Lois-Ann Yamanaka has set all four of her novels in Hawaii, yet none are likely to be promoted by the local tourist bureau. In her latest work particularly, the haunting yet hopeful "Father of the Four Passages" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 233 pages; $23), the author seems impervious to her state's natural splendor, focusing instead on the blighted emotional landscape of her characters. Chief among them is Sonia Kurisu, the youngest daughter of a Japanese-American family living in Hilo. After a fraught childhood, Sonia stumbles through addictions to drugs and the men who provide them and undergoes three abortions before giving birth to an autistic son.
The novel continues the unsparing exploration of themes that run through all of Yamanaka's fiction as well as her poetry: family dysfunction, poverty and ostracism. In her previous works, these problems result directly from the persistent distrust within Hawaii's multiethnic population. In novels such as "Blu's Hanging" (1997) and "Heads by Harry" (1999), Yamanaka a third-generation Japanese American raised on the island of Molokai wrote dialogue in the pidgin English she spoke as a child, for which her characters are stigmatized, as she was herself. But in Father of the Four Passages, the blame for the family's travails lies squarely within the home, and no one speaks pidgin. "I got tired of being the pidgin poster girl," says Yamanaka. "I wanted to try something new, see how far I could go."
To some, Yamanaka, 39, has gone far enough. In 1998, she became ensnared in controversy over "Blu's Hanging," in which a male Filipino character is portrayed as sexually depraved. After the Association for Asian American Studies awarded the book its prize in literature, complaints by the Filipino community prompted the association to rescind its honor.
Yamanaka confesses to being shaken by the response, but says the experience won't circumscribe her attempts at portraying the world as she sees it. Her new book does just that, about a subject she knows well as the mother of an autistic child. "It was a very difficult book to write because I had to stay honest," she says. "Sometimes I read these accounts of mothers with autistic children... They write this glorious story of overcoming difficulties. But I walk the difficulties, and I wanted that to come across."
Indeed Sonia is at first a disturbingly flawed mother. Drug-addled and tormented by visions of her unborn children, she hits and ignores her son, alternately praying for his death or her own, before her love for him becomes the path to her redemption.
Yamanaka, who lives in Honolulu with her son and husband, does not say which details of Sonia's struggles match her own, but does admit that "everything I write starts with some kind of kernel of truth, and then I've got to make it bigger. Life at least my life is pretty mundane." Her fictional world, on the other hand, is deliberately unsafe. "Part of truth telling is standing at the edge of the cliff and saying, I've got to see this, and then you jump," she says. "You don't know how you're going to land." Yamanaka is working on a new novel she describes as "a kind of ghost story," which may testify to the fact that she did land, only to take flight again.