Surf’s up in this novel set in paradise—a surf of suffering
Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s novel is set in Hawaii, but not the one tourists see.
In this Japanese American writer’s fictional world, Hawaii is a place of poverty and ethnic mistrust, alcoholism and family dysfunction.
Yamanaka’s unflinching depictions of Paradise’s darker side have earned her praise—and condemnation. In 1998, the Association for Asian American Studies rescinded an award given for her novel, Blu’s Hanging, after the Filipino community angrily complained that her portrayal of a Filipino character as a sexual predator perpetuated a racial stereotype.
But this incident didn’t change the way Yamanaka approaches her art. Behold the Many, set in the early 1900s, is the story of Anah, Aki and Leah, three young daughters of a Portuguese father and Japanese mother. The sisters are sent to a Catholic orphanage to be treated for tuberculosis and never see their parents again. Anah survives, only to be haunted—and physically tortured—by the bitter ghosts of her dead sisters. Jealous of Anah’s earthly life and terrified of losing her, Aki and Leah resort to any means of preventing their sister from leaving the orphanage.
Behold the Many is not an easy read. Much dialogue is in pidgin English sprinkled with Japanese and Portuguese words. Still, it’s well worth the effort. Yamanaka delivers a powerful, three-dimensional portrait of an unfamiliar culture, and she creates a memorable heroine Dickens would’ve envied.