What Boddah You?: The Authenticity Debate
Then there's her portrayal of the Santos boys next door to Toni, known for their hunting dogs, guns and pickup trucks: the kind of mokes who, a few years ago, were said to be making rural Hawaii unsafe for haoles, especially tourists.
To some extent, Yamanaka has replaced racism with sexism and homophobia, "safer" topics. Though Toni hates Sheldon when he makes passes at boys she likes, she leaps to his defense when he's attacked as a mahu (gay). When her father refuses to acknowledge her skills, Toni gets a summer job pig-hunting with the Santos brothers as part of an eradication program undertaken by the Forest Service to save the indigenous forest. At a party after a hunting trip, Toni discovers that she enjoys sex: gross, tawdry, drunken and, this once, with both Santos boys. She also knows platonic, courtly love--in Standard English--with haole Billy Harper, the park ranger's son and her mother's former student.
Another curious omission: Though Hawaiian myths, artifacts, place names and ghosts fill the threatened landscape, there aren't any living Native Hawaiians among Yamanaka's main characters. But the Big Island and Molokai, where her novels are set, have relatively large populations of Kanaka Maoli. Instead, their culture is appropriated as a sentimental, beautiful backdrop, like the forest itself, indigenous but nearly extinct.
At the same time, Heads, the last installment in Yamanaka's trilogy about coming of age in Hawaii, replays many characters (with names changed) and themes from the earlier books: sadistic cruelty to animals; taxidermy and hunting; homophobia; social climbing and haolefication; the horrors of puberty and getting one's "rags"; remote fathers; gay brothers or best friends; and a yearning for a true paradise in which humans treat animals and one another kindly. In Wild Meat, Lovey endures the fat-girl humiliations of middle school by escaping with her gay best friend into fantasies of looking haole, like their idols in Tiger Beat magazine. Lovey's father hunts wild meat, raises a calf no one can bear to eat and, to Lovey's revulsion, decides to learn taxidermy, a goal that is thwarted when he's blinded by a backfiring rifle. Blu's Hanging begins when the narrator, Ivah, is 13 and ends when she transfers to a private Honolulu high school from backwater Molokai. In Heads, Toni graduates from high school and follows Sheldon to the University of Hawaii, only to fail. Yamanaka's third book in three years, Heads in places seems dashed off so fast it could be a draft and sometimes suffers from overstatedness: "So it was my mother who had really wanted me to finish school. All those years she had used Harry O. to exert guilt and pressure on me."
On the plus side, this book is a lot funnier than Blu's Hanging, whose plot turns on two external factors: the rape of a little brother and the revelation that the children's parents had leprosy. Here, fate is more character-driven. Though Sheldon gets picked on and has his heart broken, he's nobody's victim. In Heads, Yamanaka develops characters more fully than she's done before. Harry, unlike the ineffectual, dope-smoking widower in Blu's Hanging, is a well-rounded, likable character who, at his retirement party, brags to 500 guests that his daughter has doubled his business since she "came home flunk out from UH."
The Yagyuus, despite their explosive tempers, are basically a lively, lighthearted bunch. When neighbors gather at their house to watch The Yagyu Conspiracy, a Japanese series about a samurai family, everyone plays different characters, reading the subtitles. This becomes eroticized when Toni, watching alone with Wyatt Santos, has to read the subtitles for him. In this way, she learns that he's illiterate. Their affair progresses from his horrible flirtation (grunts, burps and farts) to a near-lyrical tenderness, though out of bed he still behaves like Kamapua'a, the Hawaiian pig-god.
Harry Yagyuu's art of taxidermy, painstakingly described, seems to be a metaphor for the art of the novelist, with much discussion of how the taxidermist tries to make an exact replica of life. In a great scene, he tells Toni how he reined in his tendency toward ideal beauty and mounted a blind chicken with its eyes closed, because the owner wanted to preserve the pet's "true self." There's also a wonderful connection, literalized in the end, between beauticians and taxidermists. It's a fairy-tale ending, in which all three adult Yagyuu children stay home in Hilo. In reality, a Hawaii scarce in jobs and housing exports its youth. But here even haole Billy comes back and hooks up with Toni, despite the fact that she has had a baby girl, conceived on her night with both Santos brothers. In her last scene, Yamanaka tries to wrest the sitcom of Mamo Street into something more, a timeless tableau. Alone inside the house, Toni watches her parents, aunts and uncles, neighbors, the two "daddies" of her child and her true love Billy drink beer and eat pupus and talk stories on the late-night sidewalk. "I...looked at all of them through the glass window, the darkness around me hallowed and still."
At its best, Hawaii culture means extended family, everybody welcome. Of course, tourists and readers want something authentic to take back from a culture. In the fifties and sixties, you could get monkeypod and koa bowls, the "Made in Hawaii" burned into the bottom in a tiny, elegant script. Now they're all made in the Philippines (except for a few high-end items carved from local rainforests). It begs the authenticity question: When does a souvenir become literature and not a sitcom? Perhaps Yamanaka's receipt of a 1998 Lannan Literary Award answers that question. But perhaps not. Without turning the deep scrutiny on racism that it does on the taxidermist's art, this author's facile, glib prose could lose its edge to farce. Now that her trilogy is over, these are questions Yamanaka ought to ask herself for her next book.