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.
“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.
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