Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"I kept wishing Snooky had come back to teach at Kahana. . ."

I'd go to talk to him. He was the only guy who helped you to see things as they were out there. The others ignored your questions or what they saw out there, or tried to make you see only the things they wanted you to see. He talked of freedom, while everybody else talked of duty and obligation.

Milton Muryama (1923-) was born in Hawaii to Japanese immigrants. When he was 12 his family moved to a sugar plantation at Pu'ukoli'i, a company town that no longer exists. His writings later drew much inspiration from there, including 1975's All I Asking for is My Body. Muryama received his B.A. from the University of Hawai'i in English and philosophy in 1947, followed by a master's in Chinese and Japanese from Columbia in 1950.

All I Asking for is My Body follows the life of Kiyo from fourth grade to his entry into the armed forces to fight on the European front in World War II. His father is an unsuccessful fisherman turned plantation worker and his mother sews kimonos. Despite their hard work, the family struggles to get by, with an inherited debt of $6,000 hanging over their heads. As Kiyo grows older, the proverbial "East-West" divide is increasingly pronounced and emphasized by the explosive outbursts of his older brother, Toshio. Their parents stress filial piety, obedience to rank, and social harmony, while mainstream culture promises personal independence. The subsequent dilemma is familiar to anyone who has read other works by second-generation Americans such as Anzia Yezierska, who, like Toshio, struggled violently against what she perceived as the limitations imposed upon her by the customs of the Old Country.
She was acting too damn haolified [white/American]. Whenever anyone spoke goody-good English outside of school, we razzed them. "You think you haole, eh?" "Maybe you think you shit ice cream, eh?" Lots of them talked nasally to hide the pidgin accent. At the same time the radio and haole newspapers were saying over and over, "Be American. Speak English." Pidgin was foreign. And whenever there was a debate about statehood for Hawaii over the radio, they always came back to the same question, "What about the Japanese and Japanese-Americans? They're foreign, their language and culture are foreign, they can't be assimilated, they can't even speak English after eight years of grade school. What if there's a war with Japan? Whom will the AJA's fight for?" Of the 350,000 people in Hawaii, 150,000 were Japanese.
Pointing out elsewhere that practically the only options for educated Japanese-Americans were as teachers or small business owners, Muryama also brings to light an issue glossed over by Yezierska, a Jewish Russian-American. While she would have faced oppression as a Jew, an Eastern European, and a woman, she has passing privileges and would eventually have white privilege as well (see Matthew Frye Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color). A person of color does not, and will always be seen as an outsider, particularly if one is of East Asian descent. Ronald Takaki, another Japanese-American from Hawaii, opens A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America with an account of a taxi driver who complimented him on his English and asked where he was from. Takaki's family has been in the United States for almost a century.

The issues of heritage and assimilation faced by ethnic/non-white Americans, particularly recent arrivals, are evident in Murayama's very title. All I Asking for is My Body is pidgin English spoken by the Japanese- and Filipino-American sugar plantation workers. As Kiyo explains, he and his friends speak three languages: Japanese at home, "goody-good" English at school, and pidgin for casual conversation. As with Their Eyes Were Watching God, the narrative voice is standard English which contrasts sharply with the dialogue, a disparity argued by Henry Louis Gates to represent a psychological fragmentation similar to W.E.B. Du Bois's ideas of the double-consciousness. As the narrator in this case is Kiyo - as opposed to Hurston's omniscient third person - his colloquial voice renders the divide more organic and less jarring. In fact, it seems to be a synthesis of sorts. All I Asking actually won Muryama praise for his skillful use of pidgin in a manner that was still understandable to a general readership. Kiyo can be said to represent someone who holds the possibility of success, even in a country that Others his body. The ending of All I Asking for is a hopeful one that promises new beginning.

Though not well received when it was initially published, All I Asking for is My Body received critical acclaim when reissued in 1988 and went on to win that year's American Book Award. A prequel called Five Years on a Rock came out in 1994. Unlike Anzia Yezierksa's overwrought drama, All I Asking for unfolds organically and offers a fascinating portrayal of daily life on a Hawaiian sugar plantation in the 1930s. Makes for a great companion to I Hotel.

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