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The Hawaiian writer Lois-Ann Yamanaka has a voice that erupts on the page. Stirring, haunting, soaring: She sets off sparks with every book, each one a new chapter from the life of the islands. There was the salty humor and in-your-face pidgin of Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre and Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers; the teenage soul-ache of Blu’s Hanging and Heads by Harry; the lacerating despair of Father of the Four Passages, where abuse and abandonment, fetal alcohol syndrome and the ghosts of the unborn hound her characters and whittle her language down to a skeletal, skid row poetry of rage and terror. Is this really Hawaii?
In person, Yamanaka is as spirited as her books, a dynamo who throws herself headlong into each new project. “I kind of like to always put myself in harm’s way,” she says, “so I can get a good palpable sense of a story from the ground up.” The title of her new and most accomplished work to date, Behold the Many, perfectly reflects that deep connection to both the land and its myriad voices.
And while this book marks yet another stylistic departure, it is again told in chorus: the story of early 20th-century Hawaii and three sisters—Anah, Aki, and Leah Medeiros—who contract tuberculosis as children on the O’ahu Sugar Plantation. Torn from their extended family in Portuguese Camp Four, they are sent to live at a Catholic orphanage in the lush Kalihi Valley of Honolulu, a place overrun with the plaintive spirits of “the lonely and the lost, the frightened and aggrieved, the rueful and pitiful, the orphaned and abandoned.” Behold the Many is a tour de force for Yamanaka—a major work that recalls the crippling psychic pain of Toni Morrison’s Beloved without any of the airy magic realism, say, of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.
“This book involved a lot of inspiration, from other than the normal kinds of ways I usually hear what I have to write,” Yamanaka says, in between Saturday afternoon sessions at her Honolulu writing workshop space, Na’au. Seeing her in this calming environment, one begins to grasp, too, her faith in the powers of writing to overcome trauma—in this case, the early deaths of the two younger sisters at the orphanage—and reclaim the past. “I think I just wanted to have these three little girls have their story told, in a way that would honor their lives,” she says. “The book started from the three of them and then kind of worked its way out into this larger story of the island and Catholicism on the island.”
The demands of writing a historical novel, spanning 1913 to 1939, presented her with its own difficulties. Yamanaka immersed herself in Honolulu archives, studying not just Catholicism (“I had to buy Catholicism for Dummies!” she laughs) but the minute details of Hawaiian immigration and plantation life. The book’s form also pushed her into new territory. Though there are flashes of eerie, hallucinatory first-person voices, for the most part the book is told in the third person, pulling back to offer wider glimpses of the streets and ports of old Honolulu, Chinatown opium dens, and the ranches of paniolos, or Hawaiian cowboys. It was an ambitious—and daunting—undertaking for Yamanaka. “My editor said, If I’m willing to take on this kind of project, why aren’t I willing to take it on entirely, as a project that challenges my writing and challenges me?” she explains. “I wasn’t really comfortable writing in the third person, because I didn’t really know the rules. But I kind of learned as I went along.”
That’s not to say her language isn’t as exquisite as ever, particularly when describing the Kalihi Valley itself, “a woman,” she writes, “with woodland arms outstretched and vulnerable, a woman with shadowy breasts of ‘a’ali’i and hapu’u, lobelias and lichens.” Yamanaka, who lives in Kalihi Valley, wanted to ground the book in the sensual textures of its landscape. “Living there, I had a good idea of the motion of the valley,” she says, “the kind of weather patterns of the valley, what it looks like, what it smells like.” Rich, poetic descriptions of the land, in fact, both open and close the book, and the rustle of the wind animating its leaves, in the final pages, carries with it a whiff of closure and redemption.
Having completed this big, wrenching novel, Yamanaka finds herself at a momentary loss as to what to write next. “I finally had to say a prayer, and say whatever my next project should be—because there are many—please let it be known to me. So I’m waiting for the sign,” she says. “But nothing has kind of jumped out at me yet, the way this story did—you know, Tell me now, tell this story now.” For Yamanaka, a force of nature herself, the islands’ stories are just beneath the surface, waiting to be revealed.