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Lois-Ann Yamanaka (1961–) Biography

Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights

Born 1961, in Ho'olchua, Moloka'i, HI; Education: University of Hawaii at Manoa, B.Ed., 1983, M.Ed., 1987.


Agent—c/o Author Mail, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 19 Union Square W., New York, NY 10001.


Writer. Hawaii Department of Education, language arts resource teacher and English teacher.

Honors Awards

National Endowment for the Humanities grant, 1990; Pushcart Prize for Poetry, 1993, for "Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre"; Elliot Cades Award for Literature, 1993; Carnegie Foundation grant, 1994; National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, 1994; Pushcart Prize XIX, 1994, for "Yarn Wig"; Rona Jaffe Award for Women Writers, 1996; Lannan Literary Award, 1998; Asian-American Studies National Book Award, 1998.


Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre (verse novellas), Bamboo Ridge Press (Honolulu, HI), 1993.

Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1996.

Blu's Hanging (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1997.

Heads by Harry (novel), Farrar, Straus, (New York, NY), 1999.

Name Me Nobody (young-adult novel), Hyperion (New York, NY), 1999.

Father of the Four Passages (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2001.

The Heart's Language (picture book), illustrated by Aaron Jasinski, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2005.

Behold the Many (novel), Farrar, Strauss (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor to books, including Transnational Asia Pacific: Gender, Culture, and the Public Sphere, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and others, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1999.


One of Hawaii's most noted novelists, Lois-Ann Yamanaka depicts life on the islands through an Asian-American perspective. In addition to penning several novels for adults, such as the trilogy including Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, Blu's Hanging, and Heads by Harry, she has also authored the short-story collection Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, a picture book titled The Heart's Language, and the young-adult novel Name Me Nobody. Young, working-class Japanese Americans living in Hawaii, Yamanaka's adolescent protagonists struggle with universal teen problems, such as sexual development and peer acceptance while also coming to terms with their cultural identity as the descendants of Japanese immigrant laborers. Most notably, in her writing Yamanaka validates the use of pidgin, or Hawaii Creole English—a dialect developed by immigrants to Hawaii from China, the Philippines, Japan and other countries—thereby giving voice to a segment of the Hawaiian population that had previously been little represented in literature.

Yamanaka grew up in Pahala, a sugar-plantation town on Hawaii's big island, and is one of four daughters. "My youngest sister and I were very much like our mother," Yamanaka told Valerie Takahama in the Orange County Register, describing her childhood. "Talk too much, wore strange clothes, did strange things. We always thought things that we shouldn't have been thinking or said things that we shouldn't have been saying." Through her use of pidgin in a school system that disproved of the dialect, and her unusual upbringing, Yamanaka found it "very painful not being able to fit in with what was middle class-class Japanese."

Later attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Yamanaka earned a master's degree in education. After college she enrolled in a writing class that exposed her to books by African-American women writers who were writing in their own dialect. "That's when I came to terms that pidgin was not an ignorant language, that I was speaking a dialect and that my feelings and thoughts were so connected to the language that in order for me to write truthfully, I needed to write in that voice," Yamanaka further commented to Takahama. Working her authentic voice into short fiction, she published Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre in 1993. Composed of four verse novellas focusing on and narrated by working-class Hawaiian teenagers, the book explores ethnic identity, sexual awakening, drug use, and abusive relationships. Marilyn Kallet, writing in the American Book Review, praised the work, commenting that Yamanaka's "characters speak in dramatic monologues as tight and fierce as anything Browning might have dreamed of, but their voices hold true to the idiomatic language of tough, vulnerable preteen girls holding private talks."

While Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre earned Yamanaka critical praise and awards, it also elicited concern from Hawaiian educators who criticized both the author's use of pidgin English and her inclusion of strong doses of profanity. Suddenly Yamanaka was considered a controversial writer, and teachers were urged not to use her work in classes. While Yamanaka's adult
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novels have continued to create a measure of controversy, her work for younger readers has managed to elicit praise while still focusing attention on the tension of growing up and living between cultures.

In Yamanaka's young-adult tale, Name Me Nobody, middle-grader Emi-Lou Kaya is overweight, and is given nicknames like Emi-Lump and Emi-Loser. An outcast at school and raised by her cloistered grandmother, Emi-Lou's sole contact to the mainstream world of school is her best friend, Yvonne, who tries to get her friend into playing softball with the Hilo Astros, or else cheerleading. Yvonne also encourages Emi-Lou to lose weight, and even steals diet pills for her friend, before suddenly abandoning the cause due to a crush on Babes, the catcher for the Astros. Emi-Lou, now slimming down, is desperate to get her best friend back and make Yvonne be 'normal' again. Meanwhile, the newly slim Emi-Lou begins to attract the attention of two boys, one who has genuine feelings for her and the other who wants to use her. Ultimately, grandmother comes to the rescue, helping the girl realize that the only person she has control over is herself.

In the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Cynthia Oi noted that, in writing for younger readers, Yamanaka "doesn't dumb down her writing"; instead, in addition to allowing her characters to speak pidgin, the author "maintain[s] … the lyric style and imagery of her adult works, but keep[s] … it simple." Reviewing Name Me Nobody, Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman wrote that teen readers "will recognize the outsider story, the vicious name-calling … as well as the elemental drama of friendship, betrayal, and love." In Horn Book a critic compared the novel to Yamanaka's "notable works for adults," and concluded that the author's "is a welcome new YA voice noteworthy for its complexity and richness." While noting the novel's slow pace, a Publishers Weekly contributor dubbed the book "rich in atmosphere and bold in its themes."

While frequently featuring teen characters, Yamanaka's adult novels are more suitable for mature readers. Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, Blu's Hanging, and Heads by Harry comprise a coming-of-age trilogy that also deals with larger issues, such as class and ethnicity. Composed of a series of vignettes, Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers is narrated by Lovey Nariyoshi, a Japanese-American teen who struggles with self-consciousness and dreams of a better life. While Lauren Belfer wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Yamanaka's use of pidgin is sometimes impenetrable, Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers contains "moments of stinging clarity," in which the author weaves "haunting images as she sketches Lovey's search for a spiritual home." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that the harsh, realistic view of life presented in the book is balanced by images of "the bonds of love and understanding that can create poignant, epiphanic moments of reconciliation." Alice Joyce, writing in Booklist, dubbed Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers "vibrant," adding that "Yamanaka's voice demands to be heard."

Focusing on thirteen-year-old narrator Ivah Ogata, Ivah's brother, Blu, and her younger sister, Maisie, Blu's Hanging finds the children trying to deal with their mother's death and the dismal realities of a life of poverty. In particular, Ivah has a difficult choice to make when she realizes that she must decide between her own future and the ongoing job of caring for her siblings. "In presenting issues of race, violence and neglect through the filtered lenses of these children," a Publishers Weekly reviewer noted, the author presents "a textured picture" of a family in trouble. Writing in People, Lan N. Nguyen called the novel "a touching tale of an impoverished family's disintegration in spite of their love for each other," while Jessica Hagedorn wrote in Harper's Bazaar that all is not dark; the "scrappy characters" in Blu's Hanging "endure poverty, racism, and sexual and emotional abuse, but never lose their capacity for humor."

Yamanaka continues her coming-of-age trilogy with Heads by Harry, a story set in a Hilo taxidermist shop that is run by Harry and Mary Alice Yangyuu. Oldest daughter Toni, something of a misfit, often accompanies her father on his hunting expeditions, while younger sister Bunny manipulates her parents through her good looks. Meanwhile, flamboyantly gay brother Sheldon is a constant thorn in the side of his macho taxidermist father. Again employing pidgin to tell her tale, Ya-
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manaka creates what a Publishers Weekly reviewer dubbed a "frank and tragicomic novel" wherein "the potency and honesty of Yamanaka's view of Hawaiian life achieves the haunting force of myth." While some critics found the book to be derivative of the author's earlier books, Library Journal reviewer Shirley N. Quan called Yamanaka's prose "emotionally gripping and filled with harsh realism," while also "liberally sprinkled with sensitivity and humor."

More recently Yamanaka has adjusted her literary focus; "I got tired of being the pidgin poster girl," she explained to a Time writer. In Father of the Four Passages she also addresses a challenge she herself shares: parenting an autistic child. In the novel, streetwise single mother Sonia Kurisu struggles to raise her child, Sonny Boy, while also coming to terms with a past that included addiction and three prior abortions. In parallel stories, Yamanaka recounts Sonia's early life, including her abandonment by both parents and her wish to establish an emotional truce with her father. Sonia's search for absolution is answered, ironically, by the develop-mental problems Sonny Boy begins to exhibit. In Publishers Weekly a reviewer called Father of the Four Passages "an uncompromising story of the tenaciousness of motherly love amid the chaos of drugs and dysfunction," while Joseph Dewey noted in the Review of Contemporary Fiction that Sonia is a challenging yet "compelling" protagonist who is brought to life by Yamanaka in "pitch-perfect prose that is earthy and convincing."

Yamanaka also expresses her relationship with her son in a less-weighty medium: the picture book The Heart's Language. In this work, illustrated by Aaron Jasinksi, a young child is able to communicate with trees, birds, and other creatures from the heart; his parents must also learn to understand this expression of love because the child cannot master human speech.

Biographical and Critical Sources


Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.


American Book Review, September 11, 1995, Marilyn Kallet, review of Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, p. 11.

Atlantic Monthly, February, 1999, Jamie James, "This Hawaii Is Not for Tourists," pp. 90-92.

Booklist, December 1, 1995, Alice Joyce, review of Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, p. 611; January 1, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Heads by Harry, p. 835; August, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of Name Me Nobody, p. 2045; December 1, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Father of the Four Passages, p. 694.

Christian Science Monitor, January 19, 1996, p. 14.

Harper's Bazaar, April, 1997, Jessica Hagedorn, review of Blu's Hanging, p. 164.

Honolulu Star Bulletin, April 8, 1997, Nadine Kam, review of Blu's Hanging; June 25, 1999, Cynthia Oi, review of Name Me Nobody.

Horn Book, July, 1999, review of Name Me Nobody, p. 476.

Library Journal, November 15, 1995, p. 101; March 1, 1997, Anna Quan Leon, review of Blu's Hanging, p. 105; February 1, 1999, Shirley N. Quan, review of Heads by Harry, p. 124; October 15, 2000, Shirley N. Quan, review of Father of the Four Passages, p. 105.

Los Angeles Times, July 23, 1998, p. E1.

Ms., July-August, 1996, p. 85.

Nation, March 1, 1999, Mindy Pennybacker, review of Heads by Harry, pp. 28-29.

Newsweek, August 17, 1998, p. 63.

New Yorker, March 19, 2000, p. 152.

New York Times, February 8, 1999, p. E1.

New York Times Book Review, December 31, 1995, Lauren Belfer, review of Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, p. 11; May 4, 1997, p. 21; March 14, 1999, p. 23.

Orange County Register, February 28, 1996, Valerie Takahama, "Hawaiian Writer Lois-Ann Yamanaka Draws Praise, Criticism for Her Novel Using Pidgin English."

People, May 26, 1997, Lan N. Nguyen, "Hawaiian Eye-Opener: Talking with Lois-Ann Yamanaka," p. 42.

Publishers Weekly, August 21, 1995, p. 35; October 2, 1995, review of Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, p. 51; February 24, 1997, review of Blu's Hanging, p. 62; December 21, 1998, review of Heads by Harry, p. 54; June 28, 1999, review of Name Me Nobody, p. 81; October 30, 2000, review of Father of the Four Passages, p. 45.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1999, Brian Evenson, review of Heads by Harry, p. 160; summer, 2001, Joseph Dewey, review of Father of the Four Passages, p. 159.

School Library Journal, May, 2005, Kathleen Kelly MacMillan, review of The Heart's Language, p. 105.

Time, February 5, 2001, "Black and Blue Hawaii," p. 78.

Voice Literary Supplement, December, 1993, Lawrence Chu, review of Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, pp. 7-8.

Women's Review of Books, July, 1996, Kiana Davenport, review of Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, p. 37.

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