Cultural Identity vs. American Identity

While much of Tropic of Orange deals in elements of fantasy, the overarching themes of the book are very much real and readily relatable. One reoccurring theme that caught my attention was the idea of cultural identity that proves to be a source of personal conflict, to some degree or another, for almost every character in the story. A contributing factor to this vital element is the book’s setting in Los Angeles, working in partnership with author Karen Tei Yamashita’s own background as Japanese American. In Tropic, LA serves as a backdrop that feels like an even more intense version of the “melting pot” we typically ascribe to the United States. In Rafaela and Bobby, we are given a picture of the true immigrant experience. We learn that Bobby took a flight from Singapore to America when he was just 12 years old, but that he has spent his adult life as a Chinese man (though often confused for Vietnamese or Korean) chasing after a very stereotypical “American Dream.” He gets entangled in the illegal immigration attempts of many others, including his eventual wife Rafaela, who is of Mexican descent. Then, there’s Emi, who is Japanese American (like the author herself) but refuses to acknowledge her heritage as any part of her defining identity (take the scene in the sushi restaurant, or her frequent quips about her own un-involvment with the entire JA community). Manzanar (who is, spoiler alert, Emi’s grandfather!) speaks of having lived in a Japanese internment camp during WWII and thus decides to name himself after the camp to commemorate the experience. Buzzworm is African-American, Gabriel, chicano.

Ultimately, the characters of the story have deeply rooted cultural backgrounds in places other than America, yet it often feels that one of the objectives of this book overall is to redefine what it actually means to be American. In one analysis of Tropic, critic Ruth Hsu argues that the novel “decenters the dominant Anglo-Euro-American narratives about Los Angeles, the ones that empower and maintain the dominant image of white and Western superiority. And the novel does so by appropriating… the ongoing transgressions of African Americans, Asian migrants, Latinos, just to name a few of the other who have and are inhabiting the geography—in the deep sense—of Los Angeles.” In this sense, the book gives voice to the cultural crowds that have often been left out of the white-washed Hollywood narratives that come to mind when envisioning LA. Rather than writing it off as mere “diversity,” Karen Tei Yamashita digs deep into these stories and pulls out universal truth: the zig-zagging, often fantastical plots of these characters may be rooted in “magical realism,” but at their very core, they paint a tangible picture of human experience in America and defy the default categorization of individuals by cultural background.

2 Responses to Cultural Identity vs. American Identity

  1. Andrew H. February 16, 2016 at 7:12 pm #

    Abby, I think you’ve brought up many great points in this blog post. It is interesting that almost every character in this novel is of different races or ethnicities. Having lived in Los Angeles for a short amount of time, L.A. in itself is such a huge, diverse melting pot of people and Yamashita has indefinitely captured the ambiance of Los Angeles life with a tiny pic of magic. I would say that, from my personal experience in L.A., the traditional white narratives being crafted in Hollywood are much more obsolete (look at the new Star Wars for example) and, personally, I believe there should be diversity in entertainment (just look at the real world… everyone isn’t white). Lastly, I think that Ruth Hsu brings up a great point in her analysis, as this books speaks for the cultural crowds that have been left out of entertainment for far too long.

  2. Prof VZ February 22, 2016 at 12:46 am #

    Interesting broader framing on what motivates this novel’s investment in diversity in the deepest possible sense!

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