Cynthia Kadohata was born on July 2, 1956, in Chicago. Her parents’ experience provided a significant part of the background for her first and fourth novels, both set in Japanese American families at the time of Kadohata’s youth. Her father’s family had emigrated from Japan to Southern California in the 1920’s, working as tenant farmers. Kadohata’s father moved to Chicago after losing his father in a farming accident, internment in an American prison camp after Pearl Harbor, and service in the United States Army military intelligence service both at home and in Japan after World War II.
Kadohata’s mother and maternal grandmother were born in Southern California before moving to Hawaii in the 1930’s, where her maternal grandfather drowned while her mother was still a child. A strong grandmother figures prominently in her first novel, like her maternal grandmother who supported her mother and her other children as a waitress in Hawaii before moving to Chicago. There, Kadohata’s parents met and married. Her older sister was born in Chicago as well.
The Kadohatas moved to Springdale, Arkansas, where her father worked as a chicken sexer, determining the gender of newborn chickens, like many adult characters in Kadohata’s first and fourth novel. Her brother was born in Arkansas.
Next, the family moved to Tifton, Georgia, and on to Michigan, but in 1965, her parents divorced and Kadohata moved with her mother and siblings back to Chicago, before moving to Los Angeles in 1971. Dropping out of Hollywood High School over a dispute of transfer grades from Chicago, Kadohata held menial jobs but entered Los Angeles City College in 1974. Soon, she transferred to the University of Southern California and graduated with a B.A. in journalism in 1977.
Seriously injured in a car accident in 1977, Kadohata joined her older sister in Boston. Her time in California would provide background material for her second novel, even though the book is set in 2052. In Boston, Kadohata held a series of office jobs while beginning to write. Fascinated by short stories, a genre new to her, she moved away from nonfiction.
Getting published proved difficult for Kadohata. Receiving twenty-five rejections from The New Yorker alone, Kadohata struggled for a decade before her first short story, “Charlie O,” was published by The New Yorker in 1986. She enrolled in the writing program of the University of Pittsburgh and sold more stories to The New Yorker, Grand Street, and The Pennsylvania Review. Next Kadohata transferred to Columbia University in New York.
In December, 1987, she was contacted by agent Andrew Wylie, who sold the manuscript of Kadohata’s first novel, The Floating World (1989), to Viking Press. Kadohata then left Columbia. The tremendous success of her first novel, which gathered rave reviews and strong sales in 1989, seemed to propel Kadohata on a successful career. By 1990, she was at work on her second novel, after moving back to Southern California. In 1991, she received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a thirty-thousand-dollar Whiting Writer’s Award.
However, her success also brought some fierce backlash from some Asian American critics who faulted the author for her characters, a charge that deeply hurt Kadohata. She refused to create politically correct stereotypes and made the stunning decision to move her second novel into the future after about half of it was already written in a contemporary setting. Nonetheless, reviewers faulted the vague futuristic setting of In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992), and the novel failed commercially. Kadohata married in 1992, but the marriage ended in divorce.
Kadohata’s quest to be free to write beyond her personal experience led her to part with her agent Wylie and publish her third novel, The Glass Mountains (1995), with a boutique publisher of fantasy novels, White Wolf. It too, was commercially unsuccessful.
With a Chesterfield Screenwriting Fellowship for 1996, Kadohata...
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