Yamashita, Karen Tei 1951-
YAMASHITA, Karen Tei 1951-
PERSONAL: Born January 8, 1951, in Oakland, CA; married; husband's name Ronaldo; children: Jane, Jon.
CAREER: Novelist, short-story writer, and playwright. University of California—Santa Cruz, assistant professor, 1997—. Japanese-American Internment Fellowship Award, panelist, 1994; National Endowment for the Arts, panelist, 1995.
MEMBER: PEN Center West.
AWARDS, HONORS: Thomas J. Watson fellowship, 1975, to study Japanese immigration in Brazil; first place awards from several short-story contests, including awards from Amerasia Journal, 1975, for "The Bath," and "Rafu Shimpo," 1975, for "Tucano;" Rockefeller playwright in residence fellowship, East West Players, Los Angeles, CA, 1977-78; award from James Clavell American-Japanese Short-Story Contest, 1979, for "Asaka-no-Miya;" American Book Award, 1991, and Janet Heidinger Kafka Award, 1992, both for Through the Arc of the Rain Forest; cultural grant, City of Los Angeles, 1992-93; Japan Foundation artist fellowship, 1997, to research Japanese-Brazilian labor in Japan.
Omen: An American Kabuki (play), produced in Los Angeles, CA, 1978.
Hiroshima Tropical (play), produced in Los Angeles, CA, 1984.
(With Karen Mayeda) Kusei: An Endangered Species (screenplay), Visual Communications (Los Angeles, CA), 1986.
Hannah Kusoh: An American Butoh (performance; produced in Los Angeles, CA, 1989), published in Premonitions, Kaya Productions (New York, NY), 1995.
Tokyo Carmen vs. L.A. Carmen (performance; produced in Los Angeles, CA, 1990), published in part in Multicultural Theatre: Scenes and Monologs from New Hispanic, Asian, and African-American Plays, Meriwither Publishing (Colorado Springs, CO), 1996.
Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (novel), Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1990.
GiLAwrecks (musical), produced in Seattle, WA, 1992.
Brazil-Maru (novel), Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1992.
Noh Bozos (performance), produced in Los Angeles, CA, 1993.
Tropic of Orange (novel), Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1997.
Circle K Cycles, Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 2001.
Work represented in anthologies, including A Japanese-American Anthology, 1975. Author of Circle K, a monthly journal series, and CafeCreole, an Internet Web site. Contributor of essays and short stories to periodicals, including Contact II Poetry Review, Chicago Review, and Rafu-Shimpo (Japanese-American newspaper). Member of editorial board, Amerasia Journal, 1994—.
ADAPTATIONS: Through the Arc of the Rain Forest has been recorded on audio cassette.
SIDELIGHTS: Karen Tei Yamashita, an American of Japanese descent, is a novelist, short-story writer, and playwright. In 1975 she traveled to Brazil on a fellowship to study Japanese immigration and ended up staying nine years. This long sojourn reveals itself strongly in her first two novels, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest—which received an American Book Award in 1991—and Brazil-Maru.
Taking place in the Brazilian jungle of the twenty-first century, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest involves such improbable characters as an Indian guru with magic feathers, a three-handed businessman from New York, and a Japanese man who, ever since he was hit by a meteor, has had a permanent sphere twirling in front of his face. In the words of Choice reviewer M. Ditsky, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest is "an elaborate parable about the effects of Western culture on the Brazilian rain forest." Donna Seaman noted in Booklist, "Incisive and funny, this book yanks our chains and makes us see the absurdity that rules our world."
Brazil-Maru, begun while Yamashita was living in Brazil, is a more down-to-earth history set in the early twentieth century. It is based upon her encounters with a group of Japanese Christian immigrants who came to Brazil in the 1920s wanting to establish a new communal society inspired by the teachings of Rousseau. Yamashita explained her own inspiration for the novel in an interview for Amerasia Journal by pointing out that the immigrants she met were guided by spiritual rather than commercial concerns: "The people on these communes were actually questioning. They were trying to create a philosophy, a civilization…. And because of that, there was an intellectual involvement in the reason for being there, and that's what I wanted for the book…. And then, at the same time, within this project, there were stories about great love. There were stories about travel and meeting the forest for the first time."
In Brazil-Maru, Yamashita chronicles the settlers' lives through the voices of four characters—young Ichiro (Emile), the leader Kantaro, the compliant wife Haru, and artist Genji—taking them through such activities as clearing land, educating children, experiencing love, hardship, and loss, and dealing with the divisive effects of Japan's involvement in World War II. Library Journal reviewer Faye A. Chadwell found that the characters in Brazil-Maru "deftly reveal" the problems the community faces as "the Japanese strive to make Brazil their home." A Kirkus Reviews critic observed, "Though often seeming more a work of reportage than a novel, Yamashita's characters are vital, full-bodied creations offering sufficient balance, as well as answers to the questions raised." In Booklist, Seaman praised Yamashita's "engrossing multigenerational immigrant saga" for its "energy, affection, and humor," also commending the author's "heightened sense of passion and absurdity."
Yamashita's third novel, Tropic of Orange, takes place in Los Angeles—more specifically, on a freeway that the homeless have turned into a thriving, festive neighborhood after a fuel truck overturns, causing drivers to abandon their cars. The novel—apocalyptic and satirical, with characters named Arcangel and Buzzworm—explores the relationships between north and south, rich and poor, delving into the spaces behind the illusions of everyday life in Los Angeles. Janet Ingraham of Library Journal called Tropic of Orange a "dense, hip, multifaceted story" and a "stunner." A Publishers Weekly contributor praised Yamashita's "panache" in handling her "eccentric" characters and settings.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Amerasia Journal, Volume 20, number 3, 1994, interview with Yamashita, pp. 49-59.
Booklist, August, 1990, Donna Seaman, review of Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, p. 2157; August, 1992, Donna Seaman, review of Brazil-Maru, p. 1997.
Choice, March, 1991, M. Ditsky, review of Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, pp. 1139-1140.
Contemporary Literature, winter, 2000, Caroline Rody, review of Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, p. 618.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1992, review of Brazil-Maru, pp. 813-814.
Library Journal, September 1, 1990, p. 259; August, 1992, Faye A. Chadwell, review of Brazil-Maru, p. 153; August, 1997, Janet Ingraham, review of Tropic of Orange, p. 136.
Publishers Weekly, August 4, 1997, review of Tropic of Orange, p. 66.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 2002, Jason Picone, review of Circle K Cycles, p. 135.