Lois Ann Yamanaka was one of my first interviews for WIMR when I began the column in November 2006. Author of many novels, including Behold the Many: A Novel which I reviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle last year, all of which engender much praise, controversy and debate among cultures, literati, and students, she is perhaps Hawai`i’s best known author.
Though I posted the edited version of our interview on my blog in November, I wanted to now offer the full interview, including a few extra questions and hints at what she may be writing next.
What I’m Reading | Lois Ann Yamanaka
Poet and Novelist
-What are you reading?
You know, I started reading Life of Pi (by Yann Martel) but then I started reading The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai (by John Tayman) only because it was getting all that negative press. I have this theory that when you see something three times you act on it the fourth time. So the fourth time I saw an article on it I went out and bought it.
-What do you like about it?
It’s really kind of fascinating—the research aspect of the book: the things he found out about who was there and who arrived, the names. I really understand how the Hansens’ patients have their own opinions, but I wrote historical fiction and understand how grueling the research can be.
-Are you talking about your last book, Behold the Many: A Novel?
Yeah. That was historical fiction and his I think is historical creative nonfiction. It’s not strictly a historical document. It was captivating. It kept me engaged.
-Has your opinion of the negative press changed now that you’re reading it?
I really understand their upset and anger at the author for being misled. That’s their story and I totally understand the kind of betrayal they must have felt. But I do think he covers the material in a comprehensive way. I appreciate the book for what it is.
-Your last novel was set in the past, but you didn’t have to answer to anyone living today. Or did you?
Now that I have the school, Na`au, people can reach me there, whereas before I was fading into the urban background. With the school I’m really visible. Somebody called and said the girl on the cover, who I found in the State Archives, is a member of her family. I didn’t want to open up that can of worms, and she never identified the person either. My business partner talked to her for a few minutes and that was the end of that. That was the only touch with someone having something to say about the book.
-Would you say then that it was more difficult for Tayman to write about those still living at Kalaupapa?
All that pain and suffering—it hasn’t gone away. It’s still alive and still very much present in the land. When you go there you can feel all of the sadness that remains. I think his job was a lot harder.
-How do you discover the books you read?
It’s serendipitous. Someone will recommend it or give it to me. There’s always a reason I have to read something that I read because I don’t have a lot of time. I always take it as a message if someone gives it to me or mentions it—I take it all as signs.
-Does reading The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai inspire you to write more historical fiction or even nonfiction?
No. It’s a really hard genre. Sometimes the research is more fascinating than the story you’re telling. Your writing almost pales in comparison to the research or the place—it becomes more interesting than your own retelling. I’m not really attached to any story right now. I keep myself busy with my writing school. I’m waiting for my muse.
I thought I was going to write a pidgin novel but I’m not. I thought I’d write a story about these stones that belonged to my grandfather who was a mason, but it hasn’t taken shape in the way it does for me. But it’s fascinating. When he came as a 17 year-old, he was a contract worker at the Rice plantation at Kipu on Kaua`i. There’s a stone monument to Mr. Rice and my grandfather built that monument.
-It sounds like you’re not quite done with your last story, in Behold the Many: A Novel
Yeah. I think it’s still building.