In September 1897 Yone Noguchi (1875–1947) contemplated crafting a poem to his new love, western writer Charles Warren Stoddard. Recently arrived in California, Noguchi was in awe of the established writer and the two had struck up a passionate correspondence. Still, he viewed their relationship as doomed—not by the scandal of their same-sex affections, but their introverted dispositions and differences in background. In a poem dedicated to his “dearest Charlie,” Noguchi wrote: “Thou and I, O Charles, sit alone like two shy stars, east and west!” While confessing his love to Stoddard, Noguchi had a child (future sculptor Isamu Noguchi) with his editor, Léonie Gilmour; became engaged to Washington Post reporter Ethel Armes; and upon his return to Japan married Matsu Takeda—all within a span of seven years. According to author Amy Sueyoshi, Noguchi was not a dedicated polyamorist: He deliberately deceived the three women, to whom he either pretended or promised marriage while already married. She argues further that Noguchi’s intimacies point to little-known realities of race and sexuality in turn-of-the-century America and illuminate how Asian immigrants negotiated America’s literary and arts community.
As Noguchi maneuvered through cultural and linguistic differences, his affairs additionally assert how Japanese in America could forge romantic fulfillment during a period historians describe as one of extreme sexual deprivation and discrimination for Asians, particularly in California. Moreover, Noguchi’s relationships reveal how individuals who engaged in seemingly defiant behavior could exist peaceably within prevailing moral mandates. His unexpected intimacies in fact relied upon existing social hierarchies of race, sexuality, gender, and nation that dictated appropriate and inappropriate behavior. In fact, Noguchi, Stoddard, Gilmour, and Armes at various points contributed to the ideological forces that compelled their intimate lives. Through the romantic life of Yone Noguchi, Queer Compulsions narrates how even the queerest of intimacies can more provocatively serve as a reflection of rather than a revolt from existing social inequality. In unveiling Noguchi’s interracial and same-sex affairs, it attests to the complex interaction between lived sexualities and socio-legal mores as it traces how one man negotiated affection across cultural, linguistic, and moral divides to find fulfillment in unconventional yet acceptable ways.
Queer Compulsions will be a welcome contribution to Asian American, gender, and sexuality studies and the literature on male and female romantic friendships. It will also forge a provocative link between these disciplines and Asian studies.
"Queer Compulsions gracefully weaves together quotations
from private and public documents with Sueyoshi’s own
interpretations to make her argument in narrative form. [It]
exquisitely combines archival research with queer theory to
shed new light on the ways we perceive not only early Japanese
American history but also contemporary understandings of how
ordinary people function under and exploit ideologies, however
problematic, to make a life for themselves." —Journal of
Asian American Studies (17:1, February 2014)
"[Sueyoshi's] book challenges Noguchi’s biographers, many of
whom have simply assumed that he was heterosexual, and
historians of Asian Americans who have refused to explore the
possibility that sex among men occurred in "bachelor
societies." Her work also addresses historians of sexuality,
most of whom have overlooked Asians in the United States who
engaged in same-sex affairs. . . . Sueyoshi does not simply
succeed in her effort to challenge Noguchi’s biographers and
historians of Asian Americans and sexuality. She also provides
a stellar example for other scholars interested in the
intersections of race, nation, and sexuality." —Pacific
Historical Review (82:3, August 2013)
“Queer Compulsions is an important and provocative book, one that earns its place on the small shelf of essential books on Yone Noguchi, and should introduce a new generation of readers to this fascinating and controversial writer.” —Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan (5th series, vol. 4, 2012)
“In her compact, dense, and meticulously researched study, [Sueyoshi] presents a provocative portrait of Yone Noguchi ‘in the context of Western imperialism, racism, and homophobia.’ For those interested in these questions, Queer Compulsions is an important study. It is also worthwhile as a fascinating portrait of biracial and same-sex relationships at a pivotal time in American history.” —The Gay & Lesbian Review (January/February 2012)
“An important and timely study of racial, class, sexual, and gender hierarchies at the turn of the 20th century in America. As the courts, nation, and no doubt Asian American communities are deeply embroiled over the issue of same-sex marriage, history might be useful in providing the all-important context for this conversation to take place.” —Nichi Bei Weekly (26 July–8 August 2012)
“One rarely encounters a literary work marked by innovative research on the academic landscape. Sueyoshi provides just that in this book, offering a glimpse into how Yone Noguchi’s sojourn to America starting in 1893 affected his life, both while he was in the US and after he returned to Japan. . . . Highly recommended.” —Choice (49:11, August 2012)
“There is no question that Amy Sueyoshi is a very gifted historian who has mined every available source on Yone Noguchi. Her work is as exhaustive and deep in its interrogation of the extant literature as one could possibly hope for. Moreover, it has placed the life history of Yone Noguchi in a broad sweep of various fields of academic inquiry that gives his particular experiences relevance well beyond the field of Asian American history. The story of this rather unknown and unremarkable poet is rife with intellectual and academic meaning well beyond the significance of a late nineteenth-century historical biography.” —Tomas Almaguer, San Francisco State University
Author: Sueyoshi, Amy;Amy Sueyoshi
is associate professor jointly appointed in race and resistance studies and sexuality studies at San Francisco State University.