Kira-Kira Criticism
by Cynthia Kadohata

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Peter Menard

(Literary Newsmakers for Students)

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Menard teaches comparative literature. In this essay, Menard considers Kadohata's book in relation to current debates within American and multi cultural literature.

Although it is a novel intended for young readers, Kadohata's Kira-Kira can be read within the author's entire body of work, which consists primarily of novels for an adult audience. Kira-Kira explores many of the same themes and issues that are present in all of Kadohata's novels. It is also representative of the debates occurring within American and multicultural literature.

In the 1960s, American literature began to move toward inclusion of ethnic, religious, and racial groups that had been left out of a traditionally "white" canon. As a result of the experiences of World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movement, Americans looked for ways to redefine themselves. African Americans, Jewish Americans, and other groups whose experiences had largely been absent from the literary scene began to appear as both authors and characters to tell their stories. Many of these stories focused on the exclusion minorities had endured and their integration into the wider American community. According to Gilbert H. Muller in New Strangers in Paradise: The Immigrant Experience and Contemporary American Fiction, the Immigration Act of 1965 was part of a body of legislation and other social forces that helped to rewrite "the epic of America" in ways that emphasized the "polyglot, multicultural, and transnational" (quoted in Klinkowitz). This new epic was an idealized vision of an integrated nation—America as a melting pot of languages, traditions, customs, and ideologies.

By the 1970s and 1980s, however, some critics began to question this melting-pot model. These critics saw the multicultural vision as problematic not only because it supposed that the melting pot experience was possible, but because it also made the very notions of identity and difference hard to sustain. If integration relies on the idea of an all-encompassing American identity, what happens to the differences that excluded groups have used to define themselves? That is, what happens to the distinctive features—such as languages, traditions, customs, and religious practices—that made those groups' differences visible, unique, and valuable? The ambiguities that emerge in the effort to rewrite American literature and make it more inclusive require us to think again and more carefully about what it means to be an American.

The issues surrounding American ethnic literature are also tied to broader debates in postcolonial studies, a school of criticism that analyzes clashes between cultures and examines mechanisms of oppression and resistance. This school of thought argues that people do not necessarily identify themselves in terms of the places in which they live. For example, in Kira-Kira, Mrs. Muramoto holds a New Year's Eve party that features traditional Japanese customs and rituals. Katie says, "New Year's is the biggest holiday of the year for the Japanese." Though Mrs. Muramoto and the Takeshimas live in America and adopt many "American" ways of life, they identify themselves culturally as Japanese and maintain important Japanese traditions in their American lives.

Kira-Kira illustrates many of the ambiguities present in the debates mentioned above. The narrator is a young girl born in Iowa, but her frame of reference—the way in which she views the world—is colored by the language, traditions, and customs of Japan. This is largely because her parents are kibei, which means that they were born in the United States but educated in Japan. The characters of Japanese descent in the novel are defined primarily in cultural terms, that is, they are described in the context of their customs, traditions, myths, and folklore. However, the American characters are defined exclusively in racial terms as white. There are no other non-white ethnicities in Kira-Kira . Because race is the only feature used to describe the...

(The entire section is 3,438 words.)