New Criticals

Merrill is not alone in turning to Japan, and the Japanese cultural tradition of haibun, to explore his own feelings about travel, illness, and death. Perez argues that,

The development of an Anglo-American tourism industry to service a growing leisure class contributed to the formation of a cosmopolitan gay male identity, making available for consumption both the spaces and bodies imagined as precivilized. The very notion of civilization requires a fantasied, primitive space onto which repressed desires are projected and disavowed. This idyllic space, populated by pansexual, uninhibited brown bodies—bodies without shame—promised liberation from Victorian restrictions on same sex desires. These characteristics, mobility and shame and fantasies about the primitive continue to shape dominant Anglo-American gay male culture.[8]

The notion of a “precivilized” Japan, belonging to a people “without shame,” attracted Merrill precisely because of the stigma and shame homosexuals were made to feel in the late twentieth century in the United States, externalized and exponentially increased by the onset of the HIV epidemic. Though Merrill knew he had been infected with HIV by the time he wrote his haibun, he revealed his status to only a few of his closest friends. [9] His private shame could be externalized, explored, and projected onto an external source in the space of Japan— imagined as precivilized—a space he could access by virtue of his wealth and mobility. Merrill also had access to Japan through use of the haibun, which he used to create a queer narrative in which his own suffering was matched only by the imagined, historical suffering of the Japanese.