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Department of English Language and Literature pres.

Practice Job Talk: "How to Leave the Frontier for the Sky: Japanese American Incarceration in the Wild West and Mitsuye Yamada's 'outerstellar darkness'"

Mika Kennedy

"How to Leave the Frontier for the Sky: Japanese American Incarceration in the Wild West and Mitsuye Yamada's 'outerstellar darkness'"

My dissertation project focuses on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. From this historical vantage point, I draw on ecocritical and settler colonial frameworks to theorize the relationship between immigrant and indigenous populations in the United States as they are produced by relations to land and acts of environmental transformation. I posit environmental transformation as a core element of Japanese American incarceration, examining the way the War Relocation Authority's agricultural projects rhetorically and materially sought to reclaim the "frontier" West for the U.S. (white) settler state. I examine how the stakes of the incarceration shift when it becomes not only an act of racial exclusion and war hysteria, but also a conscious reiteration of the settler colonial frontier—a frontier which, in the confines of an incarceration camp, is quickly denuded of its fantasies of a free West. In turn, I explore the ways Japanese Americans narrated their own relationship to their camp environments, imaginatively traversing geologic time, performing cowboy outlaw, and confronting the Native erasures that subtend every frontier “success story.” My project’s primary intervention lies in its ecocritical approach to narratives of Japanese American incarceration, which illuminates the ways that Japanese Americans’ imaginative encounters with their environment express alternative ways of being and belonging in a place.

My job talk will focus on an alternative orientation I term "the outerstellar," which is a neologism I borrow from poet Mitsuye Yamada's Desert Run (1988). As I define it, the outerstellar is a horizon beyond the constellations of settler colonial power, offering a counter formation to settler colonial paradigms by way of counter-metaphor. In contrast to a frontier ethos that equates environmental transformation with power and agricultural settlement with ownership, I read Mitsuye Yamada's Desert Run as a display of intimate encounters with desert life that assert an alternative form of immigrant belonging, wherein the speaker identifies as a privileged guest on Native land, rather than its master. I argue that the metaphoric outerstellar is grounded in embodied, material relationships to land and people, and close by examining the ways this alternative orientation manifests (or fails to) in the contemporary narratives of the Japanese American pilgrimages to Poston and Gila River, which are organized in partnership with the Colorado River Indian Tribes and Gila River Indian Community.
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