This is our "Collective Diary",, from 2020, created as an ethnographic account from members of the Cambridge Migration Society,
a collaborative and collective history that focuses on migration-related topics under our current COVID-19 pandemic.
The views and thoughts here expressed are strictly personal, the length and type of posts are free flowing ...
Racism, war and epidemics: The diffusion of transnational memories of destruction.
Review of the ‘Seven Streams of the River Ota’ directed by Robert Lepage.
Jessica A. Fernández de Lara Harada, PhD Candidate at University of Cambridge
Márcia Lika Hattori, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Fellowship (MSCA), Institute of Heritage Sciences – Incipit & Spanish National Research Council – CSIC
The ‘Seven Streams of the River Ota’ was presented four years ago and returned this year 2020 to the National Theatre in London to mark 75 years since the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. On the National Theatre’s website the show is described as: “Tracing survivors and their descendants across five generations, this giant theatrical journey through time and space explores the way in which a few kilograms of uranium falling on Japan changed the course of humanity”. Our curiosity was drawn to this play as both researchers interested in post-WW2 history and traumatic heritage, and descendants of Japanese in the periphery of the global south. On Sunday 15th March, we saw one of the nine performances presented as part of the show’s world tour before the covid-19 pandemic changed our interactions in public spaces, and the closure of theatres as a corollary.
The show is composed of seven acts, and has a total duration of seven hours. It is interspersed with two intervals, a break and two pauses. These temporal punctuations provided us with enough time to succinctly comment on the ideoscape as well as the visual, aural and textual material of the show. In the foyer, and amidst interstices, we found ourselves buoyantly suffused by a brutalist atmosphere crowded by the audience that nearly filled the theatre. Most of them were elderly people, but also younger generations like ourselves, who became visible queuing for refreshments, sitting on colourful stools, or standing chatting while composing a harmony of disjointed sounds and fleeting traces of movements.
LePage’s show reveals a master production that immediately immerses the audience in a unique theatrical experience. The music, sound effects, lighting, deployment of mixed media, the design of performance space, as well as the smooth and traceless transitions between scenes are superb. In terms of content, the show traverses disparate geographies, histories, and experiences that are connected by a seemingly single thread. The point of convergence for the all-encompassing plot is the haunting legacy of human destruction. The afterlife of destruction is (re)created by using the reference of Japan as a dimly, ambiguous and problematic framing device.
The show is a welcome ambitious proposal that attempts to transnationally connect the reverberations of the destruction caused by distinct historical events: the US dropping of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) and the subsequent US occupation of Japan; the holocaust in Europe, anti-Asian racism in the US; European feminist and anti-colonial emergent movements played out in Japan’s international world fair; the propagation of AIDS in the US; euthanasia in Amsterdam; and the individual and collective trauma that characterised the last century. These complex historical processes are weaved together under the rubric of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, which is used as an inert frame to hold them together. This frame allows these stories to develop almost independently through the (im)personal contact established among some the characters.
The show sets off in the house of a Japanese widow disfigured by the atomic bomb who lives with her small daughter and mother in law in Hiroshima. A US army official, Luke, whose duty is to photograph the physical destruction caused by the bombs arrives uninvited and demands to photograph their premises. As this story unfolds, we are witness to the orientalist reproduction of racial and gender stereotypes of the asymmetrical encounter between the west and the east. The Japanese woman is portrayed as being unreservedly available to the US army official. Luke is in turn represented as an heroic figure who rescues this woman from her physical destruction and ugliness by photographing her face and conceiving another being with her. He appears in another scene defending Japanese women from the harassment of US army officials, but ultimately departs to the US leaving them to fend for themselves.
The second act introduces us to Jeffrey, the son of the Japanese woman and the US army official, who moves to New York in search of his father and origins. Despite living in the same building, he never gets to meet his father who dies soon after, but he approximates his half brother, Jeffrey 2, who is his neighbour in the same building. Here we are entertained more with the stories of the building’s inhabitants: Jeffrey 2’s financial problems, anti-asian racism, and keenness for baseball; the young experimental musicians who disrupt the quietness of the building at odd times of the day; the neighbours who use the common bathroom as their base for drug consumption. Jeffrey, the mixed-race son of the Japanese American post-conflict reconciliation, appears marginal, the complexity of his relationship to his heritage is completely obscured, and the orientalist feminized stereotypes of Asian men are continuously reproduced. He is portrayed as being servile, obedient and ultimately mute.
From the third to the sixth acts we are taken to several seemingly disconnected events. We get a glimpse of Canada’s participation in the international world fair in Osaka where the romance between a Canadian diplomat and actress develop alongside struggles for women’s empowerment and decolonial thought. The romance that flourishes between Jeffrey 2, and Ada, a Dutch neighbour in New York takes the latter to Austria to find the book with the brothers’ father photographs of Hiroshima. Through an impressively staged scene of mirrors that beautifully portrays the confusion, agony and repetitive projection of traumatic events from childhood to old age regardless of location, a woman survivor, Jana, recollects Holocaust memories and legacies. We learn that Jeffrey 2 contracted AIDS and commits assisted suicide in company of Ada, Jana, Jeffrey, Jeffrey’s blind sister. We also participate in the commemoration of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima, in which Canadian diplomats find themselves entangled in the contested plea to sign international treaties for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Nearing the end of this part, we get curious glimpses of the cultural trade that exoticises Japanese culture for consumption and tourism, which seems to authorize yellow faces in the play. Most of the characters are indeed not Japanese, but nonetheless appear fully invested with the knowledge of and power to represent their experiences.
It is only with the seventh act that we return to Hiroshima, Japan, where the blind daughter of the Japanese widow woman disfigured in the first act reappears again, albeit with a dim presence. The blind daughter is considered a Hibakusha, that is, a surviving victim of the atomic bomb. As such, she faces ostracism in Japan and has limited opportunities for marriage due in part to the idea that she may transmit illness to those around her and her progenie. However, she is kept company by her Canadian friends and her Japanese American brother, Jeffrey, who returns at the same time as one of her Canadian friend’s son arrives. But again we do not learn much about her, and ironically the plot arc culminates her story with the repetition of her mother’s fate: the blind daughter is rescued from the destruction of her infertile future by the young Canadian man with whom she engages in intercourse.
Race and Gender: “Would you take off your shoes, please”
If there is something which pervades the whole piece it is Orientalism. Following Edward Said and Stuart Hall orientalism is understood here as the stereotyped imaginary that the West has constructed of the Rest through knowledge of and power over Others. Combined with notions of gender and race, what caught our eyes was how LePage represents the women of Hiroshima, specifically the mother and daughter. The piece could have enormous potential to be reflective of how trauma, beyond the physical marks, which both share, is intergenerational and remains in the stories of the families. In many contexts of conflict, scholars in the field of psychoanalysis even point out that generations who have not experienced war itself, but are descendants of those involved, are affected either by the mechanisms of repetition of trauma from an individual perspective or by social marginalization as occurs with the Hibakusha. Yet, all of this remains uncritically unexamined in the play.
Instead, what is presented are these racial stereotypes of “the other” from a generational perspective - the mother, victim of the bomb, with a deformed face has a soft, fragile voice with a servile attitude that is immediately available to the North American soldier. The conflict of US military intervention in post-war Japan is softened in the piece. The story is reproduced with the daughter, completely servile in her relationship with other characters, without contradictions, without political force or any transgressive characteristic, placed in a completely secondary way in most of the piece. Her brother Jeffrey, who serves as token for the asian man, on the other hand, is portrayed totally assexualized, servile, passive, helpful, shy, with no conflicts about being the son of an american soldier and a victim of the atomic bomb. As in many representations, if the woman is hypersexualized, the man is infantilized and put in the opposite situation.
All this reinforces something that many researchers have worked on concerning how the representation of the Asian woman in the West is constructed. Throughout the evolution of American Orientalism, the notion of the East as the culturally inferior “Other” has also converged with the conception of women. The Orientalist romanticism of the East synchronized the desire of white heterosexual men for (Oriental) women and the desire for the Eastern territories through the feminization of the East.
The show ultimately conveys the message that when it comes to representations of Japan the only constraint observed by western characters consists of taking off their shoes before entering Japanese households, after which they are entitled to anything, including the appropriation of a culture and, ultimately, of the body.
Fantasies of Japan and decolonial thought
LePage’s ambitious project has a great potential to explore how destruction and violence affect different groups and generations of people. However, the range of histories, geographies and experiences explored end up obscuring the specificity of the atomic bombs and what this meant for those who experienced them. The opportunity that the show seems to have wanted to open to explore such an event and its personal and intergenerational reverberations is therefore occluded to the inevitable detriment of the plot. These several disconnected and at times disparate stories suppress the voice and experiences of the victims and survivors of the atomic bombs, whose narrative arch supposedly inspires and structures the plot. Japan, the atomic bombs, and the complex history, memory and experiences of its survivors are therefore displaced by the other grand narratives that the plot tries to equate them to. However, even though these various histories can be linked by the shapes destruction has taken in the world, they are not the same, and this equation dangerously risk an unethical projection of one’s understandings on others, and the violent epistemic erasure of the suffering of those without a discursive space of articulation and representation, thus precluding any real sense of empathy and understanding.
Moreover the show exposes orientalising fantasies of Japan, rather than offering a better more nuanced and complex understanding of Japan itself. It is evident throughout the show the positionality of the play and the place from where it is created. The centre is not Japan, but Canada, and the perspectival position of its characters comes from there. It is therefore not strange that everything revolves around that viewpoint. As one of the characters aptly hints in one of the acts, such a viewpoint is mediated by a colonial past which remains uncritically unquestioned as well. As the Canadian actress brings to relief, the plot exposes the contradictions of presenting a Canadian play spoken in French to a Japanese audience that does not understand that language.
About the authors
Jessica A. Fernández de Lara Harada
PhD Candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her doctoral research is concerned with the history of racial relations, the operation of racism and xenophobia, and nation building in 20th century Mexico. She investigates the experiences of marginal minorities of Asian immigrant origin, in particular, Japanese migrants and their descendants, in post-revolutionary Mexico (1917 - present). Her research connects the anti-Chinese movements that emerged during the Mexican Revolution and the racial harassment, concentration and suspension of rights that Japanese migrants and their families suffered in the Second World War. During her one-year fieldwork research, Jessica documented the ongoing experiences of racism, othering and exclusion that several generations of descendants of Japanese still experience at present, which echo with earlier overlooked histories.
Facebook: Jessica A. Fernandez de Lara Harada
Márcia Lika Hattori
Brazilian and PhD candidate at the Spanish National Research Council – CSIC. Márcia holds a bachelor degree in History, a specialization in Forensic Anthropology applied to Human Rights in Spain and a master´s degree in Archaeology at University of São Paulo – USP. Her current research explores how persists, in the bureaucracy and the management of dead bodies, the disappearance of people in São Paulo, Brazil by comparing the last dictatorship and the democratic period. She has been working as a forensic archaeologist in different countries and is interested in State violence and the relations between race, class and gender.
Facebook: Márcia Hattori
Little Portals by Scott Spivey Provencio
This feeling is odd, you know? The feeling that, as I sit in my childhood room, my time in Cambridge never really happened. Was it all a dream? Am I different? Will I ever see it again?
As a one-year MPhil student, I already knew that my time there was limited. In a way, I had looked forward to my time there as a sort-of ‘hiatus’ from my ‘real life’ back in the United States. My migration to the UK would be temporary and then I would return back ‘where I belonged’. But now, why do I miss it? Why do I find myself drinking tea and craving some greasy fish and chips from a pub? When did I get imprinted with longing and desire for a place that was never my ‘home’? When does a place go from being temporary to being a ‘home’?
In one of my favorite books, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes: “In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia.” Perhaps it is the blurry feeling of the memories slowly fading away that draws me to the sense of longing. It is the particular split caused by an unexpected event that left me with little closure, or at least a sense of completion in leaving a place by my own volition.
Ironically, my dissertation research for the year centers around these ideas of ‘home’ and ‘nostalgia’. Many displaced peoples have long been ‘split’ from their ‘homes’, or where they feel they belong. Since the beginning of time, humans and other animals migrate when a habitat is not suitable anymore, or perhaps it was destroyed by ecological change, warfare, violence, and lack of ‘opportunity’. Do we miss home more when we left unwillingly? How do we establish new homes?
In London, I have spent much time at a food market that is entirely run by BAME (black and minority ethnic) migrants, primarily ones from Latin America. As a Latinx myself, I was drawn to the elements that are so emblematic to Latin American peoples and places. The market had taken a new form of a remote ‘home’ for many of the market users who sought out their Latin American cuisine and culture. Indeed, the market informally goes by the name Pueblito Paisa, which is an actual marketplace in Colombia, but directly translates to “little Latin American village”; the term paisa is used as an endearing way to describe a person or place who comes from the same homelands.
Anthropologist Ghassan Hage argues that displaced peoples have a unique ability of literally embodying their homelands in a new place. This ‘lenticular condition’, as he calls it, theorizes a portal where “people embody a multiplicity of inhabitancies at once”. In this sense, ‘nostalgia’ forms an actual lenticular bridge between your former locale and your present one. Linear and separate temporalities and geographies are imploded into an emotional and visceral embodiment of ‘nostalgia’. Even though we may not be home, we can still close our eyes and smell grandmothers cooking, remember the touch of the earth on a hike in the mountains, and hear the busy streets of the city’s urban center. We can recreate these elements in a new place, creating little portals that deliver us back ‘home’. Though nostalgia is often laced with feelings of longing and sadness, anthropologist Ruth Behar puts in best in saying that “the only cure for homesickness if more homesickness.”
However, we must be wary because not every displaced person has the opportunity to engage in their homesickness and recreate little portals due to oppression, silencing, assimilation, and the like. Pueblito Paisa actually faces urban renewal this upcoming summer, at the likely expense of displacing the migrant workers once more through gentrification. This doble desplazamiento, or double displacement as a Colombian refugee at the market calls it, is harmful, anxiety provoking, and unfair. Migration does not have to simply be a complete uprooting of one’s place; the little portals we create can help us connect to home in myriad ways. However, the suppression of these portals for displaced peoples is its own form of structural violence, case in point.
As I reflect on my memories from Cambridge, I become aware of all the materialities that I brought with me: items, books, scars, smells, tastes, skills, desires, and emotions. In a way, I never really left Cambridge. It now lives in me. And has become a form of ‘home’ to me. Displacement does not have to be a finite and boundaried condition. The lenticular condition helps us reflect on how we dwell dispersed throughout the world, in both time and space. I acknowledge the privilege I have in being able to move and knowing that I am still not tied down like many other displaced peoples who are, whether it be in asylum detention centers or quarantined in an unsafe environment. They deserve the right to little portals, too.
Leaving by Mariana P. L. Pereira
* From Macau (Special Administrative Region of China), self-isolating in Portugal
When we were asked by the University of Cambridge to go back home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I did not immediately realize this would be the first time leaving Cambridge without a return ticket. Not knowing when we will be able to return - a feeling shared by so many who have moved, who will move... I am lucky, I can think of coming back.
THINGS WE CARRY ON THE SEA
We carry tears in our eyes: good-bye father, good-bye mother
We carry soil in small bags: may home never fade in our hearts
We carry names, stories, memories of our villages, fields, boats
We carry scars from proxy wars of greed
We carry carnage of mining, droughts, floods, genocides
We carry dust of our families and neighbors incinerated in mushroom clouds
We carry our islands sinking under the sea
We carry our hands, feet, bones, hearts and best minds for a new life
We carry diplomas: medicine, engineer, nurse, education, math, poetry, even if they mean nothing to the other shore
We carry railroads, plantations, laundromats, bodegas, taco trucks, farms, factories, nursing homes, hospitals, schools, temples…built on our ancestors’ backs
We carry old homes along the spine, new dreams in our chests
We carry yesterday, today and tomorrow
We’re orphans of the wars forced upon us
We’re refugees of the sea rising from industrial wastes
And we carry our mother tongues
爱(ai)，حب (hubb), ליבע (libe), amor, love
平安 (ping’an), سلام ( salaam), shalom, paz, peace
希望（xi’wang), أمل (’amal), hofenung, esperanza, hope, hope, hope
As we drift…in our rubber boats…from shore…to shore…to shore…