Ambivalent passages: racial and cultural crossings in Onoto Watanna’s The Heart of Hyacinth

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2012-07-23 20:55Z by Steven

Ambivalent passages: racial and cultural crossings in Onoto Watanna’s The Heart of Hyacinth

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S.
Volume 34, Number 1 (Spring 2009)
pages 211-229
DOI: 10.1353/mel.0.0004

Huining Ouyang, Professor of English
Edgewood College, Madison, Wisconsin

Appearing in the early fall of 1903 in time for the Christmas season, The Heart of Hyacinth, like other Japanese romances by Onoto Watanna (Winnifred Eaton), was widely promoted as a holiday gift book, enchanting readers with its “exquisite” Japanese design and its “delicate,” “charming” tale of Japan. For many, their pleasure in the novel’s Japanese appearance and sentiment was enhanced by their knowledge of its author’s alleged Japanese nativity or ethnicity. As one reviewer emphasizes: “We have a childish pleasure in things Japanese. . . . There is, therefore, a piquant pleasure for us in a story of Japanese life written by a native” (Heart, Republican). Similarly, another reviewer opens by introducing the author as “Onoto Watanna, the dainty little gentlewoman from Japan, who writes so delightfully of her native country” (“Heart,” Banner). Others, on the other hand, attribute the author’s “sympathy with Japanese life” (Kinkaid) or her portrayal of Japanese life “as seen from the inside” (Heart, Register) to her half-Japanese parentage. Thus, still largely convincing to the reading public, Watanna’s Japanese writing persona continued to allow her to dissimulate as an exemplar of the feminine, simple aesthetic and authentic ethnographer of Japan.

Watanna’s performance of Japaneseness, through her “Japanese” romances and especially her Japanese authorial persona, links her with the practice of “passing,” or the crossing of identity boundaries by those on the racial and cultural margins. An act of transgression, passing allows an individual in the liminal position, as Elaine K. Ginsberg puts it, to “assume a new identity, escaping the subordination and oppression accompanying one identity and accessing the privileges and status of the other” (3). As a woman of Chinese and English descent living and writing in an era of virulent anti-Chinese sentiments in North America, Onoto Watanna devised strategies of passing not only to escape personal and racial persecution but also to achieve authorship in a white-male-dominant literary marketplace. By appropriating the popular genre of Japanese romance and adopting the guise of an exotic half-Japanese woman writer, she exploited her white reading audience’s orientalist fantasies and enabled herself to achieve visibility and authority in a field dominated by such luminaries as Lafcadio Hearn, Pierre Loti, and John Luther Long.
In The Heart of Hyacinth, however, passing serves as not only a tactic of ethnic female authorship but also an important narrative strategy that governs both theme and plot. Although reviewers have variously described it as “an ideal gift-book,” “a Japanese idyll,” or a delicate “Japanese love story,” Watanna’s novel weaves, in effect, a complex narrative of identity in which she negotiates with orientalist binary constructions of the East and the West and explores through the Eurasian figure the promise and perils of boundary crossing. As its title suggests, Watanna’s novel centers on the tale of Hyacinth, a white American “orphan” who has been adopted and reared by a Japanese woman and who discovers her white racial origin when her American father attempts to claim her seventeen years after her birth. Although she eventually comes to terms with her white parentage, her heart belongs to her Japanese adoptive mother and to Komazawa, the Eurasian foster-brother she grew up with and with whom she now falls in love. However, like Watanna’s first novel, Miss Numè of Japan, The Heart of Hyacinth tells more than what its title seems to imply. Hyacinth’s struggles with her familial, cultural, and racial allegiances intersect with her adoptive Eurasian brother’s negotiations of his own mixed heritage. Despite her discovery of her white heritage, Hyacinth claims a Japanese identity and resists Western colonial paternalism, while Komazawa passes into British society and navigates his biraciality with apparent ease in his endeavors to become “English.”

A coming-of-age narrative of two Eurasians, one actual and the other metaphorical, Watanna’s novel thus imagines passing in two different forms. On the one hand, through Komazawa’s physical and…

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