Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Literary Depictions of Chinese and Japanese Migration to Latin America

Literary Depictions of Chinese and Japanese Migration to Latin America
(David Brookshaw, University of Bristol, England)*

The absence in Latin American literature of writers of East Asian origin cannot fail to be noticed, especially if one compares this situation with that in the United States and Canada, where there is a strong presence of Asian American writers, reflected in the existence of reviews and even university courses on the subject. It is surprising, that there is no Peruvian or Cuban Amy Tan, no Brazilian Kazuo Ishiguro. Indeed, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, only one novel appeared in Brazil focusing specifically on the Japanese immigrant experience, Ana Suzuki’s O Jardim Japonês (1986) – Suzuki herself being a Brazilian of European origin married to a Japanese Brazilian. This was followed at some distance by Ryoki Inoue's multi-generational novel about a Japanese migrant family, entitled Saga (2006), possibly timed to coincide with the centenary of Japanese immigration to Brazil.

It could be argued that, in the case of Brazil, Japanese immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating as it does from the beginning of the twentieth century, with further influxes after 1945. The absence of a corpus of ‘Japanese-Brazilian’ literature might thus be explained. On the other hand, migration of Lebanese to Brazil, dates from roughly the same period, and here, one notes a number of names to have made an impact in Brazilian literature, such as Raduan Nassar, Salim Miguel, Milton Hatoum and Betty Milan, to name only a few. The same is the case with Central and East European Jews and Italians, who have provided some major exponents of Brazilian fiction, such as Moacyr Scliar, Samuel Rawet, and José Clemente Pozenato.

Can we therefore argue that the absence of Japanese-Brazilian writers lies in the nature of Japanese migration to Brazil? We know, for example, that the major influx of Japanese was to the rural areas of the state of S. Paulo, with smaller concentrations in Paraná and in isolated areas of the north, notably in the state of Pará. We know too that much migration was family-based. Isolated communities of farmers no doubt delayed the process of assimilation and urbanisation, and this compounded especially by profound linguistic and cultural differences, could well explain the tardy emergence of Japanese-Brazilians into the type of urban occupations that might have encouraged the evolution of a community-based literature in Portuguese.

I would, however, suggest that there are also profound cultural reasons related to an emergent Brazilian cultural nationalism, especially from the 1930s onwards, that have in all likelihood inhibited alternative, or minority Brazilian literary voices, and what one can say for Brazil, can also no doubt apply to other Latin American countries. Brazil, like its continental neighbours, has developed a culturally nationalistic discourse that emphasises ‘mesticismo’, the harmonious blending of Latin European (Catholic) culture, with African and/or indigenous cultural residues. This, along with a parallel discourse surrounding a supposedly Latin American absence of racism, has often been contrasted with the more rigidly defined contours of ethnic identity as propounded in the United States, and by extension, the tradition of racial segregation and exclusion in that country. Latin America is about fusion and harmony, North America is about inter-ethnic hostility and separation. Cultural hybridization and racial fusion have traditionally gone hand in hand in Latin America, whether given expression in José Vasconcelos’s ‘raza cósmica’ in Mexico, Gilberto Freyre’s ‘luso-tropicalismo’ in Brazil, or Fernando Ortiz’s Afro-Cubanism. I do not propose to discuss the implications of such cultural self-perceptions in terms of a socially hierarchical pigmentocracy, in which European cultural and somatic values have traditionally held sway over a ‘darker’ alternative, nor to discuss the Peruvian writer, José María Arguedas’s notion, that there are multiple variants of ‘mesticismo’ or ‘mestizaje’, which make it difficult to talk of one homogenised mestizo culture. Suffice to say at this point that Latin American establishment cultural nationalism did not encourage difference, or to put it another way, did not encourage what has now become common currency in North America, namely, values associated with multi- or pluri-culturalism. To this extent, Japanese Brazilianism – or for that matter Chinese Cubanism – were difficult and potentially subversive concepts to articulate. None of this made it any easier for Japanese Brazilians to identify themselves as Brazilians or Chinese Cubans to rejoice in their Chinese Cubanness.

It is therefore significant that the two writers who have given voice to the Japanese-Brazilian experience and to that of Chinese-Cubans do not emanate from those communities. Indeed, they are, to all intents and purposes, North American writers, albeit of an ethnic diaspora. Karen Tei Yamashita is a Japanese-American from California. A period of nine years’ residence in Brazil and marriage to a Brazilian, has given her an insight into the culture of that country as well as a knowledge of the language that has enabled her to write three works of fiction about the Japanese-Brazilian experience: the family saga and epic of migration to Brazil, Brazil-Maru (1992), preceded by another novel set in Brazil, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990), in which there is a Japanese protagonist, and finally, Circle K Cycles (2001), which is a type of narrative documentary on the Nikkei diaspora in Japan, that is the community of Brazilian returnees of Japanese descent. Cristina García, for her part, was born in Havana, but taken to the United States as an infant in the wake of the revolution of 1959. Like Yamashita, she is essentially an anglophone writer, albeit of bi-lingual background. She has written a number of novels about the Cuban experience in the United States, most notably, Dreaming in Cuban (1992), but is also the author of an epic novel about Chinese migration to Cuba, Monkey Hunting (2003). Both Yamashita and García undertook a considerable amount of research in order to write their novels.

The difference between García’s depiction of Chinese migration to Cuba from the 1850s, and Yamashita’s saga of Japanese migration to Brazil during the first decades of the twentieth century, lies in the profound social and economic differences and manner in which these migrants arrived in their host countries. Chen Pan, the male figure who dominates García’s novel fled Amoy (present-day Xiamen) in 1857, lured by the promise of riches in distant Cuba, only to find himself an indentured servant once he arrived, trapped on a sugar plantation alongside Africans who were still enslaved. Inevitably, Chinese migration to Cuba at this time was almost exclusively male, and this is captured by García not only in her depiction of the inhumanity of the journey, but also of the plantation. In due course, Chen Pan escapes his enslavement, and lives the life of a cimarrón, or runaway slave, before seeking refuge in Havana. It is here that he has the opportunity to free a female mulatto slave, with whom he soon cohabits and constitutes a family. While Chen Pan never loses his sense of being Chinese, his memories of the homeland gradually grow fainter, and he also takes on some of the beliefs that his female companion, Lucrecia, passes on to him, while she herself, is influenced by some of his Chinese customs and habits. While the family inhabit Havana’s Chinatown (one of the largest in Latin America up until the 1950s), Chen Pan is, in a sense, absorbed into the creole world of Cuba, and his occupation, trading in curios and antiques, purchased from the planters whose fortunes have changed as a result of Abolition, and sold to American and British tourists, underlines his function as a social and cultural intermediary.

Yamashita’s saga begins with the arrival of an immigrant ship at the Brazilian port of Santos in 1925. The passengers are made up of family groups, even if some of them have been artificially constituted, and they are bound for the interior of the state of São Paulo, where they will establish the agricultural colony, aptly named ‘Esperança’, a type of traditional Japanese commune, where contact with the local Brazilian population really only takes place sporadically, when migrants visit the local town. In the course of time, a younger and charismatic leader, Kantaro Uno, emerges, and it is his inflated and misguided ambition that govern the fate of the commune. When it becomes apparent that Kantaro has been using loans designed to embark on a chicken breeding project on the commune, to fund a mistress in São Paulo, the community is split down the middle, one half of it refusing to follow Kantaro in order to found a new commune elsewhere, preferring to remain on a plot of land offered them by a friendly Brazilian landowner, known throughout as the ‘Bahiano’. But the migrant communities in the rural interior are where the Japanese way of life and customs are preserved, to the extent that later, they become the focus of curiosity for media companies in Japan, where such customs no longer exist. At the same time, those migrants who settled in the city, or who escaped the constraints of the commune to go and live in São Paulo, are, like Chen Pan in Cuba, more prone to become ‘Brazilianised’ and by extension, to marry outside the community, and this process is symbolised at the end of the book by the marriage of the Japanese, Guilherme, and the Bahiano’s daughter, Jacira, both of whom had been students and political activists during the military dictatorship, and had been exiled to Europe.

What both Yamashita and García also do is to demonstrate in their narratives that migrants belong to networks that maintain links with their former homelands. Once again, nationalist discourse in host countries tends to ignore or forget this fact, preferring to focus on the integration of immigrants, as if they had no past which was independent of the host, and above all no desire to return to their homeland, much less move on anywhere else. It is true that Kantaro’s experiment in rural Brazil is a type of attempt to recreate Japan in the Brazilian wilderness, and despite the failures, the dream persists until his eventual demise. For Chen Pan, return is never really contemplated, but his son, Lorenzo, a practitioner of herbal medicine, does go back to live in China, time enough for him to marry there and have a child, who remains in China, witnesses life in Shanghai in the 1920s, its occupation by the Japanese and then fall to the communists and the excesses of the cultural revolution, long after her father has returned to Cuba. More sadly ironic is the return to the East of Lorenzo’s grandson, Domingo Chen, who, taken to New York as an infant by his father following the Cuban revolution, joins the American army in Vietnam, where he has an affair with a Vietnamese bar girl by whom he has a child, but who will inevitably be abandoned, like so many women were when the soldiers went home. García’s fragmented narrative, which mingles different chronological times and geographical scenarios, seems to reflect the fractured cultural identities of her characters, and their sense of loss in a world where they never quite feel they belong, or at least where their sense of belonging is not clear cut.

Something similar could be said of Yamashita’s returning Nikkei (Brazilian-Japanese). The re-migration of Japanese back to their ancestral homeland had already been hinted at in the final chapter of Brazil-Maru, but forms the subject matter of Circle K Cycles, which blends documentary report, oral stories and testimonies, snatches of conversation, as well as photographic illustrations, and is written in English, Portuguese and Japanese. It evokes the lives of Brazilian immigrants in Japan, of which there were some two hundred thousand residing in the country in the mid-1990s. Repeated failures of the Brazilian economy during the 1980s and early 90s led to a brain drain, which of course to some extent has continued to this day, with growing Brazilian diasporas in North America and Western Europe. But it is probably true to say that Japan was the first country to accept Brazilians of Japanese descent to work in its factories, car plants, building sites and service industries, on the grounds of what it saw as social and cultural harmony, and in apparent preference to Koreans, Filipinos etc. What few people had imagined, and this forms one of the central planks of Yamashita’s book, is the isolation, exploitation and prejudice to which these Brazilian-Japanese were subjected upon their ‘return’ to their ancestral country. One of the problems faced by their hosts was that although these Brazilians looked Japanese, they behaved like Brazilians, and once animosity and prejudice began to hem them in, the more they fell back on their sense of being Brazilian. Restaurants and shops selling Brazilian food and products, clubs and associations, even a re-invented carnival, were the by-products of these migrants’ attempts to create a home space in what was, after all, an alien environment.

In conclusion, both García and Yamashita belong to a postmodern generation of writers, who approach the question of national and personal identity in a different way from that of the modernist, nation-building writers who preceded them in Brazil, Cuba and other Latin American countries. Gone is the top-down ‘mesticismo’ of establishment nationalism, to be replaced by a more ambiguous view of cultural hybridity, in which national boundaries become porous. Yamashita’s returning Nikkei migrants, she implies, may well in due course escape the constraints of ‘national identity’, encountering a type of home in homelessness, becoming part of a global workforce:

“Half the kids born in Oizumi these days are Brazilian. What is the world coming to? We’re procreating like rabbits! That is, we’re procreating like Nikkei. Maybe the next generation can answer or reject these questions, unless they grow up illiterate. They could grow up Japanese, get domesticated and all, but the documents will prove they’re not. Being born in Japan doesn’t necessarily have any meaning other than the labor of it. Some Nikkei are biding their time, one or two more years and they can get a Japanese passport. That might be a ticket to somewhere: Canada, Australia, America. Or just going home, wherever that is. Japan might not be the final resting place” (Yamashita, 2001: 147).

And yet for García, globalisation and international migrations have their cost. One of the reasons for Domingo to abandon his Vietnamese lover is the recollection of seeing the alienated Asian wives of former soldiers adapting to life in small-town America, while seeking to deny their backgrounds by dyeing their hair blond and taking on American names. There is a nobility in migration, but also a sad loss, and an often tragic price to pay:

“Domingo wondered about these migrations, these cross-cultural lusts. Were people meant to travel such distances? Mix with others so different from themselves? His great-grandfather had left China more than a hundred years ago, penniless and alone. Then he’d fallen in love with a slave girl and created a whole new race – brown children with Chinese eyes who spoke Spanish and a smattering of Abakuá. His first family never saw him again” (García, 2003: 209).


García, Cristina, Monkey Hunting. New York, Random House, 2004.
Yamashita, Karen Tei, Brazil-Maru. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1992.
Yamashita, Karen Tei, Circle K Cycles, Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 2001.

*Text of a conference paper read at the FIEALC conference, Macau, September 2007.

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