Tuesday, April 03, 2007

East is East: Can the West ever learn?

Owing to a series of fortunate circumstances, I read East Is East. The book by T. Coraghessan Boyle, is a novel about a Japanese-American man on the run in the tropical swamps in Georgia, United States of America. Examining stereotypes, East is East, follows Hiro Tanaka's escape from the barbs for being half a Gaijin, his father was a American Hippie who leaves his Japanese mother eight months after wedding, in pure 'yamato' race Japan, when he jumps of a Japanese ship off the coast of America. Intertwined with Hiro's story is the tale of Ruth Dershowitz, an ambitious woman who has personal and professional demons to battle and only failure to her credit. Ruth lives in a writer’s colony on the island of Tupelo, where Hiro first touches American land.

Tanaka is Mishima obsessed and fancies himself as a modern samurai. For Tanaka these medieval code of behaviour come in handy in his struggle to survive his strange circumstances. The US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is on his trail in Tupelo Island and then in the Okefenokee, "the swamp archetypal, the swamp of legend, of racial memory, of Hollywood". Faced with "the water, muck, creeper and vine, the damnable unending fetid stinking wilderness of America", Tanaka san wonders, "Was it all swamp, the whole hopeless country? Where were the shopping malls, the condos, the open range?... [why couldn’t he be in front of] Burger King or Saks Fifth avenue?" Tanaka is shocked out of his wits, at being in a part of America one never even imagines and yearns for the city of brotherly love as he calls New York.

The book is told from multiple perspectives with Hiro and Ruth cornering most of the voice. On the run on Tupelo Island, Hiro survives the forests by adhering to the samurai maxims laid out by a Mr. Jocho Yamamato. The cottage in the writer’s colony that Tanaka pilfers for food belongs to Ruth. Ruth feeds him first, inadvertently and later covertly, even shopping for food from an Asian Store. She sees her redemption in the Japanese man, her secret weapon to hurl at the enemies. Tanaka works as an inspiration for Ruth, personal and professional. Saxy Lights is Ruth's boyfriend, the hopeless son of a successful industrialist and is seeking his calling after a series of embarrasing professional failures through breeding a rare species of the pygmy sunfish found in the Okenfenokee Swamp. Ruth is a resident of the writer's colony for the uncomplicated fact that she is Saxy's girl and a writer.

Relying on stereotypes, the drama is played out in the writer's colony and later in the Okefenokee Swamp. The writer’s colony narrative is outstanding for its lack of imagination and of the portrayal, stereotypical again, about a dissatisfied, bitter group of people indulging in one-upmanship with sharp tongues and the centrality of sexual politics. Hiro Tanaka is not an unlikely hero in such august company. With more than a little sympathy and kindness on part of the author, Tanaka, epitomises innocence and selflessness (as opposed to the manipulation and ego-centricism of the rest of the cast) despite his extenuating circumstances.

As the drama of the Japanese alien reaches a crescendo, Jane Shine, a woman who always got the better of Ruth in appearances and in professional terms, comes to the colony and steals Ruth's thunder. Towards the end of the drama when Hiro is apprehended, Ruth imagines her self in a new role, as a journalist, with probably better prospects of writerly success and media coverage. Ruth and Hiro share a complicated superficial companionship, as racial/cultural differences as well as accents determine their feelings towards each other. Hiro is an exotic fuck for Ruth, an animal to be cared for and used for her aggrandizement. While Hiro's feelings towards Ruth go through the spectrum of distrust-trust-betrayal and in his delirium she becomes a mother like figure to finally a disparaging view of the lack of fair play in the white woman when he is seized.

East is East is an interesting read, fast paced and it keeps you coming back to the book after interrruptions. It has been about two weeks since I read it. The initial euphoria is over and with the benefit of hinsight, one is inclined to be a little tough in making a judgement. The novel fails to reach across the simplification that culture constructs about the 'other'. It is guilty of as much stereotyping as it sets out to attack with its plain faced humour. At a harsh level it is an exhibition of American conceit and reaffirmation of the exoticisation of the East through a few texts/themes seen as self contained and inherently rooted, in this case in Japan. It is a great example of selective focus on certain fixated notions of the East, raising them to levels of 'knowledge' while regurgitating existing stereotypes in their effort to entertain, enlighten and reinterpret. That school boy's engagement with a Japan of samurai's, Ninja's, geisha's, kamikazi and hara kiri, terms which entered our lexicon largely via the American occupation of Japan in the post-World War 2 period. A close similarity can be Frank Miller's 300 based on a far more confused and juvenile notion of the Orient but 300 has its graphic (illustrated) content to claim distinctiveness, East is East has none. For the author too, as the title, East is East, illustrates, that engagement (cinematic and immature) with what they call the East, appears to have been his great high. The book is recommended as an entertaining read of the comedy of cultural blindness masquerading as literature.

I have some quotes below to illustrate the hilarious stereotyping that the book contains.

This is Hiro Tanaka's view when the first man he runs into on Tupelo island is a black American... "But now, here he was, in strange stolen clothes in a stranger’s house and the stranger was shouting at him. Worse: the stranger was a black man, a Negro, and he knew, as every Japanese does, that Negroes were depraved and vicious, hairier, sweatier and even more potent than their white counterparts, the hakujin. They were violent and physical, they were addicted to drugs and they thought only with their sexual organs."

Hiro Tanaka's view of white America is equally flattering..."He knew them. Americans. They killed each other over dinner, shot one another for sport, mugged old ladies in the street".

Lewis Turco, an ex-LURP(?) and a part time special agent who had lived in Borneo, Okinawa and the Pribilof islands..."Nips…they’re the squarest people in the world, I mean the hokiest, bar none. Shit, even the paddy Burmese are downtown compared to the Japs. They’re all part of this big team, this like Eagle Scout thing where everybody fits in and works real hard and makes this perfect and totally unique society. Because they’re superior to everybody else, they’re purer-that’s what they think…You fuck up, you let the whole race down…Even the far-out types, the rebels, the punks with their orange hair and the leather jackets-…You know how they get down, you know how they really thumb their nose at society and show what bad characters they are?...They all go down to Yoyogi Park in Tokyo on Saturday afternoon from one to three and turn up their boom boxes and dance. That’s it. They dance. All of them. Squarest people in the world".

And how does Turco plan to capture Tanaka? In Turco's own words, “You know what I got in there? A boom box. Sanyo. Biggest shitkicker you ever saw, puts out enough amps to kill every woodpecker out there stone dead in two minutes flat. I’ve got a couple of disco tapes, Micheal Jackson, Donna Summer, that kind of shit, you follow me? I’m going to track the fucker…Then I’m going to set this thing on a stump and crank it up.” The Japanese in Turco's view cannot resist disco music and Turco expected Tanaka to come out dancing as he would be moved by the music..."When that doesn’t work he gets...designer T-shirt with a chic name splashed across the breast...bait-this and a couple of pairs of Guess? Jeans, maybe some scarves and T-shirts with shit like Be Happy and Keep On Truckin’ printed on them. Anything in English. The Nips are suckers for it.”

Compendium of a few English words in Japanese

Besuboru= Baseball
Hotto dogu=Hot Dog
Fea Pure=Fair Play
Mainrand= Mainland

Jocho Yamamoto's, ancient samurai code of ethics, Hagakure interpreted in Yukio Mishima's The Way of the Samurai. Yukio Mishima, one of the most important modern Japanese writers. Equally famous for his right wing politics, grandeur, his supposed homosexuality and ritual suicide.

Yamamoto Aphorism's:

1. One should take important considerations lightly. Small matters should be taken seriously.

2. One cannot accomplish feats of greatness in a normal frame of mind. One must turn fanatic and develop a mania for dying.

3. One may choose a course of action but one may not always chose the time. The moment of decision looms in the distance and then overtakes you. Then is to live not to prepare for that moment of decision?

4. A true samurai must bever seem to flag or lose heart. He must push on courageously as though sure to come on top. Otherwise he is utterly useless.

For More

An Indian twist. The proprietor of a motel is aptly titled Mr Gobi Aloo... "He spoke with a slow drawl he'd developed within days of his emigration from the Punjab...but then, as he did from time to time, he slipped into the light musical cadence of the sub continent." Gobi...a buttery little man...If it weren't for his caste mark between his eyes, you might have mistaken him for a sunburned cracker...He turned his head to spit a reddish-brown stream of tobacco and betel nut juice...

This is the second book of Boyle that I have read. The first was years ago when I borrowed The Road to Wellville, a fictional farce of the Kellogg phenomenon. An radio interview with the author in which he briefly talks about Hiro Tanaka's character.

1 comment:

Shalini said...


Did ya watch Namesake? What do you have to say?

I saw it and didnt like it! Why??..soon on my blog.