By Cynthia Kadohata
196 pages
London: Minerva, Octopus Publishing Group, 1989.
ISBN # 0-7493-9048-4

Comments of Bob Corbett
November 2002

This gentle meditative novel tells the story of the Fujiitano family of Japanese-Americans from the time of World War II until about the early 1960s. The only daughter in this family of four children, Olivia, tells the story and does so with great sensitivity and genuineness.

However, this is not the full story of the Fujiitanos in any normal sense of telling a story. Olivia’s memories are quite selective, as though she is remembering for herself and ignoring the things that didn’t interest her and just recounting “the meaningful things.” It reads like such a private reflection.

I was as fascinated by what ISN’T here in the novel as what is here. Throughout most of the novel she never even mentions World War II and its impact on her family. Admittedly she would have been only a very young child, but surely the topic would have been discussed. In the entire novel there aren’t more than 5 sentences which relate to that traumatic period in the lives of Japanese-Americans, and only very late in the last few pages does she mention in passing that her father had been arrested during the war. However, we also hear, again, just in passing, that another of their Japanese friends went to college on the G.I. Bill. Yet the family lived in California at the time of the war, where the greatest impact on Japanese-Americans was felt.

In a similar fashion we never learn just how old Olivia is (nor anyone else in the family). I was able to get a sense of the time from a few references here and there. They moved from California to Arkansas when Olivia was 12 years old and shortly after, but its not clear if it is one to three-four years later, they do have television in their new home in Arkansas. In her mid to late teens we learn that she does listen to Chuck Berry, so I could get some idea of the time period.

These silences fascinated me. The jacket cover says this is a novel about the Japanese- American experience in the first generation of immigrants. I think it is not at all, but a novel that deals with that first generation experience of virtually all immigrants and abstracts a great deal from the Japanese-ness of the Fujiitano family and concentrates on what life is like for those first and second generation folks in the United States in the 1940 and 50s.

The title, The Floating World, refers to the world of unstable employment of the family in Olivia’s youngest days. Her parents and to a lesser extent, her grandmother who lives with them, are migrant workers, or at least workers who move from place to place. However, after Olivia’s 12th year they do settle out of the “floating world” and into the working class in Gibson, Arkansas where her father has purchased half interest in a garage. The concentration of her reports from this period, however, do not focus on her father, nor her stay-at-home mother, but on the rest of the Japanese community of Gibson which works at the local chicken hatchery, most of them as sexers. Olivia herself gets a part-time job there as a student, and then works there full-time, presumably after she finishes high school, but this is unclear, as an inoculator.

Kadohata writes:

None of the sexers every came to work late, and none of them at the hatchery were I worked had missed a day for the past year. Toshi hadn’t missed a day in five years, and some years she didn’t get a vacation. These people seemed unreal to me. One of them told me he hated the work so much when he started that he often felt he was being choked – he literally felt hands around his neck. That man hadn’t missed a day in three years, someone told me. I couldn’t believe how rough and tense they all were. Yet I liked them, and I wanted them to like me.

Later she continues:

Sometimes the sexers, Tan, and I stayed overnight at the hatchery. The sexers worked seventeen hours, slept five, worked seventeen. My hours were not so bad, so I got more sleep. All the sexers had jobs at other hatcheries, and they often worked as long as thirty or forty hours in a row at their various hatcheries. They took Dexedrine to stay awake and to help them drive from one hatchery to another.

In Gibson her story focuses mainly on the chicken hatchery and her on teen age love life.

The character of Olivia’s grandmother dominates in the novel even though she dies before they leave California, still very early in the novel. However, she was a powerful person and had a major impact on shaping Olivia’s person. She never ceases to talk and think of her grandmother, and her own role in her grandmother’s death, in which she didn’t call her parents when her grandmother was immobilized on the bath room floor.

Cynthia Kadohata transported me into the world of the Fugiitano family. She brought alive the bits and pieces of life that she choose to reveal and what I saw was interesting, though in no way startling or unordinary. Here were simple people, living their daily lives of work and struggle, and we watch a young woman come of age. There were no great complications or plot twists, it was like a selective video of someone’s life, a bit like family movies or photos. I didn’t learn a great deal, nor was I challenged to think a lot, but it was a soft and pleasant experience. Cynthia Kadohata writes well and reveals beautifully what she chooses selectively to share.

Bob Corbett

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