Family Connections In “Tropic Of Orange”

Karen Tei Yamashita s novel Tropic of Orange has seven parts. This includes the narration, but also the opinions, lifestyles and stories of her seven characters. The idea of family is something that we all share. No matter whether it’s by blood or choice, “family” is a concept that defines us all. Yamashita’s novel shows that family is everywhere and in everything. Each character, especially Bobby, Buzzworm and Manzanar find a meaning different in the idea or concept of family. They also have different definitions for togetherness. Yamashita demonstrates that people can overcome distances and borders to find their true colors through disasters.

Bobby describes this motley crew as a group. He is one big family, a melting-pot of ethnicities and yet he still only worries about himself. He sees family as what he can feel. It’s the things he can see, feel and touch. And what he buys to prevent it from leaving. The novel is filled with lists. He describes what he sees, such as Rafaela, her hairstyle, what she is studying, and how she cares for Sol (17). Other times, he will list the things he bought her (80). To him, the foundation for a happy family is a stable and secure life. So he does everything he can to ensure that his family has a good quality of life. This is the way he expresses his love. He has a small group of friends because he is only concerned with them. However, in this small circle “Bobby Don’t Forget” could never forget these people because it was his responsibility (17). He wouldn’t leave behind his family. It’s almost comical because, even though he lives in a world that has no clear definition of his ethnicity or blood, the fact is, he still cares about his family. That includes his brother, his wife, his child, and even a possible cousin. Bobby recalls that Rafaela’s brother introduced him to her and that he thought that pepe was a friend. He’s now just a brother-in-law” (78). Bobby sees family as a duty. He doesn’t understand love for a long time because he believes that love keeps things together, safe and whole. But he lacks intimacy, which is required in a family. He is more likely to be happy when he sees a friend, because becoming his brother-in law means he has responsibility for that person. Bobby’s importance in the story comes from the fact that he often ends up being the character who changes the most. “That’s the moment he lets go. Let the lines snake around his wrists. Pass through his hands. Let’s go. It is difficult to comprehend. (268). He lets go of his preconceived notions about what a family should be. Instead of focusing on a physical, object-filled family, he embraces his wife and his child, and embraces love.

Buzzworm’s family is defined by his choice. In the novel, he doesn’t have any close friends because he has a general knowledge of everyone. The world for him is his family and his Walkman. It’s also the static, news, and people he meets on the street. Gabriel and Emi’s interactions are frequent but not by accident. Emi is called “baby sister” by him from the first moment they meet (175). He does take her as responsibility, but he does not see it as a duty. He does it out of his own free will. Throughout, he calls his self “Buzzworm”. Compassionate Protector. In one such introduction, “At your Service”, he explains his perspective on society. (92) Buzzworm is more interested in the big picture, and the world as a whole, than Bobby. The affection he has for Emi his pseudo-little sibling is what makes him human. He also shows a surprising and real tenderness for the larger world. “Who would do the right thing [by the heart in a container]?” Who knew what a heart was worth? (218). He has a strong sense of the larger picture. Characters like Bobby may not. He has his family’s back when necessary. Manzanar could be compared to Buzzworm because he is the complete opposite. Buzzworm views the entire world but does not claim it. Instead, he chooses only to observe it. Manzanar embraces everyone. He accepts everyone and everything. He feels a part of everyone, a “recycler”. He was, after all, a recycler like other homeless people. Although he did not come from the worlds of the homeless, he feels like a member of that world because he has adopted it and cares about it as though it had always been his. Manzanar is seen at the climax, commanding the entire world. In the climax of the freeway scene, Manzanar, not wanting to miss a moment, exulted and called it “the greatest jam session ever known” (206). He chooses to help Emi in the hospital by going with her. Yamashita describes him as a character who represents the entire world, who takes a holistic view of the whole. Although he has the same character as Arcangel and is almost as powerful as him in terms of being a god, he still chooses to go to the hospital to help his granddaughter.

Emi, on the other hand, is the total opposite of all the characters in the novel. She doesn’t consider herself a member of a family. She is determined to stay away from any and all things that suggest a commitment. She is a family member, but she has chosen to ignore this fact and isolate herself for a long time. In a conversation she had with Gabriel, she said: “Gabe, you were then.” I’m now. You’re a good reporter. Let’s do it now.” (41). She doesn’t think about the past or future, but only the moment. She chooses to concentrate on herself, while Buzzworm chooses his family. In this case, when she chooses her family, it is interesting that they let her down a little and let her in. Buzzworm is first to be let in as he has chosen her and accepted with little thought. “I saved these for ya” (189). She shows her affection in small ways. In order to accept this new “family”, it is necessary for her to make small strides. Manzanar, however, is another that was forced on her. She is stubborn. She doesn’t want or is afraid to separate the worlds she lives in. Or to shake things up. Gabriel (180). “I had sexual relations last night… it was via the internet”, she confesses. She quickly follows with “Manzanar… he’s your grandfather”. Although they are different, both secrets have a similar impact on her life and the family she holds dear. Gabriel, her only family member is kept at a safe distance. Manzanar, on the other hand is her real family whom she had thought she left behind years ago. She could lose Gabe and still get her grandfather, which is a terrifying situation. Manzanar accepts her and takes care of her like a family, which is a good thing. But, she faces the possibility of losing Gabe, while also getting her grandfather back. These are two terrifying problems.

Rafaela has a good balance of characters. She has a blood family, but also chooses a larger and smaller family. Sol is her only choice after she leaves Bobby. Rafaela, who was relieved of Bobby’s troubles and kept busy enough to not feel lonely (9 & 10) has chosen Sol as her only child. She leaves Bobby to focus solely on Sol, because she understands that family is much more than just obligations and responsibilities. She understands the importance of love in a family. Other than Sol, she chooses the larger community. For example, she left Bobby because she wanted a union, to help her fellow immigrants. Bobby thinks he only needs to concern himself with those who are close to him. Rafaela has a strong connection with Arcangel. Like her, he is also concerned about the big picture. For her, it is also a struggle. Near the middle of her novel, she says, “How far should she reach in order to touch Sol?” (119). In a literal sense, she’s talking about her son. But in a more abstract way, she’s also talking about herself. While running from her spouse, she realized that she didn’t know herself. Through the novel, however, she came to realize she needed to take a step back and love Bobby again. At the end of her novel, she searches for Bobby, mistaking Gabriel to her great dismay. “Bobby?” She didn’t have me in mind (223). He’s the thing that she keeps coming back to and she picks him to be her partner when she has to move the tropic. Their proximity to all that is immediate as well as infinitely far.” (254).

They all do it, whether on purpose or by default. By the time the novel is over, each character will have defined family in a way that they never had before. They come together to overcome old barriers and define their families in new ways. Family can be a bridge that connects people, regardless of whether they are related by blood or not. Yamashita’s story is a collection of fragments that were separated by space, race, and opinion but that came together to become something new. It shows that society and culture can come back to life and that family and culture integration are possible.


  • ewanpatel

    I'm a 29-year-old educational bloger and teacher. I have been writing about education for about six years, and I have a B.A. in English from UC Santa Cruz. I also have a M.A. in English from San Francisco State University. I teach high school English in the Bay Area.