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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The Hole: Yasuko Kikuchi’s Novel Revisited

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It’s been ten years since Yasuko Kikuchi first ventured to Lahaina, Hawaii, with the intention of writing a book — her own to “spark a conversation about cultural differences in the United States.” You didn’t hear about that conversation, and that’s fitting, because The Hole, Ms. Kikuchi’s follow-up to her 2009 memoir Looking for Kenneth, is more about her journey than about any moral ambiguity in the nation’s culture clash, and more about her own process than the journey as such.

Ms. Kikuchi, who had spent the previous decade making “country music” in Japan, was originally drawn to the music in Hawaii because of its laid-back cultural identity. But as she digs deeper into the people and history of the Hawaiian islands, she discovers a man intimately tied to the story that gave rise to her memoir — Kenneth G. Nguyen, her composer friend and classmate at Wesleyan University.

Ms. Kikuchi received substantial notoriety on the back of Looking for Kenneth, which gave rise to the attention that followed — in Canada, where she eventually stayed. She had to decide whether or not to try her luck on the West Coast, an idea she discussed with herself. Ultimately, she decided it was time to return to her roots in Hawaii. When she finished that novel, it became clear to her that she wanted to weave Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian culture into the plot of her next story.

The Hole is more introspective, more introspective. Yet the novel takes a page from Looking for Kenneth in having Yasuko go through quite a transformation before revealing herself to Kenji, the man she is now dating.

This is the story of a person. Both Yasuko and Kenji exhibit moments of self-discovery that ultimately yield to a more mature self-awareness. Like Yasuko, Kenji must learn not to judge a book by its cover.

Kenji is eventually unmasked as the Vietnam War veteran Kenji Perez, a hulking figure in his mid-40s, who gets a shot at romance with Yasuko when he can’t meet anyone else in Lahaina without making small talk. It is Kenji’s anger with himself that pushes him toward Yasuko and her intellectual challenges, but by the end of the novel, Kenji is able to see himself in Yasuko’s evolving self. By the end of the novel, it’s as if Kenji himself has found clarity on matters of self and self-preservation.

The Hole has been both critically acclaimed and predictably ignored at bookstores across the country. In my opinion, it suffers from expectations of every version of and every possible similarity to a book that is not as familiar to an audience as its predecessor.

“Sharing is everything,” Yasuko notes in her third chapter, and The Hole suggests that individuals are complicated, as much as we wish they weren’t. We have no idea who someone is until they share that very little. That, more than any scene or plot twist, is what The Hole needs to penetrate.

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