So little class time, so much to say!
I really wish I could write a single unifying thesis on all of my questions/thoughts/notes on the segment of A Japanese Nightingale that we discussed in class today. Instead, here are some vaguely-connected questions I came away with about its authorship.
- There’s always the question, I think, of what gray area there is between portraying a stereotype and avoiding it altogether. Can a harmful stereotype, which in this case was and still is also an object of fetishization for Western men, ever be reclaimed? Is that what Wattana is doing? Is an ambiguously critical portrayal the same as a reclamation?
- There’s also the question of economic viability. Here’s a rough analogy: does an Asian-American actress in the present day (or a decade or two ago, if we want to make the situation more dire) have an duty to seek out rare (and perhaps low-paying) chances to play dynamic, non-stereotypical characters, or is it okay play to stereotype in order to achieve success? If a Chinese-American actress plays a Japanese woman, is she betraying her community by contributing to the mentality that differences between Asian ethnicities don’t matter? When does the desire to make it as an oppressed individual give way to an overarching duty to the image of your group?
- Watanna’s situation is a related question to that, but not, I think, quite the same one. Onoto Watanna was writing in a historical context quite different from ours; for instance, her writing wholly precedes the modern Asian-American movement. But as we see from the example of her sister, some people thought far ahead of their time in a way that aligns with our perspective. Is it fair to judge by that metric? Alternatively is ‘product of its time’ a lazy label we call works to excuse their complicated aspects? What’s the line between contextualizing and excusing?
Do I have answers to any of these? Not really, unless a universal ‘It’s complicated!’ works. There’s not really a limit, I think, to how deeply one can go back-and-forth about these questions. There is one thing, however, that I think I’m still arguing: that Watanna’s portrayal of Yuki is done with an empathy and self-awareness that equivalent writing by white men doesn’t reach. I think her internal monologue for Jack, while immediately sickening to a modern audience, would have left significant portions of an early 20th-century audience disquieted as well.
Of course, the question then becomes ‘how much of that was intentional?’ Was her focus just writing a story that sells, with the critical overtones I’m seeing creeping in more or less unintentionally? Or did she really, in some way, have some intention of critiquing attitudes towards Asian women – ones that she had to live with in one form or another?
I don’t usually focus on authorial intent to this extent, so it’s interesting to me in itself that I’m so hung up on it for this book. Either way, I look forward to continuing the discussion with all of you!
One thought on “Onoto Watanna and difficult authorship questions!”
I really like all these thoughts here because I was going to write my own post trying to explain similar thoughts but you did a lot more concisely!
I really like the first question about reclaiming stereotypes because I was thinking about this idea too in terms of satire and when is it just plain offensive and when are you actually still making a statement/move to reclaim said stereotype? And similar to you I honestly have no idea where that line is and clearly a lot of writers/comedians/directors still have no idea either.
If I had to sort of give and answer thinking solely about this work I feel like my answer is still an in-between response. But authors can have dual intents right? I feel like based on the biographical information about Watanna a portion of her motivation was out of a need/want (whichever you prefer) to appeal to her audience and to sell her work, which in my mind, is partially a good thing because as authors you want to write to and understand your audience. But then you consider that exploiting stereotypes is not quite the same thing as choosing to leave out curse words or using only proper grammar.
But then there’s the part of me that sees the ways in which she uses these stereotypes at the beginning of the story, told also through the perspective of an American, and then the way in which she begins to turn those stereotypes on their head, a bit (based on how far I’ve read at this point). And there’s this idea still in my head about satire, and how these exaggerations may be just that, made to make those aware of the stereotypes laugh, similar to how someone who is a feminist may make a comment like “Ha! well feminists are just man-haters right??” to make their friends chuckle (poor example forgive me but I think you get the gist). But again I am hesitating to just brush off the use of stereotypes as a satire of sorts because that line between true offense and humor is so thin. And I hardly think I am in anyway the person to say what is and isn’t offensive to the Asian/ Asian-American communities.
So again just a very in-between, circumstantial stance here but I am glad you posed the question so that I could compose and (hopefully) articulate the many thoughts that were floating around in my head after class.