Family Connections in “Tropic of Orange”

In Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel Tropic of Orange, while the narrative is split into seven parts, so is the opinions and the lifestyles of the seven characters who stories she dictates. Family is an idea that defines us all. Whether that is by blood, by choice, the idea of “family” allows us to function, and without it one would wither away. What Yamashita highlights in her novel is that family can be found anywhere and often in anything. Each character, particularly those of Bobby, Buzzworm, Manzanar, Emi, and Rafaela, find a different meaning in the idea of family, or having people to rely on, and just as their lives all loosely intersect, so does their definition of togetherness. By the end of the novel, Yamashita shows that through disastrous moments, people show their true colors and overcome distance and borders in order to define their love and family.

Bobby defines the motley crew of characters as a collective. He is all of them at once, one large family, one melting pot of ethnicity, and yet still only ever worries about his own immediate world. To him, family is what he can see. It is what he can feel, what he can touch and what he can buy to keep the rest of it from going away. There are multiple times throughout the novel where he lists things. He is describing what he can see, like Rafaela and what makes her herself, her hair, what she studies, how she takes care of Sol (17). And other times he lists off the items he has bought for her (80). To him, to make a family whole, you need the basis of a stable life and he works himself to the bone in order to provide for him family because that is how he shows his love. His world of people is small because he focuses solely on caring for those people but in that small world, “Bobby don’t forget”, couldn’t ever forget about those people because they are his responsibility (17). He would never leave his family behind. It is almost ironic because he comes from a world where his blood, his heritage and ethnicity are so undefined because he chose to make it so, yet the thing that is most important to him is caring for his blood, for his brother, and wife, child and even the possibility of a cousin who’s relation to him is never truly confirmed. There is a point where Bobby is remembering when he first met Rafaela, that it was her brother that introduced them and he states “Bobby thought pepe was his friend. Now he’s just a brother in law” (78). For Bobby, family comes as an obligation. For the longest time in the novel, he doesn’t recognize love because for him love is keeping things whole and together and safe, but he lacks the intimacy required of family. He looks at a man who is his friend with more outward happiness because to make him his brother in law makes him his responsibility. But what makes Bobby key to the story is that he is the one who, while more often than any other character on the sideline and outside of the fray, ends up changing the most. “That’s when he lets go. Let’s the lines slither around his wrists, past his palms, through his fingers. Let’s go. Go figure.” (268). By having him be the one who let’s go of the tropic, the borderline between so many people, he subsequently let’s go of all his preconceived notions of how his family is supposed to be and he instead goes to embrace his wife and child and embrace love, rather than a physical and object filled form of family.

Buzzworm is a character who defines his family by choice. The reader knows of no one who is particularly close to him in the novel because instead he knows a little bit about everyone and everything. The world is his family, the static and the news he hears on his Walkman, and the people he sees on the streets. His interactions with Gabriel and Emi, while the most frequent, are by choice. “Baby sister” he calls her, Emi, from the moment they’ve been introduced (175). He takes her on as his responsibility, but unlike Bobby, he doesn’t see it as an obligation. Instead he does so as his choice. Throughout the story he refers to himself by another name, “Buzzworm. Angel of Mercy. At your service”, one of such introductions, shows how he views his role in society (92). Where Bobby takes on the small things, the obligations close to home, Buzzworm takes on the greater good of the greater, larger world. What grounds him and humanizes him is his affection for those like Emi, his pseudo little sister. And at the same time, he shows real and unexpected tenderness to the greater world around him. “Who was gonna do right by it [the heart in a box]. Who knew the value of a human heart?” (218). He cares about the bigger picture in a way that characters like Bobby don’t necessarily and it makes him strong. Yet when it is necessary, he has the back of his smaller family which he has chosen. Manzanar can be seen as the opposite of Buzzworm in that while Buzzworm sees the whole world, he doesn’t accept it as his own, instead choosing to just observe it. Manzanar accepts everyone and everything. He relates to it all and creates his family by choice, but it an all-inclusive way. He feels like he is one with everyone else, “a recycler. After all he, like the other homeless in the city was a recycler of the last rung” (56). He, while not having originated from the world of the homeless, believes himself to be of them because it has become his world and he cares for it as if it were always his own. There is a moment, at the climax of the freeway scene, where he seems to command the whole world- “And Manzanar, loathe to lose any moment, writhed with exhilaration and christened it all: the greatest jam session the world had ever known” (206). He is happy and proud to be atop the world he belongs in, directing them into beauty and greatness, but when it comes down to it, he chooses to aid his family by blood, his granddaughter. By choosing to go with a dying Emi to the hospital, he proceeds to choose his family once again, but downsizing it to the one who needs help the most. Throughout the novel, he is the character who represents everyone, who looks at the world as a whole and Yamashita writes him to almost rival Arcangel in the character of god because he embodies everyone around him, but in the end, he is just as human as the rest of them and chooses to be with his granddaughter.

Emi is the complete opposite of nearly every character in the story because for the most part as she doesn’t define herself as having family. She does her best to distance herself from anything that voices the need for commitment. She has family, but for the longest time she doesn’t recognize that and chooses to isolate herself. She states in a conversation with Gabriel at one point- “Gabe you’re then. I’m now. For a reporter, you ought to be more now. Let’s do it now.” (41). She lives in the moment and doesn’t concentrate on the past or the future and because of that there is only a need to concentrate on herself. Where Buzzworm and Manzanar choose their own family, she chooses to focus on herself. What becomes interesting is that through them choosing their family, in this case, choosing her, she learns to let her guard down a little bit and let them in. Buzzworm in particular is the first one who she lets in because he chooses her and accepts her with hardly any thought; “Baby sister pulled four Triple-A’s from the glove compartment. “I’ve been saving these for you” (189). She shows her love in the small ways because in order for her to accept her newfound “family” she has to take small steps to get there. Manzanar is another one forced upon her but for the better. She is stubborn, not wanting or too afraid to separate her world, to rock the boat and express that she maybe is like everyone else and vulnerable that she mashes her secrets together to try and mask them. “I had sex last night… It was over the net” she states, followed quickly by “Manzanar, he’s my grandfather” in a confession to Gabriel (180). While different, these two secrets are synonymous with each other because they both rock her world of what she considers family. Gabriel is the closest thing she has to any family but she keeps him at arms-length and Manzanar is her family who she thought had been left behind many years ago. Her having internet sex creates the possibility of losing Gabe at the same time she might get her grandfather back and those are two terrifying problems. In the end however, with Manzanar’s choice to accept her and take care of her as family does happening at the same time she is faced with the probability of never seeing Gabe again, her problems level out and she can die somewhat at peace, but still with sadness as Manzanar is back in her life again.

Rafaela is a well-balanced mix of many of the characters in the novel. While her family is definitely defined by blood, she also chooses her family on a large and small scale. In leaving Bobby, she chooses Sol as her one and only. “And perhaps Dona Maria thought Rafaela would be lonely in that big unfinished house on that big unfinished property, but Rafaela has been too relieved to be away from her problems Bobby and kept too busy to feel lonely” (9 & 10). By leaving Bobby, she puts all her focus on raising Sol because she understood that there is more to family that just the obligations and responsibility that Bobby sees. She is more in tune with the love that is required in a family. But other than choosing Sol, on a larger scale, she is also choosing people in general, and community, as one of the reasons she left Bobby was for her want to start a union and help other immigrants like herself, but all Bobby sees and believes is that those closest to him are the ones he needs to worry about. This is why Rafaela relates to Arcangel so well. He, like her, is concerned with the bigger picture. However, for her, this becomes a struggle as well. She states near the middle of the novel, when Sol, in playfulness has run away from her- “How far must she reach to touch her Sol?” (119). While she is literally talking about grasping her son, in another way she is also talking about grasping herself. In running away from her husband, she realizes she doesn’t quite know herself, but through the novel, she comes to ground herself through her family and realize that she needs to scale herself back and come to love Bobby again. In the end of the novel, when she is at her worst, Bobby is the one she looks for, even mistaking Gabriel, much to his dismay, for him- “It took her a while to focus. ‘Bobby?’ I guess I wasn’t what she had in mind” (223). He is the thing she goes back to again and again and when it comes down to the culminating moment of moving the tropic he, the one she loves but comes from such a different world, is the one she chooses to have with her- “Rafaela pulled the silken thread around them until they were both covered in a soft blanket of space and midnight. Their proximity to everything both immediate and infinitely distant.” (254).

All of these characters in the novel define family in their own way, whether they are purposefully doing so or whether it is because someone else has chosen them. By the end of the novel, each character is defining their family in a different way than they have before, and just like Rafaela and Bobby show, wrapping themselves in the literal line of separation, they all come together in new ways and overcome their previous boundaries. Family is the one thing that often can cross any border because whether it is chosen or defined by those with which one shares blood, more often than not family brings people together. Yamashita crafts a tale of broken shards, separated by race, opinion, and space, that come together to form something new and whole and to show that society can mend and integration, of culture and of family, is all entirely possible.

How Much is a Life Worth?

Upon entering the United States, the Statue of Liberty welcomes incomers with “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, / Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door” (Lazarus). Although this is the supposed promise of the United States, America does not always practice this pledge it presents. Those who are “poor”, “yearning to breathe free” and “homeless” are often dehumanized, degraded, and stereotyped in American society (Lazarus). In Karen Tei Yamashita’s, The Tropic of Orange, Yamashita seeks to humanize the homeless, the immigrants, and the women in America that are not extended the inclusion promised by the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. Yamashita seeks to look beyond stereotypes and share the truthful essence of these people-groups. Yamashita uses characterization and plot to demand attention for the ignored and equality for the dehumanized.

Yamashita divides her novel between seven characters, one of which is a homeless man named Manzanar. This act of devoting a seventh of her book to a homeless man’s perspective forces the reader to view Manzanar’s voice and the voice of the homeless as important. In Manzanar’s first chapter he explains that as he conducts over the freeway, people passing in their cars “likely never notice him” or “perhaps thought themselves disconnected from a sooty homeless man on an overpass” (35). This “disconnect” is what Yamashita attacks. People in their cars see themselves as separate from Manzanar. If Manzanar does not simply blend into the scenery for passer-byers, they see Manzanar as somehow less important than them. As Gabriel and Buzzworm begin to write a story to “humanize the homeless” they too nonchalantly stereotype him offering that “maybe he’s schizo”(43). In Washington Posts, “Five Myths About America’s Homeless,” Dennis Culhane speculates that about 20% of homeless people suffer from some sort of mental illness leaving the majority of America’s homeless population unaffected by any sort of mental ailment (Culhane). Although the greater portion of the homeless are made up of able-minded people, society still stereotypes homeless as crazy or suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. Yamashita combats this notion by creating Manzanar as one of the most sound-minded and observant characters in her text. These characteristics can clearly be seen when Gabriel and Buzzworm interview Manzanar. Gabriel believes that he is being subtle and that Manzanar does not know he is being interviewed. Shortly after Gabriel makes this assumption, Manzanar notes that “since [Gabriel] hasn’t taken any notes…[Gabriel] must be taping” their conversation (108). Gabriel underestimates Manzanar and assumes that since Manzanar is homeless he must not be observant or intelligent. Yamashita addresses this view most people have towards homeless people and elaborates that upon a closer observation, homeless are just as aware and human as everyone else. Gabriel, again has to withdraw his first impressions of Manzanar being mentally ill, and states that “Manzanar was probably not crazy…He had a clarity of mind and speech; no glitches” (110). Yamashita continues to take the stereotypical view of homelessness and remolds it through her characterization of Manzanar. She recognizes the degrading, dehumanizing view homeless peoples are assigned and challenges it by presenting a more accurate reality. Yamashita removes the homeless from the background and gives them a name, a purpose, and an identity.

Not only does Yamashita uses a homeless man as part of her seven main characters, but the community of homeless people too play a significant role in Yamashita’s story. Yamashita goes beyond humanizing Manzanar and assigns importance to all the homeless of Los Angeles. She creates a story and a lifestyle for these people as well as exposes the great injustices that have been done to them. As the homeless are camping out on the freeway they begin to take over the news. Suddenly there are cooking shows, gardening tips, and interviews revolving around the lives of the homeless (178). Yamashita emotionally attaches the audience to the lives of the homeless. She creates a personal connection and proves to her readers that the homeless are equal citizens. She juxtaposes this humanizing with the horrific ending of her book. The space and cars the homeless inhabit eventually must be returned to the general public. They are taken back by military force. Bullets spray the crowd spurring the “community of homeless and helpless…to run in terror, surrender, vomit, cradle the dying” (240). Yamashita uses this story point to show the complete disregard for human lives due to their lack of socioeconomic status. The homeless people are valued as less important than the cars they inhabit, and their deaths are unlamented and forgotten. Although in America we may not see this extent of violence, there is an obvious disregard for homeless people’s lives in American society. Many states have outlawed homelessness and have created laws “designed to move homeless persons out of sight, and at times out of a given city”(Criminalization). Homeless people are viewed as an inconvenience that needs to be removed and pushed to different places rather than a people-group in need of help. Yamashita considers this disregard for human lives and creates a bridge between the homeless and the socioeconomically better-off by creating a story where homeless people play a central role. She proves that the homeless are not removed, separate people, but individuals trying to survive. Yamashita explains that the homeless are not inanimate objects that can be moved or controlled by the wills of others, but a living people-group with families, relationships and goals.

Karen Tei Yamashita uses her novel to call attention to this people and demands her readers to view them as equally human. She calls readers to recognize the injustice that America has dealt them, and the stereotypes that are assigned them, and pleads readers to adopt a new perspective humanizing the homeless and protecting their rights as equal humans. “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses” is what the statue of liberty calls, but Yamashita argues that this is only true if you are an asset to the United States (Lazarus). Yamashita humanizes the immigrants of the United States and exposes the multicultural ideals America boasts about as simply a wistful ignorance rather than a reality. In The Tropic of Orange, not a single one of Yamashita’s characters are white. Her story is entirely framed around multi-ethnic characters. Through this, Yamashita portrays how the United States has failed to be the accepting, diverse nation it thinks it is. This can clearly be seen through Yamashita’s rejection of stereotypes and attack on globalization. Emi’s character displays these themes. The stereotypical Japanese woman is viewed as quiet, submissive, and cold, but Emi is always loud, opinionated, and in charge. She even explains to her parents that “ maybe [she’s] not Japanese American. Maybe [she] got switched in the hospital” (21). Emi rebuts the stereotypical Japanese women and prides herself on her individuality. Yamashita uses this juxtaposition of stereotype and reality to expose the United States for its lack of genuine multiculturalism. Yamashita also uses Emi to elaborate on America’s narrow view on what cultural diversity entails. While sitting in a sushi bar Emi explains that Japanese culture has been reduced to “just tea, ginger, raw fish, and a credit card” (128). Yamashita uses this quote to explain how American’s understand cultural diversity. Society tends to believe that if they adopt an Americanized version of something, such as food, from another culture it makes them diverse. Yamashita argues that cultural diversity expands beyond mimicry and lies in truly understanding a people’s history, culture, and desires.

America’s offenses against immigrants expand past stereotypes and continue into the dehumanization of minorities. Yamashita suggests that the United States sees everything through the eyes of consumerism; the worth of products, trade, and humans are all reduced to being financially beneficial for America or not. As Archangel approaches the Mexican/American border he recounts all the immigrants in America “who do the work of machines: human washing machines, human vacuums, human garbage disposals” (200). Yamashita argues that the United States does not welcome the “huddled masses” in order to provide freedom, but rather selectively permits individuals past the border to absorb them for America’s personal benefit. Yamashita argues that America sees humans worth based on their productivity and usefulness. A similar idea is conveyed throughout the book as Yamashita points out the irony in the ability to easily transport goods across borders while people must work much harder to make there way across borders. Further explaining how the United States holds goods above human lives, Yamashita accuses the United States of dehumanizing the very people the Statue of Liberty promises equality and freedom. After Bobby helps his cousin across the border he makes the remark that his “Cuz is staring at her Nikes. Made in China. Nikes get in. But not the bro” (230). This comment portrays what America views as important. Shoes able to build America’s wealth easily slip across the border, but a boy whose life depends upon making it to America cannot get across. America introduces itself as a caring refuge for people of any culture in need, but Yamashita argues that this promise is simply a facade. She implies that America’s concern rests in its own prosperity and this false illusion of hope is nothing more than an empty promise. Yamashita seeks to expose this mask of acceptance the United States wears and convey a true reality of selfishness and dehumanization. Among Yamahita’s seven characters only two of them are women. Similarly to the homeless, and minorities in The Tropic of Orange, these women both endure acts of extreme violence and degradation.

In the same way Yamashita uses the mistreatment of the homeless and immigrants to petition for acknowledgment and change, she uses the violence done to both of these women to call to attention the mistreatment of women. Emi is shot and killed and Rafaela is beaten and raped until she is on the cusp of death. Emi is shot alongside the homeless lumping her in with America’s disregard for the lives of certain people. Buzzworm points out that “a human eye directed the vision” of the gun, emphasizing that a human being chose to view Emi’s life as less valuable (250). Yamashita uses this to question the way we value life and to emphasize the injustices this skewed vision causes. Rafaela is taken advantage of and attacked, but in the end she is ultimately victorious over her attacker (221).Yamashita’s story reaches beyond these two women and explains how the United States reduces women to simple materials just like the other people-groups. As Bobby draws closer to the border he remarks that “Every woman don’t get raped, she don’t pass”(202). Through this comment Yamashita reveals that women’s value has been condensed to that of goods. That the United States will let them in based on what they can give not on the fact that they are human. Karen Tei Yamashita presents a slightly exaggerated world that points out America’s failures in multiculturalism, acceptance, and equality.

In a country that claims Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” as their anthem, Yamashita exposes how America has failed in creating a society that truly cares for the homeless, the minorities, and the voiceless. She uses her selected characters and plot to reveal the injustices the marginalized of America endure, and implores her readers to not be convinced by the pro-diversity front America puts up. Yamashita exposes the reality behind America’s multiculturalism and disbands stereotypes and the dehumanization America has okayed. The Tropic of Orange is a novel that promotes genuine acceptance and is not afraid to confront the United States, illuminating the areas in which it has failed. As America attempts to embrace other cultures it should be the true histories and desires American’s embrace, and not the shells of stereotypes and trivial matters. As America progresses it is mandatory that all lives are viewed as equally valuable and that socioeconomic status, race and gender, do not define how much a life is worth.

Works Cited

“Criminalization – National Coalition for the Homeless.” National Coalition for the Homeless. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2016. .

Culhane, Dennis. “Five Myths about America’s Homeless.” Washington Post. The WashingtonPost, 11 July 2010. Web. 08 Nov. 2016. .

Lazarus, Emma. “”The New Colossus”” Welcome to Liberty State Park, The Statue of Liberty,and Ellis Island. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2016..

Yamashita, Karen Tei. Tropic of Orange: A Novel. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House, 1997. Print.