American Vs. Woman: Asian American Identity and Queer Intimacy in
- Author: Yoo Jae Eun
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 19, Issue3, p99~126, 31 Dec 2011
Susan Choi bases her second novel,
American Woman, on a famous kidnapping case of the 1970s. Patty Hearst, when she declared that she would join her radical kidnappers, stirred public anxiety over the dominant family and national values. Focusing on a Japanese American Woman who was arrested with Hearst and represented as “the model minority” in an attempt to undermine the political effects of Hearst’s rebellion, Choi explores the implications of queer insight for the question of Asian American identity. Jenny Shimada, the fictional counterpart of the Japanese American Woman, finds herself constantly read as a poor third world or mysteriously oriental girl. She is never accepted as an American, nor can she imagine herself as a properly mature woman. Choi traces this problem to Jenny’s father’s internment experience during the Second World War. Jenny finds different ways of imagining and presenting herself only when she develops a queer relationship with Pauline, a fictional counterpart to Patty Hearst. Choi’s depiction of queer intimacy between the two women reveals the terms and conditions, as well as omissions, implicit in the phrase “American Woman.” Choi’s queer imagination thus helps her readers imagine alternative identities outside the dominant norms of the national and public culture, as well as alternative ways of storytelling that reveal silenced connections and possibilities.
American Woman , Patty Hearst , Wendy Yoshimura , queer intimacy , Asian American woman , identity , history , Susan Choi
On February 4, 1974, a 19-year-old American heiress, Patty Hearst, was kidnapped by an armed urban revolutionary group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) from her apartment in San Francisco. After two months of ransom negotiation, Patty Hearst surprised America by announcing that she had joined the SLA, and only a few days later, she was witnessed robbing a bank along with the radical cadre. Later that month, all the members of the SLA except Patty Hearst and Bill and Emily Harris were killed in a fierce house fire that followed a shootout with Los Angeles police. In September 1975, Patty Hearst was finally arrested with another woman, Wendy Yoshimura. Susan Choi’s second novel,
American Woman, is loosely based on this famous case of kidnapping in the 1970s. In an interview, Choi stated that she was attracted to Wendy Yoshimura because she was completely eclipsed by Patty Hearst in the contemporary media as well as in the public memory. Creatively filling in the untold story of Wendy Yoshimura, Choi explores a Japanese American woman’s struggle for the identity naturally bestowed on Patty Hearst: that of an American woman. The former term, “American,” is persistently denied to the protagonist of American Woman, while the latter term, “Woman,” has its own historical and social complications for her.
The daughter of a former internee at the Manzanar War relocation camp for Japanese Americans during the Second World War, Jenny Shimada, the fictional counterpart of Wendy Yoshimura, finds herself constantly read as a poor third world or mysteriously oriental girl. She is never accepted as an American, nor can she imagine herself as a properly mature woman. Similar struggles can be detected from the media portrayal of Wendy Yoshimura. What is prominently different in Choi’s characterization of Jenny, however, is her queerness. Jenny finds different ways of imagining and presenting herself when she develops a queer relationship with Pauline, a character based on Patty Hearst. Choi deliberately moves away from the historical events by giving Jenny and Pauline a whole year together. Their queer intimacy reveals the terms and conditions, as well as omissions, implicit in the phrase “American Woman,” as it effectively exposes and thus loosens the effects of patriarchal sexual and racial representations. In this sense, queer intimacy functions as an important critical tool for Choi, as it reveals the constitutive collaboration of sexual and racial discourses in marking racially and sexually different subjects.
At the same time, Choi highlights the limits of ahistorical queer desire. Jenny and Pauline’s queer relationship ends abruptly and completely because they have disregarded the history that has conditioned them not only sexually but also racially. However, Jenny brings her father to the Manzanar camp site at the end of the novel not because her queer experience has failed, but because it has helped her realize fully what has formed her subjectivity. Thus, queer insight helps Choi explore the question of Asian American identity in the context of what Michael Warner calls “a wide field of normalization” -- hegemonic social structures that authorize and reinforce the reproduction of social hierarchies such as sexuality and race (
Underscoring the difficulty of representing an Asian American woman without resorting to given stereotypes,
American Womanbegins from Robert Frazer’s point of view. Robert Frazer is a leftist sportswriter who has helped Jenny relocate to the East Coast when her lover William Weeks is arrested for bombing federal government buildings in protest against the Vietnam War. Jenny, however, disappears on her own soon after. Somewhat annoyed by her independence, or rather, her not needing his help, Frazer tracks down Jenny. For Frazer, Jenny is “like a job he once had that he’s finished with. He’s sometimes been vaguely offended by how far out of her way she went to show she’d never wanted his help, but beneath this affronted feeling, he’s very rarely wondered where she was. He’s certainly never cared” (9). This beginning, which resembles that of a traditional detective novel in which a male detective figure searches for a missing woman, implies that Jenny and her story have to be carefully assembled from fragmentary traces. Eventually Frazer finds Jenny precisely because she is “a Japanese girl, after all, in a lily-white corner of upstate NY” (9).
As a fugitive, Jenny improvises her name and history constantly -- she is Sally from China, Iris Wong from California, Alice Cha from New York -- but none of these fake identities makes any difference for her. Her Asian face is the only identity marker that she is allowed to have. Even before readers meet Jenny, they encounter the images and adjectives that envelop her. Jenny is evasive, elusive, unimposing, sensual, artistic, and oriental, all stereotypical traits that supposedly define Asian women. Some of these markers indeed help Jenny to find work for two fugitive years restoring the paintings of a mansion in upstate New York belonging to a wealthy lady called Miss Dolly, but when readers finally hear Jenny’s inner voice, they find out that she is feeling extremely lonely in her struggle to avoid attention. She deliberately hides behind the stereotypical images and thereby intensifies them, and her contrary desire to be recognized in a different context tortures her.
In this way, racial stereotypes, working alongside sexual discourses, label Jenny as a mysterious yet non-threatening Asian woman, a stereotype exploited and reinforced repeatedly. As a result of the racialization of her sex, or sexualization of her race, Jenny’s Asian-ness renders her attractive and vulnerable to white men as her racially defined femininity augments the masculine power of white men by contrast. Despite his sympathy and engagement with the revolutionary left, Frazer imagines and connects with Jenny in sexual terms. For him, Jenny’s sexual attractiveness largely has to do not only with her sexuality but also her ethnicity, as she is, essentially the mysterious oriental girl. Frazer’s friend who has agreed to shelter her when she arrived at New York also approaches her inappropriately, without her consent. Jenny is thus always exposed and threatened by the sexual self-vindication of white American men.
The reason that Frazer searches for Jenny is in tune with the racial and sexual stereotypes through which he sees her; he wants to assign Jenny a subsidiary job with the three fugitive SLA members, regardless of her objection to their political claims and methods. He feels Jenny “wasn’t merely the only person he could trust this way, she was the best he could imagine” (32) because of the simplified image of Jenny that he carries. In media representation, Jenny’s real life model, Wendy, was portrayed as playing a maternal role for the group. She supplied meals and nagged about housekeeping until she gave the fugitives up as hopeless (Alexander, 6). However, Choi modifies this story to develop Jenny’s relationship with Pauline. Still feeling out of place, Jenny witnesses the same reactionary racial and sexual politics reproduced and reinforced in the revolutionary group. The surviving SLAmembers, Juan, Yvonne, and Pauline turn out to be another small community centered around men and validating male authority, despite the fact that they risked their lives to fight the dominant society.
The now widely recognized marginalization of women within the revolutionary cadres of the period disappoints Jenny. Juan, the only male among the surviving cadre takes charge. Despite the appearance of communal agreement, he is the one who commands the other two women, telling them what to do. After sometime, Juan even commands Jenny what to do and orders her not to argue with him (197). Moreover, not only is Jenny expected to submit to Juan’s authority, but she is still judged by her Asian face. In the same imperious way, Juan imposes the “third-world” generalization on Jenny. According to him, Jenny owes her leadership to “the People! Your People, Third World People” (213). Jenny refuses such racial generalization: “Just because I’m a Japanese woman, you can’t define me in terms of just that” (139). However, Juan cannot understand Jenny’s point:
Regardless of her resistance to Juan’s reverse racial stereotyping, Jenny is repeatedly marked as an exotic “alien” by revolutionaries as much as by conservative Americans like Dolly. For Juan, as for other Americans, if one’s skin color is not white, then one cannot be considered American.
Furthermore, Juan considers Jenny’s resistance childish and vain, and, in his attempt to teach and lead her, he tries to play the Father as he does with the other girls in the group. In the figure of Juan, racial and sexual discourses conspire against Jenny once again. Thus, in the minds of others, Jenny is an oriental, the mysterious female. Even though she resents sucha label, Jenny later realizes that even during her radical underground years, she depended on William, her lover, as a father figure who interprets her through racial stereotypes (163-4), as shown in his words about the American use of napalm in Vietnam: “William . . . grabs her hands, her
little hands, squeezes them, as if she is a child. ‘Think of that being dropped onto people,’ he hisses. ‘Balls of fire dropped down onto children. Little children who look just like you’” (230, italics original). Jenny resents this racial generalization as well as sexual disempowerment, but until she experiences queer intimacy with Pauline, she does not have or cannot imagine an alternative.
Jenny starts to form an emotional bond with Pauline because she sees that Pauline is similarly discriminated against and labeled. Under Juan’s patriarchal leadership, both Pauline and Jenny are marginalized by way of generalization. Because she was born to a rich powerful family, Pauline is judged according to the stereotypical image of a spoiled rich girl. Moreover, by Juan and Yvonne, Pauline is treated as a “baby girl” (187) and thus not taken seriously. Pauline is utterly frustrated in her desperate struggle to prove herself otherwise, but instead of her grandfather’s name, it is now Juan’s male authority that determines how Pauline should be read. For instance, when recording Pauline’s story of converting to the cause of the SLA, Juan says: “I haven’t heard any changes. It goes on the tape when it’s done, and it’s done when I say” (168). At one point, Juan even slaps Pauline for not obeying him.
Jenny perceives in Juan’s authority the same logic as that behind racial stereotyping: “But it’s wrong to condemn her because of her background! She can’t be faulted for where she comes from. That’s as bad as racism” (140-1). Here, Jenny sees her own struggle for a solid, respectable identity mirrored in Pauline’s fight for the approval of her comrades. She also recognizes feelings of vulnerability, insecurity, alienation, and loneliness behind Pauline’s widely publicized image and connection to an eminent family name. In her desire to let people understand her apart from the public image over which she had no control, Pauline shows Jenny contrasting news clippings about her (174-5). Yet, Pauline still does not know “how” she wants to be defined. In the sense that they both resist their social places and roles, Jenny and Pauline resemble each other.
Thus, after sometime, Jenny finds that she “likes” Pauline. This is not motherly compassion but an attraction that nears erotic desire. Hoping to save Pauline from Juan’s violent tyranny, Jenny agrees to drive a switch car while Juan and Yvonne rob a local store manager. When Juan’s plan goes wrong (Yvonne accidentally kills the manager), Jenny grabs Pauline and runs away with her. In reality, Patty Hearst and Wendy Yoshimura stayed with the Harrises until April 1975, when they aided the newly expanded group in a bank robbery (Scanlan 264). By shifting the robbery back in time to autumn 1974, Choi gives Jenny and Pauline a year to live together. During this time, they develop a significant bond that dissolves their public identity, so much so that Jenny feels that “she’d surrendered her whole self somehow” (360).
Running away from Juan and American law, Jenny and Pauline share a physical and even erotic intimacy. Free from any patriarchal order, Pauline recognizes the social conditioning that narrows one’s conception of interpersonal relationships, raising this point with Jenny. She asks if she has ever slept with a woman, telling her, “Your conditioning might have repressed it. You might have had the feeling, but it was somehow disguised” (280). Though Jenny and Pauline never explicitly have sex, the novel describes a bond between them that is nevertheless expressed through physical closeness: “In sleep their bodies twine together at the center of the bed. There have already been nights with frost but even when it’s not cold they still wake up touching, sometimes tightly spooned” (280). Their queer desire dissolves the stereotypes, social labels, and markers of identity that previously defined them. In other words, their queer intimacy makes it possible for both women to shed all the social contexts -- their families, their past, even their associations with the radical underground -- that previously defined their relationship. At this moment when they are traveling alone and in hiding, Jenny and Pauline are defined only in relation to each other; they are comrades, companions, and friends as well as lovers.
Jenny and Pauline’s relinquishing of social conditioning instigates the construction of a narrative that exists outside the public sphere constructed and circulated by the media. During this time, Jenny and Pauline live outside of time; rather than moving linearly, their narrative reflects their chaotic itinerary. Constantly fearing and yet unconsciously anticipating their capture, Jenny and Pauline’s queer year corresponds to Judith Halberstam’s idea of “queer time.” Analyzing the experience of time when queer communities faced the AIDS crisis, Halberstamexplains that “the constantly diminishing future creates a new emphasis on the here, the present, the now, and while the threat of no future hovers overhead like a storm cloud, the urgency of being also expands the potential of the moment, and . . . squeezes new possibilities out of the time at hand” (2). As a result of this particular time experience that lies outside the heteronormal public sphere, Jenny can believe “that their futures can be imagined according to logics that lie outside of those paradigmatic markers of life experience -- namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death” (Halberstam, 2). As a result, Jenny and Pauline start to imagine alternative subjectivities that are not regulated by hierarchical family and national values.
In the same way, when Pauline asks Jenny, “did you ever do that? -- go to bed, with a woman?” Jenny is “not sure where they are” (280). It is a space, as well as time, of outlaws, of existing outside society and the family, of eluding the past, and living with no clear future defined by a heteronormative way of life.As Jenny and Pauline crisscross the North American continent, they mark the land with their queer temporality, thereby transforming the land into a different kind of “frontier,” an open, uninhabited land of opportunity for their queer desire, once again. In this way, they attempt to write an alternative American history to the one marked by violent expansion and racial and sexual injustice. In that “long moment,” the two “don’t remember their childhood homes, what their parents look like. Prior history all seems unreal” (281). Only in this queer time and space could “a perfect comradeship” (352) become possible.
However, Jenny and Pauline are not conscious of the fact that their trip together can be read as a rewriting of American history. They are only focused on forgetting the one they know. This very disregard for history causes the dissolution of queer intimacy when Jenny and Pauline are finally caught and exposed to the public gaze. During their journey, a white man asks Jenny “So what are you?” Pauline resentfully answers “She’s a
person” (278). Pauline’s language in this episode shows obvious respect for Jenny’s individuality but the respect is expressed by overlooking Jenny’s racial difference that has been created and conditioned by history. This kind of naïve individualism cannot withstand the social interpretation that is imposed on the two figures once they are apprehended and separated from each other. Jenny and Pauline “thought they could make history, while all the while it had made them” (323). As Michael Warner reminds us, the bourgeois public sphereconsists of private persons whose identities are formed in the privacy of the conjugal domestic family ( Publics67). Thus, the court and American media, having no framework for, not to mention interest in, recognizing and recording the queer intimacy between Jenny and Pauline, completely disregard their time together.
Immediately after the arrest, Jenny feels that she is with Pauline in spirit and mind. She imagines sharing her ideas with Pauline as they did when they were together until she learns that Pauline named Jenny as an accomplice to the robbery. Furthermore, once caught, Pauline and Jenny are exploited as symbols to reinforce the social management of racial and sexual boundaries. One woman is set against another in the attempt to fabricate a moral story the American public can understand. As Jenny notices, Pauline is quickly reclaimed by her influential family and represented as the helpless, innocent victim of a terrorist gang, while American society reads Pauline as a prodigal daughter whose rebellion threatened the hierarchy of values that her family represented. Here, the novel coincides withhistory, and Yeh points out that the media coverage of Hearst “disclosed an anxiety over the privileged status of whiteness” (193).
Jenny, on the other hand, is held up as a contrasting example. In prison, Jenny feels she is a “token,” a member of a “model minority”: “She felt like a token for the first time in her life. ‘The model minority,’ the one extended privileges as an example to the rest of her less worthy kin” (355). Wendy Yoshimura played the exact same role as Jenny in the media. According to Yeh, this was an effective form of persuasion for Asian Americans, as Wendy Yoshimura was put in the role of “model minority” in “the context of 1960s and 1970s anxiety over the integrity of the nuclear family, especially exemplified in the representation of Hearst” (192). Moreover, as Shirly Lim has shown, the constructions of Asian American women as passive and dutiful often served to castigate emboldened white women and feminists (211). In other words, the model minority figure was used to chide the “ungrateful” white women like Patty Hearst. Given such a representation, the counterpublicultimately cooperates in reinforcing the maintenance of social order through the regulation of family and race.
This model minority strategy indeed reveals that the ways in which an Asian American woman’s right to be called an American woman is limited. Jenny is presented as a champion of Japanese Americans who fights for their right to be consideredAmerican citizens by becoming a foil to a prestigious white woman who rebelled against the rules that originally subjugated Jenny as a second-class citizen. Neither invisibility nor visibility secures Asian American subjects like Jenny access to or membership in the nationstate. This ironic status of the model minority is why the pan-Asian support that Jenny receives does not have any lasting impact on her. At first, Jenny is mildly surprised by the support; yet it still does not change her self-image significantly, nor does she enthusiastically embrace the community.
Thus, Jenny and Pauline’s unconventional union proves useless in the face of the state’s law and the media’s power of representation. “And so the rift she had felt open up between herself and Pauline, which at first seemed entirely intimate, a rift between two individual persons, would come to seem increasingly social, inevitable and ordained” (350). Jenny recognizes this separation from Pauline as “her first true heartbreak of her life” (350). Frustrated and lonely after her irreparable break from Pauline, Jenny is once again “enraged by herself, such a ridiculous, small, not-taken-seriously, average American girl” (350). Their queer intimacy has no power over the public domain, so “She and Pauline would be tried, and convicted, and sentenced, only for the acts they had committed before they had met -- so that their time together would be further obscured, or rather, never inscribed into the record at all” (355). In the end, the reader never even learns Pauline’s real name. Like Dolly’s timeless pride that allows Dolly to scoff at her neighbors’ complaints, Pauline’s family keeps their prestigious “Americanness” intact, while Jenny’s queer story remains untold and unrecorded.
Nonetheless, the queer experience does have lasting impacts on different levels. First, it has a transformative effect on the way Jenny sees herself. Jenny finally realizes that she has internalized the social demand for a woman to be represented under a father’s authority, i.e., as a daughter. As Grace Yeh explains, when Wendy Yoshimura’s story appeared alongside that of Patty Hearst, the emergent community of Japanese Americans saw in her “a person who could . . . embody the history of the loss of civil liberties and rights because of her Asian ancestry” (191). After Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were deemed a threat to the national family that was America. In order to defy this vilifying representation, the Japanese American community chose to represent Wendy Yoshimura as a faithful daughter who cried because she was not allowed to hug her parents. This image effectively contrasted her with Patty Hearst, whose “rebellion against one of the nation’s most prominent families was interpreted as a crisis of traditional American values and way of life” (Yeh, 193). In other words, Wendy Yoshimura was strategically represented as a good daughter who kept up national morals, despite the fact that she had been a fugitive from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for her involvement with radical underground groups. Accordingly, Wendy Yoshimura’s parents played an important role in establishing their daughter’s image. When we consider this history, the fact that Jenny, the fictional counterpart of Wendy Yoshimura, only has a father appears significant. Choi challenges the compliant way Japanese Americans obtained public legibility by introducing the motherless Shimada family whose isolation and dysfunction exposes the oppressive gender dynamics of the conservative American family.
Before Jenny meets Pauline and develops a queer relationship with her, she lives in an extreme social and emotional isolation.The complete interdependence Jenny experiences with Pauline reveals that Jenny’s earlier isolation originates from her unconscious dependence on her troubled father, Jim Shimada. When he was 18 years old, Jim was interned in the Manzanar War Relocation Camp with other Japanese Americans: “In the fall of 1942, instead of entering UCLA on his scholarship, Jim, like all other Japanese and Japanese-Americans who live in California, is interned in a ‘War Relocation Center’ by the federal government . . . .Jim had gone to enlist, but had not been allowed to, because of his Japanese blood” (Choi, 319). As Benedict Anderson explains, the nation as a community “is imagined because the member of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (6). In other words, a nation is imagined and materialized through a sense of agreement among its members on what they are as a community. This understanding also suggests the importance of negative images, or communally circulated images of what a nation is
not.As many critics have pointed out, Japanese Americans served this role during the Second World War, when they were characterized as “potential spies or saboteurs” (Yeh, 195). According to this racial discourse, Jim could never be an American, and thus, never an American soldier.
Regardless, Jim remains faithful to America at first. He fights against pro-Japan gangsat the Manzanar camp, but when he is discovered being beaten by one of the gangs, he is transferred to a special camp for “incorrigibles” along with his beaters. Later, as war casualties soar, the War Department reverses its policy of excluding Japanese Americans from the military, and it drafts interned secondand third-generation Japanese American males (Choi, 321). This time, Jim angrily refuses, and “suggests the government give back his parents’ house and fruit stand, reimburse them for the years of lost income, and let them go home, and he’ll think about it. He’s tried and convicted of draft evasion, and transferred to a federal prison” (321). He is released when President Truman “quietly pardons all the Jap draft resisters in 1947” (321). Shortly after his release, Jim marries a young woman, but she dies soon, leaving him to raise their baby daughter Jenny alone.
Due to his experience at the camp Jim has serious problems being a father. Choi’s depiction of the Japanese American internment highlights the psychological damage; the abrupt internment irreparably undermines the authority of fathers and mothers. In Manzanar, “Parental authority had been snuffed into nothing” (327). In
Racial Castration, Eng explains that, because of the racial and sexual hierarchy, Asian American men are denied the normal masculinity that is allowed to white men. As a result, the public representations of Asian men render them feminine and/or queer (2-3). However, according to Choi, the same hierarchy that canceled Japanese American parents’ authority left Japanese American men sexless. Jim later recalls that “the disempowerment of his parents had not brought adulthood to him, but childhood to all of them” (327). Jim is thus deprived of a chance to grow into a proper adult man, which, in turn, renders the symbolic position of the Father impossible for him to occupy. Never having properly entered the symbolic system, Jim remainsa perennially rebellious adolescent with no hope of maturing or occupying a social position and receiving a stable public identity. Instead of seeking alternative authority by turning into a tyrant in his family, however, Jim renounces all interpersonal and social communication, including the one with his daughter.
Without a mother who could cushion the blow, Jim’sidentity crisis is directly transferred to Jenny. Because he was persecuted for his ancestry, Jim flies to the country of his ancestors, Japan, holding his daughter as “a captive of his anger against America” (160). Once in Japan, however, Jim finds that he is too “American”: “And so her father [Jim] must have hoped the Japanese would embrace him as heartily as the Japanese Americans had cast him out, but things hadn’t wound up that way. In Japan he’d emerged as indelibly and hopelessly American” (161). Upon their return to America, Jim accepts that he has to play the role of a submissive foreigner. When Jenny’s elementary school teacher suspects the quality of education Jenny received in Japan, Jim is subdued enough to offer an apologetic explanation: “‘The school system there is superior,’ . . . then he’d added, into the arctic silence that had greeted this comment, and in a stammering tone unlike him, ‘That is, superior compared to other foreign countries. Not compared to American schools’” (162). Rejected by both countries, Jim and Jenny are denied a Mother country, which is symbolized by Choi’s portrayal of the Shimada family as motherless.
Jim’s insecure masculinity engenders further problems for his daughter Jenny. In
Relative Intimacy: Fathers, Adolescent Daughters, and Postwar American Culture, Rachel Devlin argues that in an attempt to re-contain adolescents and women who had become socially active and visible during the Second World War, American society sought to bring women under traditional patriarchal control. Accordingly, in the Fifties, the importance of the paternal role in daughters’ sexual development was greatly emphasized. Women were mainly defined by their relationships to their fathers, i.e., as daughters, and thus brought back under their fathers’ authority (3-5). Jenny appears to have internalized this postwar father-daughter relationship unconsciously as she inherits anger and insecurity from Jim instead of a secure gender position. Because she harbors unsatisfied desire for the approval of the Father whose authority Jim cannot assume, she secretly desires to be approved of by a paternal figure. When she contacts a lawyer during her fugitive years, “she realized that in some part of herself she had actually wanted the older, grandfatherly man.The one who would arrive with a gruff nod but a warm gaze, who would be knowledgeable and relaxed, having won harder cases than hers more times than he could count. She suddenly longed to be sheltered by someone like that” (77). Due to this desire, despite her conscious refusal, Jenny perceives herself as an angry daughter.
In this sense, Jenny’s self-image as a girl is inextricably combined with her Japanese (American) father’s alienation. Learning about the internment in a history class in Japan, Jenny discovers power and race and takes her first step toward radicalism. Unfortunately, by the time Jenny understands her father’s lone fight, Jim is giving it up:
After her queer time with Pauline, Jenny looks back at her time with William and sees that he had been a father figure to her and that she had strived hard to please him. “She knew that for her that tension, between the girl she was and the bold, brilliant woman she’d pretended to be, had been central to falling in love -- had been love, the thrill of transforming, in secret, into the lover her lover desired” (291). Jenny’s attempt to be his daughter leads her to underground radicalism under William’s wings. Because of her selfportrayal as a daughter, however, Jenny’s radicalism was limited: she remained a victim of the sexual and racial politics implicit in her political orientation. As a result of this realization, she terminates her relationship with him. In other words, the experience of queer intimacy enables Jenny to critically examine and revise her ethnically and sexually conditioned subjectivity.
Also, as her queer time liberates her from her desire to be approved of by male authority, Jenny feels she is finally ready to imagine a kind of family different from the heteronormative one that revolves around a patriarch. She thinks she is ready to become an unconventional mother: “She’d been thinking, with bemusement but routinely, of how much she’d like to have a child. Secretly saw herself, now, as a person accumulating the knowledge and ability to be the best of the world to a child. She never thought of romance, or marriage, or family life, only of herself as a companion to a child”(361). Here, an alternative vision of family not based on the heterosexual norm or on biological kinship becomes possible, which is an effective form of social critique in itself, as institutions of marriage and the family have served as sites for managing race and national inclusion.
This vision of a different kind of familial intimacyalso appears in Jenny’s renewal of her relationship with her father. In Choi’s description of Jenny, “the construction of Wendy Yoshimura’s public image as a virtuous daughter” is prominently absent (Yeh, 200). While in prison, Jenny refuses to see her father. When they are finally together after Jenny’s release, they appear and bond as fellow survivors. In the book’s final scene, Jenny drives her father to Manzanar for a reunion, showing that she is ready to face the history of her ethnicity -- the exclusion and persecution -- without trying to run away from it or explode it with her anger. This is not a powerful victory, yet it is not a complete defeat either. Despite the ill temper that her father exhibits on the way there, once there, Jim says to Jenny: “Hey . . . I lived here.” When she replies, “I know,” she is suggesting a new bond between them. Her father is a fellow survivor, whose struggle and effort has to be acknowledged, not someone against whose authority she has to fight to delineate her subjectivity. Moreover, as they start to walk toward other Japanese Americans who also have experienced Manzanar, a larger community that values its distinctive history seems to be emerging.
Even as these changes in Jenny and Jim Shimada are significant by themselves, the most substantial insight that Jenny’s queer experience brings forth is designed for the readers. Just as Choi uses Frazer to show the readers Jenny’s elusive identity, she introduces another mediating character, the reporter Anne Casey, to expose the fact that public narratives are formed through omission of certain stories. The “nobody’s stories” (319) that Anne reports to readers help them historicize the queer relationship between Pauline and Jenny, even though the two characters themselves have failed to do so.
While researching Pauline’s family, Anne discovers the forgotten mistress of Pauline’s grandfather. As a newspaper magnate, Pauline’s grandfather materializes the power that decides which stories are to be told and in what way. He is the one who condemned Japanese Americans as a national threat during the Second World War: “pro-Japan gangsters . . . anti-Japanese opinion makers in the press, who point out that the Japanese in the U.S. are clearly a threat, their prior Americanness just a cunning façade. Pauline’s grandfather, in a series of loud editorials, propagates this view in his newspapers” (320). Anne’s investigation makes clear that his unnamed mistress is an isolated, silenced, and marginalized figure. Like Pauline and Jenny, this nameless mistress is called a “girl.” When she publishes a memoir about her years at McCloud, a secret mountain estate owned by Pauline’s grandfather, it was heavily censored bylawyers in the employed of Pauline’s family. In the book that was finally published, her voice appears vulgar and trivial, and no one cared to read, let alone review, the book. Thus, the mistress has been silenced and kept away from public sight as Pauline’s family decides which stories could be told. As Anne notes, “the mistress isn’t part of the story” (315).
However, Choi has Anne excavate previously undetected connections between the untold or silenced stories of Jim, Jenny, Pauline, and the mistress. First, Anne’s background investigation draws parallels between the mistress of Pauline’s grandfather and Pauline:
By the time that Anne narrates this information, the reader already knows that Pauline had dislocated her shoulder at McCloud and felt her isolation for the first time. In this way, Choi deftly overlaps the mistress’ image and Pauline, for they both appear as alienated girls whose individual subjectivities are obscured under the control and power of Pauline’s grandfather’s name. Perhaps because Pauline does not know about the mistress, Pauline relives her story of alienation and misrepresentation.
Furthermore, this mistress connects Pauline to Jenny in an unexpected historical way:
The most sensational headline appears in the chain of newspapers published by Pauline’s grandfather, and for the mistress kept away alone in the mountains, Jim’s miserable, desperate, doomed escape is an exciting little episode:
Both Jim and the mistress are misrepresented, discriminated against, and kept out of public sight; yet instead of realizing the injustice they both experience, the mistress reads the other as a threat. In this way, Pauline’s grandfather checks and controls the sexually and racially marginalized. In other words, his representational power not only keeps Jim and the mistress separate but draws its governing power from the antagonism it engenders between them.In the end, Anne notes, Jenny’s story will be stashed away “with the mistress and the wonderful homes” (319). However, because Pauline tells of the incident at McCloud during the queer time she spends with Jenny, Pauline and Jenny’s queer connection cancels the spell of the grandfather’s representation for the readers. Their queer time exposes and reverses the corroboration between the racial and sexual discourses.
In this way, Choi reflects upon the processes of recording history, the lapses in the existing record, and the reason these lapses should be creatively filled. She imagines the strange contacts and stories that were never told, but shaped the present nevertheless. As Anne does, Choi forces her readers to think “about the strange contacts that make up the world,” even though “Jim Shimada’s not part of the story. Pauline’s grandfather fifty miles off, his excitable mistress. None of this is the story” (323). These new stories bring forth possibilities of new identities. Granted, comradeship and community usually become publicly legible only through “normal” physical and sexual intimacy while an intimacy rife with cross-racial and antisexist potential barely registers at all. However, as a creative and queer record of untold stories and connections,
American Womanhelps its readers to imagine connections that generate flexible and alternative identities that must be articulated outside the dominant norms of the national and public culture.