shadowy duck (pylduck) wrote in asianamlitfans,
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Jessica K. Saiki's From the Lanai and Other Hawaii Stories

In her second collection of short stories, From the Lanai and Other Hawaii Stories (New Rivers Press, 1991), Jessica K. Saiki offers wry observations of a small town in Hawaii in the mid-twentieth century. In general, she focuses on the Japanese American residents of the town, but some of the stories center on white characters, revealing their orientalizing perspectives of their neighbors. This collection of stories is a winner of the Minnesota Voices Project (now Many Voices Project), a literary award/book series run by New Rivers Press for emerging writers in the upper Midwest. Sharon Suzuki-Martinez's The Way of All Flux as well as Ed Bok Lee's Real Karaoke People are also part of this series. I believe New Press published Saiki's first collection, too, Once, a Lotus Garden, and I will have to look that one up.

(Must vacuum that rug what with sheddy dog insistent that he doesn't need a warm coat in this frigid weather.)

Saiki's stories sketch a close-knit, gossipy community in Lunalilo, with families dealing with generational rifts and shifting engagements with tradition. The stories usually feature characters who are at the edges of polite society, people with pasts or sorrows they cannot escape or futures they can never achieve. Saiki uses a restrained narrative voice that often just hints at the improprieties gossiped about, as in the opening story "Oribu" that in a roundabout way is the story of a Japanese American woman with a red-headed son.

I think the strongest stories are ones in which Saiki delves into the mindset of white characters with their various desires and misunderstandings for living in the islands away from the mainland childhood homes. Saiki depicts haole characters who range from innocent (as with Kenneth Small in "Portraits," a young man who wants to be an artists, takes a job with a photography company, and develops a relationship with a young Japanese American woman) to eccentrically disturbing (as with Malcolm Stillwaite in "Specter," a man who has created an oriental fantasy for himself in his home along with a young girl he hires as a live-in servant whom he has dress and act like a geisha).

Saiki is perhaps most trenchant in her observations of Japanese Americans, though, and the way gossip serves to cast out anyone who does not follow a traditional path of life and marriage as expected by parents and others in the community. The stories are full of people who married against their parents' wishes or strayed from their marriages in romantic liaisons, but these characters find themselves ultimately cast adrift for their deviations from societal expectations.

Saiki also sketches a few other Asian Hawaiian characters in her stories, but they tend to remain fairly flat. There is not too much exploration of interethnic relations except when Chinese and Korean characters serve as forbidden husbands for Japanese daughters.

In a few of the stories, the characters speak in pidgin, but for the most part, the stories don't highlight the uniqueness of the language. The more prominent feature of Saiki's dialogue is in showing the contrast between haole speakers of standard American English versus the stilted English of Japanese Hawaiians, whether because of fluency only in Japanese or in pidgin English.

There are also some drawings by the author dispersed throughout the book before some of the stories.

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