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from the September 2020 issue

A Slice of Writing by Nikkei and Tusán Peruvian Writers

The title of this issue is "Who Writes Peru: Asian Peruvian Writers.” A more precise subtitle, however, would have been "Nikkei and Tusán Peruvian Writers,” because “Asian Peruvian” as an organizing principle simply doesn’t make much sense in the home contexts of these seven writers. The term trips off my (North) American tongue because I am used to identifying myself as “Asian American.” In the US, the political movements of the 1960s led to the construction of a pan-Asian identity that has since been incorporated into the foundations of how race is discussed in this country, but the same is not true everywhere.

In Peru—where I recently spent seven months learning about Chinese Peruvian identity and literature—though “chino/a” is often used to refer to anyone with “Asian”-looking facial features, it is also true that the country’s Chinese and Japanese diasporic communities, with their disparate histories (both stretching back to the 1800s), share little sense of common identity. In other words, the totalizing sweep of “chino/a” is that of an external gaze; it does not reflect how all Nikkeis (the term used globally to refer to diasporic Japanese) and Tusan(e)s (the Peruvian Spanish term derived from a Chinese phrase meaning “local-born”) would choose to identify themselves.

Similarly, this issue’s agglomerative “Asian Peruvian” focus was born of an external gaze—in this case, mine. I think of Rodrigo Hasbún (in Sophie Hughes’s translation) on Carlos Yushimito: “As nearsighted writers, we also know that the constant disjuncture between what we can see and what is just beyond our sight has a great influence on our gaze and sensibility. [. . .] To read is, in a way, to share the myopia of the person we are reading.” (Yushimito, another Peruvian writer who could have fit into this issue, appeared in Words Without Borders’ last issue on Peruvian writers.)

In this issue are short stories, poems, a novel excerpt, and a crónica by writers Augusto Higa Oshiro, Doris Moromisato, Julia Wong Kcomt, Julio Villanueva Chang, Siu Kam Wen, Sui-Yun, and Tilsa Otta, in translations by Jacob Steinberg, Julie Hempel, Margaret Wright, Nicolás Medina Mora, and me. Though “Asian Peruvian” is not necessarily the label these writers would have chosen for themselves, this is not to say they don’t share a community. On the contrary—they read and inspire each other. When I met Augusto Higa Oshiro, he noted that his story “Okinawa existe,” from his collection of the same name, came into existence after he read “El tramo final,” the Siu Kam Wen story whose translation is featured in this issue. He also mentioned having just finished reading Julia Wong Kcomt’s latest novel. Wong Kcomt, in turn, dedicated her poem “El gallo rojo” (here, “The Red Rooster”) to José Watanabe, the late Peruvian Nikkei poet who, though he is not in this issue, is an icon of Peruvian letters. Wong Kcomt has also been co-interviewed by Julio Villanueva Chang for Presencia Oriental, a YouTube channel by actor and writer Nilton Maa. And the first time I met Villanueva Chang was when a friend and I happened upon him in a bookstore, as he was on his way to a reading by Tilsa Otta. These writers share a community not because they’re of Asian descent, but because they are writers, and Peruvian, based for the most part in Lima, where they run into each other at book launches and birthday parties.

Their themes, as you will see, are diverse. Some of them have often called upon their Chinese or Japanese roots; others have alighted upon the topic only a few times, if at all, with a delicate touch. Higa Oshiro, for example, didn’t start writing Japanese or Nikkei characters until he spent a period as a factory worker in Japan during Peru’s tumultuous 1990s. When he returned to Peru, he wrote a book about the experience, and Nikkei characters became more visible in his fiction. Some have had their claim to the Spanish language publicly questioned, as Siu Kam Wen did when he published his first novel and the press surmised that “Siu Kam Wen” must be a pen name—could an immigrant who had arrived in Peru in adolescence really write the way Siu does? Others have asked the question of themselves: like Wong Kcomt, who speaks, in an interview, of “a time in my life when I thought I couldn’t even write good Spanish. It felt like an effort. My father didn’t speak the language well, though it’s also true my mother was a grammar fanatic.” Yet others, perhaps, have never confronted such doubts.

One common thread is these writers’ willingness to complicate the idea of “home”—not just in writing, but also with their physical selves. Most of them have lived significant periods outside of Peru: in Germany, Japan, Macau, Mexico, the US. For a few, constant cross-border movement has remained a hallmark of their lives. Siu, for one, never obtained Peruvian citizenship and has lived in Hawaii for the past thirty-five years.

Within this issue, destabilized notions of “home” appear in Higa Oshiro’s “Corazón sencillo”/“Simple Heart,” whose very premise is of foreign provenance—the story was inspired, the author says, by both Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “Sennin” and Gustave Flaubert’s “Un cœur simple.” And traces of different “homes” can be seen in the presence of Lima and its sprawling districts in poems by Moromisato and Wong Kcomt. Metropolitan Lima is not the city where either writer grew up, nor the city where their parents grew up, but it is now home—or a home. At the same time, Chambala and Chepén, where the two writers were born, also leave their marks on their bodies of work. In the case of Sui-Yun, when we were discussing “A Eva, mi madre eterna” (“To Eve, My Eternal Mother”), she says she wrote it freshly returned to Peru after a decade in Germany, where “even though I had all the commodities, I was living a life that wasn’t mine, because I’m not German; I’m Chinese in the tropical rainforest.” (Sui-Yun was born and raised in the Amazon city of Iquitos.)

May—the month in which I’m writing this—is Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month in the US. Discussions continue over whom the umbrella of “Asian” includes and excludes, implicitly and explicitly, even as the term, which encompasses a majority of the world’s population, begins to groan under the weight of its load. Similarly, I would like to press more on the other half of the term “Asian American.” Who gets to be American is a question that, in many ways, first became legally contentious with the arrival of waves of people from the Philippines, India, Korea, Japan, and China in the US; the answer was shaped by laws like the Page Act of 1875 and cases like United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. During the Second World War, 1,800 Peruvian Nikkeis arrived on US shores. Packed up and shipped here to be incarcerated in internment camps, they came not to enjoy the privileges of American life, but to share in its undeserved burdens. And now, in these vertiginous last few years, much has happened to make me question what it means to be American.

Once, as Julia Wong Kcomt and I sat talking at her dining table, I used the term “las Américas” to refer to North, Central, and South America. I was trying to be sensitive to the fact that in Spanish, “americano/a” does not mean American, from the United States; it means American, of the American continent(s). She grinned and said, “Only you guys say that.” “What,” I said nervously. “Las Américas?” “Yes,” she said. “We just say ‘América.’”

Who gets to be American? Who decides where to draw the line between in and out, whether Nikkei and Tusán belong in one category, how América is split (if at all) and why? Who decides—and for whom, on whose behalf? “Asian American” can only be imperfectly analogized to describe lives experienced in other places. Nevertheless, I’d like to push at the term’s outer bounds, to make space for more continental conversations. Maybe then, “Asian American”—and the understanding, the seeing gaze-to-gaze, at which the use of such terms is aimed—could be imperfect in a fuller, richer way.

With thanks to Fulbright Peru and to the scholars who have written about literary production by Peruvians of Chinese and Japanese descent: Daisy Saravia, Debbie Lee-DiStefano, Humberto Rodríguez Pastor, Ignacio López-Calvo, Joel Anicama, Michelle Har Kim, Rodrigo Campos, and others.

© 2020 by Jennifer Shyue. All rights reserved.

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