In her first four novels, Kadohata’s fiction takes the reader along on a journey that is narrated by a young woman who is growing up in a world that appears slightly alien to her and her immediate family and friends. What has made her first and fourth novel so effective is the fact that this strange outside world is, in fact, a part of American society but as seen from the unique angle of a Japanese American girl in the late 1950’s. When this outside world becomes the future, or even an alien planet, as Kadohata made it for her second and third novels, readers lost interest.
Stylistically, the first-person narratives of Kadohata’s novels have a strong episodic character. This may have its roots in the author’s earliest writings in the field of journalism and the genre of the short story. While her episodic structure worked well for The Floating World, the lack of a clear plot was seen as one of the weaknesses of her second work, In the Heart of the Valley of Love. Ostensibly a fantasy quest story, the narrative of The Glass Mountains still contains many episodic interludes. With Kira-Kira, Kadohata’s story of two young sisters, the narrative strikes an effective balance of uniting individual episodes within the framework of a powerful plot moving toward a dramatic climax. Critics have suggested that Kadohata’s sense of plotting improved from her work on screenplays during the 1990’s.
One of Kadohata’s greatest strengths is her ability to create genuine voices for her preteen and teenage female protagonists. In The Floating World, Olivia Ann’s story begins when she is twelve years old and comments on her family’s travels up and down the West Coast. In her own words, she feels tormented by her headstrong grandmother, who watches over Olivia and her three brothers but uses physical discipline to keep the grandchildren in line. As Olivia grows up and experiences first love and later moves from Arkansas back to California, her voice also matures in sync with her own development. Similarly in Kira-Kira, Katie Takeshima’s voice is in character for a teenage girl who tells of her growing up from five to twelve.
One major theme of Kadohata’s fiction is that of the family trying to survive in an unstable world. In The Floating World, the Osakas travel along America’s highways through a world full of gas stations, motels, temporary seasonal jobs, and rural towns. The only stable ground Olivia encounters is that of her family. In the Heart of the Valley of Love, one effect that renders the future of 2052 so gloomy is the absence of strong family bonds that drives the nineteen-year-old narrator, Francie, into a loosely assembled group of misfits and outcasts. In keeping with the conventions of the fantasy genre, Mariska, hovering between teenage years and adulthood, has to save her family and community from greedy outsiders in The Glass Mountains. In Kira-Kira, Katie’s family has to cope not only with marginal economic status but also with lingering post-World War II and anti-Japanese sentiments. Nevertheless, the greatest threat comes from within as Katie’s older sister falls ill.
One critical issue that haunted Kadohata for more than a decade was coming to terms with being marketed as an Asian American writer. After the resounding success of her first novel, which was built on a decades-long struggle to get her first short stories in print, Kadohata felt ambiguous about being prized as a Japanese American writer. She also had to endure a rather exorbitant criticism that her grandmother-character of The Floating World ruined the reputation of all Japanese grandmothers.
This criticism drove Kadohata to move her second novel into the future, against the original plans, and to make Francie an orphan of mixed Japanese and African American descent. The decision backfired. On one hand, readers missed more science-fiction elements, and on the other hand, Francie’s personal development was seen as lacking.
The Glass Mountains, Kadohata’s next novel of a young woman set on an alien planet, did not capture the fantasy audience. The novel failed even though it carries the same themes as all of Kadohata’s works—an isolated, small community trying to relate to a majority culture and the quest of a young woman to do something meaningful with her unfolding life.
Turning to the genre of young adult fiction proved to be very rewarding for Kadohata. Kira-Kira wonderfully plays to her most powerful strength, the creation of believable young Japanese American women to whom young adult and adult readers can equally relate.
The Floating World
First published: 1989
Type of work: Novel
Olivia Ann, a Japanese American teenager, tells of her family’s travels from the West Coast to Arkansas in the 1950’s and her eventual life back in Los Angeles.
The Floating World is Kadohata’s remarkable first novel that was greeted with great critical acclaim and found a substantial readership. Many of the individual chapters are based on short stories Kadohata had published in The New Yorker, among others. This gives the novel its episodic flair that perfectly reflects the prevailing theme of an insubstantial, transient world only loosely connected to the family of the protagonist who traverses it almost like in a dream.
The Floating World is told from the perspective of Olivia Ann, a young Japanese American woman who is twelve at the beginning of the novel. She is traveling along the West Coast with her family, three generations contained in one of the big cars put out by Detroit in the early 1950’s. She sits in the back with her three brothers, while her mother and stepfather each inhabit a world of their own even though they are sitting up front in physical proximity. Olivia Ann’s grandmother, always referred to by her most formal Japanese name of Obasan, is both an anchor and a point of vexation for her grandchildren. While Obasan smokes, has a biting tongue, and pinches or boxes the ears of the misbehaving children, she is also ready to defend them with her life when outsiders appear threatening.
(The entire section is 2583 words.)