Movement propels the plots of Cynthia Kadohata’s fiction. Characters migrate to search for employment or to take care of other such practical concerns. They also travel to escape from what they perceive as unbearable situations. Some are uprooted by circumstances beyond their control. Survival and sacrifice are significant themes in Kadohata’s writing, which emphasizes character development. Her characters represent diverse ages, from children to elderly people, with most narrators being female Asian teenagers. Their interactions reveal vulnerabilities and strengths as they strive to comprehend each other and themselves. Family in Kadohata’s fiction represents people bonded together by blood or necessity. Community shapes her characters and often serves as a substitute family. Themes of duty and loyalty reinforce friendships and other relationships.
Because of the transitory nature of many of their experiences, Kadohata’s characters usually desire permanence and are looking for a home. They are frequently marginalized due to ethnicity or gender and encounter limited options. Themes of confinement, both physical and emotional, permeate Kadohata’s writing as her characters find themselves controlled by people with political or social power. Her style incorporates symbols, often flowers or animals, to represent resilience, hope, and other traits associated with characters. Memory is important for Kadohata’s characterizations, as people share insights and traditions, guiding others to awareness of their heritage, whether they choose to accept or reject it. Kadahota’s writing mostly appropriates historical settings, where her characters envision preferable futures. Autobiographical elements and inclusion of Japanese terms influence her literary voice. Responding to critics who have attacked her depictions of Asian characters, Kadohata defends the cultural authenticity of her fiction.
The Floating World
Kadohata’s first novel, The Floating World, presents distinctive stylistic use of literary elements, particularly themes, characterizations, and symbolism, that are evident throughout her subsequent fiction. After World War II, Olivia Osaka’s family is representative of many Japanese Americans who sought opportunities and socioeconomic stability denied them during the 1940’s. Olivia, age twelve when the novel begins, serves as narrator during her multigenerational family’s constant movement, traveling through what her grandmother refers to as ukiyo, a floating world that sustains travelers’ needs with services and goods. In addition to being interpreted literally, the floating world symbolizes change as migrants move from one transitory existence to another, alternating between being unconscious and being alert. The dreamlike movement represents maturation as individuals shift from childhood to adulthood and attain new levels of awareness. It also suggests assimilation as characters slip away from their Japanese customs to be accepted as Americans.
Olivia, the daughter of Jack, observes her family members—her grandmother, Obsan; her mother, Shimeko; her stepfather, Charlie-O; and her three half brothers, Ben, Walker, and Peter—as they find these oases in the remoteness through which they move in pursuit of a better life. She introduces her grandmother as an antagonist who hurts her family physically and emotionally. Obsan’s death in a floating world hotel after Olivia ignores her request for assistance affects the travelers, who briefly mourn her and then return to their journey. Olivia continues being influenced by Obsan and Japanese culture, remembering her grandmother’s stories and reading her diary.
Olivia’s parents settle near Gibson, Arkansas, buying their desired home. Teenage Olivia begins separating from her family, working in a chicken hatchery and acquiring a lover. As an adult, Olivia moves to the West Coast, pursuing an autonomous life with a boyfriend, yet she helps her family when asked....
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