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  • Exception(al)Apprehending the Unexpected in Japanese American Internment Literature
  • Anthony Sze-Fai Shiu (bio)

At its heart, Japanese American internment is a product of the sovereign exception, a decision—not a norm—concerning "what constitutes public order and security" (Schmitt 1985, 6, 9). And the decision to intern, exemplified by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, "stands outside the normally valid legal system" while "belong[ing] to it" because the sovereign maintains the ability to suspend the very legal system that bestows rights—along with notions of belonging and identity—to Japanese Americans (7). Both within and outside the legal system, executive power commands a strange relation between constitutional and extra-constitutional realms: what is within the legal order also maintains an "outside" that can "produce law" not "based on law" (13). Given this, how can we reassess Japanese American internment literature's essential role in interrogating state power while being mindful of the instability of such concepts as belonging, citizenship, and [End Page 203] identity—concepts that are subject to the capriciousness of those in powerful positions? Within a legal system premised on racial citizenship, what is literature capable of?

Certainly, the large volume of scholarship on internment literature serves as an essential foundation for understanding Japanese American literary and cultural responses. At the same time, our approaches to internment literature should be mindful of the legal and institutional foundations that both constrain literary production and give impetus to imagining creative alternatives. Even though we are more than 70 years removed from it, internment (and the literature that responds to it) continually teaches us that the U.S. government reserves the right to ultimately question and hold suspect Asian America's claims of membership in the polity, regardless of citizenship status. Ironically, as we will see, Japanese Americans during World War II could only be included in America's partitioned social structure through forced military removal and internment.1 But through the context of internment and beyond it, we must come to terms with the kinds of power that can be exercised over people of color, surpassing "moral condemnation" to understand "how racially conditioned governmental actions take place" (Gotanda 1985, 1192). Because the hallmark Supreme Court decisions on internment have never been overturned, and Korematsu v. United States remains "controlling case law" and an "integral anomaly in constitutional law," larger questions of Asian American belonging cannot fundamentally be answered by calls for the recuperation or realization of rights and citizens' entitlements when such rights emerge from and are granted by a structure premised on racial citizenship (Oh and Wu 1996, 173).2

In works by Toshio Mori, Hisaye Yamamoto, and John Okada, we are exposed to contexts in which forms of citizenship are in process, and contexts and identities are made malleable for particular effect(s). These narrative and conceptual strategies form the core of an alternative ethical project advanced by each author—projects that challenge our reading and interpretive practices. Rather than reinvesting in comfortable notions of agency and resistance, these works inhabit a foundational space for a renewed thinking of the American democratic project. This renewal encourages the understanding that justice resides within the "very dimension of events irreducibly to come," [End Page 204] which allows us to commit to projects with the understanding that "each advance in politicization obliges one to reconsider, and so reinterpret, the very foundations of law as they have previously been calculated or delimited" (Derrida 1992, 27, 28). From Mori's portrayal of the rigged tension between patriotism and protest to Yamamoto's strategy of implicating her readers in interpretive practices aligned with racist government actions to Okada's theorization of future Japanese American identities, I argue we witness vigilant and imaginative interventions committed to challenging common interpretive strategies. Making way for new understandings, these authors attempt to make sense of their world(s)—framing past and present dispensations—and anticipate the next watershed of meaning. This advance is not an ultimate liberation but a "long series of still unforeseeable convulsions and transformations, through as yet unheard of forms of shared and limited sovereignty"—or an invitation to our future (Borradori 2003, 131). As a result, we...


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pp. 203-230
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