Author Karen Tei Yamashita’s enlightening March 27 talk on her 2020 book, Sansei and Sensibility, is now available on the JASNA Southwest YouTube channel.
Inspired by her sister Jane Tomi Boltz (pictured left with Yamashita) and her love of all things Austen, Yamashita said she wanted to understand the obsession. Although she majored in literature and taught creative writing and literature at University of California, Santa Cruz, Yamashita had yet to read Austen.
She explained to the audience, which included attendees from as far away as Wales and Ukraine, that sanseimeans third-generation Japanese American. As she read Austen’s works, she began to think about and remember her and her sister’s experiences growing up in post-war Los Angeles, in an African American and Japanese American community, centered around a church at Normandie and Jefferson, southwest of Downtown Los Angeles.
“The closed community and social network in which we grew up could be stifling and provincial, but also safe,” she said. “I began to think about social similarities between Jane Austen’s community and ours. In each Austen novel, there were counters I could draw from that felt familiar. And I could add an element missing in Austen novels—race.”
The book includes a collection of stories she had previously written with a new set of tales based on each of Austen’s novels plus the novella Lady Susan. For her stories based on Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, Yamashita used key words that mark social attitudes among Japanese Americans. For instance, “pride” becomes “giri” (or duty) and “prejudice” becomes “gaman” (or perseverance).
The Southern California community of Monterey Park, with its large Asian American population, stands in for Mansfield Park, while Sir Thomas Bertram is translated to matriarch Tammy Wuya, a tiger mom and entrepreneur who, instead of owning a plantation in Antigua, exploits workers in her factory in the Philippines.
For her story based on Emma, her favorite among Austen’s oeuvre, Yamashita has her heroine Emi born in Manzanar, an internment camp during World War II. This secret is kept from her until she is a teenager—an experience Yamashita said many sansei experienced after the war.
Yamashita is the author of seven books and a professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz.