Cynthia Kadohata | Critical Essay by A. Robert Lee

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Cynthia Kadohata.
This section contains 848 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by A. Robert Lee

SOURCE: "Eat a Bowl of Tea: Asian America in the Novels of Ghish Jen, Cynthia Kadohata, Kim Ronyoung, Jessica Hagedorn, and Tran Van Dinh," in The Yearbook of English Studies, edited by Andrew Gurr, Modern Humanities Research Association, 1994, pp. 263-280.

In the following excerpt, Lee, after analyzing aspects of America's "obsession" with Asia and strains of anti-Asian sentiment pervading American society, discusses the Asian-American literary renaissance and its resultant controversies, and then provides a plot summary of Kadohata's A Floating World, focusing in particular on its Asian American elements.

Cynthia Kadohata's The Floating World gives a new turn to American picaresque. Set in the 1950s, and told in the precocious, Holden Caulfieldish voice of Olivia Ann, sansei teenager, it offers a kind of inspired 'road' drama. The odyssey it chronicles, that of a migrant, three-generation Japanese-American family's search for work through the rural and small-town Pacific Northwest in the wake of the 'relocation' trauma, could not be more full of quirks and niches—not least (and with Huckleberry Finn alongside The Catcher in The Rye as a reference-book) 'travelling' as itself a kind of full-time American home. The America it unveils, Asian and non-Asian, involves a double angle of vision, that of Olivia herself, and that of an American Japaneseness with its own gestalt, its own uniquely presiding laws of motion and gravity.

Like Jen in Typical American, Kadohata begins with names. First she has Olivia invoke her grandparents and Japan's nineteenth-century granting of patronymics to its commoners. After emigration to Hawaii, and with World War II, the family changes nisei names, Satoru, Yukiko, Mariko, Haruko, and Sadamu, to Roger, Lily, Laura. Ann, and Roy, in order to enrol the children at school. Finally, on the mainland, a whole generation undergoes American naming ('My brothers and I all have American names: Benjamin Todd, Walker Roy, Peter Edward, and me, Olivia Ann'). Looking back, Olivia acknowledges the distance between her forebears and herself: 'Today their Japanese names are just shadows following them'.

That, however, is to reckon without her waspish, three-times married obasan ('My father wanted us to call her Grandma—more American'). The old lady literally carries Japan into America, full of lore, rites, memories of her husbands, sayings, and story-telling. Olivia, whom she harries and pinches when not in her own way loving her, even hears her dreaming in Japanese. When she 'surprises' the family, albeit it in her eighties, by dying—where more appropriately as a marker than in a California motel?—she has already taught the family to perceive the world of the hajukin, the white people of America, through a screen of Japaneseness:

My grandmother liked to tell us about herself during evenings while we all sat talking in front of the motels or houses we stayed at. We were traveling in what she called ukiyo, the floating world. The floating world was the gas station attendants, restaurants, and jobs we depended on, the motel towns floating in the middle of fields and mountains. […] We were stable, traveling through an unstable world while my father looked for jobs. (pp. 2-3)

This makes perfect grist for Olivia, her contrary, unravelling string of encounters met with, and narrated, in a matchingly contrary style. Western substance yet also Eastern shadow.

Her opening brush with a quietly crazed ex-professor points the way. Only her grandmother's smiling, Japanese guile saves Olivia from likely murder ('Hajukin don't know when a smile is an insult' she tells the girl). Fostered out to Isamu, a lonely Nebraska-Japanese farmer whose daughter has spurned him, Olivia helps him write out his entire world in a phone-book containing only seven names. En route to Gibson, Arkansas she summons up her childhood as more motion than stillness ('pictures of one world fading as another took its place'). In Gibson, too, she translates her Grandmother's diaries ('I liked the two languages, Japanese and English, how each contained thoughts you couldn't express exactly in the other' (p. 91)). She also finds love with the Southern-accented, nisei David Tanizaki, a relationship which has its own oblique correlation in her job as a put-upon factory chicken-sexer.

From there she steps south to west, to Los Angeles, fantasizing a conversation with her own long dead father ('I'd never met a ghost before, but I figured the thing to do was communicate') and, as his heir, finds a still newer life as vending-machine owner and repairwoman. Unbraiding these, and each further recess in the histories of her obasan and parents, gives The Floating World its very real singularity. Native-born, and a would-be American 'baton-twirler' and 'shortstop' as may be, Olivia observes of the 'floating world' which from childhood has opened before her in so 'easternly' a manner: 'Someone was always seeing a ghost or having a hunch or hearing a rumor. No idea had definite form; every fact could dissolve into fiction' (p. 32). This, on her part, and behind her on Kadohata's, is to put America under new auspices, nothing less than its own 'Japanese' magic realism.

Additional coverage of Kadohata's life and career is contained in the following source published by Gale: Contemporary Authors: Vol. 140.

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This section contains 848 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by A. Robert Lee
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