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The aim of this paper is to examine the issue of identity and female oppression in Janice Mirikitani’s and Louise Erdrich’s works, and how these two issues are portrayed in their literature. These concerns will be analysed taking into account the historical contexts of both ethnic backgrounds, Japanese Americans and Native Americans, and how they have been limited in their choices by stereotypes created by white American culture.
During the years before World War II, Japanese-American writers that had arrived towards the end of the nineteenth century produced some works that reflected the experiences of the first-generation immigrants known as Issei. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed suspending all immigration of Chinese labourers. Japanese Americans became aware of the identity issue during World War II, especially the Nisei, the second-generation Japanese Americans. At this point, internment literature reflected American’s ambivalence toward the United States.
Janice Mirikitani is one of the best-known Japanese American poets of the period. She belongs to the third-generation, known as Sansei. She was born in Stockton, California, in 1941. During World War II, she and her family were interned in concentration camps, along with 110,000 other Japanese-Americans. She attended The University of California, in LA, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. During this time, she struggled with her ethnic identity.
As a director of the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, she was dedicated to help the poor, the homeless and victims of racism. She had collaborated in several anthologies (including AYUMI, A Japanese American Anthology – with a selection of writings, poems, and even pictures in a bilingual fashion). She also took part in several periodicals, such as Asian American Heritage. Her work was always concerned with social and political activism, and she believed that poetry should embrace reality, but she also conveyed her messages through dancing and even teaching. Through her poetry and activism, Mirikitani addresses the horrors of war, combats institutional racism, advocates for women and the poor and reflects on her struggle with ethnic identity.
Mirikitani was committed to Third World positions against racism and oppression, as well as with the breaking of stereotypes of Asian-Americans prevalent in mainstream American culture. Asian-American literature emphasized the distinctions among Chinese-American, Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans and other Asian-based cultures, and this protest was reflected in her major collections, Awake in the River (1978), We, the Dangerous (1995), and Shedding Silence (1987), which brings to mind racism and internment in association with scenes of sexual violence.
Her poetry was often angry, aggressive, blunt, direct and melancholic. It was full of enquiry and personal experience. Indeed, she lived intensely during the social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, which led to the cultural development of American minorities – which started to claim their culture. During this time, lots of writers started to highlight the differences within their communities, and to explore the implications of being a ‘minority’.
Another writer ….Native American people have suffered wars, the dispossession of their lands and subsequent confinement to the reservations, and the resulting poverty, disease and addictions from this maltreatment. Most of these conflicts occurred because white Americans did not understand the needs of the Native peoples. Some well-meaning reformers believed that Indians could be saved through assimilation, so the focus moved from the attempts to defeat them to try and make them over in white America’s image. Thus, assimilation was attempted through drastic changes in the Indians’ relations to the land, a new direction in their education and a revolution in their way of life. However, the process of assimilation did not end well, or they often forced the Natives to abandon their own cultures which inevitably creates intercultural problems.
Louise Erdrich is a popular Native American writer from the Chippewa tribe of North Dakota. However, she was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, in 1954. She studied and wrote poetry, which is reflected in the mastery of her prosaic language. In any case, her success as a writer followed the publication of a series of short stories for which she was awarded in the 1980s.
She attended Dartmouth College and her first year coincided with the establishment of the Native-American studies department. In these classes, Erdrich began to explore her own ancestry that would eventually inspire her poems, short stories and novels. Moreover, she always claimed that her childhood, surrounded by story-tellers, influenced her work.
In 1984, she published Love Medicine, her first novel. It is structured as a series of narratives – several of which were first published as short stories – about the relationship between three Chippewa families. The novel presents a very intense religious experience within the cultural background of an Indian Reservation in the 1930s. These reservations were notorious for their poverty, high mortality rate, their chronic unemployment and the destruction of the Native culture
Culture was imagined as a number of practices, behaviours and customs that, if were changed, would eliminate all the historic obstacles between Indians and Anglo-Americans. Indeed, the government passed several laws of assimilation of the Indians into the Anglo-Saxon culture, and one of the ways to do this was through religion. Religion was only a tool used by the European majority to pursue their goals. The point is: to what extent did Natives maintain their culture? To what extent did they assimilate? These questions of identity are tacked in “Saint Marie”, the second chapter of Love Medicine.
Jacques Derrida, the father of Deconstruction, brings us the idea of binaries. Society has trained humans to think in binaries, in which one member is always privileged and the other is inferior. For instance, white/black and male/female. In the same way, in Mirikitani’s and Louise Erdrich’s works, we can see a reflection of this binary system in terms of ethnicity and female oppression.
The issue of double consciousness is also very important. This term was coined by Du Bois to describe how an individual’s identity is divided into several facets. This internal conflict is often experienced by oppressive groups who have internalized their oppression. This double consciousness and racism are closely related. According to Du Bois, “it is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one-self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
Firstly, the problem of ethnicity is unquestionable in both authors, since it is a fact that we live in a white racist society, therefore, racial minorities such as Japanese Americans and Native Americans experience oppression. This oppression has profound effects on all aspects of their lives, including identity.
Both, Asian Americans and Native Americans have been limited by stereotypes imposed by white Americans and they have internalized the insecurities and confusions resulting from these stereotypes. The internalization of these values has provoked the lack of self-knowledge and the lack of self-stem. The need to construct Asian American and Native American culture arose and almost all Asian American writings of the period urge the destruction of these negative stereotypes.
In the case of Mirikitani, as a Japanese American, she had experienced this issue closely and she deeply reflects these experiences in her poetry. She writes in the first person (singular or plural) about the experiences of oppression and trauma. In “Looking for America,” a poem from her collection We, the Dangerous, she presents a catalogue of the racist stereotypes in American media that the Asian Americans have to deal with.
As previously stated, Mirikitani’s poetry embraces politics and she proves it in We, the Dangerous, where she offers a voice that speaks for all the Japanese Americans interned during World War II. In a 1976 interview, Mirikitani claimed that people of colour can speak for themselves and other people who try to write, study and talk about them may fall into distortion, myths and lies about the subject. The point is: when white American people write about immigrants, they continue to follow the same stereotypes or these create new ones.
On the other hand, the Native Americans undergoing the processes of assimilation imposed by white Americans, also experienced confusions and insecurities. Louise Erdrich, in her work, deals with the problem of fragmented identities. In the short story “Sainte Marie,” the protagonist experiences an internal struggle as she tries to define her cultural identity. Marie Lazarre, an Indian girl who wants to be a saint in her town’s convent. When she finally goes up to the convent, she encounters sister Leopolda, an Indian nun who converted to Christianity. However, as the story progresses, we can see a strange relation between Marie and Leopolda which seems to be a competition between the two of them, as well as a love and hate relationship. This conflict represents an important tension between cultures.
In this manner, the main theme of the short story is the formation of identity in bicultural environments. In this case, Marie has opposite opinions: she wants to be a saint, but she does not want to give up her Indian identity. Thus, Marie may represent a syncretistic religious system, something between the Native and the Christian beliefs. Marie experiences a double consciousness, she perceives the world divided into two antagonistic cultures: the colonizer and the colonized.
Moreover, Sister Leopolda represents a set of values, both cultural and spiritual. Marie represents the Dark One: her pride, her resistance to change and her imagination. However, she is struggling to choose between her old self (the Dark One) and what Leopolda has to offer.
However, at the end, she eventually is proclaimed a saint due to the poetic irony. Nevertheless, Marie Lazarre chooses to identify herself as an Indian over and against the nuns – Christians, representing white America – by turning their own naiveté against them, so at the end the process of assimilation fails.
Secondly, in U.S society, Asian American and Native American women not only face the effects of white racism, but they also experience sexism. Thus, they are different not only from white men, but also from white women and Asian American and Native American men. Due to this double minority issue Asian and Native American women will always be in a more vulnerable position than men. However, unfortunately, not all women are conscious of their oppression.
Mirikitani had a life full of difficulties because she was also exposed to the double jeopardy issue She was sexually abused by a relative when she was a teenager. Later on, she was the voice for marginalized individuals. She states: “writing was the way I could put my feelings on the page, make them real for myself. I felt invisible growing up as a Japanese American female in a patriarchal household, and in a predominantly white community”.
‘Breaking Tradition’ is a poem written in 1978, dedicated to her daughter, in which Mirikitani analyses the conditions of Japanese American women through three generations, as represented by her mother, herself and her daughter. She attempts to demonstrate how difficult it was to find a balance between traditional values and roots, and in the assimilation to the white culture and its values.
In this poem, she writes from the voice of a mother reflecting back on her own mother’s life and observing her daughter as she comes into womanhood. She compares the very different lives of the three generations of women. Mirikitani remembers that she did not want to be like her own mother, she wanted break with the patriarchal traditions that had kept her quiet. However, she failed her attempts to break tradition and she realizes that her daughter has found a way. This breaking of tradition creates conflict between the first-generation daughters and their mothers, who expect their daughters to maintain the old ways.
The poem is full of imageries of a room, which is empty, neat and quiet. Those images represent female oppression, and isolation. The poem offers a sight into each woman’s room, from the three generations. At the end, the mother realizes that her daughter has satisfied the need of all the women of the three different generations because she is breaking tradition.
On the other hand, we can also see some feminist messages in Louise Erdrich’s works. The female characters in Love Medicine fight for their own freedom and rights, they unite together even though some of them are rivals, such as Marie and Lulu, the two sisters.
Marie Lazarre is one of the main female characters in Love Medicine. As previously mentioned, in the “Saint Marie” chapter, young Marie wanted to be a saint. Nevertheless, when she realizes that the Christian beliefs are not beneficial to her, she acknowledges that she cannot rely on white Americans, so she never prays and when she wants something she gets it by herself. Marie is a strong intelligent woman, who takes care of household affairs well and she earns money by her hands to support her family and her husband, Nector. Basically, Marie shows the readers that women could have her own life and her own sphere in family, just like men.
To conclude, as a double minority, it is difficult to decide whether they are more discriminated against because of their sex or race. What is important is to know that both, sexism and white racism, create negative effects on Asian and Native American women. Thanks to the work of Janice Mirikitani and Louise Erdrich, many women have opened their eyes to these issues.
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