A Review of Julie Shigekuni’s Unending Nora (Red Hen Press, 2008)
I have been familiar with Julie Shigekuni’s work for some time, being an admirer especially of her second novel, Invisible Gardens, totally overlooked by critics thus far for no apparent good reason. Her first novel, A Bridge Between Us, explored the intergenerational strife that appears between Japanese American women. Her third novel draws inspiration from a certain impulse in Invisible Gardens in the way that it explores the problematic nature of memory for the sansei Japanese Americans in relation to the internment and the culture of silence it ultimately generated around that specific ethnic community. Silence, in particular, has been a trope widely utilized by American writers of Asian descent, so much so that two full critical monographs, King-Kok Cheung’s Articulate Silences and Patti Duncan’s Tell This Silence, have been devoted to the exploring how communication, language, and voice all become a problematic site of subjective articulation. In Unending Nora, there are numerous silences that appear to haunt the various characters. First and foremost, the disappearance of one of the main characters, Nora Yano, leads the Japanese American community living in San Fernando Valley to confront their own secrets and rifts. Second, the very subtle specter of Japanese American internment looms behind all of the characters. While this event does not play a central role in the catalyzation of the story, it nevertheless functions to elucidate the social context of generational instability and discord.
Unending Nora is a radical departure from Shigekuni’s first two novels in that it is a much more impressionistic work and there is a distinct lingering on details that give much insight into characters’ minds and the landscapes in which they inhabit. Her prose styling is also differentiated in this latest novel and gestures in a more experimental direction, where sentiment and thought-patterns provide the narrative’s foundation. A great strength of Unending Nora is that she brings alive the San Fernando Valley area, a location unique in its incredibly hot weather patterns and smoggy conditions during the summer; as it is narrated early on, “The San Gabriels rose in the eastern sky with an unsettleing sharpness. They were a familiar sight, reliable witnesses to Nora’s growing up in the Valley, yet, on her seventh afternoon walking, she found the crags and deep pockets of shadow that clung to the mountain range daunting. At the same time, the fact that the mountains had always been so close and yet she had no memory of ever setting foot in them seemed regrettable. She thought she might have traveled to the mountains as a child, for a family outing, and she marveled at the way events and feelings could disappear without a trace. Why did her mind settle on such peculiar objects for its musings in the first place, and how could the complicated facts of her past lay for so long hidden fro her?” (16). This passage typifies Shigekuni’s narrative lens, where character constantly find themselves in the midst of conundrums related to memory and experience. Here, we see how the Valley exists as its own separate character, replete with a varied topography rife for narrative exposition. The foreboding phrase, “disappear without a trace,” clarifies the richness of the prose, where the novel achieves another texture on its second reading. The question of “memory” here is central again to the ways in which the Japanese American internment will exist at the edges of consciousness, a knowledge that something had happened and yet such “events and feelings could disappear without a trace.”
Structured around the mystery of Nora’s disappearance, the novel achieves some of its greatest insights in the complex psychic lives of its characters, including most specifically Nora’s two best friends, Caroline Ikeda (soon to be married) and Melissa Hori. Nora is the vortex around the which the novel constellates not only because of the search to find her and the questions that lay unanswered around her disappearance (in this sense, the novel does seem to evoke some mystery/crime fiction tropes), but also because she concretizes the problematic nature around silence, expectation, and avoidance that quietly tears apart the Japanese American community. Nora is specifically afflicted with a neurological condition that has limited her capacity to use her hands effectively, her dream of becoming a successful cosmetologist and manicurist devastatingly terminated. Further, her alienation from her parents seems to originate far beyond her disability, creating a considerable challenge to her living conditions and to the development of her social life. As Nora struggles to find her own path and despite the obstacles she faces, she must also contend with Caroline’s marriage ceremony and the possibility of finding a romantic relationship in the unlikeliest of places. Another narrative arc involves a young Japanese American woman, Elinore, with a young daughter, Naoko, who is still working to understand her nisei parents, Hideko and Jun. Elinore travels to San Fernando Valley in the wake of a failed relationship to Saburo, a Japanese transnational who suffers from devastating bodily scarring from a fire. It is in a conversation that Elinore has with Saburo prior to her leavetaking that reveals the subtle psychic quagmire that so many characters are mired within:
“Maybe you’re right,” [Elinore] conceded, feeling misunderstood but acknowledging to herself that perhaps she wasn’t as clear as she’d thought she was on the subject of men.
“The Japanese in California, weren’t they sent away to camps during the Second World War, interned—?”
“Yes,’ she told [Saburo], “My father and mother both were. But they were just small children at the time.”
“Even so, I’d think an experience like that would have its effects even generations later.” (76).
In a conversation between Elinore and her father, the notion that Japanese American internment might possess this ghostly quality is yet again considered.
“So what is your opinion?” Across the table, Jun folded the morning paper and stared across her in light so bright it stung her eyes.
“My opinion of what?” [Elinore] asked.
“All this affects you, too, you know. Studies are beginning to show the impact internment has had on subsequent generations. Did you know that the children of internees present problems that are many times analogous to, if not worse than, those experienced by the survivors?”
“I didn’t know that,” Elinore said, flummoxed” (152).
In some sense, behind Nora’s disappearance, is yet another layer, an element encrypted within the past, where the Japanese American internment creates and generates chasms and disruptions. It will be Elinore, Caroline, and Melissa, who all seek ways to go beyond the incredible distance that seems to exist between individuals who are supposed to friends, family members, and loved ones. Elinore must therefore confront her problematic relationship with Saburo; so too will Melissa find herself adjusting to a possible future with Mark, her non-Japanese boyfriend, while Caroline undergoes a challenging pregnancy that will serve as a test-case for what possible futures may exist for her family, but perhaps allegorically for Japanese Americans.
Unending Nora is part of the rich tradition of Japanese American sansei (third generation) writers that have been exploring the after-effects of internment and routing such problematics within fiction that include Cynthia Kadohata, Karen Tei Yamashita, Julie Otsuka, David Mura, among numerous others. Even in Shigekuni’s second novel, the plot point that seems to generate so much tension between the two main characters exists as a function of a shared ethnic history, revolving around the Japanese American internment. I have spoken before of the danger of identity politics ennui and it is specifically here, in the realm of literature, that we see how representational “voices” are just beginning to emerge that relate problematics of race. Yet, we seem so quick to unburden ourselves of race so as to move into the post-race era. Shigekuni’s novel is a testament to the precariousness of simply moving beyond the some of the seemingly more well trodden narratives of Asian American literature (eg the Chinese/American labor and gold mountain tropes for instance). The incredibly contoured and variegated nature of damage, trauma, and loss is only beginning to be explored.
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