Academic journal article MELUS

Extrapolating Transnational Arcs, Excavating Imperial Legacies: The Speculative Acts of Karen Tei Yamashita's through the Arc of the Rain Forest

Academic journal article MELUS

Extrapolating Transnational Arcs, Excavating Imperial Legacies: The Speculative Acts of Karen Tei Yamashita's through the Arc of the Rain Forest

Article excerpt

   I will outnumber you.
   I will outbillion you.
   I am the spectacle in the forest.
   I am the inventor of rubber.
   I will outrubber you.
   Sir, the reality of your world is nothing more
   than a rotten caricature of great opera.

      --Werner Herzog, Fitzcarraldo

In 1927, Henry Ford bought approximately 2.5 million acres of Amazon rainforest in the northern state of Para, Brazil, where he established a sizeable rubber plantation. (1) "Fordlandia" strived to be an all-inclusive, neocolonial system, extending the plantation infrastructure beyond sawmills and processing plants to include US-style hospitals, schools, white clapboard houses, and even recreational facilities such as a motion-picture theater and an eighteen-hole golf course. As documented in the company's archives, the Ford rubber plantations in Brazil worked to fulfill a Fordist fantasy of bringing "modernity" and "progress" to the "almost impenetrable tropical jungle." (2) In her speculative fiction Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990), Asian American writer Karen Tei Yamashita excavates this largely forgotten scene of US imperialism in Brazil and extrapolates from such imperial legacies what might happen to the Amazon when a valuable, rubbery, and possibly alien resource is unearthed during an age of global restructuring. In Through the Arc, disavowed imperial legacies such as Fordlandia resurface in mutated forms that haunt Yamashita's near-future speculations. By unearthing these buried histories, I place Through the Arc's historical extrapolations in critical dialogue with a long line of science fictions that have worked on behalf of European and US empire-building to render the resource-rich jungle available for imperial conquest and expansion.

Through the Arc intervenes in and disrupts imperialist fantasies of an uninhabited and virginal jungle, unruly, in need of outside regulation, and ripe and available for development. While speculative narratives about the tropics have often served projects that capitalize on the alienation and exoticization of indigenous peoples, I suggest that Yamashita offers her own speculations on the Brazilian Amazon to quite different ends. At once a cautionary tale of deforestation, exploitative labor practices, and abusive extraction of natural resources on the part of an avaricious first-world capitalist machine, Through the Arc critiques the historical amnesia that often accompanies progress narratives and what Maria-Josefina Saldana-Portillo has called "fictions of development" (752).

Set in the rainforests of Brazil and featuring a Japanese Brazilian protagonist, Through the Arc recently garnered attention from Asian American scholars looking to complicate the US national formation of Asian American Studies. (3) In her reading of Through the Arc, Rachel Lee highlights how Yamashita's work "broadens definitions of Asian America to include Asian diasporas to Latin America" (Americas 121). Lamenting the book's characterization by reviewers as magical realist, satirical, and futuristic, but never a work of Asian American literature, Lee asserts that Through the Arc is in fact an Asian American text, future-fitted for a post-nationalist conceptualization of Asian America (113). In this essay, I emphasize the importance of reading Yamashita's work not only as Asian American literature, but also as science fiction--or, more accurately, as what writer and critic Nalo Hopkinson has termed "postcolonial science fiction." (4) Distinguishing their own work from science fiction's frequent fascination with exploration, conquest, and strange encounters, Hopkinson and Yamashita both take interest in telling "stories that take the meme of colonizing the natives and, from the experience of the colonizee, critique it" (Hopkinson 9). Extrapolated from lived experiences of alienation, abduction, and space and time travel, postcolonial science fiction such as Yamashita's Through the Arc formulates near-futures that call attention to imperial legacies of exclusion, exploitation, and displacement. …

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