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II. Exchanges and Border Crossings

"arms wide open": Hope and the Trans-Global Nuclear Family in Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange

Brady Harrison
p. 131-144


Dans le roman apocalyptique de Karen Yamashita, Tropic of Orange (1997), au moins deux forces brutales et conjuguées agissent pour faire échouer la possibilité que deux êtres puissent jamais entrer en contact l’un avec l’autre et écarter toute idée d’une rencontre amoureuse pouvant conduire à fonder une famille. Dans l’esprit de l’écrivaine, la violence (souvent au service d’intérêts économiques) et les désordres physiques et psychologiques qu’elle entraine, ne cesse d’intervenir dans la vie des individus et des communautés pour les disloquer. Cependant, malgré les forces centrifuges de la violence, Yamashita laisse augurer, dans les sections consacrées à Bobby et Rafaela, une lueur d’espoir pour la famille américaine de plus en plus hybride et transglobale. Luttant contre des forces et des catastrophes qui les dépassent, les époux séparés aspirent à se retrouver et, vers la fin du roman, ils semblent sur le point de donner une nouvelle chance à leur couple.

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Two pretty blondes in a Porsche
Their bumper says, "We Love L.A."
They look pretty fair but they’re crazy out there
And they’d just as soon blow you away.
Robert Earl Keen

1In Karen Tei Yamashita’s millennial, apocalyptic Tropic of Orange (1997), at least two perpetual, brutal, and inextricably intertwined forces work against the possibility of two individuals even coming into contact with one another, let alone falling in love and forming and sustaining a family. As Yamashita sees the world, violence (often in the service of rapaciousness and economic and political dominance) and its concomitant physical, psychological, and emotional dislocations unceasingly intervene in lives of individuals and communities, pushing them apart and setting them once more into a seemingly endless process of flight and relocation. Yet even as the Apocalypse looms, and as chaos erupts in the lives of the novel’s Angelenos, Yamashita nevertheless offers some measure of hope and the promise of family and love. Despite their individual, family, and community histories of displacement due to violence, and despite the estrangement and misunderstandings between them as a consequence of their particular experiences of conflict, immigration, work, and cultural difference, Bobby, a Singaporean Chinese who came to the U.S. as a Vietnamese "boatperson" and who speaks "street" English and Spanish, and Rafaela, an illegal Mexican immigrant who has fled from L.A. to Mazatlán with their son, Sol, seem poised at the end of the novel to try their relationship again. Excavating the long histories of violence and dislocation embedded palpably or in trace form in Bobby and Rafaela, Yamashita suggests that to be an American on the cusp of the twenty-first century is to be inescapably and increasingly hybridized, multi-ethnic, and trans-national—indeed, trans-global—and that despite all the violences and inequities swirling around the individual, hope might just be the most important (and possibly only) centripetal energy available to the contemporary American nuclear family.

2To begin, we can turn to Neil Campbell’s work on the rhizomatic West—and from there to Yamashita’s far more global view of similar phenomena—as a means to uncover the odds against any two people crossing paths—especially in the process of following their own incredible paths of displacement and relocation—long enough to form a bond, let alone a family.

3According to Campbell, if to be a contemporary American is to be ineluctably hybridized, then to be a Western American is to be especially and complexly intermixed since the American West has always been a region marked by migrations, dislocations, and ever-reformulating, not-quite stable identities and hybridities of hybridities. In The Rhizomatic West (2008), Campbell, building on the work of such theorists and cultural critics as Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, and especially Deleuze and Guattari, contends that the West must be understood, especially in our age of transnational, global media, as far too complex and fluid to be neatly summed up or encapsulated. Rather than a stable, bounded, essential place or idea, the American West must be comprehended as a place of shifting, constantly reformulating identities, as a place of motion and movement across all sorts of borders, however codified or unwritten, socially constructed or seemingly natural. Taking Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the rhizome, or a plant that has no single, dominant, or central root or stalk, but that runs in all directions and cannot be traced back to an origin, Campbell asserts that

in these metaphors of mobility, spatiality, and outsideness, of going ‘off the map’ via encounters and reinventions, Deleuze offers a process and approach I wish to apply, in varying ways, to understanding the overcoded West not as a single region but as a mutating multiplicity, a ‘way of departing from the compartmentalization of knowledge, yet without recourse to an organic unity (Romantic nostalgia for its loss).’ (9)

4For Campbell, our understandings of the West come not only from American and Western American writing, art, films, and more, but from all over, from Europe and South America and Asia, and beyond—from anywhere, in effect, anyone comments on, writes about, imagines or re-imagines "Westness." In short, we cannot speak—could never speak—of a Western (or American) identity or fix the meanings of the West; rather, if we follow Campbell’s arguments, Yamashita sets her novel in a West of constantly fluctuating and reformulating identities, a West of multiple, ever-changing, unstable meanings, of intense, kaleidoscopic combinations of races, ethnicities, cultures, languages, religions, and more.

5Yamashita, however, takes a much more global view of migration and hybridity than Campbell; for her, the processes Campbell observes as essential features of the American West are, in fact, trans-national and global. In order to establish the ever more multi-ethnic and trans-global nature of the American family, Yamashita takes considerable care not only to map out Bobby and Rafaela’s multipart lineages, but also to map out how their historical situatedness and compound ethnic particulars mark them as distinctly American. As we learn early in what Sue-Im Lee has dubbed a "political realist-fantastic novel" (501), the couple, like many of the characters, have rich, multicultural origins (some of which may be only family legends), and they live in still more complex, multitudinous intersections of histories, ethnicities, languages, religions, and desires. Few, for example, could look at Bobby and guess his story; as the narrator, employing a nicely ironic and street-inflected noir vernacular meant to suggest Bobby’s style of speech, tells us,

If you know your Asians, you look at Bobby. You say, that’s Vietnamese. That’s what you say. Color’s pallid. Kinda blue just beneath the skin. Little underweight. Korean’s got rounder face. Chinese’s taller. Japanese’s dressed better. If you know your Asians. Turns out you’ll be wrong. And you gonna be confused. Dude speaks Spanish. Comprende? So you figure it’s one of those Japanese from Peru. Or maybe Korean from Brazil. Or Chinamex. Turns out Bobby’s from Singapore. You say, okay, Indonesian, Malaysian. Wrong again. You say, look at his name. That’s gotta be Vietnam. Ngu. Bobby Ngu. They all got Ngu names. Hey, it’s not his real name. Real name’s Li Kwan Yu. But don’t tell nobody. Go figure. Bobby’s Chinese. (14-5)

6Not only does Bobby seem to be, at least as the narrator describes him, a sort of walking enigma, but he does not fit into the already extant yet fluid hybridities familiar to at least some of the citizens of L.A. Neither "Japanese from Peru" nor "Chinamex," Bobby represents an ontological complexity of his own, and the narrator sums up the young man’s seemingly improbable mix of origins, languages, and places: "Chinese from Singapore with a Vietnam name speaking like a Mexican living in Koreatown" (15). Yet as improbable as Bobby seems, Yamashita suggests that this unlikely mix makes him particularly American; where else in the world, she asks-without-asking, could such a person exist?

7In the nicely comic summation of the multiple vectors and seeming improbabilities of Bobby’s being, Yamashita brings together not only the contingencies of geography and the long and complex history of immigration to the U.S., but also the history of U.S. economic and military expansionism and interventionism across the continent and around the world. Although there is no space here to trace all the lines—to play upon the novel’s play on sundry lines of demarcation—that intersect in Bobby, we can at least follow a few of them. Consider, for example, how the almost casual observation that he speaks "like a Mexican" sparks an array of historical and contemporary associations. In the first place, the remark evokes, perforce, the violent history of the U.S.’ conquest of Mexico and the vast territorial acquisitions of 1845 and 1848; his language serves to remind the reader that California—like Texas and so much of the American Southwest—used to be part of Mexico. At the same time, the observation also evokes some of the complexities of the present: to call an American a "Mexican" can be the worst sort of racism, as if the person were not as American as, say, Euro-Americans; in other circumstances, the observation might be a compliment or statement of cultural pride.

8Further, and perhaps most importantly, the remark, combined with the subplot of Bobby’s journey to Tijuana to smuggle his "cousin" across the border and the major plot of a mass of people crossing the border into southern California to witness the battle between Arcangel, a magical, 500-year old man based on Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Pablo Neruda, and SUPERNAFTA, Yamashita’s ironic shorthand for U.S. economic imperialism, also direct the reader’s attention to the on-going and often vicious debates and legislation surrounding Mexican (and Latin American) immigration, both legal and otherwise, into the U.S. The matter of who counts in America remains, to say the least, one of the most important and vexed issues before the nation. In these four, almost off-hand words, Yamashita connects one character (and thereby the novel) to continental expansionism, immigration, and language, issues central to the nation’s often turbulent history.

9To take another example—Yamashita’s work is of such complexity that a reader needs to be at least Vishnuvian to keep track of the matters addressed in even a single sentence—the fact that Bobby, at least for a time, "passes" for a Vietnamese refugee similarly evokes the history of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and its appalling brutalities and dislocations. As the narrator tells us, Bobby and his younger brother, with a push from their father (who has lost his business and who believes they will find work and better lives in the U.S.) become part of the human tide of refugees fleeing South Vietnam during the American withdrawal from Saigon:

Bobby’s only twelve. How you get from Singapore to America? It’s 1975. People getting on boats, rafts, dinghies, anything, swimming south out of Vietnam. Get to Singapore, but Singapore don’t want them. They tell the Americans, it’s your problem... Meanwhile, they’re in camps. Singapore don’t want them. What’s American gonna do? Count them again. Sort them out. Ask more questions. Pretty soon refugees get put on planes. Little by little. Distributed to America. (15)

10Bobby and his brother visit the camps each morning and "stand around with the refugees" (15) until, mistaken for Vietnamese orphans, they "get some papers ... American passports" (15) and catch a plane to the U.S. Once more, in a phrase (and subsequent elucidation), Yamashita evokes not only a major conflict in the history of U.S. overseas interventionism, but also recalls a specific instance of the mass dislocation and shifting of peoples as, simultaneously, a by-product of a vicious century of wars and internecine quarrels and of the equally powerful forces of globalization whereby labor moves—depending upon one’s point of view—toward opportunity or to suit the needs of capital.

11If the phrase, "with a Vietnam name," connects the novel once more to issues of immigration and American violence, so, too, does the phrase "living in Koreatown." According to the National Association of Korean Americans, Korean immigration to the U.S. began in the late nineteenth century, but increased rapidly following American involvement in the Korean War: "The third wave of immigration since the 1965 Immigration Act, which allowed family and employment immigration, has resulted in the development of large Korean immigrant communities in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago" ("In Observance"). Yamashita’s decision to set Bobby in Koreatown not only implicitly links the narrative to the brutalities of the early Cold War and the division of the peninsula into the two Koreas, but also explicitly to the 1992 Los Angeles riots (which we will return to later in this paper). The reference also emphasizes Bobby’s considerable "American" work ethic as he lives among yet another group of notoriously hard-working immigrants.

12Then again, Bobby’s "actual" ethnicity—"Chinese from Singapore"—evokes an even longer history of Western imperialism than the rise of the U.S. as a global power and also brings forward, if in ghostly traces, the history of the Chinese in California and the American West. With the U.S. as the twentieth-century inheritor of the European mantle of imperialism, Bobby bears not only the Gramscian traces of the wars and dispossessions in Mexico, Vietnam, and Korea, but the marks of colonial history, trade, and warfare as well: in 1819, in order to possess a port along trade routes from England to India and China, the British established a trading post on Singapore; in 1824, they secured complete control of the island and turned it into an economic force in the East Indies. Born into the postcolonial world, Bobby—or, rather, his father—has learned to look to the West for economic opportunity. Moreover, as a Chinese immigrant following in the wake of successive waves of Chinese immigration to the U.S., his being—especially in his record of unstinting and uncomplaining labor—cannot help but bring to mind the Chinese who helped settle and build the railroads of California and the American West. To say the least—and we could follow many more lines and histories intersecting in Bobby—Yamashita packs a great deal into one sentence, foregrounding issues of American immigration, language, militarism, and economic imperialism. In short, Bobby exists in many ways as a product of American history and that history, on the cusp of the twenty-first century, has become (indeed, always was) truly and distinctly trans-global and multi-ethnic.

13Like Bobby, Rafaela is paradigmatically (if not quite legally) American. Following in the footsteps of her brother, Pepe, who "didn’t pay no coyote. Just crossed the Rio Tijuana with a bunch of others" (76), she left Culiacán and moved to Tijuana in order, when able, to cross into the U.S. With help from Pepe and especially Bobby, who has fallen in love with her, she secures a green card and crosses the border. Yamashita, however, never quite explains whether or not Rafaela crosses legally. When he learns that the smugglers want ten thousand dollars to bring his "cousin" across the border, Bobby thinks back to when he assisted Rafaela: "Ten thousand dollars. Are they crazy? Ten years ago, cost him four thou. Paid the lawyer to get Rafaela a green card. Goddamn lawyer. Goddamn smugglers. Goddamn border" (78). Although we might assume that Bobby married Rafaela, and then secured her a green card with the help of an immigration lawyer, the two events become intertwined in the paragraph in such a way that we cannot be perfectly sure. The lawyer and the smugglers become linked together; was the lawyer, like the smugglers, involved in an illegal activity, such as the improper securing of (counterfeit?) green cards? From Bobby’s point of view, they are both “goddamn” types and, whatever the case, crossing the border requires outrageous payoffs—if the lawyer is not a crook, he is anyway. Moreover, Rafaela’s crossing, involving, as it does, a whiff of illegality, connects her to the millions of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. who have crossed legally or illegally. As we have seen not too long ago in Arizona, who counts—and who has to be able to produce papers on demand—remains a deeply troubling question in American culture, and the story of Rafaela’s migration could not be more American: she comes to the U.S. looking for employment and a better life.

14Rafaela, also like Bobby, possesses a complex history and identity, yet even as Yamashita acknowledges and honors the vast array of intertwining ethnicities and races that comprise present-day Los Angeles, she also suggests that we might view ourselves and our origins with some detachment—and perhaps even irony. Rafaela, the narrator explains, "was from Culiacán, thirty miles north of Mazatlán" (6). Her mother’s family, however, does not come from the Pacific coast of Mexico, but rather from the Yucatán where they may have intermarried with Africans brought to the Caribbean as slaves. When Gabriel, Rafaela’s employer, thinks of her at his home in Mazatlán, he sees "her soft Afro-Mayan features bronzed by the Mexican sun" (45). Although we cannot, on the basis of Gabriel’s rather dreamy, romanticized reflections (he may be indulging a fantasy of how he wishes she looked), know for certain if Rafaela possesses African roots, we can say that if her mother’s family possesses a complicated, albeit somewhat uncertain history, so does her father’s. As she explains, "my father’s people came from even farther south. Ayacucho in the Andes. They say my great-great-grandfather brought his family across the mountains and through the jungles to get here. But that was a long time ago" (8). If the stories are true, then her father’s family journeyed from central Peru (and the historic region of the Incas) and through present-day Columbia (and perhaps Ecuador) and Central America to end up near the Sea of Cortés where they joined with her mother’s family (who came from the region of the Maya): "They say my mother’s people were weavers, and my father’s people built the looms. They couldn’t even talk to each other at first. They talked through their weaving and fell in love" (8).

  • 1 The Maya, as a regional power in the Yucatán and what is now Central America were already in consid (...)

15Rafaela’s family name, Cortes, further links her ancestry both to Spain and the encomienda and (in addition to the Incas and Mayans) to the Aztecs of Mexico; like Bobby’s, her lineage bears multiple marks of catastrophic violence and dislocation. In 1521, Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador, defeated the Aztecs at Tenochtitlán, destroying the most fearsome culture of Mesoamerica. The evocation of Cortés brings forward into the narrative not only a long and vicious history of conquest and theft in the Americas, but also an equally long history of linguistic and cultural destruction and the imposition of foreign religions and languages on their inhabitants. By naming the family Cortes—and not, say, Pizarro, after the conqueror of the Incas, or Montejo, one of the conquerors of the Maya1—and by delineating their Peruvian and Yucatánian roots, Yamashita evokes a trifecta of indigenous defeats, interweaving the decimation of the three major, pre-Columbian civilizations into the warp and woof of the novel.

16Nevertheless, while the migrations and intermarriages of the Rafaela’s parents’ families are perfectly possible (as Bobby and Rafaela’s story amply demonstrates), Yamashita suggests that "truth" has passed into legends that probably cannot be verified and that begin to seem a little beside the point: Sol, if my math is correct (and if we draw upon current nation states for the borders and nationalities that "count"—something Yamashita, I think, would be disinclined to do), must be something like Peruvian-Mexican-Singaporean-Chinese-(Not Vietnamese)-(Possibly African)-American; yet given the movement and mingling of peoples, the author implies, such claims should perhaps be marked with an asterisk: who really knows where, precisely, their people come from, and at what point—in contemporary America, in the era of globalization—do such labels cease to matter? Or, perhaps we should say that they matter only to the degree that the individual says they matter to her or him or to their families or communities. Yamashita does not, by any means, denigrate the idea of culture or history or language or the past, but rather suggests that we cannot always know and that what matters more than essentialist—or even hybridist—identities must be the person right in front of us in all of their vibrancy, complexity, and mystery.

  • 2 As Mike Davis chronicles in City of Quartz (1990) and Ecology of Fear (1998), works contemporary to (...)

17If the violences and dislocations of the world have led Bobby and Rafaela to cross paths in Los Angeles, and to fall in love, Yamashita cautions that the City of Angles is hardly an ideal, utopian space where they can finally find some peace, stability, and permanence.2 Rather, the same old violences and cruelties that drove them and their ancestors along their protracted and dangerous migrations still arise when so many different people and economic classes come together. Not surprisingly, the individual and the family face the same forces of predation and distrust in the U.S. as they do everywhere else in the world. In just a few words, for example, the narrator takes the reader back to the riots that followed the acquittal of the—mostly white—police who savagely beat Rodney King. The family of Celia Oh, Bobby’s Korean- (from Brazil) American neighbor in Koreatown, lost everything in the riots: “Meantime, Celia’s been down in the garment district twenty-four hours ever since her dad’s photo place burned down. Rebuilding L.A. with a sewing machine. Brother got shot in the head. April 1992. Some kinda quincentennial pre-blowout. Bobby found him on the street. Dragged the body home” (78). Although the narrator does not dwell on the remembered episode, we can unpack the scene: Celia’s father’s shop did not just burn down; it was set aflame during the riots. Moreover, her brother, a Korean-American, was very likely shot by an African-American as long-simmering resentments between Korean-Americans and African-Americans were unleashed during the violence. With the police nowhere to be found—fifty-three people were killed and more than one billion dollars damage done before the police, National Guard, and army could restore order—Bobby brings the slain son to the family.

18As Time magazine reported on May 11, 1992, the strife between different segments of L.A. society had been festering for years: "Not all the black rage was directed at the police force. Many rioters specifically targeted Asian-owned businesses. Relations between the black and Asian communities have been tense for years, mainly because of a perception that Korean merchants have been exploiting poor neighborhoods by establishing shops in ghetto areas while refusing to hire blacks to work in them" ("L.A. Lawless" 3). In a few rather oblique lines, Yamashita brings forward into her magical, sometimes gentle and comic narrative—Leslie Marmon Silko, in Almanac of the Dead (1991), a novel somewhat similar in event, structure, and thematics to Tropic of Orange, offers a much more brutal take on histories, races, and identities in the Americas—one of the most violent episodes of civil unrest in an American city and quietly notes the often deep mistrusts and hatreds between people of different hybridities and cultures. All sorts of border crossings, migrations, and mixings may be possible in L.A., but Yamashita does not offer a naively upbeat or unqualifiedly celebratory portrait of multiculturalism and fluid, multiple identities.

19In addition to living in a world of racial strife, in a world where linguistic, cultural, and ethnic differences can lead to all sorts of suspicions, mis-apprehensions, and even violence, the trans-global nuclear American family, as represented in Bobby and Rafaela, equally and simultaneously faces the challenges and inequities of class and of knowing their place in a vast, competitive, sometime predatory economic system. After Rafaela takes Sol and leaves L.A. for Mexico, for example, Bobby tries to puzzle through why she left, and decides (at least for a time) that it must have been because he "smokes like a chimney" (80) and he invests in a Chinese herbal treatment to help him quit. Upon further reflection, however, he realizes that she had been trying to tell him something about their place in the world, their place, in particular, in the American economy: "Rafaela told Bobby, people like him doing all the work. Couldn’t he see that? Of course he could" (79). From Rafaela’s point of view, all they did was work, yet even as they tried to be good Americans, working long hours and being careful with their money, they were despised for being immigrants, for doing the lowest, least remunerated work: "But she kept talking, saying we’re not wanted here. Nobody respects our work. Say we cost money. Live on welfare" (80). Rafaela, he realizes too late, does not want all the material things he provides: "Rafaela was serious. He didn’t want to listen. She was serious. She respected his work. But she wanted more" (80). Yet even as Bobby begins to realize what she was trying to tell him, he does not know precisely what he might do to bring about her return.

20At the same time as Bobby struggles to understand what went wrong in their relationship, Rafaela, too, tries to puzzle through her own thoughts and emotions. She knows that she does not want those most American of working- and middle-class commodities (a "cherry-red Camaro Z-28" [80] or a "Maytag super-capacity washer and gas dryer" [80]), and she finds herself working toward a less rapacious and more inclusive world view. She misses Bobby and comes to understand that his "materialism" was "his way of showing his love, of trying to delight her with the nice things that other Americans had" (116); at the same time, she wonders if the world could be a fairer, less vulturine place, if someone—usually a woman of color—always had to be at the bottom of the economic order, doing all the rotten, low-paying jobs: "As long as she was not [at the bottom], did it matter?" (117). To Rafaela, it does matter, and she leaves Bobby to gain some distance and to rethink both her responsibilities to others and her place in the world. As Sue-Im Lee observes, "While Bobby lives to work and to buy, Rafaela seeks inclusion in the larger social, economic, and political structure" (509).

21Perhaps one of the most poignant moments in the novel occurs when Rafaela experiences an epiphany about her husband and why he works so hard; in a few sentences, Yamashita dives deeply and sympathetically into the immigrant experience, an experience, as we have seen, rife with dislocations, violences, and losses. Having taken the cooler with the baby’s heart from Doña Maria’s refrigerator, and running with Sol for their lives, Rafaela wishes she could call Bobby: "There was no turning back now. Finally, she understood what Bobby always felt: this fear of losing what you love, of not feeling trust, this fear of being someplace unsafe but pretending for the sake of others that everything was okay" (149). In a sudden, sorrowing moment, Rafaela realizes how distraught Bobby must be, having already lost his family in Singapore, at losing both his wife and son. Always in fear of losing contact with those he loves, he works and works in order to have the resources to protect his family as much as he can against the world and the forces of racism, discrimination, and barbarity. He works and works, as well, in order to be too busy to dwell on what he cannot control but which nevertheless threatens his family and their happiness and security. Sol’s life (and her life) in danger, Rafaela understands Bobby’s fears, but she has no time even to try to make amends.

  • 3 For more on the structural implications of Yamashita’s treatment of the apocalypse, see Johannes Ha (...)

22As promised, the Apocalypse,3 in the form of a police and military attack on the homeless encampment on the Harbor Freeway and the epic battle between Arcangel and SUPERNAFTA, arrives and in the process Yamashita casts even more doubt on the future survival of the American multi-ethnic family. If Bobby and Rafaela suffer a prolonged estrangement, Gabriel and Emi, a couple and potential family-in-the-making, grow increasingly distant as the novel progresses and, in the end, Emi dies during the raid on the freeway. Although we do not have the space here to explore their relationship in depth or to unpack the multiple histories intersecting in their lives, we can at least note that Gabriel, a Mexican-American, and Emi, a Japanese-American (who, Yamashita admits, serves as her “mouthpiece for saying things that normally should not be said. She’s the one who says that ‘multiculturalism’ is bullshit” ["Interview" 7]), are probably too busy with their careers to have a family; as a foil to Bobby and Rafaela’s relationship, Gabriel and Emi’s reveals once more that work—and the capitalist ideologies of more and more and more—works against any hopes one may have for a family. Further, as Yamashita suggests, no one, no matter her or his class, is safe from the violences of the world. During the attack on the homeless, a sharpshooter, in the process—perhaps—of attempting to shoot out the satellite dish on top of her T.V. van, shoots Emi instead. As singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen suggests in the lines from A Bigger Piece of Sky (1993) that I have used as the epigraph to this essay, Americans sometimes seem particularly anxious to "blow you away." Whatever the case, although Emi acknowledges Manzanar Murakami as her grandfather—and therefore creates some hope for the extended family—there will be no happy, hopeful ending for Emi and Gabriel.

23If matters look grim for families in Tropic of Orange, Caroline Rody argues in The Interethnic Imagination (2009) that Yamashita likes a happy ending for her novels and that she uses the reunion of Bobby, Rafaela, and Sol—under very strange circumstances, indeed—to signal her faith not only in family and community, but also in the ability of diverse peoples and identities to fuse and reformulate to produce new energies, lives, and possibilities:

The notion of a transnational family perfectly encapsulates Yamashita’s vision of resilient nature, triumphant over the national—and ethnic—borders that rise and fall in human history. In her oeuvre, borders seem not only artificial and unjust but also limiting, deadening, dull, compared to all that the unbounded, mobile imagination can bring to life. (143-44)

24Rody finds great compassion and support for community and the dignity of the multi-ethnic individual and family in Yamashita’s work, and while I am sympathetic to her reading, my own view of Yamashita’s take on life in America remains a little more tempered and subdued.

25Although Rafaela has been thinking about Bobby, and missing him, her encounter with Hernando, the drug trafficker and black market smuggler of human body parts, combined with the arrival of Arcangel in Mazatlán, prove to be the catalysts that set her in motion. Afraid that Hernando will abduct Sol and kill him in order to harvest his organs, she attempts to flee on a bus with her son and Arcangel. In short, Rafaela possesses relatively little agency and does not, on her own, attempt to reconnect with Bobby. More, in the chaos following the epic battle between the old man and SUPERNAFTA, Rafaela scoops up Sol, and Bobby (who holds the now-severed-into-two Tropic in his hands) finds himself, almost by happenstance, reunited with his wife and son: "Anybody looking sees his arms wide open like he’s flying. Like he’s flying forward to embrace. Don’t nobody know he’s hanging on to these invisible bungy cords. That’s when he lets go ... . Go figure. Embrace" (268). The family has been brought back together, but they have been, yet again, as much swept along in great events as they have been agents of their own destiny and desires. Further still, the homeless encampment has been destroyed by the police and army, and if the novel ends with a moment of hope—despite everything, the multi-ethnic, trans-global American family might just survive—it seems like the barest flicker of light amid the catastrophic violence and doom surrounding them. Although Rody argues that "the irrepressible life-urge ... overcomes evil, differences, and borders" (143), I would say that while Yamashita indeed offers hope and the promise of family, her world—her L.A.—remains an inhospitable place, with the forces of exploitation, division, and hatred (as represented by SUPERNAFTA) relatively intact and potent, ready for the next round.

26Finally, however grim matters may seem for the family (and the poor and disenfranchised), the novel retains a distinctly utopian impulse. Building on the work of Butler, Laclau, Žižek, and other poststructural theorists, Sue-Im Lee persuasively reads Manzanar Murakami as the novel’s most important figure of hope. As he conducts his great symphony of Los Angeles, others become inspired by his implicit vision of a complex, wholly interconnected and interdependent world. The freeways and roads literally connect everyone to everyone else, and Yamashita expands this notion of connectedness beyond California to the world via Arcangel and his supporters and Buzzworm and the homeless: "In addition to bringing people to tears, Manzanar’s conducting begets other believers [in an entirely voluntary and reciprocal universalism], inspiring them to start conducting themselves" (518): "Indeed, each of the conductors begins to personify, as Manzanar has done, the immensity of humanity as a single totality" (518). We, Yamashita suggests, are all in this together, all part of a great oneness; as Lee puts it, "the novel postulates another model of global collectivity, a different rationale for a globalist ‘we’ that can express the transnational, transcontinental nature of human existence without imperialist dimensions" (503). If the individual family seems always at risk, Yamashita nevertheless hopes for greater communities of the disenfranchised finding non-coercive, non-exploitative ways to be in the world. For my part, while I agree with Lee that such utopian energy can be found in the novel, I also remain persuaded by Yamashita’s depictions of the countervailing forces; universalism and peace for the family and for its greater communities seem a long way off.

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Campbell, Neil, The Rhizomatic West: Representing the American West in a Transnational, Global, Media Age, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Davis, Mike, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, New York: Vintage, 1998.

Ellis, David et al, "L.A. Lawless," Time,, 11 May1992, Web, 15 May 2010, <,9171,975479,00.html>

Gier, Jean Vengua and Carla Alicia Tejada, "An Interview with Karen Tei Yamashita," Jouvert: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 2.2, 1998, Web, 28 Dec. 2010, < YAMASHI.HTM>

Keen, Robert Earl, "Blow You Away," A Bigger Piece of Sky, Sugar Hill, 1993, CD.

Kim, John H. et al, "In Observance of the Centennial of Korean Immigration to the U.S.," National Association of Korean Americans, 2003, Web, 20 Nov. 2010, <>

Lee, Sue-Im, "‘We Are Not the World’: Global Village, Universalism, and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange," Modern Fiction Studies 53.3, 2007, 501-527.

Rody, Caroline, The Interethnic Imagination: Roots and Passages in Contemporary Asian American Fiction, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Yamashita, Karen Tei, Tropic of Orange, Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1997.

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1 The Maya, as a regional power in the Yucatán and what is now Central America were already in considerable decline by the time the Spanish arrived; they did not, in other words, suffer quite the same sudden, catastrophic defeat as, say, the Aztecs.

2 As Mike Davis chronicles in City of Quartz (1990) and Ecology of Fear (1998), works contemporary to Tropic of Orange, Los Angeles seemed like a pretty nasty and bloody place at the end of the millennium; in fact, life was so Hobbesian in L.A. that Nature—the sort of Nature that one finds in, say, Shakespeare’s Macbeth—seemed intent upon destroying the city for its sins and unnatural acts: as Davis writes, "Divine wrath or not, there is widespread popular apprehension that the former Land of Sunshine is ‘reinventing’ itself, to use a fashionable gerund, as a Book of the Apocalypse theme park. First the natives rioted, then nature. In fewer than three years, the megalopolis endured three of the ten most costly national disasters since the Civil War" (Ecology 6-7). To help us get the picture, Davis supplies a convenient chart of manmade and natural disasters between February, 1992, and January, 1995—including floods, riots, earthquakes, firestorms, and more—and numbers the dead and the damage in millions of dollars. The message, we could say, seems pretty clear: for a good, end-of-times time, L.A. was the place to be in the 1990s. And, as we know, Davis’ work influenced Yamashita’s views; as she remarks in an interview with Jean Vengua Gier and Carla Alicia Tejeda, "I really liked Mike Davis’ [City of Quartz]. It was one text I read that had gone beyond most of the discussions of the City" (4).

3 For more on the structural implications of Yamashita’s treatment of the apocalypse, see Johannes Hauser, "Structuring the Apokalypse: Chaos and Order in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange," PhiN, Vol. 37, 2006, 1-32.

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Bibliographical reference

Brady Harrison, « "arms wide open": Hope and the Trans-Global Nuclear Family in Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange », Caliban, 31 | 2012, 131-144.

Electronic reference

Brady Harrison, « "arms wide open": Hope and the Trans-Global Nuclear Family in Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange », Caliban [Online], 31 | 2012, Online since 16 March 2015, connection on 15 April 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Brady Harrison

University of Montana

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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