“Sansei and Sensibility” by Karen Tei Yamashita

Sense

The Jane Austen wordplay in the title of Karen Tei Yamashita’s Sansei and Sensibility really only comes into its own in the second half of her new collection of stories. The whole collection itself centers around sansei, or third generation Japanese-Americans (“san” meaning “three”). Yamashita, herself a sansei, had previously published many of the stories in the “Sansei” section, but they serve as a sobering prelude to the more light-hearted stories in the Jane Austen-inspired “Sensibility” second half.

A great many sansei were born in the 1930s and 40s, and grew up in a Second World War internment camp or hearing stories of parents and grandparents who spent years in the camps, or both. In one of the early stories, “The Dentist and the Dental Hygienist”, set in the southern California town were Yamashita grew up, Dr Hashikin is a respected dentist who employs nisei (second generation) and sansei hygienists, receptionists, and assistants. Hashikin spent his childhood in an internment camp and feels grateful for his quiet and stable adult life in Gardena, California.

 

Some say adolescence is the period in growth when one acquires the cultural attributes that remain for the rest of one’s life. It might also be true to stay that many people spend their adulthood trying in one way or another to deal with the legacy left by adolescence. Dr. Hashikin had never thought of this seriously, but, going through adolescence in camp, under the close inspection of so many other Japanese Americans at such close quarters, had been memorable. Dr. Hashikin had observed, enviously, that his son could close the bathroom door.

 

Sansei and Sensibility: Stories, Karen Tei Yamashita (Coffee House Press, May 2020)
Sansei and Sensibility: Stories, Karen Tei Yamashita (Coffee House Press, May 2020)

By the end of the “Sansei” section, the reader has a good grasp of the issues and culture of issei, nisei, and especially sansei families, necessary to appreciate the “Sensibility” section which, while it also addresses internment camps and cultural differences between issei and nisei, does so with a mischievousness characteristic of Austen novels. Unlike most other Asian-flavored riffs on Jane Austen novels, these are short stories and not full length novels. But Yamashita executes her adaptations brilliantly.

In “Giri & Gaman”, a direct translation of the words, pride and prejudice, Darcy Kabuto II was a high school heartthrob.

 

To be simplistic, Darcy was the captain of the football team, class vice president, and voted best looking, which meant he looked like he was the son of Toshiro Mifune. To complicate matters, Darcy’s best friend, Benji Lee, walked to school in zori and a Mao jacket and looked like and pretended to be Bruce Lee.

 

Mrs Benihana has five daughters and finds Darcy and Benji to be fine, upstanding young men. She thinks back fondly on her teenage dances in the internment camp, but doesn’t remember the same quality of boys as she sees in Darcy and Benji. She hopes to live vicariously now through her daughters. “A second youth outside the barbed wire!”

The story culminates at prom, where Janey Benihana is named queen and the teens dance to songs from the LA band, the PersuAsians, which appear in a later story that’s a take-off of, what else, Persuasion.

Besides Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion, the stories in these sections borrow from Sense & Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Lady Susan. Some of these are more familiar than others, but familiarity is not necessary to enjoy these adaptations.

“Omaki-san”, taken from Lady Susan, is particularly entertaining. Structured around family letters from 1946 until 1966, nisei Bob moves to Japan to help with the rebuilding and meets and marries Japanese citizen Omaki there, where they have a daughter named Midori. After Bob’s sudden death, Omaki leaves Midori in boarding school back in Japan while she sets off for California to find Bob’s brother Charley and his wife, Cathy. The havoc Omaki wreaks is told through letters to her friend in San Francisco, as well as her sister-in-law Cathy’s letters to her own parents, among others.

The “Sansei” and “Sensibility” stories fit together nicely as a diverse cross-section of sansei experiences. The Jane Austen adaptations are fun and light-hearted, and serve as an apt framework for this collection.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.