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Authentic Characters or Racist Stereotypes?

Fiction: Some Asian Americans describe Lois-Ann Yamanaka's writing as socially irresponsible. Yet high-profile authors and others defend her no-holds-barred style.


Author Lois-Ann Yamanaka recently became an unwitting cause celebre among Asian American literary and academic circles, with detractors pegging her a racist and supporters casting her as the victim of artistic censorship.

The 36-year-old author, who writes in Hawaii's pidgin dialect, is known for her brutally honest portrayal of the islands' locals, exposing in revealing detail the prejudices, idiosyncrasies and insecurities of her mostly Asian American characters.

But it is Yamanaka's no-holds-barred style that has thrust her at the center of a nationwide debate, pitting Asian American scholars against writers over such issues as artistic freedom, social responsibility, racial stereotyping and the criteria for literary honors.

High-profile authors such as Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston have entered the debate, aligning themselves with some 80 other Asian American writers who believe Yamanaka has been wrongly maligned. Meanwhile, Asian American academics contend Filipinos are the ones treated unfairly by Yamanaka.

Matters erupted last month in Honolulu at the Assn. for Asian American Studies' national conference, where Yamanaka received the group's literary award, only to have it rescinded amid protest.

The controversy over Yamanaka's work prompted the exchange of emotional letters, telephone calls, e-mail and letters to Honolulu newspapers, forcing a public dialogue on issues that have long caused dissent within the Asian American community.

"My work has become a scapegoat for politics," said Yamanaka, during an interview in her hometown of Honolulu. "This whole experience has been humiliating and time-consuming. I've been called all kinds of different things, and I've spent a lot of time reacting to the criticism."

The debate could move to Los Angeles on Saturday, when Yamanaka takes part in a reading at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. Yamanaka is one of three Japanese American authors who will read their poetry and fiction in pidgin.

Well before tempers flared, Yamanaka agreed to attend the event to promote her third book, "Blu's Hanging," published last year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

"Blu's Hanging" tells the story of three Japanese American youngsters in Molokai in the aftermath of their mother's death. The controversy hinges on the character of Uncle Paulo, the Ogata family's Filipino neighbor who rapes and molests children.

Some Asian American professors, graduate students and members of the Filipino community believe Uncle Paulo perpetuates the long-standing stereotype of Filipino men as sexual predators. They also oppose the sexually promiscuous characterization of Uncle Paulo's nieces, the Reyes sisters.

"The Reyes sisters and their Uncle Paulo--the Filipinos of the book--are made to embody all that is evil, perverted and cruel that the Ogata family must avoid," wrote UCLA graduate student Augusto Espiritu in a letter to the Assn. for Asian American Studies board. "[The narrator] labels them cat killers, torturers and, worse, 'human rats.' "

Espiritu said in a telephone conversation that such characterizations are hurtful because Filipinos, particularly in Hawaii, have long been the target of racial slurs and jokes.

"I think a lot of people are disappointed with Lois-Ann Yamanaka," Espiritu said. "I think she has lots of talent and promise as a writer. At the same time, there are lots of issues that will take time to heal."

Yamanaka, however, believes her critics are forgetting that "Blu's Hanging" is a work of fiction and that she does not hold the same views as her narrator.

"It's been very hurtful and raw for me," said Yamanaka, a former public school teacher. "My feeling is that all this energy is being misdirected at me and my book."

In their defense of Yamanaka, Asian American poets Wing Tek Lum and David Mura organized a letter-writing campaign among fellow Asian American writers to deflect what they perceive as artistic censorship.

After sending out packets of information chronicling the controversy, they received 82 responses of support, among them Tan, Kingston, Shawn Wong and Jessica Hagedorn.

Tan wrote in her letter: "Fiction is not the cart and horse with which you can haul away the problems of any community. The AAAS Board's action also damages how Asian Americans are viewed as part of American literature. It means that our works are not literary but sociological and that we do not receive awards for literary merit but rewards for good behavior."

Filipino American writer Hagedorn agreed that Yamanaka's critics have misunderstood the role of writers.

"Yamanaka's detractors seem to be demanding that only writers who create safe, reverent, comforting stories are worthy of acknowledgment," Hagedorn wrote in her letter. "Literature is supposed to provoke, inspire and challenge its readers."

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