Kalihi ghosts inspired novel
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Michael Tsai
The ghosts had already waited a lifetime for Lois-Ann Yamanaka to arrive. Children that they eternally were, they weren't about to wait for introductions.
"The first night we moved in, things started happening," said Yamanaka. "We were sleeping in the living room because all our stuff was still packed, and my son's tricycle started pedaling by itself. It did one rotation around the room."
Duly freaked, Yamanaka lay down on the floor to see if there was an incline. It was perfectly level.
The year was 1992, and Yamanaka, acclaimed author of "Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers," "Father of Four Passages" and other novels, thought she had found the ideal place for her family to settle.
Tucked in the back of Kalihi Valley, a place of out-of-time charm that reminded Yamanaka of Hilo, the modest house was an unexpected bargain in a real-estate market inflated by Japanese investment. The family bought the property from a church, and Yamanaka took the code for the entrance key box — "joy" — as a good omen.
What Yamanaka didn't know at the time was that "the house had other inhabitants."
Over the next few months, the family lived in a state of growing unease as objects moved, video equipment turned on by itself and unattended press-to-play toys, like Barney, echoed through the house in the middle of the night.
"One time, one of the toys kept playing over and over, so I tried to open the battery latch to shut it off," Yamanaka said. "It wouldn't open, so I got a hammer and smashed it. They were real kolohe."
"They," Yamanaka eventually discovered, were a trio of orphans, long deceased, lingering in the valley until someone could show them the way home. "They" are the reason behind Yamanaka's extraordinary new novel, "Behold the Many."
WAITING TO GO HOME
Yamanaka believes the ghosts may initially have been drawn to her son, John, who is autistic.
"With autism, you have an elevated sixth sense to compensate," Yamanaka said. "Part of it was him. He attracted them because he could see and acknowledge their presence."
Yamanaka said the ghosts' presence was particularly disturbing for John.
"One healer said that because there were multiple energies around, (John) was getting confused," she said. "He didn't know where he belonged.
The family contacted a spiritualist who was able to clear the ghosts from their house, but, Yamanaka said, they promptly found a new home — with her close friend and fellow author Nora Okja Keller. Highly literary ghosts, apparently.
"It's important to feel safe, and to have a home where you can feel safe — and Barney should not be talking in the middle of the night!" Yamanaka said. "Me, I so evil, I gave Barney to Nora."
Yamanaka says Keller's young daughter was able to see the ghosts. "She was at an age when reality and unreality are not clear," Yamanaka said. "She knew their names — strange, turn-of-the-century kinds of names — and she could tell when they were hungry or cold."
Through consultations with spiritualists and her own research, Yamanaka learned of the tuberculosis outbreak that hit Honolulu in the early 1900s. Many of those stricken were confined to the Honolulu Home for Incurables (later renamed Leahi Hospital), but many others, including poor plantation workers, were forced to place their children in orphanages, like the one built by the Sacred Hearts Brothers in Kalihi Valley.
"What I understood was they were waiting to go back to their plantation home because their mom told them that she would come back to get them," Yamanaka said. "But nobody came for them. They didn't know they were supposed to go home to God. They would have waited forever."
Yamanaka recruited a friend with intuitive abilities to help her communicate with the spirits. She remembers that during the first "meeting," held in the back of the valley, she heard "sounds of kids in the trees — so extraordinarily frantic, like monkeys.
"The intensity and the chattering was because it wasn't just the (three orphans)," she said. "There were so many children who were stuck."
Through the medium, Yamanaka struck a deal with the three stranded spirits.
"I told them that if I tell your story, you have to go home," she said. "I'll get people to tell you where and how. The intent was to help them go home to Heaven and be in peace."
The meeting ended as evening approached. "It started to get dark, and the chattering in the trees got really intense," Yamanaka said. "My friend said, "We have to leave ... now!"
A PROMISE KEPT
In "Behold the Many," Yamanaka weaves the story of the ghosts with her own recurring themes of family, departure and re-creation.
In the novel, three young sisters, Anah, Aki and Leah Medeiros, are sent to an orphanage in Kalihi Valley to be treated for tuberculosis.
Of the three, only Anah survives, but her life is haunted, literally, by the ghosts of her dead sisters, who cannot leave and are unwilling to let her go. Cursed, Anah struggles to reconcile her ties to the dead with the life she forges among the living. The story's inevitable resolution is classic Yamanaka — a confluence of beauty and brutality that redeems all.
The draft was years in the rendering, but once it was completed, Yamanaka again convened with the three spirits, this time to say goodbye.
"We brought dinner, balloons, cupcakes, chocolate, stuff that children would like, and it was quiet, like a Sunday afternoon on a summer day," Yamanaka said. "That evening, we heard a gong from a Buddhist monastery reverberating through the valley and, to me, that was the end."
But not quite. As Yamanaka's editor John Glusman told her, "Maybe you did the job for the spirits, but now you have to do your job for your readers."
Glusman wanted Yamanaka to do an extensive rewrite of the piece to suit the literary demands of historical fiction. As part of the revision, Glusman told Yamanaka to switch from first person to third person — a narrative point of view that Yamanaka had never before attempted.
"I thought to myself, 'Eh, I just freed a whole (expletive) valley of ghosts!" Yamanaka said. "I got habuts for six months."
Nevertheless, Yamanaka dutifully studied the three boxes of historical fiction novels that Glusman sent her and explored the vast narrative possibilities the third-person (objective) point of view opened.
"What you can know (as a third-person narrator) is so large," she said. "I didn't go full-on omniscient, but there is still so much you can know. There is a kind of freedom in that.
"It built a distance between me and the character (Anah), and it got easier and easier as I got into it," she said. "But it's not something I would choose to do or would do again."
Despite the departure, the final product bears Yamanaka's unmistakable imprint — a melding of prose and poetry that envelopes the polyphony of languages and dialects spoken by the characters.
Yamanaka has a few ideas for her next project — she still has designs on a novel written entirely in pidgin — but she's waiting to hear from an editor of higher authority.
"I'm asking God to make his will clear to me," she said. "If he doesn't tell me tomorrow or next week, I can wait. I don't want to be driven by what people want, or just to be published."
Nationally, critics are praising "Behold the Many," citing its "beautiful, harsh prose and thematic vision" (Publishers Weekly), and "chillingly spectral portrait of souls tormented by love and guilt" (Booklist).
"I see this work, and every work I do, as a child," Yamanaka said. "They go out into the world and do what they have to do. What their purpose is, I don't know or understand.
"I just kept a promise I made to three people who spent a few years in my life."
Reach Michael Tsai at firstname.lastname@example.org.