Fiction in Hawaii

By Pennybacker, Mindy | The Nation, July 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

Fiction in Hawaii


Pennybacker, Mindy, The Nation


Exotic Hawaii was born in the journals of Captain Cook, came of age with

Michener and James Jones, reached senescence with Hawaii Five-0 and

Magnum, P.I. and threatens to hang on to eternity. Colonized by the United

States for more than 100 years, we locals bought the processed vision of

our-selves imported from the mainland, along with

our gasoline and food. But two novels,

Comfort Woman (Viking), by Nora Okja

Keller, and Blu's Hanging (Harper-Collins),

by Lois-Ann Yamanaka, both published

recently to critical praise, show a Hawaii

redefined by local writers who are at last

finding a national audience.

This Hawaii isn't tourist fare. In Blu's

Hanging, three children, following their

mother's death, struggle for survival in a dusty

Molokai plantation town. Maisie, 5, has been

struck speechless by bereavement. Not only

will the three starve if 13-year-old Ivah

doesn't learn to feed them on their depressed

father's meager janitor's pay, but they are

stalked by creepy "Uncle" Paulo. Paulo and

his nieces hang Maisie's pet kittens, and Blu,

an obese 10-year-old boy with a masochistic

streak, is raped.

The children are oppressed by mainland

haole (Caucasian) teachers. Their father is too

intimidated to attend a parent-teacher

conference. And he suddenly confesses, while

high on marijuana, that he and their mother

were lepers. Still, with the help of a kindly

lesbian cousin and her lover, a

local teacher, Maisie talks, Ivah gets a

scholarship to a Honolulu private school and

Blu rebounds. Despite this too-too happy

ending, the book's strengths are its rollicking

black comedy and its dead-on pidgin English.

As Ivah's Mama used to say, "No put too

much water in the rice bumbye the bugga get

mushy." The harsh, salty language keeps the

bathos at bay.

Yamanaka's characters are descended from

the Asians who immigrated to Hawaii as

indentured labor for the colonial pineapple

and sugar plantations. Keller's Comfort

Woman has two narrators: the Korean

immigrant mother, Akiko, remembering her

slavery in Japanese brothels during the war,

and Beccah, her half-Caucasian American

daughter, coming of age in contemporary

Honolulu.

In occupied Korea, a comfort woman who

protests her fate is silenced by Japanese

soldiers. "They brought her back skewered

from her vagina to her mouth, like a pig ready

for roasting." Assigned the place and name of

this dead woman, prepubescent Akiko

reirnagines her as the Korean nature goddess

Induk, a source of visions and strength. In

Honolulu, Beccah tangles with her first lover

high up in Manoa Valley, by the headwaters of a stream. That

stream is metaphorically connected to the

Yalu River, where Akiko washed herself

after an abortion that nearly killed her, as

well as to the Ala Wai Canal, which

carries modern Honolulu's waste.

Parts of the novel are incompletely

imagined and unconvincing, such as

Akiko's shamanistic trances. Since she is

dead when the book begins, Comfort

Woman's rather static structure rests on

mother/ daughter parallel retellings of the

past. Yet the originality of its linked

images and its prose rhythms ultimately

connect the two narratives and bring

Keller's novel to life.

Like the young heroines of both these

novels, the 1978 Hawaii "Talk Story"

conference, which encouraged this new

literary wave, sought to rescue the

present from the stranglehold of our

parents' past. …

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