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Making (Non) Sense: On Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being By Yana Ya-chu Chang In the editor’s introduction to the inaugural volume of Asian American Literature: Discourses and Pedagogies, Noelle Brada-Williams, following Elaine Kim’s foundational account of Asian American literature, states that the mission of the journal is to provide teachers and students accessible scholarship so that “works of Asian American literature can be understood in their cultural, sociohistorical, and artistic contexts” (i). Underscoring this aim to elevate the teaching of Asian American literature, Brada-Williams expresses concerns about a survey she conducted with her co-editor Rowena Tomaneng about the teaching of Asian American texts in high schools in Santa Clara County, California. Despite the density of population with an Asian background in the area, the survey showed a limited selection of works of Asian American literature and the inclusion of Asian philosophical traditions, such as Confucianism, in the curriculum. Without dismissing the merits of teaching Asian philosophy, Brada-Williams nevertheless notes that “the tendency for both students and teachers to break apart the term ‘Asian American’ into separate and seemingly unrelated words was disturbing” (ii). In underlining the need to understand Asian American literary texts in their contexts and the difficulty of defining Asian American, Brada-Williams’s observations remind us of the significance of and risks in contextualizing Asian American literature. While placing Asian American texts in their contexts enables us to avoid potential misreadings, such attempts of contextualization also push us to ask what it means to contextualize Asian American literature. In other words, if contextualization helps us better understand Asian American literature, what are some of the implications and presumptions of our attempts to make sense of Asian American texts? In this essay, I investigate this fundamental epistemological question about reading Asian American literary texts by examining Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 Man Booker-shortlisted novel A Tale for the Time Being. Ozeki’s novel illustrates a story of attempting to read stories of the other through a character named Ruth — a writer living on an island in British Columbia, where she finds a freezer bag washed ashore containing a diary along with other materials presumed to be debris from the tsunami on March 11, 2011. The novel interweaves two narrative frameworks: one features the figure Ruth trying to make sense of a diary presumably written by a Japanese returnee named Nao; the other focuses on Nao’s narratives of her life in

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Abstract

This essay investigates the knowledge produced around Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being through a discussion of its marketing processes and its reception, as well as through textual analysis. I first draw upon Sau-ling Wong’s observations about the problem of a US-centric referential framework in the internationalization of Asian American studies to examine a Western-centric framing in the marketing strategies of the US/Canada and the UK editions of Ozeki’s novel. Next, I turn to an examination of how reviews and selected readers’ responses to Ozeki’s novel show an at-times incoherent process of making sense of this text. In the latter part of the paper, I analyze the parallel depictions of Fukushima and Cortes Island, Ruth’s dreams, and Haruki #1’s diary in Ozeki’s novel. Attending to how Ozeki’s narratives destabilize the process of making sense, I argue that the novel is neither easy to read nor as transparent as the marketing strategies and reviews and readers’ responses suggest. The difficulties of making sense represented in A Tale for the Time Being thereby have the potential to intervene in a Western-centric, posivistic reading of the Asian other, challenging us to rethink the analytic frameworks we bring to bear while reading Asian American literary texts.

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