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.
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.