Friday, August 8, 2014

Japanese Hamlet

Toshio Mori (1910–1980)
From Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now

“Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, CA” (c. 1940). Serial #6771, printed by E. C. Kropp Co. Image courtesy of
During the 1930s Toshio Mori persistently wrote short stories and submitted them to mainstream national magazines, which just as persistently rejected them. Finally, in 1938, two stories were accepted for publication by the small magazine Coast, and one of them (“He Who Has the Laughing Face”) was reprinted in the influential annual, New Directions in Prose & Poetry. By 1941 his stories had appeared in a number of other literary periodicals and, more important, had come to the attention of William Saroyan. The small press Caxton Printers accepted his first book collection, Yokohama, California, the editors scheduled it for publication in early 1942, and Saroyan agreed to write the introduction—and then the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. Because of the subsequent anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S., the book’s publication was cancelled.

Caxton did finally publish Yokohama, California, with Saroyan’s introduction, in 1949—when it quickly vanished into oblivion. For the next three decades, Mori managed a nursery or sold flowers for a wholesaler, yet he continued working on his craft until, in the 1970s, his debut collection was rediscovered by a new generation of Asian American writers and critics. During the last two years of his life, a novel (Woman from Hiroshima, 1978) and a second story collection (The Chauvinist, 1979) appeared.

One of the selections in Mori’s final book is “Japanese Hamlet,” which was actually written some forty years earlier. Literary scholar David Palumbo-Liu notes that, while the story “seems to offer a very simple message,” it masks an underlying tension from “a faith in the power of Art to transcend race, ethnicity, and history.” With the conspicuous exception of its title, however, the story does not even mention race or ethnicity as an issue. Nevertheless, Palumbo-Liu elaborates, “In a world of racial difference, to be Hamlet, Tom cannot be Japanese; to be Japanese, Tom cannot be Hamlet. Yet the myth of universal art denies that there is any contradiction since, in being an artist, Tom can do both.” In a sense, the hero of the story is much like Mori himself: an artist who perseveres, in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, in the hope of reaching a wide American audience.

(The first page of this week’s selection includes additional introductory remarks by James Shapiro, editor of Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now.)

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He used to come to the house and ask me to hear him recite. Each time he handed me a volume of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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