September 19th, 2009

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Yoji Yamaguchi's Face of a Stranger

Today I finished up Yoji Yamaguchi's novel Face of a Stranger (HarperCollins, 1995), a book I found tucked away on the suburban public library selves.

One thing that I've been thinking about lately is how many books don't really get taken up by scholars in Asian American literature and why that might be so. Yamaguchi's novel is one I haven't really heard about, for example, though its topic matter--early twentieth century Japanese immigrant community in California and the picture bride phenomenon--would put it squarely within the field's interest in sketching out particular instances of communities in the earlier decades of immigration (pre-1965).

The novel follows the lives of a range of characters in this small town--primarily centered around "China Alley," so named because it was where the earlier Chinese laborers lived in town before being displaced by the Japanese immigrants. This area is now occupied by prostitutes who were mainly brought over under the false pretense of being married to a lonely Japanese bachelor. Instead, they were indentured to Kato, a local gambling and prostitution ring leader. The primary characters are the prostitute Kikue and the hapless man Takashi. Upon seeing Takashi one night, Kikue believes she has found the man in the photograph that was used to lure her to America, and she proceeds to plot with her friend Shino a prank to exact their revenge on him (Shino also was given the same photograph).

What is fascinating about the novel is its portrayal of an insular yet internally-conflicted Japanese immigrant community--one which feels the pressure of US policies that restrict their movement and labor/business opportunities. Within this world where the only white characters are the crazy white twin sisters that Takashi works for as a houseboy, the various immigrants struggle to readjust the huge contrast between their expectations of America as the land of opportunity and the realities of their lives as prostitutes, farmers constantly at the brink of financial ruin, houseboys, and so on. One particular group of people that comes across poorly is that of the Christian Japanese missionaries, particularly with their attempts to save the prostitutes from their lives of sin.

The narrative itself wavers between a kind of farce where the prostitutes make their plan of revenge against Takashi and others who have wronged them in their community and a more tragic accounting of the characters' pasts. Each character seems to have been driven to this place by misfortune and unhappiness in their lives in Japan. The bumbling giant oaf Kogoro, a local farmer, for example, grows up as an outcast in his family and community because he is larger and calmer than others. When he beats up some neighborhood kids who try to jump him, he is thrown out of school, and his family is socially outcast as well, which in turn leads to his father's death (by suicide or accident is never fully determined).

This is the kind of book that I can't imagine teaching in order to relay "historical fact" or as a mimetic narrative of Asian American experiences in the real world, despite its references to such histories and experiences. I imagine that if I were to teach the novel, students would be hung up on the picture bride phenomenon and especially on whether or not lots of women and men were duped in various ways into paying for marriages that were never really available. Of that latter point, I especially have not enough historical knowledge to verify the extent of fraud in the practice. It might be great for a class that really was able to move beyond the expectation of such mimeticism, though, to consider other questions of narrative. The story is very deliberately plotted and ends particularly cleanly on a closing scene that serves to push on questions of photographs and identity that underlie the novel.

Back when the novel was first published, my friend wrote a review in Duke University's alumni magazine (Yamaguchi is an alum of that school, and the book sports a blurb from Reynolds Price, a creative writing faculty member there).
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