- Masking Selves, Making Subjects: Japanese American Women, Identity, and the Body
Centrally organized by the critical question, “How do (Japanese American women) construct the self as a subject within a society that constructs them as objects without agency?” (p. 4), Traise Yamamoto’s Masking Selves, Making Subjects: Japanese American Women, Identity, and the Body, is a very important contribution to multiple fields of academic discourse: notably, Asian American and American cultural studies, feminist literary criticism, genre studies, and scholarship on the formation and relationship of embodied identities to race, gender, and nationalities. The argument of this text—briefly, that through tactical deployments of the trope of masking, Japanese American women writers “enact a mode of discursive agency that allows them to claim a viable and resistant subjectivity” (p. 5)—engages with and undermines both essentializing claims as to identity (i.e., the humanist “self”) and contemporary, postmodern celebrations of the potentially liberatory effects of understanding identities as fragmented and constructed (i.e., the poststructuralist “subject”). Practicing what she terms a “critical humanism,” Yamamoto explains that it is in fact necessary to “retain the language of the self in conjunction with that of the subject . . . in order to discuss modes of agency that disrupt and cannot be causally or directly traced to the social or discursive constructs that would seem to determine the subject in all its modalities.” (p. 3) Theorizing by means of consistently enlightening critical analyses of multiple kinds of cultural texts (films, autobiography, fiction, poetry), Yamamoto demonstrates how thinking through Japanese American women’s writings as a central body of study makes clear that part of the work of those writings is precisely the articulation of a resistant subjectivity that cannot be explained by, and thus pressures, critical paradigms insufficiently attentive to the material effects and lived experiences of race and gender on understandings of selves and subjects. [End Page 337]
Divided into seven chapters including an introduction and a brief conclusion, the argument of Masking Selves unfolds carefully. First establishing the ways in which a process of othering, infantilizing, and feminizing Japan and Japaneseness within the orientalist practices deployed by Western/U.S. ideologies intent on reasserting the dominance of white, heteronormative masculinity has resulted in the conflation of the Japanese (American) woman with Japan itself (chapter one), Yamamoto moves on to analyze the effects of such an elision on Japanese American female subjectivity (chapter two). The ways in which the body of the Japanese American woman is both hypervisible as an exotic, sexual object while simultaneously invisible as subjects in the American imaginary become central to this discussion, as Yamamoto, following the work of Frantz Fanon, Gayatri Spivak, and Trinh T. Minh-Ha, explains that this race-d and gender-ed body functions to critique both “discourses of unity and coherence [that] are often the discourses of hegemony” and “an ontology and epistemology based on fragmentation” such as that characteristic of poststructuralist theorization. (p. 75) Clearly rendered visible by ideologically valenced discourse, that body refutes understanding of the self as essential and fixed; at the same time, because “[f]or subjects marked by . . . gender and race, fragmentation is very often the condition in which they already find themselves by simple virtue of being situated in a culture that does not grant them subjecthood, or grants them only contingent subjectivity,” (p.75) the Japanese American female body interrogates the limits of poststructuralist conceptualizations of subjectivity.
According to Yamamoto (chapters two and three), Japanese American women’s writings articulate this simultaneous positioning by means of employing the trope of masking: her analyses of such autobiographical texts as Dorinne Kondo’s Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace (1990), Lydia Minatoya’s Talking to High Monks in the Snow: An Asian American Odyssey (1992), and Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter (1953), all contribute to fleshing out this understanding of the means by which a resistant subjectivity is claimed and deployed by Japanese American women writers. Masking is employed by these writers as a reappropriative act: a resignification of the face...