Lois-Ann Yamanaka

Of all Hawai’i’s writers, Lois-Ann Yamanaka is the best known nationally, and occasionally the most controversial. Her unflinching portraits of Island life, beginning with 1992’s Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, have won her a fistful of national awards and grants. This month, she publishes her seventh book, a historical novel called Behold the Many. As we were interviewing her, her agent, Susan Bergholz, called with good news: Early reviews called the book "magical" and "beautifully tragic."

photo: Jimmy Forrest

Q: This novel is an almost Dickensian account of three Japanese-Portuguese children abandoned to an orphanage in Kalihi Valley. It takes place from 1913 to 1939. It’s not typical at all of your work. How did this story come to you?

A: I bought a home in Kalihi Valley in ’93, not far from a Catholic retreat home that was an orphanage in those days [the book is set in]. When we moved in, events started occurring that weren’t normal. My son’s toys started lighting up and making noise in the middle of the night. You’d hear voices, like the TV on low, except it wasn’t. If you were at the movies, you’d yell at the screen, Move out of that freaking house!

Q: Did you have the house blessed?

A: Because I knew about Baptists growing up, I brought in Baptist deacons. But they started praying to cast out demons, so I made them stop. By then, we knew they were children.

Q: You knew the ghosts were children?

A: One of their favorites tricks was this: [Makes drumming noises on the table like small footsteps running]. My son and my niece and my friend’s daughter could see them. "They’re cold," they’d say. "They’re hungry, they need milk." That’s how we learned their names.

Q: You got to know them?

A: Yes, don’t make me sound mental. We realized they were from the orphanage. They were trapped here, because they misunderstood the notion of going home. Before they were sent off, their mother kept telling them, We’ll come take you home. When they died, they didn’t understand the notion of going home to God.

Q: Did you research them?

A: I tried to get into the Sacred Hearts archives. I even lied, in my best Baptist way, and said they were distant family, but the lay librarian knew who I was, and said no way. I did go to the state archives. Through research, we found that there was a graveyard way in back of the valley. The new Samoan priest at Our Lady of the Mount took all the boys from the church and cleared the graveyard. So two friends and I went back there and offered ho’okupu (ceremonial gifts). They came. The children came. So I made a deal.

Q: A deal?

A: I could ask them direct questions, through one of my friends who’s intuitive. They wanted their story told. I told them I would write it. But when I’m done, I told them, you have to go home. Not home to the plantation house, to the light.

Q: And did they?

A: When I was done writing, we went back and brought them toys, cupcakes, chocolates and balloons, like they never had. And God bless them. They went. And at that moment, I swear, the Buddhist temple in the valley, went Gong! and the sound reverberated through the valley.

Q: To me, the book is a step forward from your earlier novels. Despite its origins, which some people are going to think are flaky, it seems like fully realized artistic material.

A: My editor, John Gusman, made me rewrite the whole thing. I’d written it in the first person. He said that was fine, I’d fulfilled the obligation to the children. But now I had to fulfill my obligation to the reader. So now I had to rewrite the whole thing in the third person, make it like a real historical novel. I was angry at him for six months. Then I got humble and did it. He was right.