Mythical Ambiguity and Nisei
Kerri Sakamoto's Floating City Reviewed by Carolyn Nakagawa
- Floating City
- By Kerri Sakamoto
- 272pp. Knopf Canada. 2018
Reviewed by Carolyn Nakagawa
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The novel Floating City tells the ambiguously mythical story of Frankie Hanesaka, a Canadian-born son of Japanese immigrants, from his early life of poverty in Port Alberni to his success as a developer in Toronto.
Author Kerri Sakamoto uses accessible prose to weave a world gently permeated by ambiguous social and moral themes that lurk beneath the text's charming surface. Sakamoto extracts her story of a self-made man from a collective, historical narrative she knows well: that of Japanese Canadians interned during the Second World War. Sakamoto explored the legacy of this history in her first novel, The Electric Field. Her third, Floating City, is set more directly within the history of Japanese Canadian internment than The Electric Field, following its protagonist Frankie from his west-coast childhood, through the internment camps, to his hustle to build a life for himself and his family in Toronto. Sakamoto gently removes her story from this collective historical narrative to place more focus on the choices and conceptual forces at play in her individual protagonist's life.
Sakamoto's ostensible inspiration for Floating City is explained in a brief note at the end of the novel: a 1968 proposal presented to Toronto City Council for "three self-contained floating neighbourhoods in Toronto Harbour". The proposal was presented by Buckminster Fuller and his partner, Shoji Sadao. Sakamoto replaces Sadao with her protagonist Frankie and has them realize their dream of a Floating City at the end of the book, though the real-life neighbourhoods were never built.
In many ways, Frankie is an archetypal "Nisei" Japanese Canadian. Nisei is a Japanese word for "second generation", referring to the children of immigrants from Japan born in the new land, whether Canada, the United States, or elsewhere. The Canadian Nisei were mostly children and young adults when the Canadian government forcibly removed all Japanese Canadians from the west coast of British Columbia in the name of security during World War II, moving them into shacks in inland internment camps like Tashme and forcibly selling the property held "in trust" for them on the coast. After the war, many of them, like Frankie, went east to start new lives, aggressively pursuing professional and financial success.
The book's neat titled chapters – and its beginning with a prologue – belie the way the narrative floats through time. Though the book begins in Frankie's childhood, it is difficult to track his age in relation to narrative events. Space is clearly demarcated at a high level – the novel's two primary settings are marked as "Port Alberni, Vancouver Island" and "Toronto" as sections dividing the book, with a third section, "Torosa: Floating City", serving as a kind of epilogue. Frankie becomes defined by these stark geographic demarcations in a way that he is not defined by time.
Sakamoto includes a disclaimer that her novel "is not intended to follow the precise history of what was, but rather to imagine a story that might have been". Her factual disclaimer of Japanese Canadian history permits her to build on various themes.
While Japanese Canadian-owned property was forcibly expropriated and sold by the Canadian government beginning in 1943, Frankie's family is dispossessed years before the war, when his father is tricked into selling his land in Port Alberni. One can easily imagine this happening to a vulnerable, working-class immigrant family in the 1930s. Sakamoto's plausible fictional incident prefigures a more systematic dispossession that happens to Japanese Canadians as a group in the following decade. Also important is that this dispossession places the Hanesaka family home on water. This experience is shared by some real-life Nisei born into fishing families along the west coast, but it also foreshadows and serves as a foil to the book's titular "Floating City" located in Toronto Harbour. Both the injustice that predicates the Hanesakas' displacement to a floating house in 1930s Port Alberni, and the fact of a floating house itself, become important recurring motifs in Sakamoto's narrative.
In Toronto, Frankie achieves success through his employer, a wealthy Jewish architect, and his employer's good friend, the real-life American innovator Buckminster Fuller. Fuller, an engineer and designer best known for inventing the geodesic dome, had a grand vision for the advancement of humankind. Sakamoto's Fuller, whose dialogue in the novel includes verbatim text from Fuller's real-life writings, takes a liking to Frankie, sharing some of his ideas of the world with the ambitious young man. But the contact between the lettered intellectual and the hustling young Frankie, an "Oriental", is characterized on both sides by a synchronicity hinged on misunderstanding. Fuller immediately sees the similarities of Frankie's life trajectory to his own, but fails to see key differences in the two men's stories caused by societal and state-sanctioned racism. Through the lens of Fuller's ideas, the floating house—at first a mark of Frankie's family's insecurity and vulnerability to the racist, capitalist society—transforms into a vision of success and progress in Toronto. It isn't surprising that Frankie buys into Fuller's naïve vision, one not dissimilar to his own boyish enterprise at the beginning of the novel: a ramshackle floating hotel in Port Alberni that he builds in partnership with two immigrant labourers. But while that hotel plays out as little more than a foolish pipe dream, Frankie can succeed in a similar enterprise in Toronto once he exploits the connections of his wealthy boss.
Sakamoto introduces Fuller through his own words as "a penniless, unknown individual" who is "operating only on behalf of all humanity" for the "favourable physical and metaphysical advancement" of humanity. Frankie, too, is a penniless, unknown individual, but one with the additional restraints of racial oppression and his experience of wartime internment. Although he thinks of himself as following Fuller's lead, building a "Cloud Tower" and later a Floating City in tribute to Fuller, Frankie's methods and results, like so many urban developers, are far from humanitarian. While he leaves behind the sites of his family's dispossession and wartime incarceration, Frankie enacts the same capitalist exploitation in his new environment, buying land he knows is going to be expropriated, and building tall towers which deprive low-income children of sunlight.
Sakamoto's gently precise prose has a lift which pulls us lightly through a rather dark story, sketching just the outlines of continuing systems of capitalist and racist oppression that govern the world of the novel from start to finish. The ethereal texture of the book enhances the absences which play a key thematic role: most importantly, an absence of rootedness in place. In a novel about land development, absence of connection to place is the absence of a moral core. Sakamoto includes only one, indirect allusion to Indigenous peoples' stewardship of the land in which her novel is set, which is quickly superceded by the immigrant narrative of the Hanesakas' struggle to find a place in a colonial world. Frankie, the son of immigrants, is never grounded in place, even as he builds a career out of real estate speculation and development. Rather than returning to the roots of the land, Frankie responds to the unspoken trauma of his own forced displacements by aspiring to float without foundation on the sea, but it only works when he can appropriate the scaffolding of privilege. Sakamoto's mythical narrative style is alluring and deceptive, giving Floating City's more fantastic elements the air of parable. These elements gently lift the narrative above factual details. They make space for an absence of moral foundation, which absence is all too real in our world.
Carolyn Nakagawa is a poet, playwright, and cultural organizer. She is fourth-generation Japanese Canadian and third-generation Vancouverite and holds a degree in English Literature and Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies from the University of British Columbia. Her writing can also be found in The Malahat Review, PRISM International, and SAD Mag, among others. View bio.
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