Reflection by Erica Kanesaka Kalnay

Grace Lavery writes in Quaint, Exquisite that “the Orientalist argument worlds itself by insisting on the otherworldliness of its object” (36). This assertion crystallizes what I see as the book’s extremely compelling provocation concerning the problem of “aboutness.” What does it mean for a work of art—or, for that matter, a work of scholarship—to be “about” its subject?

The political exigency of this question comes into focus in Quaint, Exquisite’s brilliant examination of a distinct iteration of Orientalism. Instead of claiming to “know” Japan, thereby fortifying what Edward Said describes as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”,[1] many Victorians believed that Japan was a place so absolutely eccentric that it could never truly be known. Perhaps counterintuitively, this belief reinforced their imagined authority to indulge in fantasy projections of the “Other Empire.” For instance, Lavery explores the claim that Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado is “not about Japan,” a claim that continues to provide pretext for willful indifference and ignorance toward the harm of racial caricature, justifying ongoing restagings of a Victorian yellowface performance.

Lavery beautifully elucidates this tethering of delight and harm, demonstrating how “an insuperable beauty and an irresistible violence” became attached to “exquisite” Japanese objects like the katana sword—at once a weapon and an objet d’art (x). As Lavery shows, the exquisite’s folding together of pleasure and pain lends ambivalence to the aestheticization of Asian feminine abjection and highlights the complexity of work by writers like Winnifred Eaton, a multiracial Chinese Canadian woman once criticized for writing self-Orientalizing fictions under the faux-Japanese penname “Otono Watanna.”

Yet the book is modest with respect to its ability to speak about Asia or the Asian diaspora. Given her expertise, Lavery states that Quaint, Exquisite is itself “not about Japan,” but instead concerned with the “aboutness” of a Victorian fantasy construction. Nevertheless, by engaging Asian diasporic figures like Eaton, the book illustrates how these fantasy projections are interwoven in the lives of
racialized subjects.

I would argue that Quaint, Exquisite therefore points to the potential for Victorian studies to engage more purposefully with scholarship in ethnic studies and critical race theory. A number of the problems that Lavery considers converge with Asian American studies, a field that has nuanced our understanding of Orientalism as both historically enduring and culturally specific. To take one example, Anne Anlin Cheng’s recent work on “Ornamentalism” marks the ways in which Asian women are “simultaneously made and unmade by the aesthetic project.”[2] Cheng shows how global Victorian culture conflated Asian femininity with the decorative to encase the “yellow woman” in the shimmering materialities of porcelain, brocade, jade, and lacquer.

Comparably, Lavery writes of Japanese varnish: “The beautiful but inscrutable wood [preserved] as aesthetic form features of a beautiful but inscrutable racialized aesthetic form” (64). As a graduate student working at the intersection of Victorian studies and Asian American studies, these insights into the Victorian material history underlying Asian racialization excited me with the promise of further dialogue between these two fields. My dissertation, for example, examines dolls and picture books as a type of portable property that carried racial affects across Japan, England, and America, conferring racial stereotypes with an imagined tenderness through their associations with childhood innocence.

Because it charts the configurations of an “idea” that has proved surprisingly malleable, Quaint, Exquisite could be “about” many things, including the ongoing unfolding of the Victorian past in our present moment. And, although it does not invoke strategic presentism directly, it offers a model for work that illuminates our “quaint attachments” to Victorian Orientalism. I am curious to hear what others think, not only about the historical and geographical breadth of this book, but about the political stakes of its understated engagement with contemporary racial formations. How can Victorian studies address processes of racialization while taking its lead from scholars, primarily scholars of color, who have done this work over the long-haul?

[1] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (Vintage, 1979), 3.

[2] Anne Anlin Cheng, “Ornamentalism: A Feminist Theory for the Yellow Woman,”
Critical Inquiry 44 (2018): 415.

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