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Masking Selves, Making Subjects: Japanese American Women, Identity and the Body
Theory And Cultural Studies
Traise Yamamoto. Masking Selves, Making Subjects: Japanese American Women, Identity and the Body. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999. xii + 304 pp.
Reflecting on a 1938 photograph of her grandparents posing with their two-year old daughter and her doll, Traise Yamamoto writes, "it is difficult to tell whose face is more impassive, the doll's or my grandmother's." This is the kind of description one might expect from an orientalist, but Yamamoto has reclaimed the trope, explaining that her grandmother, like the authors described in this study, could show a face "that understands its own readability," a face that is able to "contain what must be feelings of chaotic desperation" even though its "surface is absolutely smooth." Masking Selves, Making Subjects examines Japanese American women's narratives as they "employ discursive strategies that are ethnic-specific" and respond to "orientalist constructions." Yamamoto contrasts her understanding of the "mask" with readings of the Japanese face performed by westerners like Roland Barthes. Although Barthes ventures a semiotic reading of a culture he admires, Yamamoto dismisses him as an outsider who is wrong about Japan and who only re-enforces cultural stereotypes. It seems, however, that readings and misreadings go both ways. It is disappointing that a study on the "Japanese American subject whose self is, in a sense, defined by its own participation in reappropriative acts of masking," should begin by establishing Edward Said's static orientalist construct of us and them. Said's theory does not account for the mask used as a protective discourse in traditional Japanese culture, a mask often misperceived by Westerners as the veil of impassivity and inscrutability. Similarly, the critic's attention to the "feminization" of Japan by the West seems to eclipse the problems of Japanese womanhood as they relate to Japanese society.
If Masking Selves, Making Subjects fails to situate Japanese American women's writing in a neat orientalist context, it does adroitly apply feminist and narrative theory in service of the author's own sensitive and sophisticated readings of several important authors. Her literary discussion begins with the Nisei autobiographies of Monica Sone, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, and Yoshiko Uchida, all of whom endured the injustice and hardship of internment during World War II. The experiences of these women raise questions about the relationship between citizenship [End Page 1045] and cultural identity, the figures of dissolving fathers and persevering mothers, and the escalating tension between Japanese parents and their American-born children. Although Yamamoto links narratives by women, people of color, and other marginalized groups in order to eschew the confessional mode and instead speak for the collective situation, she finds that the Japanese Americans "also construct, protect and give voice to 'that other, private self.'"
Rejecting the paradigm that attempts to interpret Asian American culture exclusively in terms of generational conflict, thus obscuring issues of class and gender, the chapter "Mothers, Daughters and the Trope of Maternal Absence in Japanese American Women's Fiction" highlights the "necessity for the daughter to both differentiate from and identify with the mother, who models survival as a simultaneously raced and gendered subject." The critic re-examines some powerful stories like Hisaye Yamamoto's "Seventeen Syllables" (1949) and "Yoneko's Earthquake" (1951), both written from the point of view of child and teenage daughters who see their mothers briefly escape the entrapment of marriage in rural, racially isolated communities. This chapter also provides detailed, well-balanced readings of Joy Kogawa's novel Obasan (1981), Cynthia Kadohatas' The Floating World (1989), and the short fiction collected in R. A. Sasaki's The Loom (1991). Although some of the summaries are a bit clinical and dry, with little attention to visual and aural detail, Yamamoto negotiates earlier criticism and current theory to situate her own clear interpretations.
The final chapter on Japanese American poetry focuses primarily on the socio-political importance of the work rather than the art...