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Not Just a Single Man: Christopher Isherwood's Nisei Connections

(Wikipedia.org)

Christopher Isherwood’s short novel A Single Man, which has won increased sales and attention in recent years as a result of Tom Ford’s luminous 2009 screen adaptation, stands as a groundbreaking piece of literature. Published in 1964, five years before the Stonewall riots and the birth of the modern LGBT movement, the book is often referred to as one of the first works of modern queer literature, in that it features a gay protagonist who is “normal” (i.e. not evil or self-hating because of his sexuality) and suggests that homosexuals in America represent a minority group who face injustice. In fact, a close reading of the text reveals other avant-garde aspects to the work, including discussion of Japanese Americans.

A Single Man traces a day in the life of George, a middle-aged British expatriate in Los Angeles. George is going through mourning for his longtime lover Jim, who has died in a car accident. Out of a mixture of pride and prudence, however, he declines the invitation from Jim’s family to attend the funeral, and hides his loss (as well as the nature of his shattered relationship) from his neighbors and colleagues. Yet George is aware of the burden of concealment, and resentful over the prejudice and condescension that gay people face (In a darkly amusing dream scene, he fantasizes about kidnapping the Vice Squad policemen and hypocritical ministers who engage in public campaigns against “sex deviates,” and forcing them to perform sexual acts with each other while he films them). Yet his feelings of alienation lead him to develop a sense of solidarity with other minority groups. While en route in his car to the downtown university where he teaches English, he passes by African American and Latino neighborhoods. While he admits to himself that he would not to live in these areas, simply because of the level of ambient noise, he recognizes that he feels more of a bond with their Black and Mexican residents than with the white middle-class people surrounding him. “These people are not The Enemy. If they would ever accept George, they might even be allies.”

George goes to teach his class, whose diverse student list includes Alexander Mong, a Chinese-Hawaiian abstract painter; Estelle Oxford, a bright but hypersensitive African American woman; Sister Maria, a nun; and Mrs. Netta Torres, a middle-aged divorcée. In response to a question about anti-Semitism, George expands the point to hatred of minorities in general (though Isherwood telegraphs that George is speaking in particular about homosexuality) and states that it comes out of irrational fear. Dismissing liberal pieties about how all people are really the same, George points out that minority group members may indeed be different from the majority and have their own faults, but that it is still wrong to persecute them. However, it is wiser for members of the dominant society to admit their prejudice and deal with it than to conceal it. At the same time, he reminds his students that members of minorities are not ennobled by being victimized. “A minority has its own kind of aggression. It absolutely dares the majority to attack it. It hates the majority—not without a cause, I grant you. It even hates the other minorities, because all minorities are in competition: each one proclaims that its sufferings are the worst and its wrongs are the blackest. And the more they all hate, and the more they're all persecuted, the nastier they become!”

George’s comments particularly intrigue two students who always sit together in the front rows and whom George assumes to be a couple: Kenny Potter, a lanky blond, and Lois Yamaguchi, a Japanese woman. After class, George sees them sitting together on the college lawn and smiles at them, and Lois responds with a “dainty-shamefaced Japanese” laugh. Kenny goes up to George to ask some more pointed questions, explaining that he and Lois consider George to be “cagey” and unwilling to tell all that he knows. George admits that he is reluctant to share what he knows in class, where he might be misunderstood. However, that night George runs into Kenny in a bar. After sharing drinks, they head off together for a naked swim, and then go on to George’s nearby house. There they have a more intimate conversation, in which George feels Kenny flirting with him. In the course of the dialogue, Kenny expresses the wish to live alone, as George does. George is surprised by this and responds with curiosity:

“What I don't quite understand is, if you're so keen on living alone—how does Lois fit in?”

“Lois? What's she got to do with it?”

“Now, look, Kenny—I don't mean to be nosy—but, rightly or wrongly, I got the idea that you and she might be, well, considering—”

“Getting married? No. That's out.”

“Oh?”

“She says she won't marry a Caucasian. She says she can't take people in this country seriously. She doesn't feel anything we do here means anything. She wants to go back to Japan and teach.”

“She's an American citizen, isn't she?”

“Oh, sure. She's a Nisei. But, just the same, she and her whole family got shipped up to one of those internment camps in the Sierras, right after the war began. Her father had to sell his business for peanuts, give it away, practically, to some sharks who were grabbing all the Japanese property and talking big about avenging Pearl Harbor! Lois was only a small kid, then, but you can't expect anyone to forget a thing like that. She says they were all treated as enemy aliens; no one even gave a damn which side they were on. She says the Negroes were the only ones who acted decently to them. And a few pacifists. Christ, she certainly has the right to hate our guts! Not that she does, actually. She always seems to be able to see the funny side of things.”

The exchange is intriguing on several counts. To begin with—apart from African-American writer Chester Himes’s 1945 novel If He Hollers, Let Him Go—this is arguably the first-ever mention of the camps in mainstream fiction. Isherwood (despite the imprecision regarding the location and timing of the camps) uses the term “Nisei” and alludes to wartime removal casually enough as to assume that his readers were well aware of it. Revealingly, Isherwood does not give Lois a voice of her own: her narrative is filtered through a white character’s subjectivity. However, Kenny not only recognizes the racism and injustice of wartime removal but accepts that her feelings about the experience would legitimately keep her from marrying him.

Isherwood’s inclusion of Lois’s story seems to refute George’s claims about the impact of prejudice on minorities. Lois seems not to be a nasty person, despite having been persecuted, and her negative feelings are more of disdain than hatred. What is more, the experience does not lead her to fight other minorities. Rather, according to Kenny she felt that Blacks were the only outsiders to treat the Japanese Americans decently. Such discussion of Black-Asian solidarity was most unusual in 1964, at a time when Asian Americans generally remained aloof from the African American freedom movement. Indeed, in fall 1964 Proposition 14, a measure to repeal the state’s fair housing ordinance, was on the ballot in California. Despite the vocal opposition of the National JACL, many Nisei in California voted to approve the measure and thereby maintain segregation of other minorities.

Readers of A Single Man have pointed to important differences between Isherwood’s novel and the film adaptation, with regard particularly to plot points and to invention of new characters. In the film version George’s class is not so visibly diverse, and his speech about minorities is shortened and somewhat altered. More importantly, there is no Japanese American presence. Lois (played by Brazilian model Aline Weber) is portrayed as blond and her ethnicity is nowhere stated. Whether this was a simple case of “whitewashing” on the part of the film makers or whether they believed that discussion of Japanese Americans would represent a distraction, the exclusion robs A Single Man of some of its revolutionary message.

 

© 2017 Greg Robinson

author Christopher Isherwood LGBT literature minorities novel race