Academic journal article ARIEL

Signs Taken for Wonders, Wonders Taken for Dollar Signs: Karen Tei Yamashita and the Commodification of Miracle

Academic journal article ARIEL

Signs Taken for Wonders, Wonders Taken for Dollar Signs: Karen Tei Yamashita and the Commodification of Miracle

Article excerpt

Karen Tei Yamashita's 1990 novel Through the Arc of the Rain Forest introduces characters who possess remarkable features or perform remarkable feats: Kazumasa Ishimaru and the magical ball that whirls in front of his face, an object that helps bring him unparalleled riches; Batista D japan and the wondrous accuracy and endurance of his carrier pigeons whose mysterious messages suggest future events, including Kazumasa's wealth; Chico Paco and the miraculous trek to the Matacao, where his indestructible shrine serves as proof of Saint George's approval and his own fierce, fantastic destiny; Mane de Costa Pena and the feathers that, when brushed against the earlobe, can cure everything from colds to cancer. In each case, the singular sign, taken as a miraculous wonder, becomes commodified in an attempt to replicate the magic on a societal scale. Contribute to Radio Chico and you, too, can be part and parcel of a similar "miracle"; buy a feather and stroke your worries away. The particular exception to the natural world becomes unnaturally duplicated to satisfy consumer demand, amounting to a commercial delusion--and dilution--of effect. Eventually, the natural world reemerges, asserting itself in ways that often disastrously reverse the previous miracles. Yamashita's seemingly bizarre combinations of commodity theory and magic realism allow her to demonstrate how the rhetoric of the former seems informed by the flourishes of the latter, but more importantly it offers her a context to critique modes of production and consumption in global markets.

Trafficking between Japan and Brazil--as well as between these countries and wider international systems--has long been a feature of Yamashita's work. Her career as a novelist might well be traced to a 1975 fellowship she received to research Japanese immigration to Brazil. She elaborates that

    Brazil is home to over a million and a half Japanese immigrants and
    their descendants--the largest such population outside of Japan.
    That community has a long and fascinating history, and is a complex
    and varied society. But I knew very little of this when I first
    arrived; chance and intuition sent me to Brazil. I admit that I
    wanted to spend time in a warm, tropical, and sexy place, but
    perhaps I still wanted to know what being a pure Japanese might be.
    What was the essence, the thing that might survive assimilation and
    integration into a new culture and society, the thing that tied
    communities in the North to those in the South and to the Far East?
    (Circle K 12)

A one-year research assignment turned into a nine-year stay, as Yamashita married and had children in the country. A number of later literary works seem to share some connection to her Brazilian residence. Her first drafted novel, Brazil-Maru (finished and published after Through the Arc), offers a historically-inspired account of Japanese immigrants in the 1920s. Her 2001 collection Circle K Cycles contains stories, essays and images relating to the more recent phenomenon of second-generation Japanese-Brazilians emigrating to Japan to take up "undesirable" manual labour.

Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, composed after Yamashita's family had relocated to Los Angeles, contains much of the same inquiry into migration and international labour; in this novel, however, Yamashita adds a broader preoccupation--global commodity culture--and presents this investigation in the literary vocabularies of magic realism. Her tenure in Brazil, and ongoing projects tied to that nation, might have naturally led her to place another work in a South American setting. But Yamashita finds Brazil to be such a welcoming, generous society that the otherworldly figures of this magic realist fiction would find a more likely home there: "the man with three arms or a man who had

a ball in front of his head would be accepted. Without question" (Murahige 329). …

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