Book Review: Orientalism in Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus

Posted by Cherry Lam & filed under Books.

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Over the holidays, I picked up The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. It is the story of two magicians, trained from their childhoods in the late 19th century onwards by their guardians to compete against each other. The venue for this competition is a mysterious circus – Le Cirque des Rêves – that travels the world, appearing unexpectedly with its black and white tents, each brimming with uniquely enchanting attractions from mazes of clouds to extraordinary acrobatic feats. It is against this magical backdrop that the two magicians, Celia and Marco, pit against each other in a show of their abilities.

Filled with lush descriptions from the very first page that lovingly illustrate the beauty that is Le Cirque des Rêves, it is clear that Morgenstern intended to take her reader on a journey that transcends normal human limitations. The characters that populate this circus are transnational, which is fitting given that the circus is constantly traveling. However, there was one character in particular that didn’t quite fit in with the rest despite the circus being such blend of cultures – Tsukiko.

This name is the only information that is known about her for much of the story and immediately singles her out as the only East Asian character. She takes her place in the circus as the only contortionist, enchanting crowds by bending her tattooed body into painfully elegant positions. She is an enigma, wandering about the pages of the book, appearing wherever she is needed with a cigarette in hand to impart cryptic advice to various characters. As intriguing as some might find Tsukiko, I hardly found her to be a unique character. Rather, she is a combination of tropes from a Western perspective of East Asian culture.

In such a multicultural cast of characters, Tsukiko’s ethnicity is the only one that is constantly emphasized through her actions and looks. Her first entrance, and many of her subsequent appearances, describe her draped in red silk while wearing red makeup. Not all Japanese people perform graceful tea ceremonies and maintain a constant state of “zen.” Nor do they all eat ginger, wear kimonos, and constantly smoke. The only aspect of her character that I didn’t expect was that she had loved another woman in her past. Otherwise, she’s practically a katana away from becoming an anime character. Some of this can be understood as Morgenstern’s attempt to further glamorize the circus and reinforce its air of mystery, which some readers will find in the exoticized way Tsukiko is portrayed. Even so, a character can be Japanese without becoming a caricature of Japanese stereotypes.

In her TED talk, Chimamanda Adichie, a prominent Nigerian novelist, cautions against the dangers of a single story. In the past, she had been told that one of her novels was not “authentically African” because it didn’t fit into the single story that the Western world had of Africa – a story in which all Africans live in abject poverty. I get the feeling that if Tsukiko’s “Asian-ness” hadn’t been so pronounced, there would be many who similarly don’t believe that she is “authentically Japanese.”

There are characters from India and Russia, yet they have nowhere near as many ethnically specific qualities that define them as Tsukiko does. The contortionist is a result of “orientalism,” a term made big by Edward Said, that describes the Western world’s process of reproducing its assumptions of Asia and the Middle East. These reproductions often end up becoming two-dimensional, as in the case of Tsukiko who has hardly any substance beyond the role of a mystical Asian lady that exists to help the Westerners find themselves, especially when compared to some of the other characters. Some may regard characters like Tsukiko as an homage to Japanese culture but as Reappropriate points out, perpetuating these stereotypes, will actually prevent understanding and appreciation of the culture itself.

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