Cynthia Kadohata Kadohata, Cynthia - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cynthia Kadohata 1956–

American novelist.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Floating World (novel) 1989
In the Heart of the Valley of Love (novel) 1992

Valerie Matsumoto (review date November 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 grandmother was my tormenter. My mother said she'd been a young woman of spirit; but she was an old woman of fire." The complicated influence of this grandmother, addressed formally as "Obaasan" and never affectionately as "Obaachan," permeates the book. Strong, short-tempered and a feared boxer of ears, she takes pride in having had three husbands and seven lovers. She predicts ghastly futures for her grandchildren, but is pugnaciously ready to defend them from outsiders. Driven to plant her history in the minds of her family, she relentlessly bombards them with her stories, "a string of pearls and rocks."

It is she who describes their traveling environment as "ukiyo," the floating world of "the gas station attendants, restaurants, and jobs we depended on, the motel towns floating in the middle of fields and mountains." In Japanese, "ukiyo" has two meanings: the demimonde of the geisha and entertainers, and also, in the Buddhist sense, transience and change. For the Osaka family, "ukiyo" refers to the unstable world through which they journey, a small tribe venturing through uncertain, sometimes hostile, territory.

The guide to this world is twelve-year-old Olivia, a fearless talker eager to exercise her prowess, insatiably curious, alternately awed and insightful. Through her eyes we see the loudly cheerful stepfather Charlie O, hapless and determined, who calls her "honey-dog" and pins his hopes of success on ownership of a garage. Laura, the beautiful wife he adores but...

(The entire section is 1214 words.)

Shirley Geok-lin Lim (review date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

Barbara Flottmeier (review date April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 353 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 28 July 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 810 words.)

Lisa See (essay date 3 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2220 words.)

Wendy Smith (review date 16 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 777 words.)

Barbara Quick (review date 30 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 267 words.)

James Idema (review date 30 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 636 words.)

A. Robert Lee (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 851 words.)