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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Karen Tei Yamashita
(b. 1951)

Karen Tei Yamashita’s writing, like her life, has been specially attuned to the histories, stories, and meanings of movement and migration. Born in Oakland, California, Yamashita moved to Los Angeles when she was one. Her writing career properly began in 1975 when she traveled to Brazil to study the experiences of Japanese immigrant women there. What was to have been a one-year research project turned into a nine-year stay that gave her the material for her first two books, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest and Brazil-Maru, both published after her return to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s.

Those novels bear traces of Yamashita’s experiences in Brazil, a country that she describes as having a “generous and gracious acceptance...of strangers,” in a peculiar mix of developed and developing worlds. They also attest to her range as a writer, which moves from the complexly woven, multiply narrated voices that make a three-generation tapestry of Japanese immigrants in Brazil-Maru to, in Through the Arc, the fantastic world of miraculous pilgrimages, which draws equal parts from Latin American magical realism and Brazilian soap operas.

Long before the term globalization was being bandied about by politicians and cultural critics, Yamashita was chronicling the sometimes tragic and sometimes beautiful effects of a world folding in on itself. This view of the shrinking world finds expression in the frequent lists that populate her fiction, such as the one from Through the Arc, which describes a junkyard of “F-86 Sabres, F-4 Phantoms, Huey Cobras, Lear Jets and Piper Cubs, Cadillacs, Volkswagens, Dodges and an assorted mixture of gas guzzlers,” swallowed up by the vegetation to create a “rainforest parking lot.” But while Yamashita, with her eye for the irreconcilably polyglot—that which simultaneously demands and denies easy categorization—describes the collision of worlds in Brazil, her sensibility has also been nourished by the equally fascinating racial, geographical, architectural, and migratory stew that is Los Angeles. In her third novel, Tropic of Orange (from which the following in the anthology is taken), she turns her attention to this city. Not only does her characterization of Los Angeles stand in stark contrast to Hollywood’s schizophrenic treatment, which shuttles between Pacific paradise and disaster-prone dystopia, but she accurately describes the extent to which the city of angels is being shaped and re-shaped by those who have traveled to make their homes there. A character like Bobby Ngu, “Chinese from Singapore with a Vietnam name speaking like a Mexican living in Koreatown,” speaks of a place where disparate worlds collide and commingle.

The consistent line that links Yamashita’s novels is her deep engagement with the social world and her continual questioning of “standards” of justice and equity through characters who struggle to make such abstract concepts real in the collective project of community. Whether through the destruction of rain forest in the name of corporate expansion, through the corrupting influence of “business” and war on a commune of Japanese idealists, or through the unsettling contradictions that the global marketplace has thrown up between the United States and Mexico, Yamashita’s narratives and characters speak to the necessity of making community in spite of and because of a humanity that struggles against its own flawed nature to realize that which it has imagined to be possible.

A world traveler herself, Yamashita currently makes her home in Santa Cruz, California. She teaches creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Michael Murashige
Independent scholar

In the Heath Anthology
from Tropic of Orange
      2. Benefits-Koreatown (1997)

Other Works
Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990)
Brazil-Maru (1992)

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About the Author
A biographical sketch.

An Interview with Karen Tei Yamashita
An interview conducted by Jean Vengua Gier and Carla Alicia Tejeda in 1998.

Circle K
A multimedia and multiform travel story by Yamashita.

The Latitude of the Fiction Writer: A Dialogue
A conversation between Karen Tei Yamashita & Ryuta Imafuku published by Cafe Creole.

Secondary Sources