What Boddah You?: The Authenticity Debate | The Nation


What Boddah You?: The Authenticity Debate

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

If there's one thing everyone agrees on about Hawaii writer Lois-Ann Yamanaka, it's that she has a perfect ear for local pidgin dialects, which change cadence and idiom throughout the islands of the fiftieth state. "She captured real Molokai pidgin of the era (the seventies). And not only that, but when the character went to Hilo, everybody there spoke authentic Hilo pidgin," said Honolulu writer Darrell Lum about Yamanaka's second novel, Blu's Hanging. Lum, who also writes in pidgin and co-edits Bamboo Ridge: A Hawai'i Writers Journal, has a connoisseur's ear. But Yamanaka's career to date shows how being praised for one's authenticity can also backfire.

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

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

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.

the most part, Yamanaka continues to pull back from the racism she
exposed in Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre and Blu's
(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

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

Yamanaka returns to Hilo for her rambunctious new novel, Heads by Harry, narrated by foulmouthed markswoman Toni Yagyuu, who wants to be accepted as heir apparent by her hunter-taxidermist father of the book's title. Harry, though, wants her effeminate brother, Sheldon, to straighten up and lead the clan. Moving from high school into college, late-blooming Toni discovers the joys and punishments of carnal love but finds herself competing with her brother in this arena, too. Like Yamanaka's three previous books, Heads portrays a racially diverse, clamorous, downscale neighborhood where everyone knows everyone's business, from the hookers who call Sheldon "sister" to the snobby, competitive Aunty who, like Toni's mother, teaches school. "And acting like she no talk pidgin.... She grew up on the goddamn Hakalau plantation."

As always, Yamanaka excels at skewering the social-climbing contortions of characters like Aunty and Toni's beauteous, haolefied little sister Bunny. But she used to dig her nails a little deeper, getting under the skin of the racism that prevails in a "melting pot" state whose tourist board boasts of ethnic harmony and where laborers' shabby cottages have been restored for an Oahu theme park called "Waipahu Plantation Village." People in Hawaii, still in many ways a colonial society, reflexively define each other by race. When, in Yamanaka's first novel, Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers (1996), a mainland haole (white) teacher orders his Hilo students to speak in "Standard English," the narrator, Lovey, observes of a classmate: "Melvin stands up slowly and pulls a Portagee torture of wedged pants and BVDs out of his ass.... Melvin has a very Portagee accent." The new novel steers pretty much clear of such dangerous territory, and the result is that, though it's in many ways Yamanaka's best, most mature novel so far, the society of Harry feels oddly incomplete.

This isn't an accident. A vociferous faction of the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) has been incensed with Yamanaka ever since her book of prose poems, Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, in which a young girl repeats some ugly but prevalent local superstitions, including the stereotype of Filipino men as rapacious sexual predators. Published by Bamboo Ridge Press, Saturday Night won a Pushcart Prize and the AAAS 1994 literature award, although the latter was fiercely debated at the association's conference. As Wendy Motooka, an assistant professor of English at Oberlin, recalls in the Spring 1998 issue of Bamboo Ridge, "A woman whom I later learned was an ethnic studies professor argued that Yamanaka's representations were potentially harmful to Filipino men, who are still largely ostracized from society, and that Yamanaka should have taken more care to indicate that she herself did not endorse these sterotypes."

Last summer, the controversy spilled over onto the pages of Honolulu newspapers when the AAAS's 1997 award, given to Blu's Hanging, was rescinded. This time, the offending portrait was of the character Uncle Paulo, of whom 8-year-old Blu says to his sister, Ivah, "I mean, he Filipino, but he no look like one kinda haole-ish Monkee to you?" Paulo is a one-dimensional villain, a rapist and pederast. There's a plenty-dirty old Japanese man, too, but AAAS didn't protest about him, maybe because Japanese-Americans are the second-largest ethnic population in Hawaii, after whites, and have risen since World War II to control the Hawaii State Democratic Party machine. The last ethnic group imported to work on plantations, Filipinos found themselves at the bottom of the social ladder, along with displaced Native Hawaiians. The stigma hangs on. As novelist Milton Murayama has said, Hawaii is haunted by "a separation of races, which was done deliberately by the plantation so that there wouldn't be any cohesion among labor."

It's only natural for this breakdown of solidarity to show up in the literature as well. In Wild Meat, when classmates taunt Lovey, "you, Jap Crap...Rice Eye, good-for-nuttin' Pearl Harba bomba," she diverts their scorn by picking on a little Filipina girl. By contrast, the virtual lack of Filipino characters in Heads shows what real-life controversy can do to an author's fictional, albeit realistic, world. It feels as if Yamanaka, as Virginia Woolf said about her hypothetical flawed woman author in A Room of One's Own, "altered her values in deference to the opinion of others."

In a way, Yamanaka can count herself lucky. There has as yet been no outcry on behalf of the tita, the tough local babe who rats her hair and, like Toni Yagyuu, gets into face-clawing, broken-bottle brawls. In Saturday Night at least three groups are mocked at once in the prose poem "Tita: On Fat."

Eh, what you trying for say?
That I one fat cow? Well, fuck you.
I ain't fat. I just more mature than you guys...
All you guys a bunch of small shit Japs.

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.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.