Quantcast

Decolonizing the Mind | The Nation

  •  

Decolonizing the Mind

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Kathleen Tyau's brisk, humorous, more sparsely written Makai also explores hanai, and the economic stresses that result in many generations living under one roof. This in turn creates stresses, although it's the more the merrier as far as the narrator, big-hearted Alice Lum, is concerned. Makai, which means "toward the sea," centers around the lifelong friendship and conflicts between two women, poor, "plain Chinese" Alice and beautiful, rich, Hawaiian-Chinese Annabel Lee. Annabel, the adventuress, moves to Florida. Alice stays, puts down roots, and endures the growing remoteness of her moody husband, her elder daughter's moving out and the bittersweet pain of knowing that her younger, retarded daughter never will.

About the Author

Mindy Pennybacker
Mindy Pennybacker is editor of The Green Guide , an environmental newsletter (http://thegreenguide.com).

Also by the Author

It's hard to tell whether the US is conducting a war against terror or
against Native Hawaiians, as the military uses parts of the Waianae
coast as a live-fire training ground.

Although it may come as a surprise to the
rest of America, people from Hawaii also feel the urge to get away
from it all--even the inhabitants of a paradise theme park can get
bored. Driven by "rock fever," economic need or ambition, they leave
the islands, and one of their favorite destinations is Las
Vegas, which receives thousands of Hawaii gamblers on
packaged tours each year. Others retire there to escape the
prohibitively high cost of living at home, where cereal, milk and
other staples cost fully twice as much as on the mainland.

Sonia Kurisu, the wise-talking heroine cruising for a
breakdown in Lois-Ann Yamanaka's Father of the Four Passages,
has been trying for seven years to complete her bachelor of fine arts
at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, while supporting herself as
Tiger Lily Wong, the lounge singer. She could perfectly well have
done this back home, where there are universities and no lack of
opportunities in the sleazy clubs of Waikiki or Hilo, her hometown,
where her mother's a hostess in a golf-course bar. But Sonia had
dreams of broader horizons, inspired in part by her wandering father,
an MIT grad who for twenty years has sent poetic letters to his
daughter from Amsterdam, Italy, China and Thailand, about how little
girls remind him of Sonia and his love for her. (He just can't be
with her!) However, bad boyfriends and a serious drug and alcohol
habit have impeded her academic progress, and the book opens with her
latest challenge: single motherhood.

It's a terrible
shock. Sonia's breasts are engorged and painful, and she's angered by
the crying of the baby, Sonny Boy. "I hit his face, squeeze his
cheeks inside my closing palms. Distort his cry with my hands on his
face and throat, until the sound makes me laugh." His baby bottles
and dirty diapers lie strewn around with the adults' mess, "warm beer
in tilting bottles, a glass of merlot with lip-gloss rainbows on its
surface, Percodan and Prozac strewn on the countertop, glass pipes,
amber vials, burnt pieces of tinfoil," with mom's lover, Drake,
"passed out on the futon in the arms of a girl/boy drug
friend."

Sonia regrets having borne Sonny Boy, excoriates
herself for her decision, motivated by religious guilt over past
abortions: "I vanished three babies. A hospital's toxic-waste bin, a
dirty toilet at Magic Island, and a jelly jar buried outside my
bedroom window." At the same time, she feels ashamed and scared by
her rages, and desperately wants to be a good mother; she just
doesn't know how. For this she blames her own mother, Grace, who
"vanished" 12-year-old Sonia and her sister from Hilo to live with
their grandmother in a Honolulu slum. Instead of the absolution Sonia
hoped for, though, the baby's birth summons the ghosts of her three
unborn sons, whom she calls Number One, Number Two (Turtle Boy) and
Jar. She sees and hears them everywhere, outside her window, in the
laundromat. They want to know who their fathers are. They seem to
want to live.

Wallowing in self-pity, abusing drugs, booze
and her child, Sonia, a heroine for our times, does not lack appeal.
We see, in flashback chapters, where she comes from and what she's
been up against, and we root for her as an underdog who's scrabbling
for a second chance. Which seems a distant prospect: For a time, all
that stands between Sonia, Sonny and disaster is their neighbor Bob,
an unemployed black Vietnam veteran who seems to have moved in the
day of the baby's birth, and who provides free and loving baby care,
and grocery and laundry services, while Sonia works and occasionally
goes to school. After she kicks out Drake and his girl/boy friend,
Bob keeps watch in her apartment by night. They are joined by her
platonic friend Mark, who helped her abort two of the fetuses (not
his--he and Sonia weren't lovers) and who also came to Nevada for
college. Mark and Bob clean the apartment and try to keep Sonia off
the drugs and booze and out of her destructive relationship with
Drake.

Yamanaka is one of the most prominent members of the
so-called Asian literary mafia of Bamboo Ridge, the Hawaii
journal that first published her work and that of others who wrote in
pidgin, the language of plantation laborers. Yamanaka's fiction falls
short of the beautiful craftsmanship of her peers Gary Pak and Sylvia
Watanabe and of the mythical allusiveness of Nora Ojka Keller's
work.What sets Yamanaka apart, though, is her lack of cultural
nostalgia and her avoidance of gentility, as if she sprang fully
formed from the head of Milton Murayama, along with his 1959 classic
All I Asking for Is My Body. Her plot moves outward from the
small palette to the large: Although devout herself, in her fashion,
Sonia also sees through and rails about the pretensions of her
religious, self-righteous family, who leave bossy messages on her
answering machine. At one point, her whole Hawaii clan converges in
Las Vegas for a religious convention, including her yuppie big sister
Celeste, a leader of a Hawaii Right to Life Coalition chapter and so
much else. The sisters grew up in divergent socioeconomic spheres:
Celeste tested into Punahou School, the elite private prep academy
founded by New England missionaries in 1841; but "slow-minded" Sonia,
who could never make the grade, went to one of the tough public high
schools, Farrington. Every day, they'd take the bus with the other
"Kalihi Valley working-class poor," and "Celeste would hop off...one
block before the manicured school grounds. She didn't want to be seen
with Granny Alma, a lowly custodian."

Another friend from
home--handsome but troubled Jacob, the father of Number Two--comes
through Vegas after his own drug habit derails him from the track to
an astronomy degree. Sonia's dad, Joseph, drops in as well, to see
his grandson. "Something's wrong," he says when he observes the boy.
As Sonny Boy grew, he stopped screaming and Sonia stopped punishing
him. But he also grew real quiet, and still isn't talking as
his second birthday comes and goes. He repeatedly lines up his toy
cars, sorted by color. He pounds his head on the floor. He's
fascinated by his fingers. He spins. When he's diagnosed as autistic,
Sonia first reacts as if it's all about her--that what she'd seen as
her vehicle of redemption for past sins is actually her punishment
from God. A visit from Drake precipitates an overdose, and she wakes
in the hospital to find her mother by her bed, trying to mother her
far too late, in Sonia's opinion. The whole extended family forcesher
to move back to Honolulu with Sonny Boy, where Celeste books
appointments with autism specialists.

Yamanaka remains a
wonderful comic writer, producing perfect-pitch satire of Celeste's
cultivated Punahou speechand frequent lapses into local tita
tantrums. Continuing the exposé of local prejudices that's run
through all of Yamanaka's novels, there are wonderful passages in
which the Japanese-American grandma, mother and aunties, based on
knowledge gleaned from Oprah, Rain Man and the like, blame
Sonia's lifestyle for Sonny Boy's condition. They point to her
association with the kuro-chan, or black person. They say it's
Sonia's bachi, the evil she's brought on herself for the sin
of "murdering" abortion. Still, they begin to cheer up as they
litanize the celebrities afflicted with autistic children: Stallone,
Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H, Dan Marino, Doug Flutie, etc.
"And I read in Newsweek or maybe Time that Albert
Einstein and Bill Gates were autistic," Grace says.

For
the most part, Yamanaka continues to pull back from the racism she
exposed in Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre and Blu's
Hanging
(the depiction of a Filipino stereotype in the latter
caused her to lose an Asian-American literary award; she nevertheless
has won other awards, including one from the Lannan Foundation),
though she continues to confront class issues head-on. Many of the
themes in Father of the Four Passages extend those in her
previous work: sibling rivalry; silent and traumatized little
children; struggling and battling parents; tough, compulsive sex;
loud, bad Japanese girls spurning the cultural mores of modesty,
education, respect for elders and upward mobility. After essentially
rewriting the same story in many ways, in this book she's busted
out--and leaving the island venue seems to have refreshed Yamanaka's
work. It's also--remarkably for a writer renowned for her fluency in
local argot--her first book not written, or spoken, predominantly in
pidgin. Everybody here speaks the King's English, more or less. "Both
of you denied your eyes nothing they desired, refused your heart no
pleasure. What futility it all was. What chasing after the wind. I've
just quoted Ecclesiastes, mind you," says Celeste. Some of the
stiltedness of the dialogue can be attributed to her characters'
pretensions, but Yamanaka often stumbles as well, particularly during
climactic scenes, as when Sonia unearths Jar from their Hilo backyard
in order to cremate the fetus. Her father says, "Three babies. Oh,
Sonia, what have you done?" And she replies with words he's said to
her before: "Daddy, you were right. True freedom is holding on and
seizing--" "Seizing what?" "Love--no matter the cost or ferocity of
that love." There are too many such maudlin, confrontational
speeches, a tendency toward in-your-face summarizing that has
encumbered this author's earlier books as well. There's also some
over-the-top sentimentalism: a confusion of Bob with some kind of
angel as Sonia communicates with him telepathically, and a misguided
flirtation with magic realism, including one fetus mailing her a gift
of blue silk cloth.

The occasional overexplicitness and
unevenness in dialogue are themselves outweighed, however, by several
moving aspects of the novel. There's the fine portrayal of Sonny Boy
and his autism, which rings true, and the ways different members of
the family, from his little cousin to his grandfather and Jacob,
tenderly relate to him; we observe how he helps them heal themselves.
In Heads by Harry, a baby's birth solves all the problems in
an easy, obvious way, bonding the jolly family; in Father of the
Four Passages
it happens with far more struggle, ambiguity and
risk.

Yamanaka pulls back from the shallow, sitcom surfaces
of Heads and dives deep. More than in her other books,
images--the remembered Hilo rain on hot pavement, the thousand
gilded-paper origami good-luck cranes that hover around Number
One--link throughout, building into metaphors and registering
emotional impact. Images spring from her father's childhood stories
and his effete but often beautiful letters--he plants flowers and
sends her descriptions of them from all over the world. With a
description of the window boxes of Amsterdam, he once sent a copy of
Anne Frank's diary, which motivated 8-year-old Sonia to finally learn
to read, saving her from special ed. A story he told his children
about hatching sea turtles and a Hawaiian fisherman gives Turtle Boy
his name. The color blue in the midnight sky above Las Vegas is also
a theme in her father's letters, as is the color of the liquid that
surrounds the fetus Jar. In Heads by Harry, the daughter of a
Hilo taxidermist and hunter falls in love with the rainforests along
the flank of the volcano; in Father, Sonia is drawn to the sea
and to the barren, pure moonscape of the volcano's top. In both
books, nature provides the absolution and calm that Yamanaka's
troubled urban characters yearn for.

For a social critic,
which is what Yamanaka really is, the choice of Las Vegas is fitting
in many ways; the place is an apt metaphor for the yearning and
frustration of Hawaii's working poor. It gives them a chance to be
tourists in a desert Waikiki. The biggest lure, of course, is
gambling, the chance to be a high roller, to actually win for a
change. Many Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiians, have immigrated to
Nevada as well as California, Oregon and Washington; the 2000 census
shows that populations of Pacific Islanders and Asians in Nevada has
climbed to 98,692 from 38,127 in 1990. And back home, gambling has
long been a subtext in the ongoing debate over Kanaka Maoli
sovereignty; as has been reported, lobbyist Tommy Boggs has been
helping the Office of Hawaiian Affairs plan to get gambling on
Hawaiian lands. First, of course, Hawaiians have to get their
lands--a process set back by the recent Supreme Court holding in
Rice v. Cayetano, which has put all Hawaiian blood
entitlements on the defensive. And many Hawaiian leaders are leery of
the social ills that gambling would bring. If Hawaii, or a Hawaiian
nation within a nation, gets legalized gambling, then girls like
Sonia will be able to find plenty of bachi at home.

At the other end of the spectrum from Las Vegas sits
another powerful metaphor: snowcapped Mauna Kea, the highest mountain
in the world, if you're measuring from the bottom of the blue
Pacific, which rings the Big Island that its eruptions made. The
extinct volcano is iconographic in Hawaiian culture, a symbol in
songs and chants of motherhood, purity and home. It's here that Sonia
climbs with her father, Jacob and her son to scatter the ashes of Jar
and bring him, and his aborted brothers, peace. In this last scene,
above the treeline and in the rare Hawaiian snow, the sentiment
works. For the rest, Yamanaka's cold-eyed realism is enough, and
readers should revel in her unsparing view of lowlife in contemporary
Hawaii, a side the Hawaii Visitors Bureau doesn't want shown. You've
got to give Yamanaka, and her characters, credit for their compulsion
to go straight where no one wants to go, and fight their way back
out.

In flashbacks, Makai, like Song of the Exile, depicts Pearl Harbor and the hardships of the war years in Honolulu. In the book's present time, Alice's daughter Beatrice visits the mainland and returns with her childhood friend and new lover, Annabel's son Wick. The funniest scenes in the book show part-Hawaiian but totally haolefied Wick trying to fit in: No matter how much he uses pidgin and the shaka sign to locals, "they know."

Tyau's recurring images include hula and ballroom dancing, salty awkward sex, bare feet and polished shoes, all kinds of underwear, island women sewing "getaway" clothes, handed-down jade embodying a lost mother; floods rushing to the sea that Alice fears. While Makai unrolls gracefully in controlled, disciplined prose, I couldn't help but wish that Tyau would take more chances, dive a little deeper into the psychological depths. I couldn't lose the feeling that her protagonists--like Davenport's--were ultimately stock characters, manipulated by a deft puppeteer.

And so we come full circle, from the distortions of Jack London to the reclamation of Hawaiian identity by emergent native voices, to yet another Western visitor's retelling of native story--only this time, one receptive to the pre-existing culture. London's conceits should be flung to their unhallowed rest by the astonishingly beautiful reworking of Ko'olau's tale by the poet W.S. Merwin. This book-length narrative in verse, The Folding Cliffs, relates much of the action through Pi'ilani's eyes; Merwin, a twenty-five-year resident of Hawaii, writes like a man possessed, letting himself be the vessel for the story. He begins after the fact, with Pi'ilani's return to the remote valley of Kalalau to make sure her husband's bones haven't been disturbed, creating a sense of foreboding and loss so wrenching that the reader can hardly bear to go on, especially when Pi'ilani remembers their little boy, Kaleimanu, imitating the calls of the birds that ply those high cliffs. But we do go on, drawn in by the warmth of the characters and their love for one another and a world of sheer rock, mists, plunging waterfalls and crashing waves.

Merwin, who shares with Charles Olson, A.R. Ammons, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder and others a heightened sense of the natural world and sensitivity to pre-Western cultures, brings all the devices of his mature skill--imagery, rhythm, moments of lyric flight from a tersely cadenced free verse--to this retelling. The sometimes highly tactile images he chooses to repeat, of rocks, streams, mosses, certain birds and flowers, a cold touch running down between the breasts, build patterns of emotion in the characters and the reader and hark back to Native Hawaiian literary traditions, in which the people were part of the living body of their land. In Hawaiian verse, or mele, concrete pictures carry an underlying meaning, or kaona. In 1893, the year Ko'olau went into hiding and Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown, Ellen Wright Prendergast wrote "'Ai Pohaku," the stone-eating song, which exhorts eating this "astonishing food of the land" rather than taking the government's money in exchange for "its sin of annexation/And sale of native civil rights." No wonder Ko'olau and Pi'ilani chose to live in a fortress of rock. In the most famous illustration of kaona, the rain on the cliffs entering the buds of the lehua trees in Queen Liliuokalani's song "Aloha Oe," while beautifully and accurately capturing the upland forests, is also a sexual image.

Merwin's images are auditory, as well. As Ko'olau dies of leprosy, Pi'ilani hears again the 'uwa'u 'uwa'u calls of the petrels that Kaleimanu had mimicked, and also the "sounds some said were crickets and others said were land snails singing and they were spirits." Delicately and suddenly, Merwin makes us take Pi'ilani's leap between actual and spiritual "realities," and achieves a kind of synthesis between Western myths and Hawaiian oli, or narrative chants. Pi'ilani's return to Kalalau and the remains and spirits of her dead remind us of Odysseus, Orpheus or Virgil visiting Hades. The colony of lepers, "damned" in the eyes of Western society, inhabits the "rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death" of Milton's Paradise Lost, with joy. When Merwin writes of the waves ending against the cliffs and sands of Kalalau Valley, he is also thinking, as the Hawaiians do, of their original journey to these shores by sailing canoes. He writes of the birth of their literature, in which "they had become their journey which was the tale they repeated," in a time when "it was still their day their light their shore with those trees."

When a missionary asks to write down her history after Ko'olau's death, Pi'ilani becomes uncomfortably aware of the misappropriation and Christianization of her story; he asks her, for instance, if she prayed while being shot at on a cliff ledge. For a while she feels as if, by this telling, she has lost touch with her story. But later, when she meets friends from that time, "she saw then that it was the terrible moments there that she did not want to forget...the sickness of Kaleimanu day by day she did not want it to slip through her fingers now and be gone or his dying and their burying him she wanted to keep even the pain of it." It is akin to Sunny Sung's reaction, in an Allied hospital, to a doctor's assurance that she'd heal, she'd forget. "Why did they think she wanted to forget? That any P-girl wanted to forget?" Remembering shared suffering, exactly what happened and why, what was there before, what was taken and what should be taken back, is crucial to the decolonization of the mind.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.