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Critical Essay by Lisa See
SOURCE: "Cynthia Kadohata," in Publishers Weekly, August 3, 1992, pp. 48-49.
In the following summary of her interview with Kadohata, See provides details of the novelist's life, reports on her ambivalence towards being hailed as a new voice on the Asian American literary scene, and relates her approach to the writing process.
On the lanai of her Hollywood bungalow, Cynthia Kadohata sits with her legs curled under her body, periodically brushing her black hair away from her face. As she shyly responds to PW's questions about her work, her answers are like interior monologues—exploratory, self-searching, provisional and at times uncertain. Surely she should feel little hesitation over her career—at age 36 she has produced two novels, received a prestigious Whiting Award and an NEA grant, and earned comparisons to Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Raymond Carver and William Faulkner.
In 1989 Kadohata received glowing reviews for The Floating World (Viking), an apparently autobiographical novel about a Japanese American family traversing the country—a mundane yet magical world of backwater towns, gas stations and truck stops—with a cranky grandmother in tow. In her new novel, In the Heart of the Valley of Love, out this month from Viking (Fiction Forecasts, June 1), Kadohata has used her sparse prose to paint a picture of Los Angeles in the year 2052. It is a world where the haves live in "richtowns" and the have-nots contend with frequent riots, corruption and the black market. Until recently, this vision might have seemed more appropriate to the realm of science fiction, but the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles have proved—if nothing else—how open Kadohata's eyes, ears and heart are to the world around her.
Readers of The Floating World will already have formed a sense of Kadohata's early life, much of it spent on the road with her family. She was born in Chicago, then moved to Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, back to Chicago and, finally, at age 15, to Los Angeles, where she attended but dropped out of Hollywood High School. "I had gone to an alternative high school in Chicago, and Hollywood High wouldn't accept a lot of my credits," she explains, pausing to add, "But I also didn't fit in. I became intensely shy. It got to the point that going to the grocery store and talking to the cashier really made me nervous." She clerked in a department store and she served up hamburgers at a fast-food restaurant. When she was 18, she gained admission to Los Angeles City College. She later transferred to USC, where she graduated from the school of journalism.
Then, in 1977, while Kadohata was walking down a street in L.A.'s affluent Hancock Park, a car jumped the curb and smashed into her, breaking her collarbone and mangling her right arm. She didn't realize the extent of her injuries until her doctor told her that had she not had prompt attention, she'd be looking at a "sure amputation." She was 21, and the accident made her realize that anything could happen. "Life is unpredictable," she observes.
At loose ends and still recovering from her accident, Kadohata moved to Boston, where her sister was living, and discovered the city's great bookstores. "I started looking at short stories," she remembers. "I had always thought that nonfiction represented the 'truth.' Fiction seemed like something that people had done a long time ago, and [like something that] wasn't very profound. But in these short stories I saw that people were writing now, and that the work was very alive. I realized that you could say things with fiction that you couldn't say any other way."
Supporting herself with temp work and the money from her insurance settlement, she set herself the goal of writing a story a month, submitting her work to the Atlantic and the New Yorker. In 1986, after 25 rejections, the New Yorker bought a piece called "Charlie O"; later it took two more; Grand Street and the Pennsylvania Review also published her tales. All would end up as chapters in The Floating World. (The Atlantic, she notes wryly, has yet to buy her work.) After a stint in the University of Pittsburgh's graduate writing program, she decided to enter Columbia University's graduate writing course as a way of "segueing into New York."
She still feels torn between traditional education and the education of the road. "It's always a battle in my head: 'Oh, I've got to be reading. I feel so guilty.' On the other hand, I feel if I don't go out there and do wacky things, like traveling, it will make my writing dry. Besides, you can't help admiring people who never went to school, travel around and are incredible writers. There's something romantic about that."
Despite her commitment to writing, Kadohata dropped out of Columbia, too. There were several factors this time: the tuition was expensive and life on the road continued to beckon but, most important, she sold The Floating World. On a plane during the winter break of '87-'88, she had read an article about super-agent Andrew Wylie. "I thought, 'Now this is a scary person,'" she says now. Coincidentally enough, when she got back to New York, she found two letters from Wylie in her mailbox: he had read her story "Jack's Girl" in the New Yorker and wanted to see more. "I called a friend and said, 'That scary man wrote to me.' She said, 'Cynthia, you call [him] right now.'" When she finally met Wylie, she found him to be "very smart, very kind."
Even after Wylie sold The Floating World to Dawn Seferian at Viking in the spring of 1988, Kadohata still found the prospect of being a writer intimidating. "I would go into bookstores and browse through all those how-to-write books. It still doesn't feel totally natural to say that I'm a writer. I'm still really drawn to that section in a bookstore, and it's still discouraging. It's sort of like picking at a scab." She shrugs off her good notices for The Floating World. "Reviews feel arbitrary."
After the release of The Floating World, many critics suggested that Kadohata was a new voice on the Asian American scene—a Japanese Amy Tan, as it were. "For the first time in my life, I saw that there could be expectations of me not only as a writer but as an Asian American writer," she says. "On the one hand, I felt like, 'Leave me alone.' On the other hand, I thought, 'This is a way I can assert my Asianness.' I wrote the book, and I'm Asian, and I'm the only person who could have written it."
But within the Asian American community, especially on the West Coast, the politics of writing about the Asian American experience can be demanding and internecine. To take one example, literary feuding between Maxine Hong Kingston and playwright Frank Chin has been memorably bitter. No less so was the furor among Asian Americans over Ronald Takaki's nonfiction account of Asian immigration to the U.S., Strangers from a Distant Shore. Some readers of Amerasia Journal challenged Takaki's footnotes; others complained that he had not included enough women and that he was pandering to commercial tastes (often, it seems, a sin in Asian American circles). Even in college writing classes, Asian American students have been known to dismiss Amy Tan's work, insisting, "That's not the way it happened in my family."
Kadohata has not been able to sidestep these artistic controversies and conundrums. They are impossible to resolve, she believes, for she could not write what was true to her if she had to make that story "historically correct" for the entire Japanese American experience. For instance, "My grandparents were already married when they came to this country," she says. "Well, I've been told my book wasn't historically correct because most Japanese weren't married when they came here. One Japanese interviewer accused me of being socially irresponsible. He asked me if in The Floating World I was saying that all Japanese grandmothers are abusive and in conflict with themselves. Of course not! Obasan [the grandmother] was a character in a novel—not a person representing all Japanese grandmothers. He said that Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston were catering to white people, but I think they and other Asian American writers are just writing from their hearts. Why should their work or my work stand for all Asians? That's impossible."
She describes a panel on Asian American writers sponsored by the Academy of American Poets in which she participated: "Those of us on the panel kept saying that we were writers, trying to play down the Asian part. But I must admit that it did feel safe for all of us to be up there together. The next day, someone complained that the organizers hadn't found a Filipino writer. It's all very category-oriented. But you see, there's so much variety among Asian American writers that you can't say what an Asian American writer is."
While the protagonist of In the Heart of the Valley of Love is a young woman of mixed Asian and American background, theme and setting are far different from those of her first novel. Arriving at them was not easy. Kadohata's Viking contract stipulated that she submit the first half of the novel upon completion. When she reached that point, the narrative was still located in the present. "I wanted to move it into the future, but I kept thinking it was too nutty, too ridiculous. Finally I said to myself, 'Oh just forget it. Just do it.' Before I made that decision, the writing had been hard work, but once it was set in the future, it made sense to me as a book. It changed the mood for me. It made everything seem more eerie. I had the freedom to do anything."
Although the book takes place in 2052, it is very much grounded in the present. Kadohata's world is not exactly "futuristic" but rather more like Los Angeles on a bad day. Speaking of which, Kadohata notes, "My boyfriend and I used to go to a bakery, and it always seemed peaceful, except that every five minutes, someone homeless or crazy walked by. When you see, day after day, that more and more communities are enclosing themselves, you realize that inevitably it can't work. It seemed to me that there was going to come a time when there would be riots [in L.A.], but I was as amazed as anyone when they came. I guess I should have set the book just three years ahead."
Although Kadohata says that she doesn't write according to a schedule, her friends call her a "pitiless writing machine." She is bewildered by the comment. "I just do it and don't complain about it," she says. She wanted the writing in In the Heart of the Valley of Love to have a dreamlike quality, which came more easily once the book was set in the future. "I've always had paranoid dreams that have cataclysmic changes in them. And they've always ended with my having to do something violent to survive or to help someone I love survive. I think the book ends on a hopeful note. Yes, this can happen and everything will be okay. Writing the book may have purged my fears."
It also became a way of dealing with her accident. Francie, the book's 19-year-old protagonist, is pinned against a wall when a car jumps a curb; her arm is crushed. "I thought this was a way for me to come out of the closet, in a sense," she says. "I have friends who have never seen my arm. Sometimes I catch people, especially women, staring at it. Sometimes I have to turn away, because I don't want them to see that I know they're looking." But for Kadohata, writing about events in her life has sometimes blurred the line between what is real and fictitious. "Sometimes I can't remember if something has happened to me or to my character. My memories become their memories, and their memories become mine."
She's begun working on her next book, which she coyly describes as "a pile of writing that's not even close to being shown to anyone yet." What she will say is that she has been interviewing people in their 70s, 80s and 90s. "I guess the book will be about the friendship between two women as they go over their lives together and separately. My first two books were written in the first person, and I'm sick of writing the word 'I.' I'd like to write from a different point of view, and right now I'm compelled to be with older people."
But always there's the lure of the road as an inspiration. "I remember once I was crossing the country by bus," Kadohata says dreamily. "I don't remember where I was going or where I was coming from, except that I was in a slightly seedy bus station at three in the morning in the middle of nowhere. I had this feeling of 'I am really happy at this moment.'" Kadohata may not always be at ease with her career, but there is no hesitation as she speaks about the sources of her art.
This section contains 2,195 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)