Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ Is a Masterpiece of Racial Metaphor
His characters may not be Asian, but the book is an incisive commentary on nonwhite experience
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In our new dystopian reality, we rarely get to celebrate good news. Waking up to the New York Times alert about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize win was one of the few truly joyous occasions of 2017. Not only because I’ve been a fan of the Japanese-British author since college, but also his recognition on such a global platform reaffirmed a worldview that needs to be remembered now more than ever.
But I was mystified when, amid the jubilant responses to the Nobel Prize committee’s decision to award Ishiguro, some began openly fretting over the author’s commitment to addressing matters of identity. Interestingly, these critiques tended to originate from within the Asian American community. Citing interviews where the author copped to being “self-conscious about this issue of people taking me literally” in reference to his Japan-centered novel, An Artist of the Floating World (1986), readers asked: Why did he stop writing novels with Japanese protagonists? Did he pander too much to the white gaze? Is that why he won — because he made himself palatable to white readers? Writers of color often have to negotiate their identities in ways that white writers do not when publishing in America, where the industry is nearly 80% white, and even more so in the U.K.
The push for inclusivity may actually help explain why some readers feel let down by Ishiguro’s choices as a writer. In order to find a work that conforms more closely to what’s expected of Asian diasporic literature, we must reach farther back into the author’s oeuvre — to his debut A Pale View of The Hills (1982), which features an immigrant narrative about a middle-aged Japanese woman living in England. Ironically, such pigeonholing would seem to undermine the endeavor of contemporary writers of color to subvert rigid definitions of what they can and can’t write about. As someone who identifies as such, I reeled at the insinuations that the Japanese-born author was somehow less representative of his ethnicity because he has written about white characters, or characters whose race is never explicitly mentioned. In fact, I would argue just the opposite — that Ishiguro’s characters explore aspects of nonwhite identity that are actually more incisive and authentic than if they were simply reflections of Japanese culture.
Ishiguro’s novels frequently grapple with the role of the individual within the confines of society. Over the years I’ve found myself returning to his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go when contemplating the social conditions that continue to persist in our post-9/11, post-colonial, post-racial, post-everything world. The experience of diving into an Ishiguro novel becomes a process of excavation, of uncovering memories that the narrator has meticulously buried over a lifetime. But don’t expect any big reveal; instead, we must be satisfied with fragments of truth. The author’s gift lies in his ability to use those fragments to construct a portrait, which, in the end, resembles something more of a mirror. That truth implicates us as much as it does the characters in their fictional realm.
Never Let Me Go’s setting, stated simply as “England, late 1990s,” offers an alternative present where cancer and other previously incurable diseases all have a cure — but at some very high costs. Framed as the memoir of Kathy H., now 31, the narrative opens with recollections of her childhood growing up at an idyllic boarding school Hailsham in the English countryside. The narrative paints Hailsham and its remote, pastoral setting as one of a handful of “privileged estates.” Insulated from the outside, the school cultivates a unique culture, where the students’ guardians place a heavy emphasis on the need for creativity over the learning of rote subjects. In this way, we can think of Hailsham as representative of the high culture frequently associated with novels about exclusive educational institutions.
For those fortunate enough to gain admittance into these predominantly white spaces, they must often convince themselves that the bargain is worth it — that to follow the path of assimilation is better than to suggest rebellion. This rings especially true for people of color, who historically have been the ones excluded. The promise of belonging to an elite group proves so intoxicating that the students fail to discern to whom exactly they pledge their loyalty, and at what price. Only later do we the reader understand the types of roles Kathy and her peers are being groomed for.
It is this turn in the novel that begins to undo our perception of the students’ special standing. As the story unravels, we see that the walls of Hailsham do not act so much as fortification against intruders as they do a means of incarceration. The guardians employ psychological tactics in order to quell the curiosity of the students and discourage them from physically escaping. So in spite of the institution’s initial acclaim, Hailsham seems more and more a fraud where the imposition of order upon the student body supersedes the intellectual cultivation of the individual student.
In this brave new world, the technology of human cloning is implemented on a full scale for the harvesting of vital organs. The novel considers the ramifications of treating life as resource. More importantly, it forces us to reevaluate the comparison between the life of the human and nonhuman. But even this classification remains in constant flux. Identity, it seems, is never stable — a belief that’s rooted in the core of Never Let Me Go’s coming-of-age story.
Because we are never told what race Kathy and her classmates are in Never Let Me Go, I have a hunch that most readers assumed by default they were white. Certainly, this is what the 2010 film adaptation envisioned with its casting of comparably pale and willowy actors, all of whom could be described as very typically “English” in appearance. But it’s entirely possible to read these characters as non-white. Reduced to their mere expendable parts, Kathy and her fellow students represent those marginalized figures of our collective unconscious. Their embodiment of the unspeakable may even be biologically encoded onto their selves. Kathy’s friend Ruth theorizes: “We’re modeled from trash. Junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps. Convicts, maybe, just so long as they aren’t psychos. That’s what we come from.” Because ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty compared to white people in the UK, the source population for these clones would have almost certainly included people of color. And given the very real history of how Western medicine has exploited black bodies specifically, there’s a strong case to be made for Ishiguro’s characters being non-white both figuratively and literally.
From science fiction to reality, the business of organ trafficking has materialized quite literally in non-white countries like China, India, Egypt, and Pakistan. Transplant tourism is a real thing, and its combined ethical dubiousness and questionable legality raise concerns about the commodification of human bodies. Pope Francis called organ trafficking one of the “new forms of slavery,” alongside forced labor and prostitution. For other modern-day metaphors for enslavement, look no further than commercial surrogacy or the indentured servitude sanctioned by our immigration laws. Never Let Me Go transforms the approach to racial subjugation in the name of scientific progress, which has created an entire sub-race of clones to service the needs of the greater whole of society. Just as notions of racial hierarchy have been used to promulgate colonial systems throughout history, the perceived nonhuman status of the clones seemingly justifies their sacrifice. The novel reframes the history of imperialism as a conflict between those considered human and those who are not.
The question of humanness troubles the clones, as well as sympathetic individuals like the guardians. On Hailsham’s mission, one of the guardians Miss Emily proclaims, “Most importantly, we demonstrated to the world that if students were reared in humane, cultivated environments, it was possible for them to grow to be as sensitive and intelligent as any ordinary human being.” The liberal-minded guardians invested in the students’ cultural education not only with the aim of improving their quality of living, but also to establish that their lives were worth saving. Working against the rationalization of science, the guardians looked to the students’ creativity as the truer measure of their being human. “We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls,” Miss Emily informs Kathy, then amending, “Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.” The insinuation that she could be without a soul does not so much upset Kathy as it confuses her. She remembers a similar incident in her childhood when it occurs to her that an adult might be afraid of who she is:
So you’re waiting, even if you don’t quite know it, waiting for the moment when you realize that you really are different to them; that there are people out there, like Madame, who don’t hate you or wish you any harm but who nevertheless shudder at the very thought of you — of how you were brought into this world and why — and who dread the idea of your hand brushing against theirs. The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it’s a cold moment. It’s like walking past a mirror you’ve walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange.
These moments of questioning threaten Kathy’s sense of self. Yet for readers familiar with life in the margins, they merely confirm her humanity.
As highlighted by the value placed on the clones’ artwork, the validity of one’s humanity hinges primarily upon the expression of emotion and the ability of others to read those emotions. This problem of readability extends to the author himself. When Josephine Livingston asks in The New Republic “What’s So ‘Inscrutable’ About Kazuo Ishiguro?” she’s being rhetorical, knowing full well that “inscrutability” is a longstanding Orientalist trope used to dehumanize Asian figures. She quotes Ishiguro’s own words:
Books, articles and television programmes focus on whatever is most extreme and bizarre in Japanese life; the Japanese people may be viewed as amusing or alarming, expert or devious, but they must above all be seen to be non-human. While they remain non-human, their values and ways will remain safely irrelevant. No wonder the British are so fond of the ‘inscrutability’ of Japanese faces.
Ishiguro’s insight into how his own ethnic exterior may be perceived suggests that he is in fact portraying the clones’ struggle through a racial lens. The correlation between the failure of the British to see Japanese people as human and the failure of critics to interpret Ishiguro’s work appears inextricable. In the essay “The ‘Inscrutable’ Voices of Asian-Anglophone Fiction,” The New Yorker contributor Jane Hu goes one step further to establish how Ishiguro’s affinity for “first-person narrators who keep their distance — actively denying readers direct interior access” provides an aesthetic quality indicative of inherent “Asian-ness.” By leaning into the “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype, Asian-Anglophone novelists, such as Chang-rae Lee, Ed Park, and Weike Wang, consciously play with the prejudices of Western readers.
To say that Ishiguro’s writing eschews identity politics — an implication that his most popular novels, Never Let Me Go among them, are somehow safer and therefore less racially transgressive — would be a failed reading of those works. Perhaps his stories resist categorization precisely because they so urgently demand to be read universally. “[F]or me the essential thing is that [stories] communicate feelings,” the author said in his recent Nobel Lecture. He made the appeal that “we must become more diverse,” with the understanding that to “widen our common literary world to include many more voices from beyond our comfort zones of the elite first world cultures” means broadening whose stories help define what it means to be human. Boiled down to their essence, his characters beg simply to be seen, to be understood. Reading Ishiguro, I feel both.