Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Moon Tea and Whiteface (II)

Part One, June 2014, continued

When driving away from Madison, north and west through quieter territory than that the city offers, all this struck me — what I had said, and how I said it: "There we were, four white writers, reading to a white audience." In that audience I had anticipated more obvious racial diversity than what I saw; and that anticipation had been what made me think about introducing my example of non-diversity with a spoonful of self-denigration — an admission of my failure to possess the sort of creative imagination that has as its default setting a vision of diversity, not one set in place by dominant-culture pre-setting and imprinting. I say self-denigrating, for I have a tendency that may be self-defeating, as an "artist" in our culture. For our culture rewards self-proclamatory artists over others; and this tendency of mine is to admit to my self-perceived shortcomings. I resist the tendency at times, even while embracing it as a sign that I am not overly self-deceiving — with self-deception being the Scylla to match the Charybdis of flattery.

"There we were, four white writers." At the reading I believe my mind had no such thought. At convention's end, however, I said this aloud. Even though I had just talked about having a "default white" way of viewing myself, which is not the same as saying that I have a white way of viewing myself, I used those words — "there we were" — perhaps so that I would have an unalterable fact to mull over while heading northeast.

I passed through few population centers, on my preferred route from Madison — towns with simple names that may embody white history and language: Plain, Loganville, Hillsboro. As far as I know they are mainly white-complexioned these days, although Hillsboro and its surrounding area once had a significant Black American component. Within Hillsboro a historical marker stands to commemorate either their former presence or their current semi-absence, since that particular community, a century or more ago, left the area.

Whiteface? However white that area might appear today, its history, in the time since the Native American expulsion, contains more than simply white history. In the Afrofuturism panel the term "one-drop rule" arose several times, with the panelists assuming the audience knew its meaning. Does that rule apply to village or town? In an organism, a one-drop rule must pertain to its entire life. In a community, too?

In a way, in my inadvertent statement — "there we were" — I demonstrated what I already had said of myself, in my of-the-moment realization that whatever I may be, I have felt uncertain enough about its nature that the course of least resistance has made me, in self-image, white. Although some individuals in my life have seemed to see my Japanese-ness, they may have known my parents first. In meeting Japanese people I usually feel the need to announce my being half-Japanese — as if certain that this cannot be seen. At such moments I believe that, in some way, perhaps in a purely symbolic way, I am a white man who, when he speaks, becomes non-white.

To make a gross generalization about the Japanese, they, or we, are realistic. While being realistic can lead to a certain hard-headedness, it may point toward adaptability, as well.

To make a gross generalization about Sansei, who are third-generation Japanese immigrants in America, we (I leave out the "they," since I have never had a question about being Sansei) tend to assimilate rather than stand back in order to assert our racial or cultural heritage. I have no idea, truthfully, if this tendency actually prevails among Sansei. Yet that it does exist in the group forms one certainty, in my mind full of uncertainties. Bill Hosokawa wrote a book entitled Nisei that chronicles contributions in America by second-generation immigrants, who were not only inventive and industrious but also clearly conscious that they occupied a distinct place among "Americans," generally speaking, in being Japanese. The U.S. government made sure that this awareness remained bedrock in their minds, through its actions during World War II; and the awareness helped give the Nisei a group-sense. No such similar experience strengthened the Sansei group-sense. That we had Japanese backgrounds no one was making quite so distinctly, vocally, or socially an issue.

I know I am more curious about my Japanese cultural roots than some in my generation: for some do seem content to erase their Japaneseness in becoming part of that "Americans, generally speaking" group. Yet I may feel more open to my Japaneseness because my mother, in marrying my Anglo-Swiss father, half-erased my Japaneseness on my behalf. My own Sansei tendency to erase my Japaneseness, to "assimilate" myself, has less to work with, while my curiosity and inclination to draw out my Japaneseness has more, since my already-assimilated "white" self can be whole-heartedly curious, when it wants to be.

The question rises, as I write these thoughts, as to what I saw when I looked in a mirror, as a child. Did I even look? As a child I was, of course, short. The bathroom mirror hung in its usual place, at adult eye-level above the sink. My parents had, as I recall, a full-length mirror on the inside of their bedroom door, into which I rarely peered. Even when I did, who knows what I saw. I remember when I was young and my younger sister was a year or two old, that she had the lightest brown hair — the hair, I am supposing, of my father's mother, Ada, whose lightness of hair and complexion seems to have been part of her Woodbridge inheritance, the inheritance that gave my father an appearance markedly different from the men of the Rich family of my grandfather's generation. They were large men with prominent brows, strong jaws, and hair dark enough to pass for Japanese. At a few years old, my sister looked more Woodbridge — as it seems to me now. She later acquired an appearance with more Kikuchi elements, to my eyes.

As we grow older the images we take to the mirror change — as do our inner resources for seeing, not-seeing, or reinventing the reversed object, the backwards fact, that we find looking at us.

As it happens, the short story I read aloud, Saturday at Wiscon, included a passage in which the woman character — the one whose racial identity I feel uncertain about but who is, all the same, as I am — looks into a mirror, not at herself, at first, but at a cloudy image that seems to be there, behind her.

(Continued in next post.)

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