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Critical Review by Valerie Matsumoto
SOURCE: "Pearls and rocks," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VII, No. 2, November, 1989, p. 5.
In the following review, Matsumoto praises The Floating World emphasizing the novel's Japanese American elements.
There is a book I have been hoping to find for years, every time I walked past a rack of new releases. It would be, I felt, a novel in the voice of a Japanese American woman of my generation (third, or Sansei) who came of age after World War Two. In her writing I would catch glimpses of Sansei children playing games like jan-kenpo (paper-scissors-rock) and lugging sacks of rice into the kitchen. They and their Nisei (second-generation) parents would be making their way in postwar America, seeking to escape the shadows of the concentration camps. What I was looking for was a kindred experience in print, a literary cousin.
When The Floating World appeared, I pounced on it, delighted. What I did not expect was that this riveting book would explode the freight of assumptions my vision carried. My comfortable notions about Japanese American regionalism and family receded as I was drawn into the floating world of the Osakas, traveling from job to job across the Pacific Northwest and to the Midwest.
The Osakas emerged, a quirky, complex and quite original middle American family that enthralled and threw me off balance from the first sentences: "My grandmother was my tormenter. My mother said she'd been a young woman of spirit; but she was an old woman of fire." The complicated influence of this grandmother, addressed formally as "Obaasan" and never affectionately as "Obaachan," permeates the book. Strong, short-tempered and a feared boxer of ears, she takes pride in having had three husbands and seven lovers. She predicts ghastly futures for her grandchildren, but is pugnaciously ready to defend them from outsiders. Driven to plant her history in the minds of her family, she relentlessly bombards them with her stories, "a string of pearls and rocks."
It is she who describes their traveling environment as "ukiyo," the floating world of "the gas station attendants, restaurants, and jobs we depended on, the motel towns floating in the middle of fields and mountains." In Japanese, "ukiyo" has two meanings: the demimonde of the geisha and entertainers, and also, in the Buddhist sense, transience and change. For the Osaka family, "ukiyo" refers to the unstable world through which they journey, a small tribe venturing through uncertain, sometimes hostile, territory.
The guide to this world is twelve-year-old Olivia, a fearless talker eager to exercise her prowess, insatiably curious, alternately awed and insightful. Through her eyes we see the loudly cheerful stepfather Charlie O, hapless and determined, who calls her "honey-dog" and pins his hopes of success on ownership of a garage. Laura, the beautiful wife he adores but will not allow to take a paid job, is "pensive, graceful, moody and intellectual," busying herself with church and library in her thirst to learn. There are no stock characters here, simply people we come to know and care about.
Cynthia Kadohata, born in Chicago in 1957, has led a life as peripatetic as that of her characters. She and her family moved from Georgia to Arkansas—twice—as her father took different chicken-sexing jobs. After a few years' sojourn in California as a teenager, she has since lived in Boston, Pittsburgh and New York. Her background has enabled her to give readers a rare perspective on working-class, racial minority people in the Midwest. For those who know something about West Coast Asian American communities, The Floating World is a salutary eye-opener.
While the Osakas are reluctant to settle in a town where they would be the first Japanese, and are "very quiet in public," there is a sense that interracial relations are less rigid in Arkansas, which doesn't have the historic precedent of California's anti-Asian movements. This fluidity becomes apparent when the family attends a local novelist's birthday party at which the guests, Japanese American and white, end up exuberantly chasing farm animals in the fields.
All of these characters defy stereotyping. Laura, no Nisei Donna Reed, wavers over relinquishing her lover, Shane (formerly Taro Nagosaki). Not simply a staid businessman, Charlie O is an enthusiastic, untalented painter who dances wild war dances with his friend, Mr. Tanizaki, to entertain their families. Even the minor characters are indelibly drawn, from Toshi, the only female chicken-sexer, to Olivia's birth father, encountered as a ghost.
The impact of the larger events of American history and the Japanese American immigrant experience is evident in the texture and shape of these people's lives. The unspoken but real legacies of discrimination surface when Olivia talks with white outsiders, trying both to impress and taunt them: "See, I can talk like you, I was trying to say, it's not so hard." Her embittered grandmother says, "Smile at them. Hakujin [white people] don't know when a smile is an insult." What she tries to teach Olivia is that
if you hated white people, they would just hate you back, and nothing would change in the world; and if you didn't hate them after the way they treated you, you would end up hating yourself … So it was no good to hate them, and it was no good not to hate them. (p.9)
The importance of the support networks upon which the Japanese Americans have relied is embodied in the families with which the Osakas join up periodically in their journeying and in the tightly bound community of the chicken-sexers. To the hatchery workers who sort chicks in 17-hour shifts, teamwork is crucial, since they are hired as crews and one person's inefficiency can jeopardize the jobs of all. The sexers are so attuned to one another that "if one stood, or even just yawned, the others seemed to know. Once Toshi straightened her back and a man, without looking up, said, 'Getting tired, Toshi?'" When Mr. Tanizaki is fired by his group he goes deaf with shock at being severed from the close-knit work culture.
Contrary to her parents' dreams of college-buttressed security, when Olivia leaves Arkansas for California, ostensibly to study, her "disorderly life" continues, "simply because I didn't yet realize that there were other ways of living." With perceptive humor Kadohata sketches Olivia's experiences in "the entertainment-industry culture of failure" in Los Angeles, ranging from her job in a Beverly Hills lamp shop to the exploits of her Chinese American boyfriend who wrecks cars for a living.
Kadohata is a writer of great strength and range. She captures with equal facility the tense rhythms of the chicken hatchery work and Olivia's first sexual experience (after which she and Tan devour everything in his family's refrigerator). A few telling details convey the whole world of a moment, as the pencil marks on a doorjamb where children have been measured disclose the lost domesticity of a Nisei gambler. This story flows like a clear stream, revealing at every eddy unexpected depths and the startling beauty of examined lives.
Those who seek exotica will not find it here. Instead, in the shifting light of truck-stops, small-town porches and seedy Hollywood apartments. Kadohata depicts the struggles of three generations coming to terms with their history. Their search for grace illuminates our own pathways through the floating world.
This section contains 1,206 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)