Well, I have some mixed feelings about this one. I wasn’t all that into the story itself, and was pretty disappointed at what I felt was an abrupt ending. (To be fair, Murayama wrote a second book about the Oyama family–Five Years On a Rock–so maybe the story picks up where it left off.) In terms of our reading challenge, All I Asking For Is My Body is a winner, but I’m torn about whether the pieces it gives us that separate it from Middle Son by Deborah Iida and Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport are worth the lackluster story.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character, and those where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. We are currently in the islands of Hawaii.
To give Murayama his due, many of the authors we are reading–including Iida and Davenport–credit Murayama’s book as inspiration. It’s often cited as one of the first books to give a voice to the Hawaiian-born Japanese-American sugarcane plantation workers–and particularly the first to make use of pidgin in the dialogue. The first chapter was published in 1959 as a stand-alone short story, and again in 1968, before the full book (novella, really) was published in 1975.
It also gives us an in-depth look at the changes in cultural attitudes between the issei–the Japanese-born immigrants to the islands–and their children, the nisei, those born in Hawaii. The title itself, All I Asking For Is My Body, is a reference to those changes, from the unquestioning filial duty of the children to help their parents meet their financial obligations, to the more Americanized sensibility of duty of the parents to protect, raise, and provide for the children.
As I wrote that description, however, I got to thinking about our look at the textile mills in Massachusetts. It was common in New England (and other places) for young children to work in the mills (or on the farm) to help support the family. The difference here, however, is that the Japanese parents described in Murayama’s account continue to expect their children to help support the parents and the younger siblings, even after leaving school, often delaying marriage and putting their own lives on hold. In the book, Murayama describes a cycle of debt and hopelessness that those holding to the Japanese system would be unlikely ever to escape.
I don’t know enough about Japan and Japanese culture to know whether it was usually possible to fulfill one’s filial duty–I suspect that in the case of the farmers or peasants it was not, and perhaps that was one of the ways in which the ruling class maintained its power.
Murayama includes a haole teacher who spends a year at the local school, trying to instill American values of individual freedoms and rights in the local middle school aged kids. I appreciated the appearance of this character and would have liked to have seen more of him. The scenes with him are the only time Murayama’s other characters are prompted to think about the racial and cultural separations among the plantation workers.
In all of the books we’ve read so far, the Filipinos are the ones who seem to do all of the labor organizing. But that teacher is just about the only one in any of the books who really seems to question why the more numerous Japanese workers don’t band together with the Filipinos (although there is brief mention that one of the two bilingual newspapers in Honolulu felt the same). Murayama draws a clear parallel between the Japanese cultural etiquette at home that praised the filial son and the broader Japanese cultural etiquette that set the Japanese plantation workers against the Filipino plantation workers.
“They can’t win,” father said. “The Japanese should’ve joined them,” Tosh said. “The Japanese strike in 1920 and 1922 and both times the others were the strikebreakers,” father said. “That’s why nobody can beat the plantation,” Tosh said. “We shouldn’t worry about other people’s business,” mother said. “It’s our business too,” Tosh said. “We fighting the same plantation.”
In Deborah Iida’s Middle Son, Spencer grew up fighting that constant sense of hopelessness and the inevitability of plantation life, finally managing to escape through military service in Vietnam. However, we didn’t see the constant overwhelming amount of debt that we see in the Murayama book, or the expectation that he would help the family repay that debt, even as an adult. As a matter of fact, Spencer’s father is insistent that his son escape the plantation life, encouraging him to get an education. He’s even disappointed in Spencer for joining the military, as many of those who do wind up right back on the plantations after being de-mobbed. (Murayama’s character also escapes via the military, but the story ends before he even gets to basic training, so we don’t see if he truly escapes or not.)
In Kiana Davenport’s Shark Dialogues, Pono spends time living and working on plantations. Davenport’s book also indicates that it was the Filipino workers who organized and went on strike for their rights. Pono helps them escape the wrath of the plantation bosses, with the help of the colonists at Kalaupapa. Davenport doesn’t really discuss the Japanese workers and immigrants–her main connection to the Japanese in Hawaii is that one of Pono’s granddaughters is married to a high ranking member of the Yakuza. (Pono is a witness to the attack on Pearl Harbor, however.)
And Caroline Paul’s East Wind, Rain, which I’m currently reading, is set on Ni’ihau and begins with the attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time, this island was completely isolated and privately owned. Since its climate is considerably different than that of the other islands, however, it functions more as a ranch than as a plantation, and its tiny population is almost entirely Hawaiian.
So the novel which overlaps the Murayama book the most is Deborah Iida’s Middle Son. The differences are important. I wouldn’t say that Iida romanticizes the plantation life. I would say that her book is not so singularly focused on the concept of the filial son and how that cultural norm fed the plantation system in Hawaii. I would also say that I enjoyed the story of Middle Son much more.
As for descriptions of the island, I didn’t get as vivid an image of Maui from the Murayama book–and I have to say that overall I have been very disappointed in the lack of birds in all of the Hawaii books so far–but there are a few bits here and there.
Hibiscus hedges surrounded every yard, and every yard grew ferns, orchids, night flowers, avocado, mango, papaya, soursap, lime, pomegranate, banana, and star fruit. Tall eucalyptus ringed the whole camp and lined the main roads, and there was always a breeze rustling in the night.
Overall, I really wasn’t that excited by the actual story in All I Asking For Is My Body, and I was pretty underwhelmed by the ending–it just felt anticlimactic and abrupt. I think it is an important piece of the Hawaiian puzzle, but I’d really like to find a Hawaiian book that focuses on the Filipinos–they’ve been on the edges of several of our books and indications are that they were at the bottom of the social heap while being the ones who really brought about changes to the plantation system that improved the lives of all the cultural groups above them. In any case, All I Asking For Is My Body by Milton Murayama is only about 100 pages, so it was a quick read. Think of it more as a book you read for school–not necessarily the best story-wise, but great for background.