restricted access These Desert Places: Tourism, the American West, and the Afterlife of Regionalism in Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine
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These Desert Places:
Tourism, the American West, and the Afterlife of Regionalism in Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine

While region, regional writing, and regional modernism have not been immediately associated with Asian American literature, considering these different frames provides a significant intervention into the field. Currently, discourses of transnationalism, diaspora, and globalization have partially obscured the incredible heterogeneity of Asian American literary landscapes, terrains that should continue to include various nodal points within the continental United States. The argument could be made that turning our critical lens inward opposes the productive queries made within the last decade regarding the territoriality of Asian American fictions. However, I claim that Asian American literary regionalisms are not always domestically centered representational gestures. Instead, they can be linked to and often exist in tandem with transnational elements, global flows, and colonial/ postcolonial histories.1

As immigration history from Asia tended to sediment immigrants in certain areas within the United States, the corresponding literary topography has been likewise affected. The vast majority of Asian American fiction tends to be set in three locations: Hawai’i, California, [End Page 163] and New York. Hawai’i’s and California’s dominant presence within Asian American fictional representation can be understood in part due to these states’ geographical proximity to Asia, as well as the economic factors that resulted in a demand for racialized labor throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century. Historian Gail Nomura locates this Western focus, noting that “Asians supplied the labor to build the railroads, which provided the transportation infrastructure for commercial growth. In addition to building the western half of the transcontinental railroad, Asian laborers constructed and maintained many of the other railroads in the West” (148).2 Nomura’s complete definition of “the West” as elucidated in her argument actually collapses both Hawai’i and California together, locating plantation labor, railroad production, and Pacific Coast agricultural and cannery work all under a similar regional rubric.3 In addition to labor, immigrant processing at certain stations such as Angel Island (Northern California) impacted the state-based settlements of Asian immigrants. The extension of railroads made possible the resettlement of Asian American populations in New York and other large cities throughout the US. There are exceptions to these trends, but ignoring such geographically specific centralization would dismiss the fact that Asian American narratives are localized. As a way into thinking more critically about scale and the American West with respect to Asian American literature, I take as a point of reference an extended reading of Julie Otsuka’s novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, which moves out of a Californian urban area (Berkeley-San Francisco) and into the desert regions of Nevada and Utah.4

This article concentrates on Otsuka’s second chapter, which centers on an unnamed, adolescent Japanese American female and her fellow internees as they travel by train to the Topaz internment camp. I choose to focus solely on this excerpt because it foregrounds a distinct narrative revolving about mobility and region, tourism and place, a narrative that is exceptional even within the confines of the novel’s trajectory. There are other moments in which the shades of regionalism and regional modernism could be considered (such as the chapter written from the boy’s point-of-view while the Japanese Americans are settling in at Topaz), but the second chapter is crucial to my argument that the “local color” gaze can be reconsidered in light of racial formation, the internment experience, and touristic consumption. While a narrative of transit would run counter to traditional definitions of regionalist writings that are centered on a single, bounded place and community, the chapter foregrounds a number of key characteristics that differentiate the afterlife of regionalism and regional modernism. That is, I am not simply concentrating on the ways the novel dialogues with tropes connected to regionalist writing [End Page 164] and regional modernisms, but also advancing how it radically breaks with and revises such terms in an Asian American context.

The article is structured in four basic sections. In the first, I tease out the critical trajectory that enables an exploration of Asian American literature in localized spaces...