- Holy Prayers in a Horse's Ear: A Japanese American Memoir
The title of Kathleen Tamagawa's memoir, Holy Prayers in a Horse's Ear: A Japanese American Memoir, invokes a Japanese proverb, "Uma No Mimi Ni Nembutsu, . . . [meaning] . . . you can always tell a Harvard man, but you can't tell him much!" to entreat readers to hear her words as "prayers" or lessons about binary and hierarchical notions of race (158). The daughter of a Japanese father and Irish American mother, Tamagawa (1893–1979) reflects upon her upbringing in the United States and Japan and describes the difficulties of defining oneself as biracial at a time when inflexible racial categories were the norm. "[I]n America," she writes, "I was Japanese. In Japan I was American" (38). By bringing Tamagawa's memoir back into publication, editors Greg Robinson and Elena Tajima Creef make a significant contribution of recovery to the field of early Asian American literature. Parts of the memoir were first published in Asia magazine in 1930; the entire text, containing the three previously published pieces and others, was published in 1932. Shedding light on pre-World War II American attitudes toward Asians, particularly the Japanese, Tamagawa shares details about her parents' courtship and marriage in the United States, the international expatriate community in Japan, and her own marriage to an Anglo-American. With intelligence and humor, Tamagawa reveals the limitations placed on her identity by racial attitudes and stereo-types. She asks, for example, "Was I a Japanese doll, or a menace?" (92).
Toward the end of the memoir, anxiety over her mixed-race ancestry leads Tamagawa to declare: "I do not approve of Eurasian marriages. I do not approve of international marriages" (157). Her explicit rejection of "Eurasian" and "international" marriages, coupled with her embrace of assimilation into white American culture, presents certain challenges to modern readers who value "models of transnational, hyphenated, or multicultural identity" (xiii). Anticipating these challenges, the astute introduction, "written collectively" by Floyd Cheung, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, and editors Creef and Robinson (xxxii), reminds readers to view Tamagawa's choices within the historical moment and social milieu in which she lived. Moving from comparisons to the well-known [End Page 184] Eaton sisters and American expatriate writers to information about the memoir's critical reception and attitudes about mixed-race individuals, the introduction provides an overview of thematic concerns and multiple contexts in which to interpret Tamagawa's work. Details about the author's domestic life and career also point to the challenges faced by working women. She tried to follow up the success of her memoir with a novel about Japan; the story "A Fit in Japan," included in this edition, "may have been excerpted from that project" (xxviii). The demands of caring for four children combined with the necessity of seeking employment to supplement the family's income, however, left her little time for literary pursuits. The editors' thorough research and insights establish a strong foundation for future scholarship; their recovery efforts ensure that Tamagawa's "holy prayers" do not fall on deaf ears.