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F E B R U A R Y 1 9 9 9
by Jamie James
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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
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 Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, 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.
THAT'S when all the trouble began. In 1996 Yamanaka published her first novel, Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, an exuberant, crazily comic series of anecdotes, virtually plotless, about a girl on the threshold of adolescence. It, too, was nominated for the AAAS literature award, but some members of the association had been offended by passages in Pahala Theatre and Yamanaka's newly published second novel, Blu's Hanging, that they believed to be racist. They complained so vehemently that the award committee decided to issue no prize that year. The offending passage in Pahala Theatre opens the first poem, "Kala Gave Me Anykine Advice Especially About Filipinos When I Moved to Pahala."
No whistle in the darkIt's strong stuff, certainly, but the irony in the poem is obvious. Kala goes on to impart to the child narrator, among other reliable articles of wisdom, that if she uses someone else's deodorant she'll "catch their b.o.," and that if she makes ugly faces it will give her "Japanee" eyes. The last line of the third stanza is virtually a telegram to the reader that Yamanaka's subject matter is the wayward wickedness of the feverish adolescent imagination, not the predilection of Filipinos for sexual mutilation and cannibalism. However, these distinctions were lost on her critics, and when she published Blu's Hanging, the controversy escalated dramatically.
Blu's Hanging is a Hawaiian Catcher in the Rye, the story of a confused thirteen-year-old girl, Ivah, growing up on the poor island of Molokai, who must come to terms with the rottenness of the grown-up world. Her mother dies shortly before the story begins. To cope with the loss, her father, a janitor and a pineapple picker, takes up smoking pot; her eight-year-old brother, Blu, makes himself fat by eating loaf after loaf of white bread smeared with mayonnaise and curry powder; and five-year-old Maisie stops talking. It is up to Ivah to keep the family together. Blu's Hanging is better plotted than Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers (which is to say that it has a plot), though it is marred by a too-pat ending.
The crisis in Blu's Hanging occurs when Blu is raped by a Filipino neighbor, Uncle Paulo, who also sexually molests his pre-adolescent nieces and tortures and kills cats for sport. (In fact Uncle Paulo's precise ethnicity is unclear: early in the book Ivah says that his family's secret is that they're half Japanese, but her factual reporting is far from reliable.) Another minor character, who is Japanese, gives Blu candy and money to pull down his pants. Another Japanese character, the briskly cheerful Mrs. Ikeda, imprisons her old dogs in basement cages until they die, letting them out only one hour a week, so that Ivah, Blu, and Maisie can hose down the lesioned, vermin-ridden animals and clean out their filthy cells. Nonetheless, the principal malefactor in Blu's Hanging is identified as Filipino, and when the AAAS awarded its fiction prize to the book last June at its annual conference, held in Honolulu, Yamanaka's critics, many of them scholars of ethnic studies rather than of literature, issued what amounted to an academic fatwa against her.
One of her main opponents was Jonathan Okamura, a sociologist in the ethnic-studies department of the University of Hawaii, who wrote in a passionate essay published in the AAAS newsletter that he was "deeply offended and outraged by the portrayal of Filipino Americans" in the book. He said that he would not mention any of the offending passages in particular, "lest I be accused of taking these depictions out of context." He was right to be concerned about such an accusation: the previous year, when citing the portrayals of Filipino-Americans in Blu's Hanging as a reason to deny Wild Meat the association's literature award, Okamura admitted that he had not actually read Blu's Hanging. Rather, he had flipped through it looking for the objectionable passages, following the same critical approach to the literary text practiced by the adolescent boys of my generation, who memorized the page numbers of the "good parts" in Fanny Hill and Lady Chatterley's Lover.
A more responsible critic was Candace Fujikane, a professor of English at the University of Hawaii, who objected to Yamanaka's book because it didn't provide uplift to Hawaiian writing as a whole. Her paramount criterion for literature appears to be that it should be "useful" and "help others." In an essay published in the Hawaii Herald she asked, "Do we speak out about our experiences of pain only to create new pain for someone else? Why do writers write? What purpose does their writing serve?" She believes that it is useful for writers from a disempowered ethnic group to criticize their own people, but dangerous for them to criticize a group that is more disempowered. To bolster her view, Fujikane quotes a teaching assistant who objects to having her students read Blu's Hanging because it makes them feel bad.
For those of us whose earliest studies of literature were grounded in the principles of art for art's sake and catharsis, the notion of a useful, helpful book that makes people feel good is anathema. I realize that many academics now consider the former concept to be old-fashioned, if not reactionary, and I accept that it is sometimes pertinent to judge a book by its political impact, and in particular its power to bring about social justice, rather than strictly on aesthetic grounds; Uncle Tom's Cabin and the novels of Miguel Angel Asturias come to mind. Fujikane suggests a pyramid of political empowerment to guide Hawaiian writers: Yamanaka is Japanese-American, the group asserted to be the most privileged of the nonwhites on the islands; therefore her bad guys must be either Japanese-American or white. A Filipino writer, presumably, might have white, Japanese, or Filipino villains, while native Hawaiians, most disempowered of all, are free to heap abuse on everyone.
Harder to accept is the concept that books that make people feel bad ought not to be read. This view, which seems to be gaining acceptance in American secondary and undergraduate education, loses a defining principle of literature: it's make-believe. It's not life -- it imitates life, refracting it through the prism of the artist's imagination. In fact, the best writers deliberately create experiences of pain, precisely in order to make their readers feel it in the imagination -- which engenders catharsis and enlightens readers as to the nature of human existence. Fujikane seems to want uncomplicated parables in which virtue is in inverse proportion to empowerment -- a racial-political Isles of the Blest populated not by real people but by inspirational symbols. Such false, happy narratives may do no harm, but they can do no good. If the novelist must plot her books by totting up which characters from which ethnic group do good deeds and which do evil, and then match the tally against sociological data purporting to show relative states of empowerment and disempowerment (as if such things could be quantified -- Benjamin Cayetano, the governor of Hawaii, is Filipino-American), then she is defeated before she begins.
When Yamanaka's prize was announced at the AAAS conference last June, many members of the audience, wearing black armbands, stood with their backs to the stage. The award was accepted on Yamanaka's behalf by three of her Filipina students, who were in tears by the time they retreated from the podium. The officers and executive board of the association immediately resigned, fearful of a lawsuit, leaving the organization's continued existence in some doubt. In the last hours of the conference the anti-Yamanaka clique forced a vote to rescind the award. The poet Wing Tek Lum, a former AAAS prizewinner and a Yamanaka partisan, told me, "The ethnic-studies people hijacked the conference and imposed mob rule. Compromise after compromise was rejected." The core group of Yamanaka's bitterest critics vowed to issue her an "award" of their own, "in recognition of her continuing contribution to racism in Hawaii." Judging by the vituperative tone of many of the attacks on Yamanaka, her critics have a lot to learn about uplift and making people feel good.
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Jamie James is a New York-based critic and travel writer. He is the author of The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science and the Natural Order of the Universe (1993).
Illustration by Karen Barbour
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1999; This Hawaii Is Not for Tourists; Volume 283, No. 2; pages 90-94.