Saturday, November 1, 2008

Unhappily ever after

Earlier this week, the famous writer David Mura came to speak at Northwestern. He's probably best known for his memoirs about Japanese American identity and masculinity, especially the aptly named Turning Japanese. He has just published his first novel, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, a really fantastically written novel about a very underwritten problem; after the Japanese American internment, what happened to the next generation? And what happened in the long term to the no-no boys, those people who refused to bear arms for or take a 'loyalty oath' to the government that was imprisoning them without benefit of trial? Ben Ohara, adjunct historian, was decidedly not a model minority child; his parents' social ostracism erupts in his juvenile obesity and delinquency, and in his brilliantly weird brother Tommy's drug abuse and disappearance.

What makes the novel so engaging is not only an articulate, self-deprecating central character (also the key to Mura's memoirs) but its placement amid the swirls of very large social movements: post-internment resettlement, of course, but also rainbow coalition, city gentrification (though Mura professed his ignorance of what's happened lately to Chicago's Uptown), white flight retirement to Arizona, and even the always slightly pathetic currents of academia and its trend towards part-timers. Its success in gesturing lightly towards these issues is somewhat reminiscent of Junot Díaz, who Mura thanks for his reading, though with only one major footnote as opposed to Díaz's Foster-Wallace-like revelry in them.

Though the novel sags slightly at the end, probably the unfortunate effect of suddenly needing to speak in voices other than Ben's to answer some of the questions he's asking, it ends with an open but not annoyingly vague conclusion. I really enjoyed this very much, and I think its mixture of hapless child and hapless grownups will appeal in a self-identificatory fashion to a number of readers (though I have a feeling it's not exactly going to be in the YA section).

Mura, who was delightful to speak with about his work and the arts scene/historical work of the Asian American community, gave a great performance of some of his poetry and short stories, including a new short story about a Chinese-Filipino skateboarder in Minneapolis (he had me the second he mentioned Lupe Fiasco, of course) who falls for a Somali girl he sees being harassed by two black American girls on the train one day. Mura's so well known for his memoir work that it was important to see his ability to address other experiences so incisively. I say this with some guilt, because I must say (and I think that this is fair) that as a younger child, not even a teenager yet, when I first started reading AA fiction with an eye towards forming some kind of identity for myself, Mura's memoirs did nothing for me. As memoirs are wont to do, if they are not about a suitably apposite subject. A young sansei dating a white woman and going to Japan? What in god's name could I possibly get out of that?

At that age, not much. As a scholar, I now see just how important his work was; he addressed a lot of issues and anxieties that people really didn't want to hear about. As a reader, I certainly look forward to more of his fiction. As an audience member, well, I'm nowhere near him, but if you're in Minneapolis, try to catch him sometime at Theater Mu, one of the major Asian American theater companies.

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