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IT wasn't supposed to be that way. The Hawaiian literary community was desperately searching for a local voice to speak for the islands, to correct the idylls of outside writers from Twain to Michener, and Yamanaka showed all the signs of becoming that voice. She is a passionate advocate of the literary potential of pidgin, which even her critics admit she employs with masterly vividness, and she fearlessly evokes the degraded living conditions of the islands' immigrant communities. She was nurtured by a writers group called Bamboo Ridge and its literary journal, which grew out of Talk Story, a landmark conference held in 1978.
The conference, taking its name from a pidgin expression meaning to shoot the breeze, set as its goal stimulating a new Hawaiian literature, written by locals in their own language. In his keynote address the historical novelist O. A. Bushnell lamented that the literature of Hawaii was in danger of being taken over by outsiders because of what he described as a vicious circle: a lack of readers and a "paucity of publishers, who die for want of manuscripts, which are not produced for lack of writers.... In Hawaii, I sigh, writers are stifled at birth." Stephen Sumida, in his excellent survey of Hawaiian literature And the View From the Shore (1991), summed up the situation: "When it comes to local-born literature, Hawai'i is a sow that devours its own farrow."
In the case of Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Bushnell and Sumida were prophetic, though in ways they might never have suspected. She has been the victim of her own success: if her novels had been published locally in small editions, rather than by a major New York publishing house (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and if she hadn't received all those good reviews and attracted so many readers, she probably would not have been the target of such vitriol. Wing Tek Lum tells the old Hawaiian proverb about crabs in a bucket: when one of them tries to climb out, the others drag him back down.
Despite all those who would drag her down, Yamanaka has escaped the bucket. Heads by Harry, while just as grittily detailed and truthful in its depiction of local culture as its predecessors, expands its subject matter to the universal themes of personal responsibility and the conflicting emotional currents that both divide and unite the family. The new book shifts the emphasis from the local politics of race to global sexual politics. Whereas the family in Blu's Hanging is spectacularly dysfunctional, the Yagyuus, although beset with problems, are a family that works. The narrators of the earlier novels are girls; Toni is a young woman, reflecting Yamanaka's own greater maturity as a storyteller and a craftsman.
Critics of Blu's Hanging have complained that the book is sensationalistic, and there is some truth in the charge. The book has a redundancy of scenes of cruelty to animals. In addition to Mrs. Ikeda's appalling mistreatment of her dogs, there are several sadistic cat killings: the animals are hanged, drowned, fed glass dust; a pregnant cat has a firecracker shoved up its rectum. The intention may have been to create a symbol of the maltreatment of poor children on Molokai, but the result is repellent. In Heads by Harry the animal theme shifts to the hunt and to taxidermy. Both allude to the traditional culture of Hawaii, the latter indirectly, by invoking the ancient magic of the islands: the taxidermist brings the dead back to a semblance of life. The scenes of Toni's apprenticeship in taxidermy are some of the most evocative in the novel. Near the book's end Harry tells her,
"A taxidermist is one artist but not like one regular artist. Them other artists can make mistake and make it part of the canvas.If there is a flaw in the character of Uncle Paulo, in Blu's Hanging, it isn't that he perpetuates a negative stereotype of Filipinos; it is that he is flat and unmotivated -- an evil character cut out of flimsy cardboard. If the ethnic-studies people were unhappy with Uncle Paulo, some gay scholars will find much to complain about in the character of Toni's brother, Sheldon, who evokes many stereotypes of the homosexual: the bitchy queen, the predatory sexual compulsive, the trendy slave of fashion, the shallow narcissist. When the three Yagyuu siblings share digs at the University of Hawaii, Toni describes an endless stream of late-night visitors to Sheldon's room, mostly unattainable haoles, who slip out the door at dawn, leaving Shelly quietly sobbing in his room. Later, when Toni reveals to him that she is pregnant, he "placed his hands on the plane of my belly and wept, my body, not his, capable of creation."
Yet there is an essential truthfulness in Yamanaka's portrait of Sheldon, as there is in most of her characters. In a provincial outpost like Hilo in the 1980s, when the novel is set, an effeminate homosexual had little choice but to adhere to stereotype. Since Sheldon can never pass for straight, he swishes to establish his identity. Unlike Sheldon's prototypes, however, such as the gay outlaws in Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn, who suffer horribly for their deviancy, or the bitter homosexuals in Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, whose lives are thwarted by self-hatred, Sheldon ends up with a stable relationship and a successful hairdressing salon.
There is a difference between perpetuating stereotypes and observing how they affect the lives of real people. The notion that gay men are doomed to unhappiness because they cannot under ordinary circumstances procreate is a prejudice held by some heterosexuals. But in the scene quoted above Sheldon isn't Gay Everyman; he's Shelly Yagyuu, Toni's brother and the brainchild of Lois-Ann Yamanaka -- and anyway, Toni's explanation for his tears may be entirely wrong.
Yamanaka is a trenchant observer and one of the most original voices on the American literary scene. The unsparing candor of her fictional worlds may offend modern-day Dr. Panglosses who would wish away the unpleasant social conditions she portrays, but her novels offer readers with a literary sensibility a stimulating introduction to a world more mysterious and exotic than the illusory idylls of Hawaii painted by outsiders.
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.