Japan's first writers were the ladies-in-waiting to the Emperor and its first works of literature were love stories.
About a thousand years ago, Imperial courtesans created the country's indigenous written alphabet for their works. Called hiragana, they are a set of 47 letters each representing a single syllable, far better suited for melancholy prose and poetry with their rounded, flowing shapes than the angular Chinese characters used for more technical writing. Lavishly adorned in kimonos, these women composed wistful, often tragic works chronicling their romances in such novels as Lady Murasaki's "The Tale of Genji."
Two contemporary novelists, Holly Uyemoto--a fourth-generation Japanese-American--and Amy Yamada--an immigrant to the United States--continue the traditions of their forlorn ancestors but with the liberated machisma of '90s Americanized women. The voices of these two authors cry out in their latest novels from somewhere between the sparse poetry about silken sleeves stained with teardrops and bathroom wall declarations that read: "Men suck!" While they share a similar ancestry and philosophy, their works differ in emphasis. Uyemoto is a Japanese-American woman, and Yamada is a Japanese woman living in America: Uyemoto's novel, "Go," is about reconciling two vastly different cultures while Yamada's "Trash" is about the ill-fated affair between two very different people, one of whom is Japanese, the other African-American.
"Go" is Uyemoto's second novel since her first book, "Rebel Without a Clue," which she wrote when she was just 19 years old. While "Rebel" was about young, gay men, "Go" is a coming-of-age novel for the hyphenated-American woman. Her protagonist, Wil, (short for Wilhelmina), is struggling for identity as she faces her 21st birthday. She is frustrated with her family who accuse her of being undutiful, recovering from a nasty breakup with her nauseatingly politically correct white boyfriend and suffering from severe depression after having undergone an abortion.
Under the influence of lithium, Wil seeks to find herself by trying to reconcile her desire for independence from her suffocating parents and her deep admiration for Japanese culture. She retells her relatives' stories, with awe and empathy, about the relocation camps they were forced to live in during World War II, but can't help but feel estranged from her seemingly cold and stern parents.
Much of "Go" is about kurushimi , "painful experience that does you good," something of which Wil's mother insists her daughter could use more. Uyemoto sets up an especially painful moment after Wil has rushed her alcoholic uncle to the hospital and runs into some friends of her ex-boyfriend there. They express condolences to her about having been sent to the mental hospital for her depression: information she had begged the ex to keep quiet. Feeling utterly betrayed, she runs to the elevator and accidentally ends up on the 10th floor in front of the nursery. Wil narrates, "The Japanese familial unit is based on the relationship between mother and child, the Western model on a man and a woman. No one hurts anyone the way a first love does, or the way children do. . . . The main difference between the two seems to be that in time, the former becomes slightly ridiculous, and sorrow over the latter only deepens and diffuses." Uyemoto does not fetter this scene with the wails of newborn babies, of Wil tearfully recalling her visit to the abortion clinic. Her protagonist, instead, mourns in silence.
While Wil suffers eloquently, she is not so fragile as to humbly accept the injustices around her. When Wil's mother makes her accompany her for a visit to Ann Sayles (an old white woman who had employed Wil's grandmother as a servant) Wil is clearly annoyed that her mother is kind and servile to this woman. Sayles points out that Wil's grandmother was Wil's current age when she hired her. Wil quips back: "I'm graduating from college next summer. . . . I'll send you a resume." Here, Uyemoto pits Wil's ethnic pride as a Japanese-American against her mother's very Japanese sense of duty and respect.
Like Wil, Koko--the protagonist of Yamada's "Trash"--teeters across a balance beam between tragic and empowered. Translated from Japanese, making it Yamada's debut in the United States, "Trash" is told as a series of recollections Koko has while she lies handcuffed to a bed. Not the product of a wild night of kinky sex more typical of Yamada's earlier works (such as in "Kneel Down and Lick My Feet"), her current state is the aftermath of a brutal fight. The cuffs also serve as the overriding metaphor of Koko's love for Rick: Chained to the bed, she recounts how she met, then fell in love and eventually stopped loving Rick, an older African-American man who drinks himself to oblivion every night. Unable to move, she is forced to piece together the episodes in their relationship that has transformed her from her former free-spirited and confident self to a lonely, little girl. "Koko gripped Rick's hand in both of hers. I'm not going to let this hand go, she thought. I can't do anything without it. Maybe this hand isn't really holding me. But I'm held by it," thinks Koko to herself in a brief moment of peace between her and Rick.
Although she must sink to a pathetic low, Koko does eventually rise above the Cho Cho-san stereotype. Her failed romance, however, is different from Uyemoto's protagonist who felt misunderstood by her white boyfriend, in that it is less about jungle, or yellow, fever and more about love gone awry. "Trash," certainly addresses issues of race and dysfunction, but ultimately, it is a love story as heartbreaking and universal as a Billie Holiday song, just as "Go" is not about trendy social ills but is a woman's search for her self.