Saturday, February 12, 2011

Blu's Hanging

Blu's Hanging by Lois-Ann Yamanaka.

I originally came upon this book as I was planning a trip to Hawaii.  I started looking for contemporary literary fiction set in Hawaii and by a Hawaiian author, and Yamanaka's name came up on several lists, including those by helpful folks on the website and, surprisingly, in my Frommer's tourist guide.  Found a copy in a used bookstore and was pleased it was half price.

Fifty pages in I was about to give up.  The book was just unrelentingly bleak and depressing, told from the pov of Ivah, a very poor 13-yr old Hawaiian girl who has just lost her mother and is struggling to bring up her younger brother (Blu) and toddler sister Maisie, while her father is in a haze of despair and fatigue from working two jobs to scrape together a meagre existence.

Now, I have read a fair amount of what I call "literature of deprivation" -- novels set amidst grinding poverty and injustice in the third world, or in poor immigrant communities.  And I usually scoff at people who drop books because they are depressing -- they are not "serious" readers.  But night after night, as I read ten or twenty pages in bed, the book felt just too unbearable ...

Not just poverty and grief, but hunger, depression, incest, child abuse, family violence, leprosy, racism, humiliation, neglect, animal cruelty -- the novel lays it on thick.  Any one of these themes would have been enough to carry a story, but all combined, along with a recurring maudlin note about the dead mother, took the novel close to being a shameless tear-jerker.  And indeed, along come two young women, a school teacher who takes an interest and an older cousin.   These fairy godmothers offer escape and hope to Ivah, and by extension, her younger siblings.  Ivah struggles with the guilt of abandoning her siblings to take the opportunity offered by the two women, but the outcome is never in real doubt, and the book ends on a note of optimism.

The last third of the book, where the bleakness is cut with some humor and hope, begins to seem realistic, and redeems the rest of it.  More to the point, I actually visited Hawai'i in the interim (and learned how to spell and pronounce the name correctly).  This changed my reaction almost entirely.  

The point isn't really the story.  The point is that someone -- anyone -- has to tell about the lives of these folks who are living at the margins of Hawaiian and American society, and are invisible to the hordes of tourists who are a mainstay of the Hawaiian economy.  Someone has to capture their speech, their communities, their myths and fears, before they are completely obscured by the high-rise luxury hotel resorts and fake luaus -- and it doesnt really matter too much that the story itself is a rough-hewn, clumsy vehicle.  Like other streams of narrative -- African writers, Indian writers in English -- perhaps this will be the start of the telling and other voices will build upon this foundation with more sophisticated, better-hewn stories. 

I don't really know how authentic or accurate Yamanaka's depiction is, and I suspect it is distorted (and what fiction isn't?).  But I assume it captures at least some sense of this hidden reality and for that I bow to her with appreciation.       

Feb 2010