Lee, Rachel C. “Asian American Cultural Production in Asian-Pacific Perspective.” Boundary 2. 26.2. (1999): 231-254. Print.
Lee begins her essay discussing how Asian American scholars must grapple with the pressures of globalization to reconcile the field’s foundational US-centric national focus with transnational forces and concerns. She notes how Asia-Pacific Rim scholars also assert the need to explore “the meanings of Asian American cultural production to the formation of alternative imagined communities ‘created by travel and trade, and…mobilized in dispersion’ rather than primarily through settlement within individual nation-states” (232). In her essay Lee specifically explores Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, which she argues speaks directly to these field contentions.
She begins by offering helpful background on how the concept of “Pacific Rim” was initially derived as foil to NAFTA. Lee notes that while Pacific Rim evokes a definite geographic locale, it is “defined by an economic logic specifically designed to transgress national borders,” thereby “undermin[ing] the persuasiveness of territorial nationalism (235). Lee goes on to cite a passage from What Is in a Rim? Critical Perspectives on the Pacific Region Idea where Arif Dirlik argues that in the Pacific region, “[e]mphasis on human activity shifts attention from physical area to the construction of geography through human interactions” (236). For the purposes of my own paper, I argue that this is particularly true with respect to Yamashita’s other novel Tropic of Orange, where “human interactions” shaped by political and economic forces such as NAFTA precipitate the literal morphing of the geographic topography of the Americas.
In her discussion of Through the Arc of the Rainforest Yamashita asserts that the novel is a “respons[e] to the unsettling effects of globalization or time-space compression” (238). Lee relies on Doreen Massey’s definition of “time-space compression” which she describes as the “movement and communication across space, to the geographic stretching-out of social relations, and our experience of all this” (238). Lee notes how Yamashita sets her novel in Metacão, a fictional territory that calls attention to the fiction of geographic borders in general, especially in a globalized world where transnational flows and exchanges repeatedly transgress those boundaries. Lee suggests that borders are then merely political national constructions used to regulate the flows of capital, people, goods, culture, etc. She calls attention to how “heterogeneous national, racial and cultural components” converge at Metacão, which is represented through a highly diverse cast of characters. Lee emphasizes how Yamashita takes pains to depict “globalization as a multiform” rather than exchanges between the East and West.
Elaborating on the novel’s relation to Asian American studies, Lee asserts that the Japanese immigrant character, Kazumasa Ishimaru emerges as “a subtle parody of a familiar archetype, the Chinese American railroad worker” (242). Lee discusses how Asian American scholars have traditionally deployed this history of Chinese immigrant involvement in the construction of the transcontinental railroad as an argument for Asian American enfranchisement and belonging in the US. She claims that by reworking this archetype, from Chinese to Japanese immigrant and manual track laborer to more advanced position of railroad technician and inspector, Yamashita articulates the need and means for shifting the field of Asian American studies from a narrow national perspective to trans- and even post-national considerations. Lee writes:
[I]n a time when national utitilies are fragmenting into competing capitalist units, when building the infrastructure is less important than downsizing to maximize profits, when railways signify less as patriotic achievements and more as a ‘lucrative travel business,’ crafting a national hero is to create a deliberate anachronism, a figure who, despite having saved ‘hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives’ (TAR, 10), is outplaced.” (245)
Lee emphasizes that Yamashita does not entirely abandon the history of the railroad but rather demonstrates how its construction and the act of laboring on the railroad is infused with new meaning and implications within a contemporary globalized context.
She asserts that this Japanese immigrant character’s presence alongside a multicultural, multinational, and hybrid cast, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest differs from other conventional works of Asian American fiction, suggesting that the forces of globalization compel narrative expansion beyond a solely Asian or Asian American focus. Lee claims that Yamashita is more concerned with the emergence of “alternative communities…composed of nationally and racially heterogeneous social actors who are globally interrelated by virtue of worldwide media links, touristic travel across borders, international finance networks, transnational trade, and a shared ecology” (247).
Lee finally concludes her essay by suggesting that resistance against the convergence of Asian American Studies and Asia-Pacific Rim Studies stems from overlooked “class cleavages” rather than territorial disputes (250). She suggests that while Asia-Pacific Rim scholars celebrate the cosmopolitan, “transnational Asian capitalist” that form comprise of an elite entrepreneurial class, Asian American scholars will not embrace the field unless more attention is given to “marginalized, even disenfranchised, subjects in the basin” (251, 250). Lee asserts however, that the realities of our globalization demonstrate that Asian American scholars can no longer cling to their “foundational subaltern identity politics” and must come to acknowledge the economic privilege of some Asian/American groups in spite of their racial marginalization, which Yamashita powerfully depicts in her character, Kazumasu. Lee finally leaves us with the observation that Through the Arc of the Rain Forest “advocates a forgetfulness of traumatic monoracial politics in order to enable the imagining of hybrid—and even pleasurable—spatial, racial, and cross-class convergences” (254).
Through the Arc of the Rainforest Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on Through the Arc of the Rainforest by Karen Tei Yamashita.
The following version of this book was used to create this study guide: Yamashita, Karen Tei. Through the Arc of the Rain Forest. Coffee House Press, 1990.
This novel is told in six parts, each with five to six chapters. The end of the first chapter reveals that the narrator is a small piece of asteroid debris that has attached itself to the protagonist’s forehead. The novel opens on the protagonist, Kazumasa, growing up in Japan. He has an ordinary, happy childhood despite the satellite. Kazumasa decides to move to Brazil, where his cousin Hiroshi lives. Batista and Tania Aparecida live in Kazumasa’s new neighborhood in São Paulo. They decide to start a carrier pigeon business together. Meanwhile, a man named Mané Pena living in the Amazon basic claims to discover “the feather.” When Mané Pena is living, scientists also discover a sheet of rock called the Matacão. An American corporate executive named J.B. applies for a job at GGG.
In Part II, Tania Aparecida and Batista continue to tinker with their pigeon messaging system. A young fisherman named Chico Paco agrees to make a pilgrimage to the Matacão on behalf of his once-crippled, now-healed friend, Gilberto. He arrives at the Matacão accompanied by a few followers and a television news reporter. Kazumasa’s housekeeper, Lourdes, encourages him to experience the community and to enter sweepstakes and lotteries; he wins everything and becomes wealthy. Back in New York, J.B. takes even greater control of the company called GGG. After seeing a television report on the Matacão, he decides to invest in the region.
In Part III, J.B. arrives in Brazil. He brings his entire corporate building and staff with him. J.B. tries to curry favor with Kazumasa, who has become an accidental majority stockholder in GGG Enterprises. Chico Paco travels back to São Paulo, where he meets Lourdes. Tania Aparecida discovers that she prefers business negotiations and haggling over prices to cleaning, cooking, and other housework. The narrator explains the Matacão in greater details, including that it is made of industrial waste that has since turned into plastic.
In Part IV, it is revealed that Kazumasa’s ball is actually made of the same material as the Matacão, and thus feels an inexplicable attraction to it. J.B. plans to use the ball to find other deposits of Matacão plastic. Mané Pena has become an authority on feather use, and counsels Chico Paco. Michelle Mabelle, an ornithologist, arrives in Brazil. She starts working for GGG, and soon dates J.B. Chico Paco starts a Foundation for Votive Pilgrimages and gets his own radio show. Tania Aparecida makes plans for international pigeon homing routes. Batista is jealous when she does not answer his phone call.
In Part V, GGG has used Matacão plastic to make magnetized credit cards. GGG makes practically everything out of Matacão plastic. Mané Pena, the world’s most renowned “featherologist,” weighs in on the controversy surrounding the endangerment and possible extinction of Brazilian bird species. Michelle Mabelle cautions consumers to buy only GGG brand feathers. Chico Paco and GGG start a joint venture: Chicolándia, an amusement park made entirely of Matacão plastic. Tania Aparecida comes up with the idea of pigeon advertising and partners with Pomba Soap Company.
In Part VI, a typhus-like disease sweeps through Brazil. The typhus is related to a kind of lice being spread via bird feathers. Chico Paco organizes a Carnival event to raise people’s spirits. Kazumasa escapes from the GGG agents guarding him, and rejoins Lourdes. Chico Paco is killed by a bullet intended for Kazumasa. Bacteria begin to eat the Matacão and everything made from it. Michelle Mabelle leaves J.B., who then throws himself out the window of GGG’s high-rise building. Mané Pena dies from typhus. Batista returns home to Tania Aparecida, and Lourdes finally confesses her feelings for Kazumasa. Kazumasa’s ball, also made of the Matacão material, is eaten by the bacteria.
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