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Authenticities East and West
March 30 - April 1, 2001

Ill Performances: Melodramatic Tuberculosis and Dramatic Aids
Stacy Nakamura (
Department of East Asian Studies, Princeton University

Several parallels can be drawn between the social understanding and stigmatization of tuberculosis in Japan in the nineteenth century and AIDS in America in the 1980s and 1990s: in both cases, disease was associated with "sinful behavior", and victims and by extension, their families-were often marginalized. Both diseases represented a medical mystery, and more importantly, both were regarded as a "death sentence," as there was (and in the case of AIDS, there is) no known cure.

With this historically comparative context, I propose to examine Hirotsu Ryûrô's 1889 short story "Zangiku," acknowledged as the first Japanese story to include a tuberculosis patient as its protagonist, and Tony Kushner's epic 1992-1994 play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Beyond the surface comparisons that can be drawn as texts dealing with illnesses, I hope to explore ways in which both characters and illnesses are performatively constructed, using a model based on Judith Butler's ideas of performativity and gender: that is, the concept that gender is continually and actively constructed through performance, but "exists not only by virtue of being recognized, but, in a prior sense, by being recognizable." (Excitable Speech, 5)

In a similar manner, I propose that "ill performances" define the nature and existence of illness in texts, but are bound by the extradiegetic limit of what is socially recognizable as that illness. I am particularly interested in the tension encountered in a text that tries to perform an "authentic" illness while also trying to subvert prescribed social narratives and metaphors that accompany any performance of an illness. More specifically, I will examine the ways in which "Zangiku" and Angels in America attempt to counter the master narrative of "certain death" expected of tuberculosis in nineteenth century Japan and AIDS in twentieth century America. This paper compares the performative methods used in each text to create sympathetic "characters with believable fatal illnesses" and then investigates the imaginative leaps that the texts make into realms of romanticism in the case of "Zangiku" and postmodern chaos in Angels in America in order to allow their "characters with believable fatal illnesses" to survive. Through these investigations, I hope to explore how the concept of agency itself in these texts is contingent upon the characters' "ill performances" and is ultimately bound by the aestheticized and performed constructions of love and history within the texts.

Stacy Nakamura is a second-year graduate student in the Department of East Asian Studies at Princeton. Her interests lie in modern Japanese literature.

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