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Growing Up Japanese in Hawaii : ONCE, A LOTUS GARDEN & OTHER STORIES by Jessica Saiki (New Rivers Press: $7.95, paper; 130 pp.)

July 03, 1988|Donna Frazier | Frazier is a news editor for the Los Angeles Times Magazine

Jessica Saiki recalls life in 1930s and '40s Hawaii as though from a great distance. The 20 short stories in her collection, "Once, a Lotus Garden," chronicle a decade or so in the Japanese-American community of Lunalilo, often through the eyes of a young girl experiencing the intersections of "the old ways" with the opportunities and prejudices of Hawaii.

Saiki begins with "Arrival of the Picture Brides," in which a pair of young bachelors wait for a boat carrying women that their parents have arranged for them to marry. As they talk, they learn that they share not only the same home town but also the same matchmaker. And, when the ship arrives, they quickly realize that their go-between has made a big mistake: Each is attracted to the other's bride. In the one truly optimistic moment of the book, Mako and Nobu, far from the strictures of their families, trade partners. Perhaps, with this new freedom, they'll have a chance for happier lives.

But happiness eludes most of Saiki's characters, even in the years before the war. There is Higa, a bachelor farmer who has shrunk from women since Sachiko Sumida rejected him in the first grade, but falls in love with the daughter of a wealthy client as he watches her bathe through a knothole in the bathhouse. He works for five years to "buy the household appliances that he knew women valued," and, when his proposal is rejected, he leaves the unopened washer and gas stove on the porch to rust away, as his hope has.

Despite the tensions Saiki describes, however, the stories are sometimes emotionally flat, and her imagery distressingly tired. While she enjoys recounting the Hawaiian-accented gossip of old women, Saiki spends much less time evoking feelings, and people too often remain opaque, taken unreflectively through stresses and disappointments. "Sometimes you need to get away from a thing to see it," says one character. It seems that Jessica Saiki has gotten far enough away to create gentle tales of her youth in Hawaii but perhaps not far enough to add the emotional complexity of adulthood.

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