Yamanaka, Lois-Ann 1961–
Yamanaka, Lois-Ann 1961–
PERSONAL: Born September 7, 1961, in Hoolchua, Molokai, HI; daughter of Harry (a taxidermist) and Jean (a primary school teacher) Yamanaka; married; husband's name John (a teacher); children: John. Ethnicity: "Japanese American." Education: University of Hawaii at Manoa, B.Ed., 1983, M.Ed., 1987.
ADDRESSES: Home—Honolulu, HI.
CAREER: Writer. Hawaii Department of Education, language arts resource teacher and English teacher.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Humanities grant, 1990; Pushcart Prize, 1993, for "Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre," and 1994, for "Yarn Wig"; Elliot Cades Award for literature, 1993; Carnegie Foundation grant, 1994; Asian American Studies National Book Award, 1994, for Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre; National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, 1994; Rona Jaffe Award for Women Writers, 1996; Asian American Literary Award, 1998.
Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1996.
Blu's Hanging, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1997.
Heads by Harry, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.
Name Me Nobody, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1999.
Father of the Four Passages, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2001.
Behold the Many, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2006.
Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre (verse novellas), Bamboo Ridge Press (Honolulu, HI), 1993.
The Heart's Language (children's book), illustrated by Aaron Jasinski, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2005.
SIDELIGHTS: Lois-Ann Yamanaka's fiction focuses on young, working-class Japanese-Americans from Hawaii who struggle with such typical issues of adolescence as sexual development and peer acceptance while coming to terms with their cultural identity as the descendants of Japanese immigrant laborers.
Yamanaka's debut work, Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, which Kiana Davenport described as "witty" and "street-smart" in the Women's Review of Books, was published in 1993. Composed of four verse novellas narrated by working-class Hawaiian teenagers, Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre explores such subjects as ethnic identity, sexual awakening, drug use, and abusive relationships. Marilyn Kallet, writing in the American Book Review, enthusiastically praised the work, commenting that Yamanaka's "characters speak in dramatic monologues as tight and fierce as anything Browning might have dreamed of, but their voices hold true to the idiomatic language of tough, vulnerable preteen girls holding private talks." She continued: "Self-hatred that can torture adolescents attacks here with even more fury as questions about cultural identity are stirred into the conflicts about personal identity." According to Lawrence Chua in the Voice Literary Supplement, Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre "emerges from the abandoned debris of paradise, a Hawaii of carjackings and cruel girlhoods in small plantation towns. But Yamanaka is not content to merely transcribe the sexy argot of equatorial poverty. Her poetry is enabled by its elegant structure as much as its indolent diction. Saturday Night is not a lonely specimen of street life but a bold push at the borders of meaning and memory."
Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, published in 1996, is a series of connected vignettes narrated in the pidgin dialect of Lovey Nariyoshi, a Japanese-American teenager in Hilo, Hawaii, during the 1970s. A coming-of-age story that illustrates Lovey's adolescent self-consciousness and her desire for a better life while examining larger issues of class and ethnicity, Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers was judged "funny, poignant, scathingly authentic and often stabbingly beautiful" by Davenport in the Women's Review of Books. While Lauren Belfer in the New York Times Book Review found the colloquial text to be somewhat impenetrable, she concluded that "Yamanaka delivers moments of stinging clarity, creating haunting images as she sketches Lovey's search for a spiritual home." Calling Yamanaka's "a fresh, distinctive and authentic voice," a Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that although the author presents a harshly realistic view of life among her characters, she also balances her novel with images of "the bonds of love and understanding that can create poignant, epiphanic moments of reconciliation."
Yamanaka's follow-up novel, Blu's Hanging, focuses on the lives of thirteen-year-old narrator, Ivah Ogata, her brother, Blu, and her younger sister, Maisie. The novel depicts their attempts to cope with the death of their mother and the physically impoverished and morally bankrupt conditions of their daily life. Narrated in pidgin, the novel won praise from a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. According to the critic: "In presenting issues of race, violence and neglect through the filtered lenses of these children, Yamanaka gives us a textured picture of their society and of the tensions that exist beyond the borders of a troubled family." Calling Blu's Hanging a "well-wrought but painful work," Anna Quan Leon in the Library Journal noted that Ivah's decision to leave her siblings in order to attend college sends the story "deeper into a cycle of despair from which there is no escape."
The novel became the focus of a real-life controversy, as a particularly unsavory character—a rapist of children and torturer of animals—was perceived as an insulting caricature of Filipino Americans, even though some critics maintained that Yamanaka left his ethnicity open to question. This led the Association for Asian American Studies to rescind an award it had given the novel. Anti-Filipino sentiments voiced by a character in Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre had earlier evoked outrage against Yamanaka. At the time of the Blu's Hanging uproar, Yamanaka told Newsweek reporter Donna Foote that "the distinction between the narrator and the author is not being made."
Yamanaka followed Blu's Hanging with Heads by Harry, in which a young woman, Toni, rebelling against traditional gender roles, wants to learn taxidermy from her father, Harry, and have him designate her to inherit his position as leader of their clan. But her father wants Toni's homosexual brother, Sheldon, to leave behind his unconventional ways and assume the leadership role. Meanwhile, both sister and brother explore burgeoning romantic and sexual feelings. "Though in many ways it's Yamanaka's best, most mature novel so far, the society of Harry feels oddly incomplete," noted Nation reviewer Mindy Pennybacker, who explained that "to some extent, Yamanaka has replaced racism with sexism and homophobia, 'safer' topics." Pennybacker, however, praised the novel's humor and its portrait of a loving and lovable, if contentious, family in "a racially diverse, clamorous, downscale neighborhood where everyone knows everyone's business." New York Times Book Review critic Michael Porter observed that Heads by Harry "delivers a precise look at this vibrant [Japanese-American] culture yet still speaks to anyone who has experienced the joy, security and small humiliations of family life." Atlantic Monthly contributor Jamie James commented that the novel, "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." He concluded: "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 some 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."
Name Me Nobody is Yamanaka's first work aimed at teenagers. Emi-Lou, who lives on Hawaii's Big Island, never knew her father and was left by her mother to her grandmother's care. Now, as an overweight, socially inept fourteen-year-old, she is abandoned once more, as her best friend, Yvonne, discovers young love. In a twist on this familiar theme, Yvonne is attracted not to the opposite sex but to her own. Emi-Lou reacts by losing weight, a phenomenon that arouses mixed feelings in her, and she draws the attention of a handsome, athletic boy. Eventually, she comes to terms with the changes in her life and learns to accept herself and others as they are. "The novel resembles the writer's notable works for adults—vignettes of young girlhood, praised for their vivid images and expert distillation of language," related a Horn Book reviewer. Booklist critic Hazel Rochman remarked that "Yamanaka draws a diverse community with rich vitality and no false reverence," and predicted the story of adolescent angst would ring true for many teens. The Horn Book reviewer added that Yamanaka provides young adult literature with a fresh and welcome voice "noteworthy for its complexity and richness."
Father of the Four Passages chronicles the travails of a Hawaii-born woman, Sonia Kurisu, who moves to Las Vegas in an attempt to escape her troubled family and provide a stable environment for her young son. But she cannot leave behind memories of her wayward, mystical father or of her emotionally fragile mother, who had left her in the care of her grandmother. She also cannot forget her three abortions, and she believes her unborn children are appearing and speaking to her. Sonia seeks escape in drugs after another difficult development—the discovery of her son's autism—but finally returns to Hawaii in search of "reconciliation and recovery," as a Publishers Weekly critic put it. The critic found this "uncompromising story of the tenaciousness of mother love" to be "Yamanaka's most challenging work to date."
A young woman is haunted by ghosts in Yamanaka's 2006 novel Behold the Many, set on the island of Oahu in the early twentieth century. The work concerns three sisters—Leah, Aki, and Anah—who are sent to an orphanage by their brutish father after they contract tuberculosis. Despite Anah's efforts to comfort and protect her younger siblings, they perish; Anah survives into adulthood but is tortured by her sisters' vengeful spirits and a curse that affects her own children. "Only many years later—following much suffering and one horrifying event—does Anah find a way to appease the ghosts and to forgive herself," noted a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. Behold the Many, received strong reviews. A Kirkus Reviews contributor deemed the work "beautifully tragic," and Carol Haggas, writing in Booklist, stated that the "richly atmospheric novel paints a chillingly spectral portrait of souls tormented by love and guilt."
Yamanaka once told CA: "My work involves bringing to the page the utter complexity, ferocious beauty and sometimes absurdity of our ethnic relationships here in the islands. The way we language about each other and with each other in our 'talk story' communities resonates in me with every word I write. I know this because as my friend Lisa Asagi says, 'It is impossible to ban the sound of memory.'"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Book Review, September 11, 1995, Marilyn Kallet, review of Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, p. 11.
Atlantic Monthly, February, 1999, Jamie James, "This Hawaii Is Not for Tourists," p. 90.
Booklist, January 1, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Heads by Harry, p. 835; August, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of Name Me Nobody, p. 2045; January 1, 2006, Carol Haggas, review of Behold the Many, p. 64.
Horn Book, July, 1999, review of Name Me Nobody, p. 476.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2006, review of Behold the Many, p. 16.
Library Journal, March 1, 1997, Anna Quan Leon, review of Blu's Hanging, p. 105; February 1, 1999, Shirley N. Quan, review of Heads by Harry, p. 124.
Nation, March 1, 1999, Mindy Pennybacker, review of Heads by Harry, p. 28.
Newsweek, August 17, 1998, Donna Foote, "Trouble in Paradise: A Hawaiian Novelist Sparks a P.C. Protest," p. 63.
New York Times Book Review, December 31, 1995, Lauren Belfer, review of Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, p. 11; March 14, 1999, Michael Porter, "She'd Rather Stuff Birds," p. 23.
Publishers Weekly, October 2, 1995, review of Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, p. 51; February 24, 1997, review of Blu's Hanging, p. 62; December 21, 1998, review of Heads by Harry, p. 54; October 30, 2000, review of Father of the Four Passages, p. 45; December 12, 2005, review of Behold the Many, p. 38.
School Library Journal, May, 2005, Kathleen Kelly MacMillan, review of The Heart's Language, p. 105.
Voice Literary Supplement, December, 1993, Lawrence Chua, review of Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, pp. 7-8.
Women's Review of Books, July, 1996, Kiana Davenport, review of Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, p. 37.
Lois-Ann Yamanaka Home Page, http://faculty.washington.edu/kendo/yamanaka.html (October 10, 2006).