Nationality: American. Born: Ho'olchua, Molokai, Hawaii, 7 September 1961. Education: University of Hawaii at Manoa, B.Ed. 1983, M.Ed. 1987. Family: Married—husband's name John; one son. Career: Language arts resource teacher and English teacher, Hawaii Department of Education; writer. Lives in Honolulu, Hawaii. Awards: Pushcart prize, 1993; Elliot Cades award for literature, 1993; Asian American Studies National Book award, 1994 (prize revoked); Pushcart Prize, 1994; Rona Jaffe award for women writers, 1996.
Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers. New York, Farrar, Straus, 1996.
Blu's Hanging. New York, Farrar, Straus, 1997.
Heads by Harry. New York, Farrar, Straus, 1999.
Name Me Nobody (juvenile fiction). New York, Hyperion, 1999.
Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre (verse novellas). Honolulu, Hawaii, Bamboo Ridge Press, 1993.
Contributor, Transnational Asia Pacific: Gender, Culture, and the Public Sphere, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Larry E. Smith, and Wimal Dissanayake. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1999.* * *
Lois-Ann Yamanaka's writing is uncontrovertibly controversial. She did not set out to be controversial; indeed, she didn't even set out to be a writer. It was while Yamanaka was working as a schoolteacher in her native Hawaii that she observed her students writing poetry, and realized that she, too, was capable of creative writing. After returning to the University of Hawaii to study writing, Yamanaka has gone on to become one of that state's best known novelists, as well as a vocal proponent of Hawaiian Creole English, the pidgin spoken by many of the islands' working-class residents and in which Yamanaka often writes. This dialect is a combination of English, Japanese, and Philippine, and as a teacher Yamanaka was warned against using it in the working-class school in which she taught. As a writer she found her first collection, Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, banned by the Hawaii school system.
This attempt to suppress and assimilate minority cultures is precisely what Yamanaka is writing against in her novels. The descendant of Japanese agricultural workers and the daughter of educators, she grew up in the sugar-plantation town of Pahala, where pidgin was her native tongue. The sense of alienation and difference she felt from predominantly white, mainstream urban culture and its values has become the nucleus of much of her fiction. Her first collection, Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, explores that sense of difference through poetic narratives, critiquing race and gender relations in small-town Hawaii, while affirming the linguistic power of pidgin to do so. Awarded the Association for Asian American Studies National Book award, the Elliot Cades award for literature, and a Pushcart prize, the book more importantly reflected the lives of a segment of the Hawaiian population predominantly absent in the mainstream, the working-class Japanese segment from which Yamanaka hails. For Yamanaka, writing about a world erased in popular representations of Hawaii, and in the language of that world, is a fundamentally political act.
It is this close-knit Japanese world that Yamanaka has continued to explore in her adult novels to date, a loosely woven trilogy about coming of age in contemporary Hawaii. Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers inaugurates this triptych with the story of young Lovey Nariyoshi, whose desire for blond hair is just one of the many examples of her internalization of mainstream society's privileging of white middle-class culture. Set in 1970s rural Hilo, Lovey's reality does not mirror the conformist suburban fantasy of which she dreams. Instead, her family is poor and eccentric, in addition to being culturally marginalized. Her sense of cultural alienation is reinforced by schoolteachers who disparage her dialect and culture, classifying Lovey as slow. Through a series of vignettes, we witness Lovey's struggle, alternately comic and poignant, to establish a sense of self-worth as she moves into adolescence. That Yamanaka has written this story in pidgin is the final vindication of Lovey and the world she represents.
Yamanaka's second novel, Blu's Hanging, is admittedly the bleakest of the trio. After the death of their mother, three siblings attempt to negotiate an unremittingly severe world of poverty, violence, racism, and exploitation. As their father struggles to make ends meet, twelve-year old Ivah attempts to assume her mother's responsibilities, but can not provide the kinds of love and support necessary for her younger siblings or herself. While the children's energy is unavoidably infectious, their particular vulnerability is equally obvious, and the brother, Blu, is raped by a neighbor, just as Ivah is preparing to leave the family to attend boarding school. The child-ren's father reads this departure as a form of betrayal and abandonment, and initially blames Ivah for her brother's victimization. Both the rape and its fallout are crucial for scholars of Yamanaka. The tension between Ivah and her father stemming from the rape is indicative of a thematic preoccupation in Yamanaka's works with Japanese-American father-daughter relations. In her work, Yamanaka often explores the emotional distancing, elisions, and reticence—as well as the moments of revelation and understanding—that characterize this particular familial bond.
However, the rape of Blu in Blu's Hanging is important not only for its fallout, or relevance to the narrative, but also for the political upheaval that resulted in regards to Yamanaka's work and literary reputation. That Blu is raped by a Filipino neighbor, Uncle Paulo, led to charges of racism that ultimately resulted in the Association for Asian American Studies revoking the fiction prize it had awarded the book—both acts occurring on the same day. Yamanaka's previous publications also came under fire, particularly a piece in Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre where a youngster recounts being warned about Filipinos practicing cannibalism. While the passage appears ironic in context—there is also a warning that if you borrow some-one's deodorant, you might catch their body order, or if you make faces you will get Japanese eyes—out of context, and with the history of Filipino-Japanese tension in Hawaii, it appears problematic. Likewise, that Uncle Paulo is the representative Filipino in the text, and not a fully developed character, is also troublesome. However, Uncle Paulo is not the only deviant adult in the novel, and the others are all Japanese. It is even rumored, according to Ivah, that his family hides their part Japanese heritage. Nevertheless, the passionate controversy ignited by the AAAS award and the decision to revoke it is very real, and it remains to be seen if or how Yamanaka will respond in her future writing.
Blu's Hanging was followed by the lighter and less controversial Heads by Harry, the last in Yamanaka's Hawaiian coming-of-age trilogy. In this novel her protagonists are older, and even reach adulthood, but still belong to the tight-knit family unit whose dynamics Yamanaka loves to explore and expose in her writing. The Yagyuus are uproarious in their eccentricities and antics, but genuine in their love for each other, which remains constant despite their individual attempts to achieve independence. The father-daughter relationship is again investigated through the eldest daughter, Toni, and the father whose taxidermy business she will inherit, as the only son—the flamboyant Sheldon—has chosen to open up a hair salon. Despite the family's propensity to misadventures, Yamanaka endows Toni, Sheldon, and the manipulative favorite, Bunny, with a sense of dignity and individuality that allows them to transcend easy categorization or stereotypes. Sheldon may be a gay hairdresser, but he is also an entrepreneur whose love of his family causes him to remain in Hilo and set up shop next door to his father's business. Nor is he a "token" character in Yamanaka's fiction; indeed, butch girl cousins and friends abound, and are central to the narrative of her 1999 children's novel, Name Me Nobody, which explores racism, poverty, discrimination, and sexuality with the same unflinching gaze as her adult novels.
In addition to her novels for adults and children, Yamanaka's works Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre and Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers have both been produced as plays by Kuma Kahua. Yamanaka has weathered all criticism well, and remains committed to the use of pidgin and the importance of continuing to write about the experiences of her community, while insisting on the necessity of remaining true to the integrity of the characters and their experience, no matter how unpopular that experience may be.
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