I wonder how much it is like John Okada's No-No Boy (I'm ashamed to say I haven't read that classic yet though I am rectifying that by assigning it later this semester). At the center of Murayama's novel is the Oyama family. The narrator Kiyoshi is the second son of the family, and he looks up to the number one son Toshio, his older brother, very much. Their dynamic is interesting -- certainly not antagonistic or really even competitive but clearly linked. The more Tosh rebels against the parents and yearns for freedom from the debt of the family (that leads to his need to work on the plantation indefinitely for the family), the more Kiyo feels a need to help provide for his parents and younger siblings. And yet, he, too, tries to find a better life through the boxing circuit and eventually in joining the US Army and the nisei battalion.
Milton Murayama, All I Asking For Is My Body (U of Hawai‘i P, 1988; Supa Press, 1975)
Japanese Hawaiian Plantation Life
Murayama's novel follows the life of narrator Kiyoshi Oyama, a nisei growing up in 1930s and 1940s Hawai'i with his issei parents, older brother Toshio (the number one son), and five younger siblings (four girls, one boy). The novel begins in Pepelau where the father works as a fisherman before the family relocates to work in Kahana's sugar plantation. An adult Kiyoshi relates the stories of his past, and he focuses on themes such as generational conflict, social differentiation (by ethnic groups), poverty, and sexual awakening as an adolescent boy.
In Pepelau as a boy, Kiyo befriends Makot, an older Japanese boy who is shunned by other children. Kiyo eventually stops seeing Makot after his parents repeatedly tell him that Makot and his family are bad people though they never explain exactly how. Knowing a little about the socio-historical context leads us to guess that Makot's mother is a prostitute since their family is the only Japanese one in Filipino Camp, inhabited by mainly bachelor men. In Kahana, Kiyo and his older brother work in the sugar plantation fields rather than continue their education in high school. Kahana is the village where the parents first lived upon arriving in Hawai'i, working for the grandparents in a cycle of never-ending debt. Kiyo's life in Kahana is driven by the family's insurmountable debt ($6000), Tosh's desire to escape and to start his own life (through boxing), and his need to take care of his parents and family (as emphasized by his parents' reminders of filial piety). By the end of the novel, the Japanese army's attack on Pearl Harbor radically changes family and social life, shifting the balance of power from the issei generation to the nisei and reorganizing the relationship of the Japanese immigrant community to notions of Japaneseness (such as through language school and Buddhist religious practice).
The narrative voice of the novel incorporates hints of pidgin English and Japanese in the character dialogue. Unlike some of the more recent Japanese Hawaiian creative writing, however, Murayama tempers this pidgin language and Japanese by offering translations of terms and phrases as well as sticking primarily to standard English in the narrative proper.
Murayama's novel represents the fishing villages and plantation economy of Hawai'i as primarily Japanese spaces, framed by haole owners, teachers, and missionaries as well as some Filipino laborers. Like Lois-Ann Yamanaka's Blu's Hanging, as noted by Kandice Chuh's essay "(Dis)owning America," All I Asking For Is My Body figures an absent Native Hawaiian community. There is mention of one Native Hawaiian plantation worker and Mr. Watada, a mixed-race, Japanese-Native Hawaiian man married to a full Hawaiian woman. He changes his last name to his mother's "Kalani" after the Pearl Harbor bombing (87). Although Japanese Hawaiians made up a large percentage of the population on the islands, their concerns trying to make a living on the islands intersect with issues of Native Hawaiians' dispossession as discussed by Haunani-Kay Trask. Early in the novel, a red-haired, haole teacher named Mr. Snook teaches Kiyo's eighth grade class, and he asks the students questions that cause many to defend the status quo of plantation life rather than challenge what he notes, via a man named Ray Stannard Baker, as "the last surviving vestige of feudalism in the United States" (33). Pointing to the plantations as a feudal world resonates ironically with Trask's comments on how haole historians have erroneously imputed a feudal economy to pre-contact Hawai'i.
Historian Franklin S. Odo offers an afterword to the novel, emphasizing the importance of such a text in fleshing out the emotions and daily concerns of people in this historical moment as well as standing as an example of the creative expression of Japanese Hawaiians.