Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, June 25, 1999


Nobody's somebody

Lois-Ann Yamanaka, a 'somebody'
in literature, tackles teen pain
in 'Name Me Nobody'


Bullet "Name Me Nobody," by Lois Ann Yamanaka,
256 pages, $14.99, Hyperion Books for Children

By Cynthia Oi


FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD Emi-lou Kaya knows names can be powerful. They tell a person's story.

Her first name derives from the folk singer Emmylou Harris with a Japanese spelling. Her last name is her mother's because she doesn't know who her father is and her mother, who Westernizes her last name to Kaye and abandons Emi-lou, won't say.

In school, Emi-lou is a fat outcast, the butt of jokes. The "popular Japanese girls" call her Emi-loser or Emi-lump, whatever strikes their mean fancy. So Emi-lou sees herself as a "nobody bastard girl."

Art With "Name Me Nobody," author Lois-Ann Yamanaka winds her considerable literary talent around a story for young people. She doesn't dumb down her writing for the age group, maintaining the lyric style and imagery of her adult works, but keeping it simple. Her characters, as in previous books, speak pidgin.

"Name Me Nobody" is full of the anguish of adolescence: the fierce face of peer pressure, the need to belong and the confusion of love and blooming sexuality.

Emi-lou's best friend is Yvonne Shigeko Vierra, a name that makes her, in the eyes of the community, "half smart" from her Japanese mother and "half-stupid" from her Portuguese father. Yvonne claims "Von" as her nickname, which irritates her father because it sounds too "butchie."

Von -- beautiful, athletic and smart -- is Louie's defender and protector. She devotes herself to a campaign to help Emi lose weight, shoplifting diet pills and laxatives for her and exhorting her to exercise. Louie, in turn, defends Von when other kids tease her about her "half-stupid" side.

The two are inseparable until Von falls in love with a girl on their softball team.

Homosexuals aren't unfamiliar to the girls; they are "all around us in this town ... tough aunties with pretty girlfriends, uncles with soft voices and buffed bodies, and uncles who are sometimes aunties ..."

Louie doesn't want her friend to be "one lez," but it isn't the homosexuality that bothers her as much as having to share Von's attention. As she discovers her own identity, Louie tries to refit herself into Von's once safe and now insecure embrace.

"Name Me Nobody" reflects Yamanaka's imaginative use of local experiences: the thrill of shopping at Liberty House instead of Penney's; the ritual and traditions of high school restroom hangouts; and the low-, middle- and high-rated classes in which students are placed and judged.

The teen-age and adult characters that inhabit the book swirl around the the changing tensions of friendship and the recognition and acceptance of each other's differences. How Louie comes to terms with betrayal, loyalty and love makes for an aching, engrossing story.

Lois-Ann Yamanaka.

Yamanaka is not a writer who skims a surface. She shatters it, then she pulls the pieces together to create a whole with points and ridges that may make some people uncomfortable.

"Name Me Nobody" is aimed for readers 12 and older, according to its publisher, Hyperion Books for Children, but some elements in the book may be too mature for the front end of that age group. By the same token, the novel may capture adult readers.

"Name Me Nobody" is a full-bodied story with images that break and mend the heart at the same time.

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