Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

IN BRIEF

Fiction

August 09, 1992|MICHAEL HARRIS

TALKING TO THE DEAD by Sylvia Watanabe (Doubleday: $19; 144 pp.) In one of Sylvia Watanabe's stories about Japanese-Americans living in a sugar-mill company village on Hawaii's Lahaina coast, across a bay from "the metal and glass towers of the fast-spreading resort town," the Laundry Bandit is stealing random pieces of clothing. The bandit's haul becomes the raw material for a quilt "depicting places and people in the life of the village," which in turn appear in the other stories.

Something of a Laundry Bandit herself, Watanabe collects scraps of a slow-paced way of life fast disappearing from the islands--a blend of Japanese customs, U.S. materialism and ancient Hawaiian religion. The first scraps seem flimsy, and we wish Watanabe's style weren't so spare, her imagination so routinely melodramatic, her ambitions so modest. Then we view the same characters from different angles. The quilt begins to emerge.

Watanabe is the kind of writer who writes best not about what she knows but about what she must intuit. "Talking to the Dead" gains power as she portrays the older generation. A retired tap dancer can't stop competing against the specter of Fred Astaire. The father of a soldier on leave from Vietnam relives the horrors of World War II; his mother scribbles Buddhist prayers on bits of paper and slips them into the dinner rice. An awkward girl who can't find a husband apprentices herself to Aunty Talking to the Dead, a half-Hawaiian medicine woman whose business has been usurped by her mortician son. Here, too, the girl fails to achieve the "moment of glory" that would redeem her--until her back straightens under the load of knowledge she has to carry on.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|