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Asian American Literature Fans – Hawaii Calling (Part 1) Megareview for March 9, 2012

Asian American Literature Fans – Hawaii Calling (Part 1) Megareview for March 9, 2012

In this post, reviews for Juliet S. Kono’s Anshu: Dark Sorrow (Bamboo Ridge Press, 2010); Jon Shirota’s Lucky Come Hawaii (originally published in 1965, republished in 1985, revised edition and reissue in 2009 by University of Hawaii Press); Lee Cataluna’s Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa (Bamboo Ridge Press, 2011); Sandra Park’s If You Live in a Small House: A Story of 1950’s Hawaii (Mutual Publishing, 2010); Chris McKinney’s Bolohead Row (Mutual Publishing, 2005); Chris McKinney’s Mililani Mauka (Mutual Publishing, 2009).

I focus on three presses in this review post: Bamboo Ridge Press, Mutual Publishing, and University of Hawaii Press. For more information on these presses and other titles, please go to these websites:

Bamboo Ridge Press:

Mutual Publishing:

University of Hawaii Press:

A Review of Juliet S. Kono’s Anshu: Dark Sorrow (Bamboo Ridge Press, 2010).

With a subtitle like Dark Sorrow, those looking for an uplifting novel should look elsewhere. Juliet Kono’s first novel (she is also a poet and short story writer) takes a particularly grueling look at the life of one Hawaiian born young woman of Japanese descent, Himiko Aoki, after she is basically shipped off to Japan after becoming pregnant out of wedlock and as a teenager. The novel begins in the 1920s, so her leaveataking occurs just before the onset of World War II. Himiko has one sister, Miyo, and her father died under strange circumstances involving a fireball (this moment seemed almost magical realist in character); their mother is the sole breadwinner and when Himiko becomes pregnant, her mother feels that the best option is for Himiko to go live with her brother in Japan so that her and her family’s reputation can remain intact. Living in Japan is, to put it mildly, a distressing experience. Himiko’s aunt-in-law Harue absolutely despises her and her children (Sa Chan, Norio, Iwao, and Yuki-Chan) are not necessarily more welcoming. They all see Himiko as an extra burden, so Himiko must find ways to endure, especially as the family suffers hard times under the increased rationing of wartime. When most of the family survives the fire bombing of Tokyo, they must relocate and live for a time in Kyoto. Norio, the oldest son, enters the air force and is killed. Himiko inadvertently but nevertheless precipitates the death of the oldest daughter of her aunt during the fleeing of Tokyo. The final arc of the novel is set in Hiroshima and we can expect yet more tragedy. This novel is reminiscent of the fictional project that Rahna Reiko Rizzuto was researching for while she was in Japan (as elucidated in her memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning); these projects link Japanese Americans to their Japanese counterparts, thus complicating the boundaries between Asian and Asian American Studies. Because Kono is a poet, there are certain moments that are absolutely breathtaking, but also very difficult to read. The chapters set in the post-atomic bombing period are obviously some of the most difficult and it is a testament to Kono’s talents that she is able to thread the narrative through that point with such grace and poignant restraint.

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A Review of Jon Shirota’s Lucky Come Hawaii (originally published in 1965, republished in 1985, revised edition and reissue in 2009 by University of Hawaii Press).

I’m reviewing the 2009 reissue, though I'm sure there are some changes from the original edition given the fact that there is mention of editing of the manuscript. Apparently, Shirota’s novel was a bestseller when it was originally published. He also published another novel called Pineapple White. I just bought a used copy of Pineapple White as part of my attempt to pick up as many semi-affordable copies of old and out of print Asian American titles. The story takes its inspiration from the bombing of Pearl Harbor and its aftermath, especially for one Japanese American family. Kama Gusuda is the Japanese American father at the center of the novel; his oldest son is fighting for the Japanese army. His second son, Niro, attends the University of Hawaii, and his third son, Saburo, is a teenager, dealing with raging hormones and the high expectations of his father. Kama’s daughter, Kimiko, is dating a non-Japanese man, much to the consternation of her traditional family who would like to marry her off to a much older, but apparently respectable Japanese man. Shirota’s novel is notable for many things. First off, he’s very careful to paint a cultural shift between issei and Nisei Japanese Americans. Kama believes in the possibility that Japan may end up ruling all of the Hawaiian islands. With the exception of Ichiro, his children seem firmly American, a trait most recognizable in their independent attitudes. In particular, Kimiko chastizes her boss for unfairly dismissing a fellow Japanese American co-worker and is able to get her re-hired. Second: Shirota has a particularly gifted ear for dialogue; many consecutive pages are anchored by the lively repartee between characters. I wasn’t surprised to hear that there is a recent publication of three of his dramas. This novel would also be really interesting to teach alongside something like Okada’s No-No Boy. Shirota’s novel has a more satirical and playful style than Okada’s more philosophically-inflected writing, but their themes and considerations are similar and explore the problematic nature of racial tension in the World War II period, especially for those Americans of Japanese descent.

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A Review of Lee Cataluna’s Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa (Bamboo Ridge, 2011).

Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa is Lee Cataluna’s debut novel; she has also published a short story collection of character sketches called Folks You Meet at Long’s and Other Stories. Drawing on pidgin dialect and local Hawaiian culture, Cataluna’s novel is told from the first person perspective of a recent parolee named Bobby, who crashes on the titular sofa. Doreen is Bobby’s half sister and cousin; as Bobby explains the relationship: “Me and Doreen is brother/sister and we cousins at the same time. Same father, different mothers, but our mothers is sisters” (2). The novel is written in an episodic fashion, focused mostly on Bobby’s attempt to reorient his life in the wake of his prison sentence for drug trafficking. Cataluna is particularly focused on creating a tragicomic narrative. On the one hand, there is a humorous, picaresque quality to the narrative as Bobby bounces around from one place to another, Doreen’s sofa somehow always managing to follow him. On the other, there is an obvious class politic that Cataluna is bringing to light and showing us the tremendous challenges that someone like Bobby faces in finding gainful employment and situating a stable future. Bobby goes from Doreen’s house to a halfway house; he holes up with religious folks, then later befriends someone who is purportedly his father. Along the way, he continually encounters considerable obstacles. He is fired from one job after another; run over in a car at one point and must undergo a serious surgery; he wheels and deals his way out of one tricky situation only to land in another. At a certain point, you realize that Bobby’s itinerant lifestyle is simply the status quo, a fact of life that he himself has learned to roll with, but nevertheless, you can’t help but wonder how long he can keep up his rather jovial attitude, given everything that has happened. I read this novel right after Alex Gilvarry’s From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant and like that work, Cataluna successfully channels and very unique and unforgettable character.

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A Review of Sandra Park’s If You Live in a Small House: A Story of 1950’s Hawaii (Mutual Publishing, 2010).

If you live in a small House is a novella set in the 1950s featuring one extended family, a mother and father, the children, the mother’s sister and brothers. They are Korean American and live in Hawaii. The father returns from military duty to a home and a wife that seems to anchor him to a life he is ambivalent about; the mother is dutiful and clearly the chosen one in her family. The character I was most interested in was actually the mother’s sister, Gloria, a spinster-like figure who engages in a desultory romance with a man named Dante and hopes for a more stable future. Of the children, Ezra, the one boy, is clearly the most valued, though he seeks to escape the quietly oppressive domestic life that leaves little room in an all-too crowded house. This novel actually begins with a series of blurbs from a number of prominent Asian American authors including Min Jin Lee and Shawna Yang Ryan. It also happens to have one by our very own pylduck, which states: “Park’s narrative enfolds the complexity of a multi-ethnic island community, the histories of Asian immigration and settlement, and the presence of the United States military without subsuming the central exploration of the family’s private dreams and experiences. She has achieved a wonderful balance between these larger historical narratives and the interiority of her characters, and her writing offers a stunning example of how political and cultural questions can exist harmoniously with aesthetic and narrative mastery.” I would have to say it’s really difficult to top this kind of praise; I will add though that Park’s narrative approach is quite interesting in that she takes on what seems to be some amalgamation of stream-of-consciousness and omniscient narration. There were points where I had to think that Park had been informed by Virginia Woolf, not simply because there had to be scenes of the ocean considering the narrative is set in Hawaii, but that the psychic interiorities of the characters direct so many of these coastal interludes. At other moments, there is such an impressionistic and lyrical narration that we’re left a little breathless: “Like trees above a valley, the things in a room transpire. Surfaces of things we see and touch every day grow blank faces when we are not around, shedding [end of 143] the sticky warmth of our fingers, the sentimental attachment of our eyes. If we go, these things remain, like the permanence of large-scale things outside, the steep green hills and the sandy curve of the bay. These things are the befallen, the given” (144). Though the narrator does not refer to a particular set of individuals, we are directed to the family saga that anchors this novella. The narrator seems to gesture to the inexorable nature of the working class life, one in which characters rarely, if ever, move beyond the circumstances in which they are born. Consequently, Ezra’s leavetaking at the novel’s conclusion, though suggesting his upwardly mobile status, nevertheless reveals the costs of that movement, the tragedy of the everyday that grounds the lives of so many other characters: Uncle Shorty whose girlfriend Eunice does not assent to his marriage proposal, or the desire of the father to use fishing as a means to relive, in his mind, an old wartime romance with an Italian woman.

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A Review of Chris McKinney’s Bolohead Row (Mutual Publishing, 2005); Mililani Mauka (Mutual Publishing, 2009).

Chris McKinney’s work has been on my to-read list for a very long time; McKinney wish his “non-Asiany” last name is of Scottish, Japanese, and Korean descent. He has published three other novels and I plan to review as many as I can here. Bolohead Row’s title comes from the nickname given to a set of establishments that the narrator, Charlie Heaweaimoku, frequents while as a young man. It also happens to the site of many hostess bars, strip clubs, and dive bars and immediately gives geographical shape to this gritty novel of Honolulu’s back regions. Charlie is of Hawaiian descent and is raised by a stepmother who also owns a bar called Lynn’s place. Charlie has one stepsister, Winnie, who is the central antagonist to the novel, and Mark, a younger stepbrother, who also happens to make his living through playing EverQuest. Once Winnie appears on the scene, the novel starts to move through its dark trajectory. Charlie picks up Winnie from prison; she had been serving a term based upon drug possession for “ice,” otherwise known as crystal meth. She also happens to be friends with a mysterious man known as “B” (Billy Ching) who also is an ex-convict. Winnie is also in possession of a large stash of cash, which is certainly cause for concern. Once Winnie disappears, it’s apparent that she may be involved with some drug kingpins, so Charlie and “B” go looking for her. We might call Charlie the quintessential anti-hero; he’s a working class guy who is trying to live his life to the best of his ability, despite what I found to be a rather depressing existence. He realizes he is getting older and that there aren’t many options for him anymore, so the drama with Winnie comes at a very inopportune time in his life, especially as he is still reeling from his impending divorce to a woman named Sheila. McKinney is dialed quite well into pop culture, but it’s surprising how dated this novel already seems because of those references (e.g. things like Pete Townsend going on a rampage). The other element to note is of course McKinney’s choice to represent the storytelling voice through a native Hawaiian subject, a potential cause for concern especially given the issues of sovereignty and representation that have bubbled over occasionally within the last couple of decades. Fortunately, McKinney does not create some caricature, but even in the multifaceted rendering of Charlie, we can’t help but want a little bit more for him by the novel’s conclusion.

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In Mililani Mauka, McKinney turns slightly away from the nourish themes of Bolohead Row and focuses on a tale of domestic drama set in Hawaii. The novel begins with a tragedy: a man named John Krill attempts to bulldoze some buildings without regard for the people inside and is thus killed by policemen. At the time, we do not know what pushes Krill into this violent act and the novel moves to the story Banyan Mott, his wife Caley, and their newborn daughter, Raimi. They happen to have moved into the home formerly owned by the Krill family. Not all is perfectly wonderful in the Mott household; there is a wall that must be torn down because it is too high and there are certainly some marital tensions occurring. Further still, Banyan begins to think that he is seeing the ghost of John Krill. Coincidentally, Krill’s widow, Kai, happens to be taking a class at the Honolulu Community College, one taught by Banyan, who is an English instructor. Kai, with one teenage son named Josh, is actually homeless; they live in a precarious housing situation with others on a local Hawaiian beach. Kai and Banyan soon strike up a friendship and secret pact to meet at a local bar and bet on sports games. We are not entirely surprised when Banyan and Kai begin an affair. In the meantime, Josh develops his own friendship with a local policeman named Dan, who happened to be the one who had shot and killed his father (though at the time Josh isn’t aware of this information). The dysfunctional family relationships at the heart of this novel seem to be McKinney’s own critique of Hawaiian suburbanization. The Krill family acts as a precursor to the Mott family; as we begin to discover, the Krills become undone when one of their sons (not Josh obviously) dies during his youth. This event, along with Kai’s repeated extramarital affairs, leads John to become unhinged, setting up the shooting that begins the novel. The Motts thus seem to become a family who may or may not begin another cycle of familial disintegration. The novel did remind me of the many cultural productions that focus on the complexities of suburban life, such as American Beauty. McKinney’s talent in this book is to bring flawed characters to life and still allow us to make a sympathetic attachment with them.

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