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Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013) is now available. The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Miriam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, and others, as well as new poetry & book reviews.

Unsettled, unsettling

  • Kerri Sakamoto (Author)
    The Electrical Field. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Guy Beauregard

The Electrical Field, Kerri Sakamoto’s first novel, has received enormous media attention. An October 1997 piece in the New York Post calls it "[tjhe most sought-after book of the season" (a quotation emphasized with relish in the Knopf Canada publicity material), and it goes on to tell the tale of twelve publishers signing up to bid on the novel—"and a score of foreign publishers and Hollywood producers are in the wings." Knopf Canada has played its part by publicizing the novel as part of its "New Face of Fiction" series, a designation that has become especially appropriate given the appearance of a photograph of Sakamoto’s face in nearly every review or story that has appeared to dale. Perhaps most astonishing is the full-colour photograph of Sakamoto that appeared on the cover of the January 1998 issue of Quill & Quire, a full five months before the novel was published. (Sakamoto has more recently appeared on the cover of the September 1998 issue of Books in Canada.) The publicity machine hit full stride in the months of May and June, and in general reviewers have been tripping over themselves to praise the novel. As one commentator puts it, "not since critics celebrated the first fiction of Ann-Marie MacDonald and Anne Michaels has a debut novel been given the kind of kudos that have greeted Sakamoto’s The Electrical Field?

Against the volume of such hype, the novel’s rather quiet narrative may lead some readers to view The Electrical Field as a disappointment. I feel, however, that the novel’s quiet tone—along with its jagged undercurrents—may be its strongest asset and the defining characteristic of its Ishiguro-like narrative. With considerable ingenuity, Sakamoto tells the story of how a murder disrupts the lives of three Japanese Canadian families in a time (the mid-1970s) and a place (suburban Toronto) that is as stark and barren as the high-voltage towers cutting through the novel’s eponymous electrical field.

The novel is narrated from the point of view of Asako Saito, a middle-aged woman who spends much of the narrative looking out her window across the electrical field at the lives and homes of the other Japanese Canadians in her neighborhood. Asako is not content, however, to watch others: she actively tries to control what others can see. Following a visit from her neighbor Yano, Asako hastily shuts the drapes so that her curious bed-ridden father cannot see him; she later snatches one of Yano’s redress flyers from her father’s hands—"[t]hese things could be unsettling, really, and for no good reason." Asako later tries to hide Yano’s redress meeting from her brother Stum, and refuses to let him see a photo from the internment camp—"Stum had been just a baby then, toddling about in the gloom of the camp, and there was no need to open a can of worms to explain what was well past."

In each case, Asako tries to put the past away, but through the efforts of other characters, it keeps returning in unpredictable ways to unsettle her narrative. Her young neighbor Sachi, who bursts across the electrical field in the novel’s opening scene, pushes Asako to make sense of her failed pubescent love affair with her brother Eiji—and her complicity in his death. In one of the novel’s finest scenes, Sakamoto writes:

"I wanted you to come. Miss Saito," [Sachi] said, breathless as she slipped into the moving car and slammed the door. She was nervous again. "I thought it would help you remember something that might help." She gritted her teeth, and the morning sun knifing between trees flashed over her braces. "Because sometimes you forget," she said.

Yano too, with his rage against the internment, works to unsettle Asako’s life. He insists on linking Mackenzie Hill, a local landmark concealing a pile of garbage, to "[t]hat bugger Mackenzie King," the prime minister who authorized the internment of Japanese Canadians in 1942; he organizes poorly attended redress meetings; and he repeatedly confides (to Asako’s dismay) his desire for Japanese Canadians to "stick together." By the end of the novel, Asako’s head is "a hive swarming with voices," and memory becomes something she is thoroughly immersed in (like the current of a stream) or dwarfed by (like the electrical towers outside her home).

The policing of desire; the deep feelings of shame, loss and mourning felt by Japanese Canadians following the internment; the politics of remembering and forgetting— all intersect in The Electrical Field, and Sakamoto provides no easy answers. The novel’s final words—"It was simple, really"—are perhaps its most ironic, for while Asako has finally revisited the scene of Eiji’s death, and while she has witnessed the growing love shared by Stum and his partner Angel, Sakamoto presents us with the way Stum and Angel "sex" chicks, separating the roosters and the hens, and choking and placing into a "third box" the animals that are both and therefore "no good." Asako observes: "Girls here, boys there. It was simple, really." The ending thus leaves us with Asako’s misrecognition of a very difficult point: at the same time that Stum and Angel can "move forward" with their lives through the shared act of "sexing" the chicks, they do so by participating in the kind of violent "sorting" process that underwrote the internment of Japanese Canadians, whom Asako describes as "neither here-nor-there stock."

I’d like to conclude by returning to the reception of The Electrical Field. In a novel so concerned with the politics of the gaze, perhaps we would do well to question the function of repeatedly placing Sakamoto’s face on display to promote the novel: Does it authenticate the narrative? Does it (as Ien Ang suggests regarding the place of the "Asian" woman in Australian multicultur-alism) feminize and racialize the author to make her a suitable object of consumption? If so, who consumes and what are the effects? Given the way the novel leads us through Asako’s deeply unsettled life, perhaps we might ask how reading the novel might unsettle our own. Reverberations of history hum through the novel like the electricity cutting through the electrical field. These reverberations challenge us to understand the ongoing processes through which a nation can sort through its citizens and unceremoniously discard some of them into a "third box"—internment camps, reserves, urban ghettos. Whether readers will think through these acts ol vio lence and the pain involved in suppressing or remembering them remains one of the many questions raised by The Electrical Field and the attention it has generated.

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MLA: Beauregard, Guy. Unsettled, unsettling. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 Sept. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #163 (Winter 1999), Asian Canadian Writing. (pg. 191 - 193)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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