Last reviewed: June 2017
July 2, 1956
Born to a Japanese American family, Cynthia Kadohata (kah-doh-hah-tah) spent her childhood in Georgia, Michigan, Arkansas, and Chicago. Her family had to move often because her father, like other Japanese Americans, faced hardships in obtaining work during and after World War II. Kadohata’s parents divorced when she was nine, and at the age of fifteen Kadohata moved to Los Angeles, where she attended Hollywood High School. She soon dropped out, but after she turned eighteen she attended Los Angeles City College and later transferred to the University of Southern California, where she earned a degree in journalism.
In 1977, Kadohata was involved in a serious automobile accident, which damaged her right arm. She moved to Boston to stay with her sister while recuperating. During this period, she read extensively and discovered the power of fiction. Convinced that fiction could present the truth more effectively than journalistic writing, she decided to write stories. Cynthia Kadohata.
After several failed attempts at getting her work published, Kadohata was encouraged when in 1986 The New Yorker accepted two of her short stories, “Charlie O” and “Jack’s Girl.” Both stories were later incorporated in her first novel, The Floating World.
Kadohata briefly attended a creative writing program at the University of Pittsburgh, and she also enrolled at Columbia University but dropped out again, convinced that being on the road and observing real people provided the best training for a writer. She moved back to Los Angeles and continued writing.
In 1988, Kadohata’s first novel was accepted for publication. The Floating World is a coming-of-age novel about Olivia, a second-generation American of Japanese origin. Olivia, who narrates her story, impresses the readers with her powers of perception and keen observation. She notices the tension between her parents very early in her childhood. The family—Olivia, her three brothers, and the maternal grandmother, Obasan—moves frequently from town to town before settling in Arkansas. The title of the novel comes from the grandmother’s word ukiyo—the floating world—for their life of travel.
The grandmother becomes Olivia’s link to the past. Olivia and Obasan do not get along well, but Olivia is intrigued by this cigar-smoking woman, once “a young woman with spirit,” who had turned into “an old woman of fire.” The grandmother dies early in the narrative, but her spirit remains alive in Olivia’s remembering of the stories she used to tell and in her diaries, which remain in Olivia’s possession. Kadohata does not write overtly of the Japanese internment camps or of the discrimination against the community, yet through the depiction of her grandmother’s struggle for survival and of her parents’ lives she reveals the discrimination and hardships endured by Japanese immigrants.
With the publication of The Floating World, Kadohata was heralded as an exciting new voice in fiction. She was sometimes compared to Amy Tan, whose novels deal with the lives of Chinese Americans, though some Asian American critics took her to task for not judging more harshly the societal injustice to the Japanese American community. As a result of the success of The Floating World, Kadohata was awarded a Whiting Foundation Award and a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In the Heart of the Valley of Love, her second novel, is set in 2052 in Los Angeles and tells the story of Francie, the daughter of a Japanese mother and an African American father. This novel, once again, is about the search for identity, but the protagonist’s ethnic identity has little to do with the turmoils of growing up. After her parents’ death, Francie, at the age of thirteen, leaves Chicago to live with her aunt in Los Angeles, which Kadohata describes as a city clearly divided into areas of haves and areas of have-nots. The nonwhites and poor whites make up 64 percent of the population. Corruption and bribery are common because of acute shortages of gas, water, and other essential commodities, which are strictly rationed, and violence is commonplace with riots erupting periodically all over the country. Because there seems to be no system of justice operating, young people become cynical; they apply tattoos to their faces and their bodies as a way of “obliterating themselves.” In the Heart of the Valley of Love is a vivid portrayal of a doomed Los Angeles, but Kadohata at the end of the novel allows her narrator to feel some optimism about the future.
In 1995, Kadohata departed from her previous work with the publication of The Glass Mountains. In this science-fiction novel, a young girl finds that her peaceful village Bakshami on the planet Artekka faces an approaching war.
While Kadohata's first novels had all focused on younger characters, beginning in 2004, Kadohata also began writing specifically for younger audiences, publishing her first children's novel, Kira-Kira. The story of a young Japanese American girl adjusting to life in the rural South following World War II as well as her beloved sister's illness, the book won the Newbery Medal. She followed this effort with Weedflower (2006), which received the PEN Center USA Literary Award for children's literature. Inspired by her father's experience, the book follows a young Japanese American girl whose family life is altered once they are sent to live on an American Indian reservation following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. After publishing Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam (2007), Outside Beauty (2008), and A Million Shades of Gray (2010), she wrote another award-winning novel, titled The Thing about Luck (2013). The book, which tells the story of a twelve-year-old Japanese American girl as she spends a tough season harvesting wheat under the supervision of her old-fashioned grandparents, received the 2013 National Book Award for young people's literature. The following year, she changed settings to place her eleven-year-old protagonist in Kazakhstan in the novel Half a World Away.