What Counts as Environmental Storytelling: A Conversation with Karen Tei Yamashita

An old photo from the cover of Letters to Memory depicting two young girls in pink dresses and palm trees in the background.

This spring, after reading Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, a brilliantly satirical, magical realist novel by author Karen Tei Yamashita that explores the myriad deleterious effects of deforestation in Brazil, the students in my Literature and the Environment course were lucky to have a visit from Karen herself. Following her visit to my class, Karen sat down with me for a conversation about her work, the importance of narrative in the anthropocene, and the connections between climate change and immigration.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Heather Swan: Some of your more recent work is not as environmental or environmentally focused as Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, but landscapes often hold invisible stories. Would you like to say a little bit about the work that you’ve been doing recently that is uncovering some of those invisible landscapes, the storytelling that came out of visiting some of the internment camps and incarceration centers in the United States?

A photo of Karen Tei Yamashita.

Karen Tei Yamashita at her home on the campus of University of California, Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Coffee House Press.

Karen Tei Yamashita: I’ve been working on a project for many years in which my cousins have been sending me the effects of their parents, my uncles and aunts, who died. In particular, I’ve been looking at the Yamashita family, and we’ve been creating an archive of their memories. They saved their letters, they saved documents, and they saved photographs.

What I wanted to do was to figure out, through their letters, what happened to them. My cousins sent me all this material, and I took up small sections of it that I was interested in that have more to do with civil rights. I wanted to take up the question of the incarceration of the Japanese during the war to look at its connection to civil rights in the United States. That was my initial idea about the project.

When I pretty much finished the storytelling of this book, which is called Letters to Memory, my niece needed to leave Rhode Island and take her car back to California. So I flew there, I picked her up, and I said, “We can do a road trip. Let’s do it.”

We started in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian, and we looked at what’s archived there about the internment camps and about the Japanese Americans during the war. From there we went across the country. We went to many different sites of civil rights, but in particular our incarceration tour started in Arkansas at Jerome and Rohwer, the camps there.

At all of these sites there are museums or interpretive centers or plaques or places that memorialize the fact that Japanese Americans were incarcerated in these locations and try to recuperate that history. And they are sites in the most remote places in the United States.

So we went from Arkansas to Colorado. We went to Wyoming, and then went to Idaho and Utah.The book cover of Letters to Memory featuring family photos from Yamashita's archive.

HS: There are so many.

KTY: There are ten. Ten actual incarceration sites and then many other prison sites.

HS: It strikes me that—because we’re thinking in my course a lot about what will happen as the climate changes and the number of climate refugees that we will have is certainly daunting—it’s important that environmentalists think about our relationship to refugees and immigrants at this time.

Do you feel like some of the work that you’re doing can help us, as we’re looking at the past, to think about how we can be a little bit more appropriate in the future?

KTY: Compassionate. Yes. When I started the project many years ago, I thought that it would be a project to remember my parents and their families. Also, in some sense, to come to some reconciliation of that dark period of their lives, for me to understand what they felt and what happened to them.

But with things that you publish you never know what the timing is going to be. And so the timing of this comes when there is talk of putting up a wall. Folks from many parts of the world are trying to come to the United States as refugees or to seek asylum. Immigrants who are inside of the country who are nondocumented are very much at risk. So you hear stories which are really sad.

An aerial photo taken in 1942 of a wartime relocation camp for Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants.

A War Relocation Authority camp located in a remote area near Jerome, Arkansas. The Jerome and Rohwer War Relocation Centers, both located in rural Arkansas, were two of ten Japanese incarceration camps established during WWII. U.S. Interior Department, 1942.

And so I’ve had to revisit what happened to my parents, what happened my grandparents, and what those consequences are. The incarceration of Japanese during the war, but also the immigration of Asians, Exclusion Acts, and the policies of the United States has pursued since the 1800s is a cautionary tale. I’m having to speak to this problem again, and it makes me sad.

HS: Right. I’m glad you’re doing it. Though I’m sure it’s a really emotional kind of labor that you’re doing. It’s so somber and really important to hold that space.

In contrast, I think about your first novel, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, which was a work of satirical magical realism, and while it has a sort of apocalyptic narrative in that it’s about the rainforest being destroyed, there’s also a bit of humor in there, the absurdity of it. I mean, it’s a dark humor, but I wonder about that. Could you speak about why you would choose to put certain ideas into different genres, and why you would have chosen magical realism and satire at that moment?

The book cover for Through the Arc of the Rain Forest by Karen Tei Yamashita featuring an image of pigeons in flight foregrounded by a semi-transparent red circle.KTY: Well, partly because I was in Brazil. Brazilians practice humor all the time, satire and humor. They’re very funny. And sacrilegious, I would say. They will say things that you would not expect people to say about important people or events. Nothing is sacred. And I guess I caught that, and I had fun with it.

The other thing that was going on there probably was—in those years and probably now—a collective cultural fascination with the soap opera, the novella in Brazil. Every night you could be sure that nationwide everyone was watching certain programs and following certain stories and wanting to know what would happen to these people on the television. So I was also following this mode of transmission—a fictional transmission which was part of a collective consciousness of a nation at the time—and I was trying to think about what that meant. So I also think of that book as a novella soap opera. That was, in some sense, the organizing mode of the book.

HS: One of the things that I was curious about is in Through the Arc of the Rain Forest nonhuman beings were quite a big part of the end of the story, and we are now facing what people are calling the Sixth Extinction. I’m wondering, first of all, how you were thinking about the nonhuman in that moment, and, also, if you think that narrative is part of taking care of the nonhumans that we have left in this current moment?

KTY: In that particular book, I was studying and looking at an entire ecosystem which would have been the rainforest of Brazil. I had visited the north of Brazil and parts of that forest, but I had never really been there. Much of it was written because of research and reading. At the time I lived in the south of Brazil, and people had told me that all of Brazil had been a rainforest or at least a forest.

Living in the south of Brazil, coffee plantations had come to replace that. Then after coffee plantations, other kinds of agricultural projects, huge projects like the plantation of soy and sugar cane. So I was watching, literally, the devastation of all this land every day as I traveled through Brazil.

Soybean fields on a sunny day with a dirt road.

A soybean plantation sprawls across the landscape in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Photo by Tiago Fioreze, 2008.

In those years, in the 70s and 80s, there was no Internet; the technology was not there for that. But I had a lot of journalist friends, and they would come and say, “You know, they say that there is a satellite out there and the one thing that satellite is able to detect is that great swatches of the rainforest in the north of Brazil are being destroyed. You can see it from satellites.” Then they said, “Can you imagine? There are two things you can see: you can see the Great Wall of China, and you can see swatches of our land being destroyed. What is that all about?” They were very aware that these swatches of land were being destroyed by Ford Motor Company. And what is Ford doing there? Well, it was buying up this land, they said, to clear it for pasture for cattle. And I just thought that was an amazing story.

So that became part of why I go to the Amazon, why that swatch turns out to be a large expansive plain of plastic.

HS: I’m really curious, having read Through the Arc of the Rain Forest with my class, if you consider yourself an environmental writer?

KTY: Well you know, when I wrote that book, I was really just talking about Brazil. But when it was published, at that moment, Chico Mendes, a rubber tapper and activist, was assassinated. And then there were at least three nonfiction works that were out there about the rainforest and saving the rainforest. So wherever I went with that particular book, people were asking questions. Children were doing school projects on the rainforest; there’d be pictures by kids of the rainforest with tears coming down. So something that I knew something about and I’d written about became not just national news, but international news. How are we supposed to save the lungs of the earth?

Satellite image showing large swaths of deforestation in the Amazon

Satellite imagery showing expanses of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Photo by NASA Earth Observatory, 2007.

It was an interesting moment for me in which I was thrown into knowing about all of this in more political ways. And it’s been true about every one of my books. When the publication happens, something else goes on, and you realize that you’re in a different space.

It’s not that I don’t embrace my research or the work I’ve done or my perspective on environmental issues, but I don’t think of myself as someone who knows technically or completely the issues. I follow them, but they’re also part of a larger project of my fiction, and I don’t think I could ignore it.

I don’t think you can talk about Brazil and ignore how its environment has completely changed, and how it is used as a global space of acquisition of resources whether it’s beef, whether it’s coffee, whether it’s sugar, whether it’s soy. And you also can’t ignore where that’s all going. You can’t ignore that the soy is going to China, the beef is going to the United States. You can’t ignore where all of those materials are traveling. So it’s part of a larger, global, capitalist vision of what it is to the project of the world.

I don’t think you can talk about Brazil and ignore how its environment has completely changed.

But then what about the people? What about the folks who just live there, and who are trying to make a living? Whose economic fortunes go up and down, who’ve had to leave their country because they can’t make a living there? This happens time and time again. I watch as educated people have to leave Brazil because they can’t make a living there. I’ve watched impoverished people become more impoverished. I’ve watched them become more successful in the sense that they have cell phones and cars now. And yet, now what? They have cell phones and cars. What’s the use of that? They’ve left their homes in small villages and towns. They’ve left a rural life, but they’ve been forced to because agrobusinesses come in to replace their work.

All of these shifting things are part of a larger ecology that is not just the environment. It’s a human ecology, animal ecology, all of these things. How we are treating the earth, how we’re feeding ourselves, how we’re feeding the world, all of these things matter. They’re all interrelated.

So am I an environmentalist? Yes. Do I worry about the earth? Yes. Am I also interested in the cultures or the ethnographies or the anthropology of people and what their lives are? Yes. For me, it’s all related.

Featured image: A portion of the book cover of Karen Tei Yamashita’s Letters to Memory, an experimental memoir about her family’s incarceration during World War II.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Karen Tei Yamashita is the author of Letters to MemoryThrough the Arc of the Rain Forest, Brazil-Maru, Tropic of Orange, Circle K Cycles, I Hotel, and Anime Wong, all published by Coffee House Press. I Hotel was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award and awarded the California Book Award, the American Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association Award, and the Association for Asian American Studies Book Award. Yamashita has been a US Artists Ford Foundation Fellow and co-holder of the University of California Presidential Chair for Feminist & Critical Race & Ethnic Studies. She is currently Professor Emeritus of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Contact.

Heather Swan is a lecturer in the Department of English and the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison where she teaches writing and environmental literature. Her book, Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field, is available from The Pennsylvania State University Press. Her nonfiction has appeared in Aeon, Belt Magazine, Minding Nature, ISLE, and Resilience Journal. Her other contributions to Edge Effects include “Turning Toward” (December 2016) and “Millions of Insects and a Curator at Work”  (March 2018). Contact.