By Nadine Kam
TO be in a Lois-Ann Yamanaka novel is to be somebody.
Take Fred Ball, who had a cameo appearance as himself in her last book, "Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers." Anyone who grew up in the '60s watching "The Checkers and Pogo Show" after school, knows the slightly bald, bespectacled nerd also known as Professor Fun.
Yamanaka still gushes about the time Professor Fun came to get her autograph at a book signing for "Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers."
This time out, her novel "Blu's Hanging" features a lead character named Ivah Kinimaka, whose namesake Iva Kinimaka is an entertainer who also wears a chef's hat as a caterer and owner of the Kalihi Diner's.
At Diner's, where Yamanaka met Kinimaka for the first time last week, Yamanaka said she's never disappointed when she meets one of her childhood idols. "They're always so nice!"
It's hard for Yamanaka to acknowledge that these days she, too, is somebody. She is one of four Asian-American writers with Hawaii roots invited to speak at Wellesley College April 29 as "The Women from Bamboo Ridge." The other writers are Nora Okja Keller, Juliet S. Kono and Cathy Song. All four are also in demand for writing workshops at the school on April 28, as well as at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
And Yamanaka is on a creative roll. With "Blu's Hanging" just in the book stores this month, she already has her next book completed, and is full of ideas for a fifth on which she is collaborating with her father.
At 13, Ivah takes on her late mother's role in raising her precocious brother Blu and sister Maisie, a child so afraid of the world that she rarely speaks.
The Ogatas' "Poppy," weighed down by sorrow at the loss of his wife, the drudgery of work, plus a dark family secret, is too lost in his own world to pay much attention to the kids. He's aware only of the times they embarrass him.
Poppy dwells on Blu's weight and his penchant for trouble without once acknowledging Blu's good heart and zest for life. Neither is Poppy aware that Ivah is becoming a woman, so that when she begins menstruating, it is Blu who comes to her rescue.
"Childhood is such a scary and dangerous time," Yamanaka said. "I wouldn't ever want to go back to it. At the same time there's a sense of wonder that prevents you from being as jaded as you are as an adult. I guess that's the magic of childhood. They still have an innocent way of seeing the world."
That innocence is especially miraculous considering how much children really do know about the ways of the world. Class distinctions, racism, cruelty to animals, cruelty to each other, are sadly part of the lessons of life.
"They're very sensitive to it, even in the small things like a boy's lunch," said Yamanaka, whose former life as a teacher showed her even more of children's lives.
In "Blu," a home lunch has the power to stir feelings of shame, envy, pity or superiority, depending on whether one was a have (Superman lunchbox, freshly made musubi and four Twinkies) or a have-not (brown paper bag and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil, not Ziploc.)
Things got worse in high school, she said, where "being cool and not being cool and trying to fit in with a new crowd made us crazy."
She remembers losing one of her best friends because of a thoughtless stunt she pulled as a 10th-grader at Hilo High. Claude Kansaku had written a poem he meant to keep personal, but she screamed it as loud as she could in front of a building filled with students.
"I guess I was attention-seeking in a bad way, but I don't know why I did it," she said. "I was already a little weirdo. After that we were at war."
The two finally made peace at their 10-year class reunion in 1979. "He told me, 'You were the one person I wanted to see because I don't remember why I was so mean to you.' "
In trying to make a case for kindness, "Blu" addresses issues of hypocrisy in religion, blood relations and human intentions.
She found her work inspired in part by slack-key master John Keawe, whom she was drawn to because of her 5-year-old son John T.S. Inferrera V.
"He was like Maisie. He didn't talk and I didn't know what world he was inhabiting. The only thing that would draw him out of his silence was music, slack-key music.
"It did something for me too, listening to 'Blue Hawaii.' John plays it so slow and it sounds so sad. It's not like the Elvis version at all. And it gives another message, that we are something else besides what tourists see. We are not sarong-clad, beach-romping babies."
Naturally, she wrote Keawe a fan letter and they continue to correspond -- one somebody to another.
Even so, Yamanaka remains skeptical about her success, viewing it as a temporary feast that could easily evaporate should the book-buying public grow weary of Asian-American authors.
"Asian-Americans have a harder time making any kind of living or name for themselves," she said.
"The rules are different for me. I'm not going to be another Amy Tan because I don't think the reading America, the book clubs, are able to take all of us. They really want just that one."
That is a shame, she said, "because there are so many of us with stories to tell, and to me, the more the merrier."
She said it has taken three generations for Asian Americans to tell their stories because grandparents and parents were too occupied adapting to a new culture and trying to work their way to respectability to examine their lives.
"Our generation is in a good place to tell them," she said. "All I can do is keep my fingers moving and stay one project ahead of myself. I'm doing OK but I'm not living in Kahala and I did not buy my mother her Mercedes."
Watch, listen, see Lois-Ann Yamanaka:
"A.M. Hawaii with Granny Goose": KGMB, 7:15 to 7:30 a.m. tomorrow
"Talk of the Islands": Hawaii Public Radio, KHPR-FM, 10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. tomorrow
University of Hawaii, Manoa, Art Auditorium: Reading and signing, 7:30 to 9 p.m. tomorrow
Borders Books and Music,Ward Centre,: Reading and signing, 2 to 3 p.m. Sunday
Ala Moana Hotel: Reading with Sandra Cisneros, 8 to 10 p.m. April 18