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Cynthia Kadohata is an award-winning novelist and short-story writer. Her short fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Grand Street, and the Pennsylvania Review, and her novels, including The Floating World and In the Heart of the Valley of Love, have been generally well received. In 2005 Kadohata received the prestigious Newbery Medal for her young-adult title Kira-Kira, a semi-autobiographical tale about a Japanese-American girl growing up in a small town in rural Georgia.
Like writers such as Amy Tan, Kadohata is frequently cited as a literary spokesperson for Asian Americans. This is a position about which she has expressed ambivalence; she told interviewer Lisa See in Publishers Weekly that "there's so much variety among Asian-American writers that you can't say what an Asian-American writer is." Kadohata's novels contain many clearly autobiographical features and have frequently been lauded for their striking imagery and their hauntingly lyrical narrative. Her writing has been compared to that of Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Mark Twain, and J.D. Salinger.
Kadohata was born July 2, 1956, in Chicago, Illinois. Her family moved often--to Michigan, Georgia, Arkansas, and California--in search of work. As she noted in her Newbery acceptance speech, published in Horn Book, "I really did talk with a heavy southern accent. My sister's name was Kim, which I pronounced 'Keeuhm,' and I never said, for instance, 'You should see that cloud,' but rather, 'Y'all should see that cloud.'" A voracious reader but an indifferent student, Kadohata dropped out of high school during her senior year, opting instead to go to work in a department store and a restaurant before enrolling in Los Angeles City College. From there, she transferred to the University of Southern California, where she earned a degree in journalism in 1977. After an automobile jumped the curb and severely injured her arm, Kadohata moved to Boston where she concentrated on her writing career. "I started looking at short stories," the author told See. "I had always thought that nonfiction represented the 'truth.' Fiction seemed like something that people had done a long time ago, and wasn't very profound. But in these short stories I saw that people were writing now, and that the work was very alive. I realized that you could say things with fiction that you couldn't say any other way."
Kadohata set herself the goal of writing one story each month, using money from temp jobs and her insurance settlement to support herself. After receiving numerous rejections, she sold a story to the New Yorker in 1986; that tale, along with two others also published by that prestigious magazine, would later become part of her debut novel. After a short spell attending graduate-level writing courses at the University of Pittsburgh, Kadohata transferred to Columbia University's writing program. However, when she sold The Floating World, she abandoned her program at Columbia.
Kadohata's 2006 young-adult novel, Weedflower, is set in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and chronicles the growing friendship between Sumiko Yamaguchi, a Japanese-American girl living in an internment camp, and a Native-American boy who lives on reservation lands. The work is loosely based on the childhood experiences of the author's father, as she explained on her Web site: "My father and his family were interned in the Poston camp on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in the Sonoran desert. One source claims the thermometer in 1942 hit more than 140 degrees in the Poston area." In the novel, Sumiko's uncle and grandfather are sent to North Dakota after the United States declares war on Japan; the rest of her family is transported to a camp in the Arizona desert. Despite the harsh living conditions and her frustrations at being imprisoned, "Sumiko finds hope and a form of salvation" by creating a garden, observed a contributor in Publishers Weekly. A reviewer in Kliatt praised Weedflower, calling it "a haunting story of dramatic loss and subtle triumphs."
Kadohata, a high school dropout turned Newbery winner, places a great amount of faith in the ability of literature to nurture and transform an individual. After she left school, the author explained in her Newbery acceptance speech, "I sought out the library near my home. Seeking it out was more of an instinct, really, not a conscious thought. I didn't think to myself, I need to start reading again. I felt it. I rediscovered reading--the way I'd read as a child, when there was constantly a book I was just finishing or just beginning or in the middle of. I rediscovered myself." She continued, "I look back on 1973, the year I dropped out of school, with the belief that libraries can not just change your life but save it. Not the same way a Coast Guardsman or a police officer might save a life, not all at once. It happens more slowly, but just as surely."
Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Vol. 71. Gale, 2006. Gale
Biography In Context. Web. 22 Feb. 2011
Reproduced by permission
1. Sumiko describes loneliness: (1) like everyone was looking at you, (2) like nobody was looking at you, (3) like you didnt care about anything at all and (4) like you were just about to cry over every little thing. How does she learn to live with loneliness? Compare her feelings of loneliness at the beginning of the novel to her feelings about leaving camp at the end of the story.
2. Sumiko is very excited when she is invited to Marsha's birthday party. Describe her entire family's reaction when she receives the invitation. Contrast the way Sumiko envisions the party and the way it really is. Discuss the definition of humiliation. How is the scene at Marsha's party the ultimate humiliation for Sumiko? Why doesn't she tell Uncle and Jiichan that she was uninvited to the party? Why does she feel that she can tell Bull? What do you think Marsha feels when her mother sends Sumiko away?
3. Describe Sumiko's relationship with Tak-Tak. How does she protect him throughout the novel?
4. Ichiro tells his family that the United States government may execute all the Nikkei if the war breaks out in Japan. Why does Auntie insist that he not discuss this at the dinner table? At what point in the novel does Sumiko begin to believe Ichiro's statement? Ichiro heard that the FBI has been keeping records on Nikkei for a number of years. Why are Jiichan and Uncle of special interest to the United States government?
5. Jiichan described his trip from Japan to Sumiko: "The thing that kept everybody going was a single word: America." (p. 92) Why did Jiichan feel that the word America was the most important thing his family owned? How did America betray him?
6. Why does Sumiko feel more American than her cousins? How does she deal with living in two very different cultures? What part of her Japanese heritage does she reject the most? What rituals do her family practice that makes her connect to her Japanese heritage? Explain how she takes this part of her life to the camp at Poston.
7. Explain what Jiichan meant when he told Sumiko: "The haji she felt was from her Japanese side and the anger was from her American side." (p. 99) Cite passages or scenes in the novel when Sumiko feels haji. Why should the United States government feel haji?
8. Bull makes a speech on New Year's Day. "You suffer so you can learn." (p. 64) Discuss how Sumiko and her family suffers. What does Sumiko learn from her suffering?
9. Describe Sumiko's friendship with Sachi Shibata. Why is Sumiko so willing to be Sachi's friend when she knows that Sachi lies? Sumiko also becomes friends with Frank, a Mohave boy, and Mr. Moto an older man who wants to plant a garden. "Friendship was really different from the way she had envisioned it all these years." (p. 163) Discuss what Sumiko expected from a friendship. What does the term "unlikely friendship" mean? How are Sumiko's relationships with Sachi, Frank and Mr. Moto "unlikely friendships"?
10. What is the symbolism of the moth on page 115?
11. Explain why the Native Americans resent the Japanese. Why is Sumiko more afraid of the Native Americans than the white people? What is her attitude toward both groups of people?
12. Why does the camp at Poston feel "final" to Sumiko? She doesn't want to leave when Auntie finds a job in a sewing factory near Chicago. Why does Uncle Kenzo tell her that she belongs with Auntie? Explain why Sumiko feels like an orphan when she leaves the camp. How does leaving the camp help her understand the real reason why Jiichan came to America?
Reproduced with permission from Simon and Schuster