Picks and Pans Review: Talking With...
WHEN LOIS-ANN YAMANAKA'S YOUNGER sister moved back home to Hawaii, Yamanaka was ecstatic. But the reunion proved short-lived. Yamanaka, now 35, smothered her sister with love, she says, and soon forced her to retreat to California. "Families," she says now, "work better when people are allowed to go and do their own thing."
Yamanaka channeled her pain and disappointment into her second novel, Blu's Hanging (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a touching tale of an impoverished family's disintegration in spite of their love for each other. After the death of her mother from kidney failure, the narrator, Ivah Ogata, 13, struggles in vain to keep her family together (starting in the kitchen, where she tries to work wonders with mayonnaise and Spam). "You cannot hold everybody real close like that," says the author. "So Ivah has to let go."
A third-generation Japanese-American, Yamanaka—who has a 6-year-old son with her husband, John Inferrera, a high school health and physical education teacher—recalls the difficulties of growing up in Hilo, a city largely circumscribed by traditional Japanese customs. "It was real stereotypical," she says. "You have to be good, do right, cannot make shame for the family. But there I was, this funky little loudmouthed thing."
Yamanaka says she was always made to feel inferior because her family spoke pidgin, or what linguists call Hawaiian Creole English—a dialect she says the government has tried to eradicate for a century. In Hawaii, says Yamanaka, "the skies are blue and the palm trees sway, but it's a hard life, and it has been for generations of us, because of this language." In defiance, Yamanaka chooses to write her dialogue in pidgin, to growing acclaim. "I wasn't going to hate myself anymore," she proclaims, "because I couldn't talk good English. I'm going to tell my stories the way I heard them."