19 November 2013

Karen Tei Yamashita's Tropic of Orange

Globalized Identities: Magical Oranges and Colonized Snakes

A research project

What do a sickly orange, two snakes, and an old man with wings have in common?

You might think this is some kind of witty riddle, but actually, in the case of Tropic of Orange it’s a very good question.

 Today, I would like to take you on a brief journey into Yamashita's commentary on globalization as it appears through the Magical Realist portions of her text. Throughout the post we will follow three characters: The Orange, Rafaeal (and the snakes), and Arcangel.
So, what exactly do all of these characters have in common? Well, for one thing, they all appear in a very odd way in the story, in places where magical, impossible ideas blend with very real, gritty aspects of everyday life. Wendy Faris says, in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community,
"Very briefly, magical realism combines realism and the fantastic in such a way that magical elements grow organically out of the reality portrayed" (163)

Now, let’s take a brief look at how Yamashita uses some of these Magical Realist conventions and historical elements in her narrative.
A Few Typical Magical Realist Conventions
 1. To recuperate a lost or forgotten cultural idea through magic (Zamora and Faris 9).

Magical Realism began as Postcolonial literature in Latin America. European nations ruled much of Latin America, so Latin American people had exposure to their methods of writing. In particularly, a lot of European Realism existed in letters at that time (Faris 165). Latin American writers, after they gained freedom from the colonizers, changed the genre to make it their own by mixing in elements of magic, and, thus, Magical Realism was born.
So, it makes sense that Rafaela embodies a reminiscence of colonization. More on this later!
2. To challenge commonly accepted ways of life through undefinable, contradictory ideas. (Linguati, et al 6).

In Yamashita’s case, she challenges accepted ideas about globalization (and in particular immigration), through the contradictions in Arcangel.
3. To question accepted binaries, such as poetic text versus prose text. (Linguati, et al 7).

Magical Realism, since it grew very quickly in “Latino(a)” culture in the United States in the 1960s, is often stereotyped as a strictly Latino genre. (See Karen Christian’s book Show and Tell). Since Yamashita’s characters are so far from stereotypical, Yamashita uses a stereotyped genre to deconstruct stereotypes.

Also, Arcangel appears to be an old man, which should connotate feebleness, but he pulls a bus for miles with his bare body, making him, arguably, one of the
strongest characters in the book.
4. To raise ontological questions through disrupted notions of reality and existence (Zamora and Faris 3)

Ontological ideas refer to the state of being, of existing. As readers, we do not know very much about Arcangel’s existence, as I describe later. This ontological uestioning causes the reader to experience Yamashita’s ideas in a new way.

When we consider immigration in a fictional, unfamiliar world, we will, perhaps, consider its ontological state differently.
Now that we’ve seen how Yamashita uses magical realism, let’s look at how these ideas translate into her thoughts on globalization.

On the left, you see Yamashita’s character or idea. On the right is an explanation of its connection to globalization.

                                            The Orange

The orange stretches the roads of LA, creating chaos and displaced understandings of LA life (Yamashita 81).


Increased technology stretches relationships. We can Skype with people all over the world! And, with increased immigration, we now have more expansive access to other cultures. True, this creates a disruption in our understanding of American identity, but it is a disruption that leads to increased diversity.



Rafaela turns into a snake to devour her enemy. Earlier in the book, she also sweeps a snake out of the house every morning.

According to Florence Hsiao-ching Li, Rafaela’s palm reading, the fact that her family was basket-weavers from Mexico, and the presence of the two snakes all point to the Native American culture. Rafaela’s battle is a reminder of colonization, which is one of the issues tied closely to immigration. As immigration increases, so does our chance to repeat the past or to avoid it. We must remember that every individual has a life, history, and voice.
Here's a link to her article:

This opinion is further voiced by Jinqi Ling in Across Meridians. She says that the novel is "a project of decolonization in social, spacial, and psychological senses" (113).

Arcangel is portrayed very differently by different narrators.


1. On page 212, a crowd of people cheer him on as he defies those who do not want him traveling North. To the crowd, he is a kind of hero, and we, as readers, sympathize with him because he is taking care of Sol.


2. On page 239 Arcangel is also viewed as a negative, invasive force that bodes no good for the city.

 As Jinqui Ling describes in Across Meridians, Arcangel is "a physical embodiment of the political unconscious become dialogically merged" (123). Specifically, Arcangel is an embodiment of the conflicts surrounding immigration.

 Immigration is positive from a few perspectives as well: one is the American capitalist’s view, wanting more cheap labor; another is the immigrant’s view, wanting the new opportunities that America likes to tell the rest of the world it provides; and the final one is the perspective of Americans who wish for more diversity in order to create a new, individualistic sense of America as a conglomeration of cultures.

Immigration is negative in some perspectives. Some Americans feel threatened by the increased level of immigration; they worry about job availability and about losing a collective, cultural sense of being American. Individuals from other countries may feel threatened by immigration as well, as they must constantly redefine their cultural customs and traditions in light of an increasingly Westernized world.

Arcangel is also impossible to define. Is he a metaphorical character, intended to embody ideas, rather than exist as an active member of the story’s literal plotline? And, if so, how does Sol find his father? If he is an actual, tangible character, from where does he get his extraordinary strength?

The impacts of globalization are impossible to know completely. Will immigration increase our diversity? Or, will it make us less unique as Americans? Peter Spiro, in his book Beyond Citizenship, says, “Once everyone is American, no one is an American” (53). While his claim is often hailed as extreme, it cannot be denied that the world is becoming increasingly Westernized, especially in its consumer culture.
  • The use of the genre itself
So what does globalization in Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange mean for American Identities?
1. Rafaela indicates a warning for our identities.

We must not repeat our past mistakes. As we develop new identities through increased communication and through the new people entering America, we have to remember our past. We made terrible mistakes in harming Native Americans; we must not repeat our mistakes on new immigrants or on those visiting the United States from other countries.
2. The Orange provides hope for more connected identities.

The orange causes chaos and confusion, just as--we must admit--our technology does at times. Yet, in the end, it brings Sol back together with his family. As we have more and more freedom to make friendships with people all over the globe, we have tremendous chances to connect with others in ways never before possible.
3. Arcangel demonstrates the conflicts in globalized identities.

Is immigration a good thing? What defines American culture if everyone is becoming American? (See Peter Spiro’s, Beyond Citizenship.) Is immigration an angel of mercy, providing us with chances for more open-minded decisions? Or, is it a “naughty old man” who will ultimately violate American traditions?

Also, what happens to the rest of the world as it becomes increasingly American-ized? Will other countries have to reconsider and reposition themselves in light of our ideas? (See Manfred B. Steger, Globalization: A Very Short Introduction.)
So, what, ultimately, is Yamashita claiming about globalized identities?

Well, she certainly does not give us a straight-forward answer. We can be quite certain that the orange represents globalization, since the it is connected to the Tropic of Cancer and it stretches literal boundaries as it moves. The orange causes extreme chaos (which is, of course, negative). Yet, it also reunites Sol with his family at the end of the book.
If Yamashita were emphasizing Peter Spiro’s view that globalization means the development of a more collective identity, rather than individual identities, then she would not have included so many individualized characters. Each of her characters has a complexly creative view on the world, and they are all very different from one another.

From the chaos of the novel, compared to the positive aspects and individuality of her characters, it would seem that Yamashita is endorsing a view of American Identity closer to that presented by Rauchway, in his book, Blessed Among Nations. Rauchway argues that America is a unique nation, whether for good or for bad, and that globalization will only increase that uniqueness.

So, where does this leave us as readers? It leaves us asking the questions presented by the narrator on the very last page of the novel.

“What are these...lines anyway? What do they connect? What do they divide?” (Yamashita 268).

As the world continues to develop, as human relationships, the economy, and consumer culture all expand beyond physical borders, we must remember Yamashita’s warnings and learn to renavigate our dryer-shrunk, ironed out world.
 Let's work together to develop globalized identities that value humanity but still question authority in the hopes of creating a better world.

Click here for a list of sources used in this project.




Ellen Scherer said...

I'm almost positive Yamashita planned for this, but the orange still confuses me. If the orange presents both negative and positive ends of immigration/globalization, then why do Bobby, Sol and Rafaela end up outside the U.S.? Earlier in the novel, the discussion between Arcangel and border patrol represents the problems with immigration. Wouldn't it be more hopeful for the reunited family to be living in America?

Abigail Griffin said...

I think the interesting function of Yamashita's writing is the ontological aspect about it: She raises questions about existence through her writing using that magical realism. At times, I often wondered if Arcangel was actually real. It wasn't until the story went on and he took care of Sol that I realized he was truly above the realm of metaphor; he was a physical embodiment of political dialogue. Overall I thought her characters and the imagery she associates with them very multi-dimensional.