Academic journal article MELUS

The Mother That Won't Reflect Back: Situating Psychoanalysis and the Japanese Mother in No-No Boy

Academic journal article MELUS

The Mother That Won't Reflect Back: Situating Psychoanalysis and the Japanese Mother in No-No Boy

Article excerpt

There is a humorous saying: 'Love is homesickness'; and whenever a man dreams of a place or a country and says to himself, still in the dream, 'this place is familiar to me, I have been there before,' we may interpret the place as being his mother's genitals or her body.--Freud, "The Uncanny"

What does it mean ... to find a calculatedly instructive variant of the racial shadow [in Asian-American literature]? Is its existence to be attributed solely to the playwright's inventiveness or are larger socio-historical forces implicated?--Sau-Ling Wong, Reading Asian-American Literature

... he boarded a trolley for fear that, if he took the time to walk back to the car, he would find a reason to postpone his efforts. The trolley, a trackless affair which drew its motive power from overhead wires, surged smoothly through the late morning traffic with its handful of riders.--John Okada, No-No Boy

John Okada's post-World-War-II novel seems to present itself as a psychological bildungsroman in which the protagonist, Ichiro, struggles to separate himself from uncertainty and continue progress toward a unified identity. Both the emergence of sociology as a discipline in the 1940s and the specifically Western emphasis on psychoanalytic models of identity formation pervade Ichiro's attempts to define a self apart from his family. What happens, however, when the racial and nationalistic discourses that guide psychoanalytic modes of identity formation necessarily exclude one on the basis of that which cannot be psychoanalytically "overcome," like race? Many of the tropes of No-No Boy are familiar to students of psychoanalysis: the controlling mother, her refusal to look into a mirror with her son and face their separateness, and her death by water all signify, in traditional Western psychoanalysis, a psychosexually-rooted crisis in masculine identity formation, based on separation and differentiation from the mother. The home which is now "umheimlich" and the dismembered leg of the character Kenji (a Japanese American peer of Ichiro's who fought in the war) also foreground the dis-ease Ichiro faces upon his return from prison, a return met continually with other "present" absences. While an easy psychoanalytic reading of the novel, then, suggestively presents itself, scholars like Sau-Ling Wong ask: "Are larger sociohistorical forces implicated" (110) in a psychoanalytic representation of Asian America in literature? Are American anxieties about race and gender the "overhead wires" which move psychoanalysis and make the discourse of Self against Otherness seemingly "a trackless affair"?

The answer must be yes, given the fraught moment in Asian-American history in which No-No Boy takes place. During World War II, Japanese Americans were taken from their homes and their work and placed in internment camps, for obviously suspect reasons of "national security." Issei (1) fathers were demoralized, regarding their ability to lead the family, and exhausted by the internment of their families and the destruction of their previous business and social lives. In No-No Boy, the issei mother then rises to become the site of conflict for the Nisei son. (2) Ichiro, as a nisei son and a "no-no boy," (3) battles his mother throughout the novel because of the familial expectations that guided his decision to answer "no." Ichiro acts as if by separating from the person who most embodies Japanese identity for him, he can reinscribe himself as an "American," an identification denied to him as a "no-no boy."

However, rather than read this relationship solely in terms of the psychoanalytic mother/son relationship, it is crucial to signal the ways in which psychoanalysis itself serves an exclusionary function and prohibits uncomplicated access to Western identity for the Japanese American male. Situating psychoanalysis as what David Palumbo-Liu calls "a selectively excluding practice" that poses as "an inclusive discourse" reveals the ways in which psychoanalysis was used, during the cultural moment of Okada's novel, to "repair" damage done to white America's patriarchal military and national narratives. …

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