Harmless Like You

Conceptualizing Invisibility, Conceptual Art (New York, Connecticut, Berlin; 1968 – 2016): There are many ways to describe this psychologically complex, artistic novel but harmless isn’t one of them. By the time the full measure of harmfulness sinks in, you’ll be two-thirds through and in awe of how such exquisite sadness could be so exquisitely written.

Apropos to its creative rendering, avant-garde art is the medium linking two generations of emotionally damaged, estranged protagonists – a mother and the son she abandoned at two. Yukiko – Yuki – Oyami is so sad and dazed “it was as if someone peeled off her skin so that the whole world felt achy and glowing.” A struggling-to-be-an artist Japanese-American immigrant whom we meet in 1968 at age sixteen after ten years of living in-between the Village and Chinatown. In-between-ness, a fringe existence, a “constant state of disorientation” and loneliness, feeling you don’t belong anywhere, define Yuki.

Jay Eaves, her adult son, struggles differently. A Japanese-American-French-Canadian owner of a Brooklyn art gallery specializing in Asian/Asian American art by female artists, he’s profoundly angry, lost in his marriage, terrified of new fatherhood. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t represent Japanese artists but it takes time to absorb the weightiness of the emotional scars of his mother’s abject rejection because Jay’s contemporary story is told in shorter chapters that progress non-linearly.

Yuki’s chronological, longer chapters reflect the significance of art and her downward spiraling as headings darken over the years. The novel opens at its most hopeful, with shiny chapters named for colors like Quinacridone and Celadon Gold. Later titles are foreboding, named for bleaker colors like Caput Mortum (brownish-plum) and Ivory Black or brighter paints like Vermillion that “always poisons.”

Yuki and Jay haven’t seen each other until the novel’s hauntingly beautiful three-page Prologue, when an unrecognizable son comes knocking on her Berlin door. Yuki greets him aged beyond her sixty years, bundled up in scarves, cold as she was always skinny, a “habit of deprivation” that seems anorexic. Jay dreaded coming, but was duty-bound. He’s just loss his loving father, who bequeathed his Connecticut estate to Yuki; he has papers for her to sign. It’s not until the last sentence on page 3 that the reader surmises her child is male. Enigmatic prose that beguiles and turns pages for we want to know: What drove Yuki to desert Jay? Who was his father? When did she live in Connecticut? Why did she leave? What brought her to Berlin? Mysteries that unravel little by little, cleverly.

Artistry is also seen in the originality and acuteness of the prose evoking emotional pain. A psychologist would have a field day diagnosing the emotions depicted. Yuki says there’s “no place she could imagine being happy,” so leave happiness off this clinical list. At the beginning, she wished to do something her parents would be proud of her, but even then she was melancholy. As her life spins unhappier, she accepts years of a physically abusive relationship with an older man (not Jay’s father) if only to be shocked awake. The author seeks to jolt and awaken us too. This is not a making-it-in-America immigrant experience. This is all-out alienation.

Finding a way to express herself through art takes on a life of its own. Detached from her Japanese culture and clashing with the American, worlds that call for translations, she’s drawn to art as “light and shadow required no translation.” It makes sense, then, that the sixties and the seventies are crafted as Yuki’s most vivid years, echoing an influential era of radical experimentation with art. Since she’s forever dissatisfied with her art, trying to breakthrough with various art forms – photography, watercolor, drawing, painting – we wonder if Yuki ever found moments when she was happy at her craft and did she make “it.”

Was she ever even a happy young child? When we’re introduced to her she’s already hungering, though she appreciates her mother’s “perfection” of preparing special Japanese foods. Both parents are stoical: her mother for adapting to this strange new land and her father for bearing the enslavement of a Japanese internment camp. Though he’s a successful Japanese car company executive, he’ll never forget what our “ugly country” did to him. So he awaits returning to Tokyo in six months, which is when Yuki’s coming-of-age story kicks-off.

She’d been biding her time. Until she befriends dazzling Odile, gets so caught up with her beauty Yuki chooses to completely cut herself off from her parents and culture, remaining on. While she still wants to be a “good daughter” from afar, you’ll see how wildly and sadly her plans go astray. By the time she’s in a relationship with Jay’s rocklike Canadian father, her body and soul have been so battered there’s even an “ache in her eyes.”

All this pain has redeeming value: at least she knows what she wants her art to say: “communicate even one ridge of pain.” That’s the point of the novel. Painting a daunting tableau of a range of dislocated emotions when ties to family, home, culture are severed. What does identity loss, emptiness, anonymity look and feel like?

In this picture’s foreground are ambivalence, turmoil, violence, and artists pushing boundaries: Jay’s “Chinese and Korean, on both sides of the Pacific” art patrons who felt “at best ambivalent about the Japanese”; scorching TV and magazine cover images of helicopters delivering body bags and the faces of traumatized Vietnamese girls; and the rise of modern art movements inspired by artists like Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, whose names are brushed on the pages. Avant-garde art that assaults the “soft-touch” of Japanese calligraphy, also embellished across pages. Especially poignant is the Japanese character for Love. Complicated to write, like the love Yuki seems incapable of and Jay frightened of.

Japanese Calligraphy Tutorials - Writing Kanji #11 - 愛 LOVE

Yuki and Jay’s voices exhibit two sides of grief. Yuki’s is the sensitive voice of a shy “ghost girl.” Depression turned inward, with loud voices screaming inside her head. Jay’s profane voice is rage and sorrow turned outward.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan describes herself as “British, Chinese, Japanese, and American.” In an interview, she explains that she “spent her life alternately between London and New York, each time missing the other place, feeling as if there was more home there than here.” Her debut novel, then, is personal, which is why it feels so topsy-turvey authentic.

Some current events are also relevant thematically. There’s an art exhibition by an experimental Japanese artist who came of age during the sixties that’s causing a sensation at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. The artist, Yayoi Kusama, has been living in a mental institution for thirty years. Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott describes some of her works as a “somber sea of sadness” and the overall effect is:

“not so much the visual repetition that stuns you, rather, it’s the solitude, the kind of solitude that inspires thoughts like ‘I am trapped in my life …”

Kusamo’s exhibition is visually stunning; Yuki’s feels muted and somber. Yet both might be suffering mentally alike.

There’s also recent reporting on the “invisible wounds” of traumatized refugee children, and other accounts of the psychological stress the anti-immigration ban is having on Dreamers.

The trauma of separation is boundless.

The conceptual art movement of the sixties, in which originality of the idea not the aesthetics was paramount, seems inexplicably odd to many. Yuki, I think, is imagined as a conceptualist. Likewise, “odd” is a word Yuki perceives of herself. It’s also the same apt descriptor for Jay’s bald, old, diabetic cat Celeste, whom he can’t let go off. But it’s not odd why. Animals love us and are devoted to us in ways humans sometimes can’t. Celeste assumes a strong presence, reminding us of our essential need for attachment.

Yuki agonizes to find her artistic voice – what to say and how to say it. To contrast, Buchanan’s voice seems effortless, purposeful, and deeply emotional. Quite an exhibition!


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