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.”