Intersections: Brazil-Japan-America

About 2 million Japanese people live in Brazil, making the community the largest ethnic Japanese population outside of Japan. Their stories of discrimination and resiliency strike a chord with the Japanese American experience, yet the narratives are uniquely their own. Award-winning author and UC Santa Cruz Professor Emerita Karen Tei Yamashita weaves together these stories to reveal the intricate history connecting Japan, Brazil, and the United States. Her works explore the motives and hardships of the Japanese diaspora, bringing to life the voices of those who grasped the opportunity for a better future.

On January 17, 6pm PT // January 18, 11am JT, the SVJP community sat down with Karen Tei Yamashita to discuss her body of work and uncover the patterns which connect Japanese identity beyond the limits of any borders.

Karen Tei Yamashita:
Karen Tei Yamashita was born in Oakland, California; her parents were both survivors of incarceration at the Topaz internment camp during World War II. Yamashita is the author of eight books traversing short story, memoir, and novel – all published by Coffee House Press – including: Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, Brazil-Maru, Tropic of Orange, Circle K Cycles, Anime Wong, and I Hotel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, the American Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association Award, and the Association for Asian American Studies Book Award. Her most recent publication, Sansei and Sensibility (2020), is a collection of buoyant and inventive stories where Yamashita transfers classic tales across boundaries and questions what an inheritance – familial, cultural, emotional, artistic – really means.

In 2021, Yamashita was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. In the judges citation, David Steinberger, Chair of the Board of Directors, observed, “In her various roles as a public intellectual—author, lecturer, teacher, mentor—Yamashita models a deep desire to understand and to embrace life as she finds it. Her body of work has been credited with transforming the approach toward Asian American literary and cultural studies from one that is U.S.-centric to one that is hemispheric and transnational. In prose brimming with electric narrative energy, she employs humor, politics, sardonic wit, and lush polyvocality to invite readers into her nuanced but accessible literary worlds; her writing evinces a breathtaking capacity to transform conventions in genre, voice, intertextuality, and characterization.”

Yamashita is the recipient of the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, and a U.S. Artists’ Ford Foundation Fellowship. Her awards include the California Book Award, Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association Award, and multiple Association for Asian American Studies Book Awards.

Yamashita was awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to travel to São Paulo for research on the extensive history of Japanese immigration to Brazil where she remained for a decade. While there, Yamashita formed a study of Japanese Brazilian agricultural life, conducting interviews with Japanese immigrants, their descendants, and members of a commune. On her return to Los Angeles in 1984, Yamashita worked on translations and screenplays, and produced dramatic works such as Hannah Kusoh: An American Butoh, Tokyo Carmen vs. L.A. Carmen, and Noh Bozos, which she has linked to the content and style of her novel Tropic of Orange.

She is currently professor emerita of literature and creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Dana Heatherton:
Dana Fujiko Heatherton is Head of New Markets for Waymo, the leader in autonomous driving car technology (formerly the Google Self Driving Car Project). Prior to Waymo she served as Chief Operating Officer of GIG Car Share, the nation’s largest free-floating car share and all electric vehicle fleet. In 2020 she was named Top 20 Most Influential Women in Mobility. Previously she helped establish A3Ventures, the Innovation Lab and Venture Capital arm of the Automobile Association of America (AAA) to launch new ventures in mobility, home maintenance, and elder care. Prior to that she worked in Oil Trading for Shell in Houston, TX and in Finance for the Capital Group in LA. Dana currently serves as Co-Chair of the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation, and has been active in the community as U.S.-Japan Council Regional Chair, Executive Board Member of the Little Tokyo Service Center, and a TV reporter for local Japanese news. She is a yonsei from Los Angeles and graduated from UCLA with a degree in American Literature. Dana lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children.