Title: All I Asking For is My Body
Author: Milton Murayama
Genre: Literary Fiction, Coming of Age, Hawaiiana
Summary: A trio of stories exploring the plantation life in Hawaii.
My Review: First and foremost, I must state up front that this work is a novella length work, clocking in at approximately 100 pages. But don’t let that dissuade you as Milton Murayama packs more into those 100 pages than most novels manage to do in 300+ pages.
This is an outstanding work, capturing so many varied aspects of the nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) experience in Hawai’i during the years leading up to (and including) the bombing at Pearl Harbor. I understand completely why it is considered a classic as it drew me in with its deceptively simple prose, rich characters, and vivid setting, all accomplished without verbosity.
The story is told from the first person point of view of Kiyoshi, the second son in a Japanese family who came to Hawai’i in the 1930s to work on the sugar cane plantations in order to better their lives. His older brother Tosh, is a headstrong young man, the manifestation of the growing differences between the issei (first generation Japanese Americans) and the nisei and as vastly different from Kiyoshi as can be imagined. In some respects, Kiyoshi is stuck between the old ways of filial piety represented by his parents and the birth of a new generation of Americans of Japanese ancestry represented by Tosh. The family is crippled by massive debt and as much as Tosh rebels against the thought of being saddled as first son, Kiyoshi is relatively content in discovering his own role in this new world.
But neither Tosh nor Kiyoshi are stereotypes. As often as Tosh finds the old ways grating and confining, he also find moments of pride in his heritage. Kiyoshi seems more comfortable in the divide between the two generations, seeming to understand the good points of the old ways, but fully aware that his generation is somehow different. Never is the angst in either character over the top, but when Tosh utters the titular line “All I asking for is my body,” it packs an emotional wallop.
Murayama wisely chose to keep the narration in traditional English, while much of the dialog is in Hawaiian pidgin creole. This choice expertly creates a realistic setting while brilliantly capturing the differences between the ways the issei and nisei communicate. In turn, this subtly demonstrates the growing divide between the two “cultures.”
What also is fascinating is Murayama’s depiction of life on the plantation. The segregation encouraged by the luna (plantation bosses) shows us how the different racial communities were often pitted against one another to the benefit of the corporations milling the cane. It is fascinating and realistic to see the way the various races were pitted against one another, methods that resonate in today’s political world.
Segregation by debt is also depicted well, the deliberate system of keeping the poor in their place. Kiyoshi’s family are trapped in their lives by massive debt and bitterly low wages. It is no wonder Tosh feels suffocated, as if he is in a prison. And that is how it sometimes feels. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, we as readers know that the internment of Japanese Americans is coming, but in many ways Kiyoshi’s family has already been imprisoned from the time of their arrival in Hawai’i by the colonial system.
The bombing of Pearl is handled briefly, giving us the sense of what it must have been like being on a plantation so far away from the actions in the harbor. The event seemed so far away, but had such an impact upon their lives. This is all done subtly, but allows Murayama to explore the effect on the nisei boys. And that reaction is not standard text-book. The reactions are wonderfully varied, reflecting the complexity of emotions in the boys.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that this story is all sturm and drang, some sort of melodrama. It is utterly realistic, but it is peppered with humor and simple beauty. And best of all, within the family, there are no good guys or bad guys. Just a family, trying to make its way.
I highly recommend this book, not only for its realistic portrayal of plantation life in Hawai’i and of the nisei experience, but for the emotional truth that underlies it all.