WHAT most Americans know about Hawaii is kitsch -- grass skirts and ukuleles, pupu platters and Don Ho -- culminating in James Michener's fitfully factual potboiler and finally degenerating into some tacky prime-time cop shows. The islands never had a native bard to explain them to the rest of the world, as the American frontier had Mark Twain and the South had William Faulkner. Hawaii has always been a place to be discovered -- beginning with the indigenous Hawaiians themselves, who first migrated to the archipelago from Polynesia some 1,500 years ago. Their graceful culture, without a written language, has been all but obliterated by waves of missionaries, planters, and military personnel, and finally, most devastatingly, by the tsunami of mass tourism.
Through most of Hawaii's history its literature has been written by outsiders, who have been enchanted by the islands' scenic beauty and have depicted them as an idyllic paradise populated by childlike, innocent savages borrowed from Rousseau. Twain was the first literary artist of stature to write at length about Hawaii, in a novel that was never published. (Melville had passed through earlier, and based his novel Typee in part on his experiences there, devoting some acerbic pages to the arrogant hypocrisy of the Christian missionaries.) In 1866 Twain sailed on the first commercial steamship voyage from the mainland to the Sandwich Islands (as they were then known), and eighteen years later he wrote the first draft of a novel that he quickly abandoned. Only fragments survive, but the book's opening lines engage in the picturesque hyperbole that colored the world's view of Hawaii for the next century.
The date is 1840. Scene, the true Isles of the Blest; that is to say, the Sandwich Islands -- to this day the peacfulest, restfulest, sunniest, balmiest, dreamiest haven of refuge for a worn and weary spirit the surface of the earth can offer. Away out there in the mid-solitudes of the vast Pacific, and far down in the edge of the tropics, they lie asleep on the waves, perpetually green and beautiful, remote from the work-day world and its frets and worries, a bloomy, fragrant paradise.
NOW Hawaii has found a bard of sorts, the novelist Lois-Ann Yamanaka, but the world she sings of is anything but a paradise. In a series of remarkable narratives she describes with disturbing realism and peppery black humor the hard life of the islands' Asian-immigrant underclass. Her Hawaii is green but cruel, and the "work-day world" grinds her characters down with squalor and violence. In her previous books Yamanaka revealed in sometimes sensationalistic ways the racism that divides the islands' inhabitants; in her new novel, Heads by Harry, she explores the outer frontiers of sexual politics and the complex power struggles of a modern island family.
The novel takes its title from the Yagyuu family's taxidermy shop in Hilo, on the island of Hawaii. Harry, the father, is bullying in his affection, and continually disappointed by his children: his son, Sheldon, who aspires to be a hairdresser and prefers to be called Shelly (after Shelley Fabares, the cute daughter on The Donna Reed Show, and Shelley Hack, his favorite model); Bunny, a beauty who dreams of marrying a haole (a Caucasian, the word being the Hawaiian equivalent of "gringo"); and Toni, the narrator, her daddy's favorite and a perennial underachiever. The family's mother, like most of Yamanaka's adult women characters, is a benign but somewhat shadowy presence.
Much of the power of Yamanaka's narrative derives from her never apologizing for her characters' irresponsible behavior. They don't come to disastrous ends, nor do they really learn their lessons: they just muddle through, like the people one knows. Toni and those she loves habitually inflict pain on one another in terms of mocking abuse, vividly rendered in the pidgin dialect of the immigrant working-class population of Hawaii, which Yamanaka spoke growing up in Hilo.
Of course it is an exaggeration to call Yamanaka a bard: her vision is tightly focused in time and place. Nor is she the first talented Hawaiian writer of fiction to undertake a serious analysis of contemporary life on the islands. For at least the past twenty years something like a renaissance of Hawaiian literature has been going on: Milton Murayama, Darrell Lum, Sylvia Watanabe, and Nora Okja Keller, among others, have produced significant fiction about Hawaiian themes, written in authentic Hawaiian vernacular -- all the more impressive considering that the state's population scarcely exceeds a million.
Yamanaka has risen quickly to a position of prominence. In 1993, when she published her first book, a collection of poetry called she was poised to be the first major voice of the new Hawaiian literature. This collection of often wickedly funny monologues, which makes liberal use of pidgin, addressed many of the themes of the novels that followed: a sense of shame about local traditions, which expresses itself in a preoccupation with the junk pop culture of the mainland; the intense desire of the second- and third-generation immigrant young to pass for haole; and the racism that poisons relations between the various immigrant populations -- a legacy of plantation days, when the white bosses played groups off against one another. The book was widely praised and received both the Pushcart Prize and the literature award of the Association for Asian American Studies.