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Loving the Unlovable Body in Yamanaka’s Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre By Christa Baiada Lois-Ann Yamanaka is one of the most widely known and published local Japanese writers living in Hawai’I, yet her work is rarely taught and receives less critical attention than it warrants. Moving from poetry with her first book Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre (1993) to fiction, she has published a short story cycle, four novels, a young adult novel and a children’s book, and has been nominated for and received prestigious awards, including the Pushcart Prize for Poetry, the Lannan Literary Award, and grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Carnegie Foundation. Much lauded for the politically powerful use of Hawaiian Creole English in which many of her books are narrated and for her emphasis on local Hawaiian culture and resistance, Yamanaka has also been severely criticized for objectionable portrayals of local Filipinos as sexual predators, a stereotype that emerged from bachelor camps of Filipino plantation laborers and continues to play a role in racial discrimination against local Filipino communities in Hawai’i. This necessary critique, primarily in response to Blu’s Hanging (1997), has occasioned important critical engagement with Yamanaka’s work as well as reflection in the Asian American literary community but has also overshadowed her other works and aspects of her writing. For the past several years I have included Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre with great success in my Asian American Literatures course at the large urban community college at which I teach. Students consistently respond strongly and generally positively to the work, which they have called raw, real, and paradoxically both familiar and unlike anything that they have read before. Despite the setting of the poetic novellas in the 1970s, decades before many of my students were born, and the very specific setting in Pahala, Hawai’i, a world apart from New York City, male and female students alike were struck by Yamanaka’s taking on stories rarely told (or read in school) but nonetheless identifiable to them. For despite the specificity of the world of the book, the coming of age experience of her young protagonists – enmeshed in racial, class, and sexual politics they little understand and cannot escape – are recognizable to my students. I imagine the themes would resonate with various student populations, high school or college, from racially and ethnically diverse and lower- and working-class backgrounds (though in our contemporary political climate of education,” trigger warnings” for sexual violence might be advisable). Yamanaka’s pervasive and continual exploration of young, ethnic, working-class female experience throughout her oeuvre has been minimally explored in the scholarship but is worthy of continued critical attention and a reconsideration for inclusion in the classroom. Each of Yamanaka’s works centers on the life of a young, female, local Japanese protagonist, either on the brink of womanhood or reflecting on her passage into womanhood. These texts, written in the first person, give voice to often

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Abstract

Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s award-winning yet remarkably neglected Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre (1993) explores female adolescence and coming of age in a rich, polyphonic collection of verse novellas. “Loving the Unlovable Body” focuses on Yamanaka’s treatment of this transition as a fully embodied, fraught, and often painful experience by expicating the uses of several tropes used to express girls’ experiences of their bodies: eating, voice, eyes, fragmentation, and marking/naming. These metaphors contribute to the development of a complex range of possibilities from devastating to hopeful, presented in juxtaposition and interplay, for girls’ relationships to their culturally denigrated bodies and the consequences to their attempts at positive sense of self.

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