The International Settlement: The Fantasy of International Writing in Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans

Jerrine Tan 1
  • 1 Brown University,


I identify two general approaches to the reception of Ishiguro’s novels: World Literature critics writing on cosmopolitanism exalt what I am calling Ishiguro’s “post-Japan novels” for their consideration of universal ethical dilemmas that transcend their historical moment and place; conversely, most criticism on his “Japan novels” performs problematically culture-specific exoticizing and Orientalist readings. Widely read as a detective novel about a British detective, Christopher Banks, solving the mystery of his parents’ disappearance, When We Were Orphans is in many ways Ishiguro’s most underwhelming novel. But, set in Shanghai, it is an anomaly among Ishiguro’s “post-Japan novels.” Its lackluster reception may be explained by simply acknowledging from the start that When We Were Orphans is just not a very good detective novel at all. The refusal or discomfort around doing so, this essay argues, is because the excuse of bad genre provides (like Japaneseness does for the Japan novels) precisely the convenient veil for why the novel does not work, or is not well liked. In other words, by historicizing the novel and reading it (with)in its political and historical moment, I argue that When We Were Orphans forces an exposure of the double standard and aestheticizing reading practices that critics often bring to their readings of Ishiguro’s works.

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