getting along and that we were this wonderful mix. But at the same time, California has a long history of racism against Asians and against the Mexican population coming from the south. All of this was contradictory to the sort of positivism being expressed. I was experiencing a different city, but I wasn't seeing the city being expressed artistically except by a few people in some ethnic pockets, as cultural presentations mostly. But there was very little in literature. Only slowly did you begin to see demonstrations of the city's ethnic representation in small publications as poetry and creative non-fiction. I began to think that I would like to see something written that demonstrated this change.

I:
But if you found the change of Los Angeles as a geographical change, maybe you might have thought that the change was not just a change from a temporal perspective. Maybe what you felt was something else. You found an essential structural, a drastic change in Los Angeles that was not due to time but ...

Y:
I suppose if you look back at Los Angeles and its history, you are talking about California, a Southwest that was dominated by an Indian and Mexican population. Those are the roots for what you see. Then the conquest of the West by the East, the romanticizing of the ranchero life in California, and the literature of California being the romanticizing of an idyllic place in which these two cultures get along. The spatial thing, well, becomes physical, because if you bring your family across the border and you propagate, then in time, the numbers make the difference. It has less to do with whose land it is or who owns it.

I:
Then because of your fifteen-year absence from Los Angeles . . . if you for instance kept on living in Los Angeles for fifteen years, you would experience a change in Los Angeles in terms of time. Chronologically you could feel the change, but if you were not there for 15 years, then . . .

Y:
. . . There's a kind of absence.

I:
There must be a big change in the position of Los Angeles itself; especially in your case, the hemispheric position of Los Angeles has been changed, I think. Especially having gone to Brazil and experienced what Latin America is all about, your personal positioning of Western/North American cities, or cosmopolitan cities like Los Angeles, may have been changed very drastically because of that experience. The experience of contemporary travel always causes us some sort of epistemological discovery that in turn works to change our geographical sense of the world. Travel means many things in this context. You traveled to Brazil in pursuit of an academically oriented research that was supposed to take a couple of years, but you stayed there for 9 years, gradually abandoning your original plan to depict the Japanese Brazilian community in strictly scientific language. Finally you left Brazil with "saudades" -- a native sense of loss and homesickness. This time, you had a family, and you virtually immigrated with your family to California. This is a very typical consequence of contemporary travel, or it may be the very nature of our transcultural experience itself. And that has very much to do with the appearance of a new geography in one's mind.

You used to have a reference to Allen Ginsberg in your book, but you wanted to change it at the final stage of proofreading because of Ginsberg's death. You asked me who might be a good replacement. I suggested Andrei Codrescu, and you adopted my idea. This was an interesting correction, because in doing so, you exchanged not only the poets' names, but you also replaced what Ginsberg meant before with what Codrescu means now. I think you moved from countercultural Ginsberg to transcultural Codrescu.

Ginsberg died last year, and Burroughs died just a week ago, and we are now really feeling the end of the sixties' culture and the cultural direction it created in which travel was one of the principal methods to discover/rediscover the self and the world. I was also influenced by this idea of traveling and wandering in spaces, but I think that Ginsberg's and Burroughs' deaths are symbolic of this change in the concept of moving and traveling in and around specific places, countries or regions. It is impossible to wander in the manner of the sixties in this new paradigm of the world because there are a lot more people who are inevitably moving and wandering because of some political or economic reasons that push them by force to be displaced beings. One cannot naively and voluntarily wander anymore.

Referring to Codrescu again, his hilarious movie "Road Scholar" reflects this impossibility of the beatnik wandering in the nineties by showing a more complex, multicultural, post-immigrational America through the eyes of an exiled poet. He is no longer voluntarily "on the road." Rather, his socio-political being is "on the road" from the beginning of his life. But still, as the movie tells us, when Codrescu entered the U.S. and decided to live as an "American poet writing in English, the very first person with whom Codrescu met and consulted was Allen Ginsberg! For me, this seems to be a kind of ritual of succession.

You have lived through this period of the changing concept of travel from the sixties to the nineties. This coincided with your personal travel from California to Japan and Brazil and back to California and now to Japan. How do you situate your sort of epistemological travel and your actual trans-American and trans-Pacific movement? You can relate this with your new novel if you wish.

Y:
The sixties for me were Ginsberg, yes, but Ginsberg was part of the American Beat Movement. I come from this Asian American thing, and the sixties were also for me the Yellow Power Movement along with other ethnic minority movements. I was not however a very active player in this movement, and in some ways I saw it from the sidelines and from a certain distance. Still this period had a special influence on my life. For example, coming to Japan during these years was connected to the movement's concern with ethnic identity and roots. And I went to Brazil because I wanted to study another Japanese community in another part of the world to make some sort of connection or comparison. Still, I never thought that my travels would turn into this incredible discourse. I could not from Brazil, in all the years that I lived there, make anybody back home in the U.S. really interested in what I was doing. I would write, "Don't you want an article about this group of people?" No one seemed especially interested. The Japanese American community in the United States was worried about trying to get redress for the camps. Well, for me that was important, too, and I didn't want to screw up that agenda.

As I became connected, not only to the Japanese Brazilian community, but also to a Latin or Brazilian community, many things began to change. You marry into a family that is Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish, and it has all these other consequences for you; you have to dive into this culture in a very different way. When I decided to return after 9 years in Brazil to the U.S., I became not just the wanderer anymore; I became the immigrant. I had to work and support my family in a new country.

Here in Japan, we've met a few Brazilians who are probably younger than me but who have also experienced this sort of wandering. If you ask the question: "Well, why are you here?" They'll say: "Well, we are here because this was the next place to wander to." Somehow age has caught up with them plus perhaps the fact that they have families. So their wandering has stopped. Two of our Brazilian friends traveled through Europe following the champagne harvest through France, went to live in a kibbutz in Israel, did all these wonderful things, and have finally arrived in Japan. They say, "Now we have two children. What should we do?" They have come to work here. They live in a danchi and work in factories and find themselves in a rather different situation from their youthful wandering.

At the same time, I believe there are young people within the Brazilian population here who are looking at their experience in Japan as the opportunity to save money in order to take a next step which would be to travel. There are some who work for a period of, say, nine months and then take their money and go surfing in Bali or Hawaii for three months or until their money runs out.

This is a different kind of thing than what is normally happening, that is working out contracts in factories, taking on overtime, and sending a percentage of your earnings to your family in Brazil or saving it for some dream of independence in a five year plan. It's possible that this community in Japan might be, in fact, a stepping stone. On the other hand, being a dekasegi may be a way of life.

I:
I included a famous passage from Roland Barthes' "Empire of Signs" here. It is one specific passage in which he very suddenly mentions Los Angeles even though the book deals with Tokyo, and I think it is a very interesting citation. I'll read it to you: "Quadrangular, reticulated cities (Los Angeles, for instance) are said to produce a profound uneasiness: they offend our synthetic sentiments of the City, which requires that any urban space has a center to go to, to return from, a complete site to dream of and in relation to which to advance or retreat; in a word, to invent oneself." In this passage, the City of Los Angeles is used as a foil for the normal western city structure. Also, the western city in turn serves as a foil for Tokyo since Tokyo doesn't have such a condensed city center, either. After this passage, Barthes discusses the idea of sacred emptiness or the sacred void of Tokyo, which is a kind of semiotic emptiness of the center of Tokyo symbolized by the Imperial Palace. But I don't want to discuss that idea of Barthes' "sacred emptiness," which has been already much discussed. Rather, I am interested that the book Empire of Signs is about Tokyo and is not about Tokyo. The depiction -- this is and is not Tokyo -- is very interesting because the emptiness and fragmentary nature of the City of Tokyo are described from Barthes' theoretical perspective. It is rather ironic that, in this book, it is never clear where Tokyo ends and where Roland Barthes begins. There is a description of Tokyo, but it's not a description of Tokyo; it's a description of Barthes' own writing methodology, his unique mythology. Tokyo and Roland Barthes blur into one another. So it's Tokyo, and it's not Tokyo.

Regarding Los Angeles, in your novel, I felt the same sort of blur between Yamashita and Los Angeles. Tropic of Orange is not what Los Angeles is, nor is it absolutely what Los Angeles will be in the near future. I feel a dissolution of Yamashita into Los Angeles, which makes a delusion of narrative. Finally, the city you tell about is not necessarily Los Angeles. It's somewhere else; it can be anywhere else.

Maybe during your present travel in Japan, Japan ends at such a point for you where the U.S. begins. And your textual world begins at a point somewhere in between. That might be the truth of your experience here. Let me give an example. During your stay, we have had many interesting experiences together. For instance, as you remember, when we went to Gifu to see the cormorant fishermen, there was an official cormorant fisherman whose name was Yamashita. Right? His name was Yamashita, and we watched his performance from the boat called Hyakunen-maru which literally means a "circle of 100 years". It reminded me of your ancestors' one hundred years of solitude in America, one hundred years of Japanese immigration to Brazil, and the title of you novel "Brazil Maru." But here, a Yamashita appears in Japan as an official fisherman commissioned by the Japanese Imperial household. This Yamashita bears a highly nationalistic character, a successor of a traditional lore. But another Yamashita, a daughter of sons and daughters of a displaced destiny, is watching him from the boat of one hundred years. That encounter and that fragment of a story are very symbolic and fascinating.

It is also interesting to think that in your Tropic of Orange, Los Angeles is no longer conventionally a geographical city or urban entity. It has to be something else. Japan from the beginning has been always something else for you which was never the name given to a formal nation-state. And maybe Brazil and the U.S. are the similarly fashioned for you.

Y:
Always as a stranger, you move through these places, and you find the things that are recognizable from the places that you've already been. In Brazil, the influence of Americana is very great; it's part of the middle class milieu; it's in much of the music and fashion, and for godsakes, Coca-Cola is everywhere. And in Japan, the things I can recognize are the things that I can immediately read; for example, Gap Jeans, on your T-shirt. I remember saying to you in the first couple of days that I was here that I began to feel that the Japanese language had become a kind of pidgin. For example, we walked in today, and I asked, "How do you say interview in Japanese? I was told, "in-ta-byu-" I thought, now I have to learn to speak katakana too.

I feel that one of the most interesting things for us in Japan was to have a car. We have this relationship with a car in Los Angeles; we drive everywhere, and we have this sense that we can get out and see things. But at the same time, the experience of being in the car with my family driving through Japan is often rather weird because we are speaking in Portuguese or in English, and we are encapsulated, in this car, driving through Japan. We might wake the kids up and say, "Look, look, did you see that? Did you see that?" Or my sister when she visited would yell out, "Kimono, kimono at three o'clock! Everybody look!" because you don't see kimonos anymore in Japan, and she wanted her children to see someone in a kimono. Well, my Brazilian husband Ronaldo is driving; we are all speaking English; there is a kimono at three o'clock. It's ridiculous. But those sorts of things are part of our interpretation of Japan.

At other times my inability to have a completely free exchange in the language is troubling and is very sad, but I don't know that I have all the patience. It takes a lot of patience to take on the language to live here. How much patience can I have? In part I don't care anymore, but sometimes I think I should care more about this. I should really want to be fully involved in the language so that I can fully communicate and know all the nuances.

I:
Twenty-five years ago as a student here, you tried so hard to learn the language. Maybe this time, you have another approach in which it is not essential to take on language. You are already beyond that problem when you enter a different cultural environment. You are able to find something here beyond this.

In the essay you have just written for Shincho Magazine, you begin: "After years of struggling over my relationship to Japan, it occurred to me that this struggle was over a premise that is after all faulty." Then, I'd like to ask you an essential question: Is this "Japan" a country called "Japan"? "Japan" as a nation-state? Or a more complicated, diasporic, wrecked historical process/locus called "Japan"? I think you have always been talking about the last idea of "Japan" as a wreckage. What is crucial is this wrecked ship called Japan. I see you as a scavenger discovering some brilliant things from the ruin of this wrecked ship. We can even pretend that we don't see any country called Japan existing in this world. Now you are here living temporarily in Japan, but Japan for you (and me) is something much broader, enigmatic, exiled, and historically multi-layered. You can be nobody in nowhere. And being nobody is to have the privileged position to write and to create a totally new cultural geography to understand the world.

Y:
It's a challenge to be given such a carte-blanche to write. The premise you refer to that I found faulty was to see Japan as a site of perfection which it is not. In fact, you call it a wreckage. As we migrate from here to there, who knows what we'll be able to salvage to good use? All this makes me think how it is difficult to say exactly what I've been doing here this time around in Japan.

The thing with writing is that the exercise of it is finding a way through a problem. For me as a writer, there is this period of gathering, and it is very intensive. You gather as much material as you can, and you sort of drown yourself in the subject as much as possible because you need all of the information. And then you have to step away and pull the parts out that seem to be necessary and begin to formulate a plan. I can tell you how I spent my time in Japan, but I can't exactly say much else yet. What the product will be, I'm not sure.

Also different from my visit many years ago is this Latin community that lives in Japan. I specifically have gone after the Brazilian community here to see what they have been doing. It's been an amazing seven years for that group of people. The next thing they need to do is to produce work within their community so that they can critique what is happening to themselves. I don't see anybody yet like a Guillermo Gomez-Pena who has taken on this task. Certainly the creativity and the energy and the wildness are there, but a spark is required. I imagine a performer decked out as part samurai, part Indio, sambista -- the whole spiel that is both racist and stereotypical -- questioning this identity. It is amazing to me how these stereotypes have been imposed on this community without question.

I:
It would be a strong critical discourse to play with those stereotypical images of Hispanics and Brazilians and to move around these border zones. You don't see any symptom of creative activities of cultural criticism within that community?

Y:
As with every immigrant community, the focus is on work and on establishing the community. I think that when the community has probably established itself, the next period of time will be for some kind of reflection.

I:
So the time is not yet mature...

Y:
Perhaps not, but then again, maybe it will change very quickly. I think that the kinds of people who will be immigrating will change. They are a younger group of people, but their motivations for migrating to Japan may be different than in the past. They may be people who are not that reflective about their actions. Having less education, they may be simply factory workers. It will take somebody to rise above that situation to take a look at it. I think there are some interesting points of contact between Japanese and Brazilians, and these points of contact may spark something. That kind of energy might be something that is mutual. It took three generations for Japanese Americans to have some sort of desire for a literary reflection in English, for example. Sometimes, you have to do what's practical first; put the house in order first.

I:
But still, Japanese American literature has been very realistic and taken from historic perspectives so far. It seems exceptional to see your kind of creative treatment in the midst of the dominant Japanese American realistic storytelling.

Y:
I think it takes leaving the country. That is what might make the most difference. When I left, I took that jump.

I:
This sort of discursive method or strategy is for me very important because we already have a history to describe these transcultural experiences through the realistic discourse. But we are now facing the emergence of a different type of discursive strategy which is more allusive, ironic, and even playful and carnivalesque. And that seems to me to be very powerful way to confront us with our complex socio-political situation. In this sense, I mentioned Roland Barthes' very pioneering treatment of Tokyo in which he really didn't want to describe Tokyo in a realistic sense; he wanted to create his own virtual, allegorical city in his mind.

Now I'd like to talk a little bit about Italo Calvino who is one of your favorite writers. In Calvino's Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes all the cities he has seen in his travels. Although Calvino is writing about different cities across the world through the eyes of Marco Polo, each description of the city is a sort of different version of Venice where he was originally from. Even though it seems that Marco Polo is describing the whole world, it is actually an eternal repetition. All the cities are the same city. It's a very interesting challenge to show the vision of the world in such a different way. I would call this a sort of "archipelago of cities," an urban archipelago in the world where each city can be a structural/semiotic repetition of another. So he changed the discursive horizon in how to see cities or in how to see the world itself. That is Calvino's narrative method.

In Tropic of Orange, I also see a sort of similar treatment -- actual places that can be connected with any other topological city in the world. I have always wanted to understand your narrative method or strategy as a fiction writer because you have your own unique storytelling method, especially in the case of Tropic of Orange. It's very powerful.

Y:
Different from my other books, there was here a structure before there was a book. When I started the book, the publisher asked me, "Can I see what you have?" And I said, "Well, I have it on disk." And he said, "What is it on?" I said, "It's on Lotus," and he had to laugh.

But actually the book was at first in a digested form on a spreadsheet program called Lotus. It was a big map. And from the very beginning, this was Los Angeles, well, my map of Los Angeles. It was the context of the book, how I would structure it, the vision of it, and the plan for how I would make all the characters say what they have to say. And they all had a due date, a deadline for creating their vision of the world, their vision of Los Angeles, in seven days.

I:
So that means you also had a deadline.

Y:
I had a deadline to describe so I had to figure out what would happen on every day and how everyone would see it in some way. It was like a disaster movie, where you have a big disaster and you have a cast of characters with their own little problems. You have to discover what their world becomes and how they mix and match and how it ends, how the disaster is resolved. Of course the disaster is never resolved. But then this would be a way for me to attack several things: how do we bring people into a work of literature who seem to be invisible and who have been invisible in that literature of Los Angeles for so many years? And the other thing is to also take a look at the literature of Los Angeles up to this point. What is the literature of Los Angeles and what do people think most depicts that literature? The literature of Los Angeles is essentially thought to be detective fiction. I wanted to take a look at that fiction and to see why this would reflect Los Angeles.

I also wanted to take a look at the language being created, and I wanted to show that it is changing. There is in this work the sound of a language that is perhaps African American hip-hop, the one I grew up with in fact. There is one character who is Chinese who speaks a Chicano Spanish. It's a kind of pidgin perhaps I imagine with the tones of Chinese speech. How do you depict that language on the page so that it jumps out with a particular cadence yet so that anyone can understand?

Finally there is a character who is traveling from the south to the north. He's a kind of poet Neruda, but he is also a performer. He is many things, but perhaps he is also history, well history traveling. He participates in the book as this border character whose politics and history come with him to Los Angeles. So that is my map.

One of my friends read the book early on. She commented to me, "Karen, there are no white characters in your book about Los Angeles." Well, you could also say there are no indigenous characters, South Asians, no Armenians, no Russians. Someone else gets to tell the story for a change.

I:
So, when you start writing a novel, you usually make a cognitive map first which serves as a prototypical structure of the story you are going to tell?

Y:
I thought that a structure would help me get to the novel because in writing the past two books, I have had a plan of some sort. In some ways, it is very pragmatic. But in another way, I think it was a way of looking at Los Angeles, my way of seeing things and making sure that all the pieces were there. Also I knew that writing such a book would never encompass everything. There is no way to talk about the city so entirely. If I confined my story to seven days, seven very apocalyptic days, I could say something. So you've got the geography and all the layers going this way on the spreadsheet and the slice of time going that way. That's what I got. Some of the earlier readers said that it's dissatisfying because there is no real ending to the book, but how can this book end? My thought is it does not end. It cannot end, and you can't have a satisfying novel where everything ends nicely and is tied up, people fall in love and marry. I could not do that.

I:
What is strikingly impressive in your novel is that there are all kinds of layers of the City of Los Angeles that can be seen on one specific map. So I hit on the phrase "atras de atlas" because there is always something hiding behind the atlas. You are just trying to see the different layers of Los Angeles.

Y:
There are historical layers, and then there are layers of people who are homeless, people who are very close to just the trash in the city. And then there is the layer of immigrants and illegals, and those questions.

I:
And linguistic varieties...

Y:
The babel of Los Angeles.

I:
I know many writers who use word-processing software on Windows, but no writers who write on Lotus. Isn't it a very strange thing?

Y:
Lotus is really a spreadsheet system for calculations. Maybe people now don't use Lotus. They use Excel. They are both program that add up columns with numbers and can bring up graphs and charts.

I: You wrote your first draft by using Lotus...

Y:
Yes, because I could make columns, so it was very easy. You have this column and that column, and I started to write swatches of the novel into the columns. Following this map, I knew in this chapter such and such would happen. I started to do my notes. Of course it became impossible to continue in Lotus, but this is how it started. Of course now it's not now in Lotus, don't worry.

I:
But when you sent your first draft to your editor, was it still in Lotus?

Y:
No, no, no. It was a joke. By then, I had moved on to writing chapters.

I:
It would have been more interesting if it had been in Lotus.

Y:
Well, there is also a critique within the book because one of the characters becomes gradually involved with the Internet. He is a reporter who begins to use the Internet as a resource for information and the dissemination of information. But he becomes wrapped up in the Internet in the same sense that his character is part of detective noir in the old sense of Los Angeles literature. For him, the ultimate noir becomes the Internet. It's black and white, and he's there constantly, at all hours, at three in the morning, in very dim light, working on the whole thread of intrigue and paranoia, all of those things that Los Angeles noir is about. And he is putting all his information into the Net.

I call the map for my book's structure "hypercontext" because hypertext has become this sort of thing where people can take material out of context over the Internet, pull it out and read it, then change to the next window and see something else and, as they like, move on to the next subject. That's a new geography created within a space the size of a computer screen and in a room at a desk. It's a visual world that I think can be very wide but also can be very limited. So it is also part of the map of Los Angeles.

I:
So the reason you started with this hypercontext for your map is because you dealt with Los Angeles, or is there any other specific reason?

Y:
Because I dealt with Los Angeles. Because I was using a computer!

I:
Because you had a computer in your Los Angeles office!

Y:
Listen, you know all these years that I have been in Los Angeles, I worked as a secretary at a desk and had access to word processing programs. I also had to use Lotus and Excel to create reports. I became familiar with all of this and also used it as a tool for my own writing. This facility brought me around to seeing this as a very easy way to plan a book. All these things happened at the same time. There was the short story, my desire to make that short story into a novel, and then to create a structure for that story and defining its elements. I probably always work first from ideas, and then move to the fiction. I build a story around ideas. Ideas are more important for me than saying, 'Ah, this is a good story.' If the story doesn't have elements that will turn the mind, then it is not an interesting story. Maybe this is a way of organizing ideas and making sure that all of them are there.

I:
So you think that mastering digital writing technology really contributed to...

Y:
I'm sure it did.

I:
It's not only a practical thing. Nowadays, writing technology has some very profound meanings...

Y:
I had this little note at my desk for awhile just over my computer monitor: It said: "I am Word. I am Perfect. I am digi-tal." Most writers start out writing by hand I suspect, and many never stop writing by hand. Then they have to translate their writing to a typewriter. Because of the necessity of my situation, I had to learn to think and type at the same time. So what happens in my fingers -- whatever that is, I'm not sure. Ronaldo says that it is probably caffeine. I'm a coffee drinker. What I have discovered is that when I'm writing, I'm writing, but when I don't write, I don't write. I can store certain thoughts and ideas, and I might make notes. I bring the notes on yellow stickies to my computer, but I can only write when I am writing.

I:
You are kind of downloading. It starts in your mind, and then you have contact with the keyboard. That's the moment the downloading begins...

Y:
At some point, if I lose my fingers, maybe I will learn to tell stories verbally. I will have to do that. But for now, I have learned this sort of mechanical thing.

I:
Your typical writing style is also seen in your short piece "Siamese Twins & Mongoloids" which has been translated into Japanese in the series of "Frontiers of World Literatures" I edited with Iwanami publishers. It is in the style of an article of literary criticism written about a novel by a certain Japanese American novelist called Karen Tei Yamashita, along with a lot of true and false "footnotes," which you must dislike in your real life.

Y:
That was a satire. Two things are going on in it. I wanted to talk about the Yellow Power or Asian American Movement in the United States. There is here a playing on the Movement, but it is also a satire of the academic vision and the writing of academic papers. It is perhaps a critique about where the Movement has landed. The Asian American Movement was a vital and exciting time that happened along with the Black Power Movement and other movements in the United States. These movements changed the picture of the academy's response to ethnicity in the United States. Yet, these movements have been eaten up by the academy in the sense that ethnic studies programs created in this period now have to produce the same kind of work that they were perhaps rebelling against. So it's that kind of critique.

I:
You mean of Asian Americans?

Y:
Of a system that appropriates. It's an economic thing. If an institution has a lot of money, nobody worries about what department gets what money. But times have been hard, and many fronts have required accountability for economic and political reasons. Ethnic studies have to be blessed by the academy. If you want a department of Asian American Studies, you have to produce scholars, and these scholars have to jump through all these academic hoops, including one that says you have to write and publish. As a fiction writer reading this stuff about my work, well, it's amusing because essentially I'm being told that my writing can't stand alone. It's got to be interpreted. I'm not against it; I find it fascinating really. We seem to feed off each other. Academics keep my work alive, and I keep their work alive. On the other hand, just as a writer, I find it amusing. So, Siamese Twins & Mongoloids is my interpretation of my own writing that doesn't exist. Yet.

Probably one of my next projects is to look at the history of the Asian American Movement. This story is really fascinating: the struggle for the re-creation of history, the empowerment of community, political struggle.

I:
You took the name 'Circle K' in contributing your journal for my website magazine Cafe Creole during your stay in Japan. At first, when I heard that title, I thought it was rather cheap to connect yourself and your experience to a convenience store. For me, it sounded like a metaphor for your name Karen, but later I understood that convenience stores represent a different kind of geography or another layer of our everyday life. You and your family are now preparing to leave Japan, and you told me that you will have to trash your refrigerator and be without one for a few days. During that time, you said you will use the convenience store as your refrigerator. I thought this was very interesting; it's one of the most interesting and probably correct ways to use a convenience store. I realized that you have found a way to get into that layer of the city represented by convenience stores. What is happening in the case of convenience stores is that a very private and minimal part of one's own life is going into the city. Previously, the city was totally outside private life. Now the city encompasses one's private life. Or we can describe it both ways: the city has some part of one's own private life, or you can have some sort of public city in your private life. That you name your journal describing your stay in Japan, 'Circle K,' is in this sense very symbolic. Maybe you decided on that name because you first discovered that everywhere you went, there was a Circle K. However, to liken the self to a convenience store has a very profound unconscious truth that has to do with these drastic changes in the geography of space itself. I'd like to know how you use this idea of the convenience store and 'Circle K' in your writing, if it is producing some interesting meanings and how you see the emergence of these meanings.

Y:
I think 'Circle K' was a metaphor that I could build on, but you are right. In Japan, we have spent an enormous amount of time at the convenience store. The convenience store is one of the things that, in all these years since I was last in Japan, is different. It makes Japan look different. It is the one thing that has really changed. It is a place where I can pay my bills -- which is unheard of anywhere else. I can go there at any time of the night, and it is one of the few places in Japan where you can park. When you have a car, it's a very important thing. And there's always a telephone there. So yes, it is very convenient.

In all of our travels here, there has always been a convenience store. Before someone might suggest that we pack a lunch for our trips. But we rarely pack a lunch anymore; we just get on the road and buy an o-bento and onigiri . I've even found that you can get underwear at a convenience store. The only thing you can't get at a convenience store is medicine. My suggestion is that convenience stores should stock aspirin. Finally the great thing about Japanese convenience stores is that they are not more expensive than any other store.

I:
You can use the convenience store as your own home refrigerator, or wardrobe, or storage. And yet it's interesting that the convenience store itself doesn't have its own storage. What you see on the shelves is everything they have. They don't have any storage room to stock goods. The register is directly connected to a computer system, and when you buy something, a warehouse somewhere else immediately makes note of it and sends the same item to the same convenience store. The store itself is a kind of node, a computer node.

Y:
The interesting thing about convenience stores in the U.S., like Seven-Elevens, is that they are often run by immigrants who may be Iranians, Pakistanis or Koreans. The next step is for Brazilian immigrants in Japan may be to take over the convenience stores. At the moment, Brazilian run what can be considered Brazilian convenience stores with Brazilian good and conveniences.

I:
I inserted on our agenda the phrase "Pacific Limb" instead of "Pacific Rim" because I thought it suggested an interesting relationship between the new geography and our geographic consciousness. n other words, I think that our most familiar geography appears from the discovery of our own body.

Actually, your first journal entry in Japan was entitled 'Backache,' and was very suggestive for me that you started with your relationship to your body and your experience of moving back and forth. I think that type of consciousness, in relating one's body to some specific place or some movement between places is very interesting. For instance, Chicano performing artist, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, whose poem you cite in your book Tropic of Orange, is obviously the poet imagining his body to be like components of the American continent. I also cite here another Chicana poet, Sandra Cisneros, whose imagination of her female body evokes a similar body-place relationship, a somewhat different tone than that of Gomez-Pena, but with a highly political consciousness as well. It is interesting to see that Cisneros likens her own body to some image of travel from Madagascar to the Amazon and then to Andalucia and the Tierra del Fuego.

So I think that we must misread the popular slogan "Pacific Rim" for "Pacific Limb," because as you know, the Pacific Rim discourse has already become an abused discourse that mostly sustains hegemonic powers across the Pacific Ocean. For instance, an institutional power wanting to provoke an image of "multi-culturalistic California" in a harmonious way recreates the myth of Pacific Rim discourse. Or the Japanese government and transnational corporations can use this Pacific Rim discourse as a pretext for their economic invasion of the western coast of Oregon, California, Mexico or Peru. This myth-making power to create an image of a harmonious Pacific Rim community is highly political. On the other hand, seeing trans-Pacific movement as a new kind of articulation of your body sounds very provocative to me, a kind of making of a "Pacific Limb" in the process of traveling back and forth, transamerican movement . . .

Y:
It humanizes it and also makes it physical. This transporting of people back and forth to work in factories has been called labor, and labor is just labor, as if it is divorced from people. There is a physicality but also the simultaneous idea of carrying a burden on your back, a traditional idea of labor. I wanted to show people as beasts of burden as well as movement, a bridge, a spine, as you will.

As a writer I'm probably quite a bit more privileged, but I also associate myself with clerical workers, with secretaries. There's a story I wrote about a secretary and digital word processing. It was also about these limbs, these wrists and hands we use to type, to process words. In fact I was beginning to get carpal tunnel syndrome from typing too much. I began to have an idea that I could be divorced from my digital (as in finger) function and slip into a cyperspace that was Windows.

I:
So my last question is how do you describe the "Pacific Limb" in your experience of moving in this transPacific, transcultural limbo? How do you define your "Pacific Limb" in that kind of transcultural movement?

Y:
Well, as a limb or a spine that is also bridge that is very dynamic, constantly in movement, back and forth.

I:
As you said already, your fingers already move unconsciously over the keyboard, and that's a kind of memory your body has. So our limbs have a memory that can express something unconsciously, very directly and dynamically. And not only digital technology but also contemporary travel and displacement can also produce or add to one's body, to one's limbs, some sort of unconscious memory.

Y:
There are always physical responses. The physical response to being in Japan can be rather automatic. Sometimes without knowing, you meet people, and you automatically find yourself nodding and bowing. When it feels natural it's fine, but at some point it's unnatural. Being in Brazil was for me can be a very physically freeing sensation. It's not just because of the dance or the music; it's a kind of comfort people feel about their bodies. While often my physical response to Japan feels awkward, one place that is very freeing here is the ofuro, the public bath.

I:
I think that in Japan now, after nine or ten o'clock at night in the city, all the people at the public bath must be foreigners -- Asian workers, Latin American dekasegis. This is because they don't live in apartments with baths, and as they work late, they go to the bath at these hours. It's interesting to see the Japanese public bath with a different mixture of people. Every one must have his or her own way of undressing and washing. At first these people may have been confused as to how to properly use the Japanese bath, but perhaps they feel more at ease now. There may be a sort of feast of transPacific limbs here.

Y:
I find the bath here is where people are the most beautiful, physically free. Every time you can touch that -- whether it's on the beach in Brazil or in a bath in Japan -- that's a very wonderful feeling.

This sensation of freedom is important to me as a writer. I think that for fiction writers, there is this latitude that is special -- you don't have to follow any narrow line of thought. You don't have to prove something that is already often obvious. The presentation in fiction is very free, and you can play with or examine different ideas that you might not be able to if you have to focus or narrow your investigation.

I:
Well I think we have the title of today's talk -- the latitude of the fiction writer -- the freedom and the new latitude a fiction writer can take.



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