Cynthia Kadohata 1956–
The following entry presents criticism of Kadohata's work through 1994. For further information on her life and career, see CLC, Volume 59.
Cynthia Kadohata, an award-winning American writer of Japanese ancestry has published a number of short stories in prestigious literary journals as well as two novels about the coming of age experiences of young women of Japanese American heritage. The Floating World (1989) appeared to critical acclaim and was followed three years later by the somewhat less well received In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992). Kadohata is frequently hailed as a significant new literary spokesperson for Asian Americans. It is a position about which she is ambivalent, declaring in a 1992 interview with Lisa See in Publishers Weekly that it is impossible for either her work or that of Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston to stand for all Asians: "… there's so much variety among Asian American writers that you can't say what an Asian American writer is." Both of Kadohata's novels contain many clearly autobiographical features and have frequently been lauded for their striking imagery and their hauntingly lyrical narrative. Kadohata's writing has been compared to that of such writers as Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Mark Twain, and J. D. Salinger.
Cynthia Kadohata was born July 2, 1956 in Chicago, Illinois into a working-class Japanese American family. Her childhood was peripatetic as her family moved often, to Georgia, Arkansas, Michigan, California, in search of work. This wandering existence is strongly reflected in her first novel The Floating World. After high school Kadohata worked in a department store and in a restaurant before enrolling in Los Angeles City College. From there she transferred to the University of Southern California where she earned a degree in journalism in 1977. After an automobile jumped the curb and severely injured her arm, Kadohata moved to Boston where she concentrated on her writing career. In 1986, after 25 rejections The New Yorker published one of her stories. Her work has also appeared in other literary journals, such as Grand Street and the Pennsylvania Review. After a short spell studying in the graduate writing program of the University of Pittsburgh, Kadohata transferred to Columbia University's writing program. However, when The Floating World received warm critical reviews, she abandoned her program at Columbia. In 1991 Kadohata received a national Endowment for the Arts grant and won a prestigious Whiting Writers' Award. Her second novel, In the Heart of the Valley of Love, appeared in 1992. In the same year Kadohata married.
Kadohata's first novel, The Floating World, narrated by twelve-year old Olivia Ann tells the story of her extended Japanese American family, the Osakas, traveling throughout 1950s America from state to state and job to job seeking both economic and emotional well being. The "floating world" of the title is the ever-changing, frequently unfriendly, physical and personal environment through which the Osakas pass, "the gas station attendants, restaurants, and jobs we depended on, the motel towns floating in the middle of fields and mountains." However, the family itself is "stable, traveling through an unstable world while my father looked for jobs." The family members are original, strongly individualistic, characters owing little to stereotypical fictional representations of Asian Americans: Obasan, the eccentric and abusive grandmother who had three husbands and seven lovers; Olivia's stepfather, Charlie O, a cheerful and likable yet feckless character who constantly searches for meaning amidst the chaos of his world; and Olivia's refined mother whose great love was a married man with whom she had an affair and who fathered Olivia. While an important theme of the novel is the discrimination encountered by this Japanese American family in their nomadic existence throughout middle America, a much broader theme is the overall immigrant experience of this ethnic group set against the conflicting forces of the preservation of cultural identity and that of assimilation. Particularly interesting is the depiction of the exploited economic rural subculture of the strange yet expert profession of chicken-sexing in which the Osakas work. On another level The Floating World impressively and convincingly portrays Olivia's coming of age. She develops from the thoughtful child narrator of her family's physical and metaphorical peregrinations and her parents' unhappy marital life to a teenager who falls in love, leaves her family for a new job in Los Angeles and the "real world" and finds another boyfriend. Kadohata's second novel, In the Heart of the Valley of Love, published in 1992, is a science fiction work set in 2052 Los Angeles. The world depicted is one where law and order have largely broken down and where violent class conflict exists between the haves who live in "richtowns" and the have-nots. Corruption, pollution, disease, and crime pervade society. Much of the novel centers about the coming of age of the protagonist, Francie, a street smart young woman of mixed Asian and American descent who, just as The Floating World's Olivia, clearly owes much to Kadohata's own life. Though the LA society represented is frightening and cruel, all is not despair. There is hope in Francie's life, especially in her love for Mark, the student she meets at community college, and in the frequent goodwill and selflessness found in a society on the brink of extinction. The novel's strongest feature is the evocation of atmosphere, a skill Kadohata also displayed with great effect in The Floating World. However, as a number of critics have pointed out, her defective plotting and lack of a coherent story detracts from In the Heart of the Valley of Love.
Kadohata has been widely extolled as an important new Asian American writer. Her reviews for The Floating World were overwhelmingly favorable. Shirley Geok-lin Lim called the novel "a fine contribution to the growing body of Asian-American women's writing." In particular, critics praised the originality of the atmosphere, the stark simplicity of the settings, and the strength and versatility of the writing. Many also acclaimed Kadohata's ability to draw strong, genuine characters who seem to understand painful reality. Critical assessment of In the Heart of the Valley of Love, though on the whole favorable, has been more mixed. Reviews ranged from the declaration in Kirkus Reviews that it was "A beautifully crafted novel that warns and hurts and delights" to Barbara Quick's appraisal that the narrative "seems haphazardly constructed out of Francie's deadpan stream-of consciousness observations, which read like a bad translation of Camus. The result is like listening to someone describe a long and pointless dream." Much of the negative criticism of this work focused on the implausible story, the inadequacies of the plot, and the unconvincing characterization. Nevertheless, while Michiko Kakutani castigated the novel as "an uncomfortable hybrid: a pallid piece of futuristic writing and an unconvincing tale of coming of age," she also commended the writing as "lucid and finely honed, often lyrical and occasionally magical." Such praise for Kadohata's writing style is shared by many critics.
SOURCE: "Pearls and rocks," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VII, No. 2, November, 1989, p. 5.
[In the following review, Matsumoto praises The Floating World emphasizing the novel's Japanese American elements.]
There is a book I have been hoping to find for years, every time I walked past a rack of new releases. It would be, I felt, a novel in the voice of a Japanese American woman of my generation (third, or Sansei) who came of age after World War Two. In her writing I would catch glimpses of Sansei children playing games like jan-kenpo (paper-scissors-rock) and lugging sacks of rice into the kitchen. They and their Nisei (second-generation) parents would be making their way in postwar America, seeking to escape the shadows of the concentration camps. What I was looking for was a kindred experience in print, a literary cousin.
When The Floating World appeared, I pounced on it, delighted. What I did not expect was that this riveting book would explode the freight of assumptions my vision carried. My comfortable notions about Japanese American regionalism and family receded as I was drawn into the floating world of the Osakas, traveling from job to job across the Pacific Northwest and to the Midwest.
The Osakas emerged, a quirky, complex and quite original middle American family that enthralled and threw me off balance from the first sentences: "My...
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SOURCE: A review of The Floating World, in Belles Lettres, Vol. 5, No. 3, Spring 1990, p. 20.
[In the following review, Lim discusses the regional and ethnic specificity of The Floating World and hails the novel's depictions of working-class life.]
The Floating World. Cynthia Kadohata's first novel, appears with bona fide credentials from mainstream America. In fact, chapters had previously appeared in The New Yorker. Unsurprisingly, her strong prose style is reminiscent of The New Yorker's influence on contemporary American fiction in its plangent syntactic economy of effect.
Although the book is called a novel, it is more precisely a series of eighteen linked stories forming a loose configuration of intersecting moments amounting to a bildungsroman of sorts. What distinguishes it from other first novels on growing up in America is its regional and ethnic specificity.
Olivia Ann, the narrator/protagonist, is a young girl in an extended Japanese-American family unique in American fiction. For one thing, the point of view is clearly that of a Sansei (third-generation Japanese-American). While the stories begin with Obasan, the first-generation Japanese-American grandmother, there is little of the sentimentality associated with stereotypical American portrayals of the Asian family. The eccentric immigrant ancestress abuses...
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SOURCE: A review of The Floating World, in VOYA, April, 1990, p. 30.
[In the following review, Flottmeier provides a very brief synopsis of The Floating World and discusses its suitability for young adults.]
Olivia and her family are Japanese Americans living in the 1950s, moving from home to home, job to job, struggling for part of the American dream and trying to maintain some part of their own heritage. From the vantage point of an adult, Olivia remembers those itinerant days in "a floating world," usually in the family car: various motels, roadside fruitstands, and different jobs for her stepfather. This is a world in which the family is the stabilizing force and the world outside is flexible and changing. With the clarity, simplicity, and directness of a child of about 12, she records everyday events of the family's life without rancor, self-pity, or prejudicial commentary. She brings to life her family members' individuality, especially her hot-tempered, irascible grandmother who passes on heritage and superstition alike. Her stepfather's struggle to find normalcy for his family dovetails tellingly with his love for Olivia when he temporarily leaves his only permanent job to help her run a vending machine route across the Southwest when she grows older.
This is a wonderful book about culture identity, outlining simple events that Olivia finds memorable in the life of...
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SOURCE: A review of In the Heart of the Valley of Love, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LX, No. 10, May 15, 1992, pp. 629-630.
[The following laudatory review of In the Heart of the Valley of Love also provides a brief plot synopsis.]
In an acutely moving second novel, Kadohata (The Floating World, 1989) again records the spin of worlds—of pain or maybe love. Some of it makes sense; some of it does not. ("Is the world as wiggly for you as it is for me?") The time is 2052 in L.A., decaying in a disintegrating landscape where the stars have faded behind pollution, disease is common, raw violence is on the rise, and the gap between castes, government, police and people turning feral is unbridgeable. A 19-year-old Japanese-American woman hopes to survive.
Narrator Francie leaves her aunt after the aunt's boyfriend has been arrested. She enjoyed observing their love, but "with people dying or getting arrested … you hated to love people." Francie decides on college for something to do and works on the college paper. Here are her first friends in L.A. Besides Mark, soon to be her lover, there are: a former gang member, a misfit, a slapdash version of an investigative reporter, a minor celebrity who may or may not be a murderer, and Jewel, the chief editor, dying of cancer, who at first can't shake loose from an abusive lover. With Mark, Francie visits elders and a tattoo...
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SOURCE: "Past Imperfect, and Future Even Worse," in The New York Times, July 28, 1992, Sec. C, p. 15.
[In the following review, Kakutani criticizes the inadequate plot structure of In the Heart of the Valley of Love while praising Kadohata's "obvious talent" as a writer.]
In her luminous first novel, The Floating World (1989), Cynthia Kadohata gave readers a meticulously observed portrait of a Japanese immigrant family's experiences during the 1950's. In her latest book, she makes a fast-forward leap into the future, abandoning the emotional intimacy of that earlier book to create an apocalyptic picture of America on the brink of civil disorder and social collapse.
The year is 2052, and Los Angeles has become a frightening, frightened city, ceaselessly patrolled by police helicopters and squad cars. Water and gas are rationed, and nonsynthetic food is hard to find. People are randomly arrested and jailed; some disappear completely. Cancer rates have soared, and strange new diseases—one of which causes the skin to break out in small, black pearls—afflict the old and young. Historians are saying "the Dark Century" has arrived.
"I didn't think conflagration was coming," says Francie, the novel's narrator. "Conflagration was destined to fall. Collapse was coming. The city had been deteriorating for a long time, and it was just that the rate of...
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SOURCE: "Cynthia Kadohata," in Publishers Weekly, August 3, 1992, pp. 48-49.
[In the following summary of her interview with Kadohata, See provides details of the novelist's life, reports on her ambivalence towards being hailed as a new voice on the Asian American literary scene, and relates her approach to the writing process.]
On the lanai of her Hollywood bungalow, Cynthia Kadohata sits with her legs curled under her body, periodically brushing her black hair away from her face. As she shyly responds to PW's questions about her work, her answers are like interior monologues—exploratory, self-searching, provisional and at times uncertain. Surely she should feel little hesitation over her career—at age 36 she has produced two novels, received a prestigious Whiting Award and an NEA grant, and earned comparisons to Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Raymond Carver and William Faulkner.
In 1989 Kadohata received glowing reviews for The Floating World (Viking), an apparently autobiographical novel about a Japanese American family traversing the country—a mundane yet magical world of backwater towns, gas stations and truck stops—with a cranky grandmother in tow. In her new novel, In the Heart of the Valley of Love, out this month from Viking (Fiction Forecasts, June 1), Kadohata has used her sparse prose to paint a picture of Los Angeles in the year 2052. It is a world...
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SOURCE: "Future Imperfect: Los Angeles 2052," in Washington-Post, Aug 16, 1992, Sec. BW, p. 5.
[In the following review, Smith praises the skillfully evoked atmosphere and the "finely wrought prose" of In the Heart of the Valley of Love.]
Readers of Cynthia Kadohata's first novel, The Floating World, will recognize in her second the deadpan, slightly ironic voice of a female protagonist who describes her adventures in a strange, unpredictable environment with lyrical images that create the magical atmosphere—and the cool emotional distance—of a fairy tale. In the Heart of the Valley of Love's Francie is 19, while Olivia was 12 at the beginning of The Floating World, but the older selves who look back in the two books to examine their youth from some unspecified future date sound very much the same.
The pasts they consider, however, are radically different. Olivia and her family roamed across Arkansas and the Pacific Northwest in the 1950s driven by prejudice and the imperatives of her parents' troubled marriage from one self-contained Japanese-American community to the next. Francie scrambles to eke out an existence in and around Los Angeles in the year 2052, when the only meaningful social distinction is the gulf between the inhabitants of the "richtowns" that exist in every American city, who attend universities and go into business as though nothing had...
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SOURCE: A review of In the Heart of the Valley of Love, in New York Times, August 30, 1992, Sec. 7, p. 14.
[In the following review, Quick writes that the narrative of In the Heart of the Valley of Love is lacking in focus and is poorly constructed.]
In her second novel, Cynthia Kadohata has tried something extremely difficult: to take a story of the disaffected 1990's and project it 60 years ahead in time. What makes futuristic fiction work is an accretion of telling detail so convincing that the reader suspends disbelief. Unfortunately, In the Heart of the Valley of Love has lots of detail but very little conviction. The setting is Los Angeles in 2052, but the author seems not to have exercised her imagination: this is the smog-filled and crime-ridden city of 1992, with just a few differences (water and gas rationing; odd, unexplained skin diseases). Apart from some specific biographical details, the book's narrator, a 19-year-old named Francie, bears a remarkable resemblance to the slightly younger Japanese-American narrator of Ms. Kadohata's first novel, The Floating World. Though supposedly generations apart, these two adolescents seem very much the same person: alienated, opaque and drawn to angst-filled speculation about the absurdity of existence. The plot concerns Francie's involvement with her college newspaper, the handful of other students who work there and the aunt and...
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SOURCE: "Love finds a way in a sad, future L.A.," in Chicago Tribune, August 30, 1992, Sec 14, p. 7.
[In the following review, Idema writes that Kadohata's depiction of a disintegrating 2052 Los Angeles in her novel In the Heart of the Valley of Love is convincing and likens the main protagonist Francie to Holden Caulfield.]
Contrary to George Orwell's vision 35 years previous, 1984 turned out to be not such a bad year. Upon reading In the Heart of the Valley of Love, one hopes that novelist Cynthia Kadohata is even less prescient about 2052 and the world as it is observed that year by her heroine, a 19-year-old Japanese-American orphan living in Los Angeles. But don't count on it. Kadohata's projection of an exhausted planet is all too convincing.
Here is Francie recalling the scene in Chicago, where she lived when she was 12 and she and her friends "were very afraid of growing up":
"There were a lot of expressionless people walking around, especially in big cities. They'd learned it in childhood. There was a long time when it seemed to me that … everyone I knew or had known had been beaten or was being beaten or was dying or had witnessed death. Everyone I knew understood the particular mix of fear and numbness that only repeated and intense physical suffering can inspire."
That was Chicago. She has...
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SOURCE: "Eat a Bowl of Tea: Asian America in the Novels of Ghish Jen, Cynthia Kadohata, Kim Ronyoung, Jessica Hagedorn, and Tran Van Dinh," in The Yearbook of English Studies, edited by Andrew Gurr, Modern Humanities Research Association, 1994, pp. 263-280.
[In the following excerpt, Lee, after analyzing aspects of America's "obsession" with Asia and strains of anti-Asian sentiment pervading American society, discusses the Asian-American literary renaissance and its resultant controversies, and then provides a plot summary of Kadohata's A Floating World, focusing in particular on its Asian American elements.]
Cynthia Kadohata's The Floating World gives a new turn to American picaresque. Set in the 1950s, and told in the precocious, Holden Caulfieldish voice of Olivia Ann, sansei teenager, it offers a kind of inspired 'road' drama. The odyssey it chronicles, that of a migrant, three-generation Japanese-American family's search for work through the rural and small-town Pacific Northwest in the wake of the 'relocation' trauma, could not be more full of quirks and niches—not least (and with Huckleberry Finn alongside The Catcher in The Rye as a reference-book) 'travelling' as itself a kind of full-time American home. The America it unveils, Asian and non-Asian, involves a double angle of vision, that of Olivia herself, and that of an American Japaneseness with its own...
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