Jane Austen was a master at depicting milieu, or social setting — not just a story’s when and where, but also the dynamic aspects of a given time and place, including the ways that gender and class in particular could affect the fate of a given individual. Karen Tei Yamashita is a contemporary virtuoso of milieu, using her genre-bending work to explore multicultural environments and the ways that race, immigration and globalization affect various locales and the people within them.
It’s both unexpected and apt that Yamashita intermingles her perceptiveness with Austen’s in her latest collection of stories, “Sansei and Sensibility,” directly and indirectly blending an intergenerational cast of Japanese-American characters with elements of the dead English novelist’s beloved and familiar work.
“Sansei,” of course, refers to a person born in the United States or Canada whose grandparents were immigrants from Japan. As Yamashita notes in the acknowledgments, this aspect of the book’s title alludes to the fact that this work has been “selected about growing up and living in Japanese America.” Assembled as a retrospective, the stories go all the way back to “The Bath,” which opens the collection and is the first story she ever wrote, originally published in Amerasia Journal in 1975.
Some of them fiction and some nonfiction, these inventive and illuminating short pieces stylishly examine an array of scenarios, both realistic and imagined, including life in the Japanese immigrant community in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and the internment during World War II of Japanese citizens in concentration camps, including the one in Topaz, Utah. “But never mind arguing whether fiction is true or not,” she writes in “Kiss of Kitty”; “it is the speculative aspect of the anthropological project here that intrigues me.”
In “The Dentist and the Dental Hygienist,” for example, the wry, self-aware and gently judgmental narrator describes Dr. Hashikin’s dental office as being “at the very mouth of Gardena,” a town “with no obvious boundaries (at least to the unaccustomed eye), over a rambling suburban landscape of fast food stops, asphalt runways leading to shopping centers, and Merit tract homes (vintage sixties)” before noting that “In the continuing soap opera of tribal life, the ultimate compliment to the author can only be the gossip generated by such stories.”
As the “Cheat Sheet” near the end explains “with apologies to Jane Austen (rest her soul), members of the Jane Austen Society, my sister in particular, and fans everywhere,” seven of the 18 stories — all in the book’s second section — draw explicitly on Austen’s oeuvre, including “Shikataganai & Mottainai,” which corresponds to “Sense & Sensibility,” “Emi,” which corresponds to “Emma,” and “The PersuAsians,” which corresponds to “Persuasion.”
As gently humorous and entertaining as it is innovative and thought-provoking, “Sansei and Sensibility” is full of truths universally acknowledged, delivered in one of the most astute, idiosyncratic and important voices writing in America today.
Kathleen Rooney is the author of “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” and the forthcoming “Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey: A Novel of World War I.”
Sansei and Sensibility: Stories
By: Karen Tei Yamashita.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 232 pages, $16.95.