The Barnes & Noble Review
War creates many exiles in the heartbreaking new novel by Kiana Davenport, the critically acclaimed author of the multigenerational saga of Hawaiian history, geography, and culture Shark Dialogues. Davenport again sets her book in Hawaii, then follows a diverse and captivating cast of characters across the globe through events determined by World War II and its aftermath. From Honolulu to New Orleans, Paris to New Britain, Shanghai to Kowloon, Song of the Exile features rich locations as varied and ultimately as haunted as its characters. Each of the central characters the brilliant jazz musician Keo and the flawlessly beautiful love of his life, Sunny; the reluctant but brave soldier Krash and his own defiantly self-possessed lover, Malia struggles to come to terms with the impositions of both war and colonization: a loss of entitlement, of free will, of dignity. The concept of "exile" takes on several meanings, however, with hunger for belonging and for community weighed against hunger for bodily sustenance and for sanity in the most harrowing moments captured here. In Davenport's rich tapestry of myth and history, of the political and domestic spheres, of brutal desire and rare moments of exquisite joy, the final song played is, if not entirely triumphant, then at last and completely transcendent.
The most cruelly exiled characters in this image-laden novel are the women enslaved by the Japanese in their rampage across the Pacific. Davenport's project is openly political. Sunny, daughter of the Hawaiian native, Butterfly, and the Koreandoctor,Samchock Sung, represents a composite character of all the "comfort women" that Japanese soldiers brutalized during the war. Raped as many as 80 times a day, most of these women were murdered when losing the war became inevitable. In the feminist tradition of reclaiming stories lost to a largely male-authored history handed down in textbooks and documentaries, war records, and even novels, Davenport brings to light the nearly indescribable horror these women suffered. She's done her homework well. In driving prose that conveys to the last detail the nightmare existence thrust upon these women, Davenport never loses track of the ways subjugation bonds victims together while also causing them to turn on each other.
In interviews, Davenport reports that some of the women who survived this sexual enslavement live on today in anonymity, still frightened of showing their faces even to a listener as sympathetic as Davenport. To these women she dedicates Song of the Exile. Their story remains at its heart, making the difference between this novel and a number of other recent works addressing World War II.
War creates strange lovers and renders home a dream never within reach. Those are the constant themes Song of the Exile shares with the recent American release of Penelope Fitzgerald's Human Voices. Set in London during the air raids and loosely based on Fitzgerald's own experiences working for the BBC, Human Voices chronicles the mystery and intimacy of the desperation and pluck of people under siege. A love affair also ignites the events of the recent Oprah-backed bestseller set in Nazi Germany, The Reader, by German author Bernhard Schlink. Charlotte Gray, by Sebastian Faulks, maps romantic devotion and moral anguish in a story that opens in London with a dramatic rescue of a downed pilot and culminates in Vichy France.
Of these books, Song of the Exile. is unique because it addresses a truly new arena of the war. Against the backdrop of Sunny's capture, we follow Keo from his early days learning piano and trumpet in Hawaii to his wandering through Louisiana with his fellow jazzmen, most of whom are African American. Racism and ostracism dog Keo's every move, even into Paris, where the Nazis love him for his soulful sound by night and hate him for his Hawaiian skin by day. But Keo is no one's patsy. Despite his small stature, he fights back, maintaining an unbowed spirit through internment in a concentration camp and, after the war, letting it fuel his desperate love for Sunny long after her disappearance.
Powered by a strong investment in the unvoiced experiences of Asian women subjugated by the Japanese and the Hawaiians who gave themselves to their country unquestionably, Kiana Davenport makes literary history in Song of the Exile. To absorb this lyricism of this book is also to learn the pidgin language of Hawaii's people and to fall in love with the beautiful land and traditions that make their islands sacred.
Read an Excerpt
MOONLIGHT ON WET FANGS. DOBERMANS FLINGING THEMSELVES against a fence trying to get at him. Keo snarled, sending them into spasms. Inside the fence, dew turned lawns an orient of pearls. A tin heiress's Indo-Persian fortress on the sea past Diamond Head.
To build the house more than two hundred men had labored a year laying the foundation, excavating five acres of lava.
It had been like watching the construction of the pyramids--hovering dust clouds, hammering sun, age-old calligraphy of heaving dark men. The actual house had taken several years, and during that time the heiress refused to build toilets for local laborers. They were forced to relieve themselves in the wreckage where they worked, wearing urine-soaked kerchiefs on their faces so they wouldn't choke on dust. She named her fortress Wahi Pana, legendary place. Locals called it Wahi K¯ukae, place for excreting.
Keo watched limos slide through her gates. Lights igniting the main house, several bands. All he had to do was give the guards his name: she was expecting her "golden men" from the Royal. He looked down at his toe-pinch leather shoes, knife-pleated trousers. He looked across the lawns. He had no business here. What he needed wasn't here. He turned away, remembering his mother, earlier, ironing his pants.
"Why you going dere? Dat rich wahine eat you boys alive, toss you out when she get bored."
His sister, Malia, had argued in her studied, drawing-room English. "Mama, that's how it is with haole. The trick is, while they're using us, to use them."
Malia, becoming so chic she no longer fit. She had begun to sound like someone not local but not quite white. Someonestuck in between.
Their mother, Leilani, stopped ironing and stared at her.
"Girlie, you talk to me like dat again, I put dis iron smack on yo' behind. You coming too high maka-maka."
Malia leaned back as if struck. "But you're the one said pau Pidgin in this house. No more talking like k¯anaka. You said learn 'proper' English."
Leilani shook her head. "True. But bumbye you coming too good fo' us."
Malia's voice turned soft and weary. She held out scabby arms. "Mama, look at this. Rash from cheap-starch uniforms. Chambermaid all day at the Moana. At night, dancing hapa-haole tourist hula for the same folks whose toilets I scrub at noon. Why shouldn't I have airs? I earned them."
Malia, golden-skinned, verging on voluptuous. Polynesian features gathered into something just short of beautiful. Only daughter, born between the first two sons, she was "cursed" with drive and cunning. Her drawers full of French perfumes thieved from hotel guests. Designer labels snipped from hats and dresses, resewn into hers.
She was a fraud, but Keo loved her deeply. Something in his sister calmed him down.
"I'm proud of you," he told her. "You going be somebody."
"You." She pushed him away. "One day you talk Pidgin, next day 'proper' English. Cunfunnit, make up your mind!"
He smiled. In his youth he'd pushed himself, learning "proper" English. Even without university degrees, Leilani vowed, her kids would sound educated, look educated, wear real leather shoes instead of flapping, rubber slippers. Still, Keo always slid back to Pidgin; it kept him in touch with himself.
Now he turned off Kalakaua Avenue, strolling the sands past the Royal. Farther down stood the U.S. Army installation, Fort DeRussy. He moved up near the open dance floor of the officers' club, watching couples move in circles. The Negro military band played moony renditions of "Body and Soul," "You Are Too Beautiful," their eyes tragic with boredom. One of the Negroes suddenly stood and pointed his horn at the ceiling, making it sob. Couples stopped dancing and listened.
The song was still recognizable, but he played it like someone shaking his skin loose, he was so tired of the world. He didn't bob or sway, just stood apart in ancient grooves. Then at some crucial point the horn turned on the player, the song and his wild talent grappled. He blew it slow, then fast, blew it so it screamed, then crooned. It cursed, then turned docile and familiar. He must have felt too naked. The song eventually won out, flowed into easy rhythms so couples moved round the floor again.
Band taking a break, the man strolled out on the sand, sweat pouring down his face.
Keo approached. "Say. You were great."
"Naw. Great don't reach this far. Not on this fuckin' rock." He turned, peered close, saw Keo was local. "Oh, man, I'm sorry. Thought you was one of the boys from the base."
Keo laughed softly. "I don't mind. Is that a clarinet?"
The soldier looked him up and down. "You sure don't know nothing. That's a tenor sax."
He walked back to the bandstand, returning with the horn, the thing shimmering and furtive like a weapon. Keo touched its big primordial mouth.
"That part don't mean much," the Negro said. "Up here"--he danced the valves with his fingers--"is where you make it happen."
He saw the reverence with which Keo stroked the thing, the way he listened. "You like music? You play?"
"Uke, guitar ... piano."
"What you play on piano?"
"Anything. All I gotta do is hear it once."
"I don't need to," Keo said.
"Hey! You pretty hip for a cat can't tell clarinet from sax. This I gotta see."
He went back to the bandstand, leaned down to the drummer, and motioned for Keo to wait in the shadows. An hour later they packed up their instruments.
"We're jamming back of Pony's Billiards, off Hotel Street. Just 'dark' boys. Want to sit in?"
Keo stepped back. "I'm not a pro. I've never played with strangers."
They laughed good-naturedly. "Let's see how good you listen. I'm Dew. This here's Handyman."
In that way he became a camp rat, following Dew's band from base to base on weekends--Fort DeRussy, Schofield Barracks, Tripler Air Base--and afterwards, all-night jam sessions in back rooms of billiard parlors and bars. Still, he couldn't screw up the nerve to play with them, awed by their dark, obverse nobility, the ferocious investitures of their sounds.
"So this is jazz."
"Jazz, ragtime--it's all just torching," Dew explained.
He grew to love their slang, their names, even their coloring--a wash of blacks, mahoganies, tans, jaunty yellows, not unlike Hawai'ians. He studied the massed residue of sweat caught in smoky lamplight, washing down dark faces like wet jewels, as one man stood and blew his horn in the softest, most elegant way. Telling of lost dreams, lost realms, misguided innocence and honor. Another took the drums apart, took songs apart with deafening crashes and wallops sliding into tom-tom rhythms, crazy cymbal flourishes, then put them together again with brushes, gentle splishes and splashes.
Keo pounded tables, wanting to scream, wanting to tell them what it meant being there, being with them, forever freed from silence. They teased him, wanting him to play. He wasn't ready, knew he wasn't good enough. Still, his love of rhythm and tempo, and syncopation, his inability to express it, endeared him to them. They adopted him, took him to taxi dance halls where Filipino bands mixed Latin rhythms with big-band sounds. He still couldn't read music, had no way to practise or improvise. He slept with the radio to his ear, absorbing all he could get, even in dreams.
One day six husky Hawai'ians staggered up Kalihi Lane, a lidless upright Steinway missing keys balanced between them. His father, Timoteo, had found it in the dump behind Shirashi Mortuary, where he was head janitor and coffin repairman. That night after work, Keo stood gaping. Warped hammers hung with leis, sprung wires taped haphazardly, its dark, squat front reminiscent of a bulldog with missing teeth.
He bought manuals and tools, repairing it one key, one felt hammer at a time. His hands took on the smell of glue and lacquer. Neighbors heard the nightly whine of planing, wood shavings curling in air like flimsy locks. His mother sat frowning at the black mass uglifying her garage.
"Why you need dis? Why you no just listen radio? Good kine music on 'Hawai'i Calls.'"
He was patient. "Mama. I'm going to be a serious musician. Not some joker playing 'Hukilau' for tourists."
Sawdust settled on her cheeks. "Then why you no play music of k¯ahiko, ancestors? Real Hawai'ian kine, wit' gourds, skin drums."
"I'm going to play jazz."
"What kine music dat?"
He wanted to say it was like confession, and doing penance, a way of playing that exhausted each man's genius and dementia. He wanted to say that after jazz, all other music would be dead.
Some nights, brother Jonah passing him pliers, a wire cutter, he worked on the Steinway till dawn. Then he walked down to the ocean. And he drank the sea he swam in, nourished and submerged. For that quiet time, nothing mattered. He had his dream. He had the sea. Wet peaks that soothed him, time untying him with salty hands.