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.