AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 363

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Session 363: Crossing the Pacific: Asia and America in the Work of Ian Hideo Levy

Organizer: Christopher D. Scott, Independent Scholar, USA

Discussant: Ian Hideo Levy, Hosei University, Japan

Ian Hideo Levy, or Levy Hideo in Japanese, is a white American author who resides in Japan and writes fiction and non-fiction in a mixture of three languages—Japanese, English, and Chinese (Mandarin)—which he learned at a young age. He is the recipient of numerous literary awards in Japan, from the Noma Literary Prize for New Writers for his debut novella "Seijoki no kikoenai heya" (A room where the star-spangled banner cannot be heard, 1992) to the Ito Sei Prize for his most recent work "Kari no mizu" (Fake water, 2008). Moving between different languages, cultures, and nations, Levy’s writing crosses the Pacific in many directions: between North America and Japan, between Japan and other countries in East Asia, and between East and Southeast Asia. From colonial Taiwan and the Vietnam War to contemporary China and the events of 9/11, his texts uncover the multiple and overlapping legacies of nationalism, imperialism, colonialism, Communism, and now terrorism that have troubled and transformed the relationship between Asia and America. This panel brings together three scholars of different backgrounds—from Taiwan, the United States, and Japan, respectively—to discuss these crossings and conflicts between different languages, locations, and histories in Levy’s work. The author himself will participate as a discussant, commenting on the papers and offering some of his own perspectives. With translations of Levy’s works forthcoming in English, Chinese, French, and German, this is an opportune moment to reconsider his work and introduce him to a wider audience.

Exophony and the Locations of Identity in Levy Hideo’s Fiction
Faye Kleeman, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA

(Ian) Hideo Levy’s multi-cultural and transnational upbringing took him through the U.S., Taiwan, Hong Kong and finally, Tokyo, the place he came of age and later claimed as his spiritual and literary home. This uniquely diasporic experience led him to writes fearlessly across multiple boundaries—geographic, linguistic, and cultural. His decision, in the early 1990s, to write and publish in Japanese instead of his English mother tongue has made him the most prominent and most productive non-Japanese writer writing in Japanese language in recent memory and his works often exhibit a intricate interlacing of themes that reflects the complexity of lingual and cultural conditions across East Asia. Within this context, my paper addresses how his personal experience and the choice of creative language shape Levy’s writerly subjectivity. First the paper locates Levy in the larger context of postwar Japanophone literature contrasting it with the linguistic border crossing of the pre-war Japanese colonial experience. Levy’s decision to forge his identity in a foreign language created a sense of instability and anxiety that characterizes all his texts. The paper further examines how Levy’s works reflect and engage the power dynamic of postcolonial East Asian culture. For this purpose, his first novel, "The Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard" (1992), and one of his more recent novels, "Shattering" (2005), on 9/11 and its impact on national borders, will be analyzed from the perspective of cultural comparison between China, Japan, and Taiwan, with focus on issue such as linguistic and cultural code-switching.

Memoirs of a Gaijin: Whiteness and White Privilege in Ian Hideo Levy’s Fiction
Christopher D. Scott, Independent Scholar, USA

As the story of a white American academic translating and transcribing the story of a Japanese geisha, Arthur Golden’s best-selling yet controversial novel "Memoirs of a Geisha" (1997) is a classic example of the Orientalist mode of white Westerners (usually men) trying to discover and conquer—both politically and sexually—the “exotic Orient.” But what happens when a white American academic tries to write his own story in Japanese without the filter of English translation or the fictional voice of a Japanese protagonist? Such is the dilemma faced by Ian Hideo Levy, a white American academic-turned-author who has been writing semi-autobiographical fiction and non-fiction in Japanese (and other languages) for the past twenty-five years. In many ways, Levy’s work is about overcoming or interrogating whiteness: about being a white American who lives in Japan and writes primarily in Japanese, about the legacies of white supremacy and American neo-imperialism in East and Southeast Asia, and about the intertwined histories of racism and nationalism in Japan and the United States. In this paper, I examine the multiple meanings of whiteness in Levy’s texts, focusing on the category of "gaijin" (“foreigner” or, more literally, “outsider”)—a term usually reserved for white Westerners in Japan—as a racial formation, especially in relation to other oppressed minorities. By exposing the invisibility of whiteness and white privilege behind the term “gaijin,” Levy’s work shows how Japanese ethnocentrism (i.e., the myth of Japanese homogeneity) and American racism (i.e., the myth of white America) are mutually imbricated.

Transversal, Translingual: Levy Hideo’s Pursuit
Keijiro Suga, Meiji University, Japan

Translingualism in literature has called much critical attention in the past decade to the problematics related to global mass migration in the era of late capitalism. Several critical essays dealing with this phenomenon have appeared in Japanese in the past decade, such as Yoko Tawada’s "Exophony" (2003) and my own "Coyote Reading" (2003) and "Omniphone" (2005). I have employed the term “exilography” to designate works, be they fictional or non-fictional, that have a solid reference to the writer’s own experience of different modes of exile: voluntary or forced, economic or political, linguistic or cultural. Exilography is often written in a language other than one’s own, on a foreign soil, and with a deep sense of anxiety. In today’s Japanese literary landscape, Levy Hideo stands out as a singular case of a major writer writing in Japanese as an adopted language. My paper will consider all of Levy’s principal works as instances of exilography, regardless of their individual presentation as fiction or non-fiction. I will also take up the seemingly innocent notion of “travel writing” as a very basic but fundamentally relevant category to which these works belong. Travel writing depicts the travelling subject’s physical displacement, her shift between languages and the social milieux, her reexamination of the past, the limit of her cultural literacy, and her failure to adapt to a given place of temporary sojourn. Through this detailed analysis, I try to shed light on the structural and historical imbedding of the author’s real and constructed self.