San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Sen. Mazie Hirono shows her grit
Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, DHawaii, first captured national attention for denunciations of President Donald Trump. In her memoir, she calls him “the charlatan in chief,” “the pathologically unfit narcissist in the White House,” a “New York con man,” “the most fraudulent president in modern history, a “crude realityTV pretender,” “the most xenophobic, misogynistic, corrupt, and selfdefeating president in history,” a “grifter” and a “liar.”
Her mother moved the family to Hawaii to escape her abusive Japanese husband and worked two jobs, day and night, never complaining about the tremendous effort it took to feed, clothe and educate her children. Chieko Sato Hirono overcame her difficulties with the English language to become an expert newspaper copy editor and taught her children not by lectures but by her example, cultivating, as well, her own garden and instilling in her daughter a similar aesthetic sensibility.
As a Japanese American girl, Mazie Hirono was supposed to let the boys take the lead, and she did insofar as her first ventures in local and state politics involved running the campaigns of her male contemporaries. Men kept telling her to wait her turn, but she saw nothing about them that suggested she ought to accept second place. So she launched her own campaigns for the state Legislature (1981), and the offices of lieutenant governor (1994), governor (2002), U.S. representative (2007) and senator (2013) — losing only the governor’s race.
By no means does Hirono present her story as just one victory after another, or as simply a political parable. She tells amusing stories about her foibles, including getting hopelessly lost because of her poor sense of direction. She confesses to setbacks in her love life that informed her decision to put off marriage until she was 40.
Hirono’s grit is best shown in her encounter with former Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the dean of female senators, who told her, “You’re going to have to be a lot more vocal and aggressive around here.” Hirono was amazed that this “groundbreaking historymaking feminist would hold what I saw as stereotypical notions of me as a demure and nonconfrontational
Hirono replied, “Excuse me, Barbara, but you don’t know anything about me or my culture. You don’t know anything about what I’ve had to overcome to get here, so I don’t need lectures about how I should behave from you.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DMinn., later told Hirono “she had never heard anyone speak back to Barbara that way.”
Hirono’s directness can be a liability, but she has persuaded the likes of Republican politicians such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to come over to her side on certain issues, such as a bill proposing a “charitable tax contribution to help victims of a recent typhoon in the Philippines,” said Graham, who appreciated Hirono’s “drive and determination.”
And Mikulski? Years later she admitted to Hirono, “I still can’t believe I spoke to you like that.”
From its title, readers can guess that Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel, “Whereabouts,” is about place. The book’s chapter headings support this theory: They list the narrator’s meanderings over the course of a year in Italy. We start “On the Sidewalk,” venture “In the Piazza” and journey beyond: “By the Sea,” “In the Waiting Room” and “At the Crypt.”
And the book, the first novel Lahiri wrote in Italian and translated into English herself, is an elegant narrative about the limits — physical and psychological — faced by an Italian woman in midlife. The unnamed narrator has chosen a solitary, academic path yet seeks connection
as she circles her city, detailing small interactions. She buys theater tickets for “just one”; she visits the shore solo, envying other swimmers who, unlike her, can get past the wave break.
Early on, she encounters a friend as they approach a bridge, each from either end. They meet in the middle, stopping to watch shadows of other pedestrians broadcast by the morning sun onto the wall of a building. The silhouettes “look like skittish ghosts advancing in a row, obedient souls passing from one realm to another.”
The friend is a married man whom she “might have been involved with,” but now he doesn’t even have time for coffee. So they part, heading in opposite directions.
The silhouettes reference Plato’s allegory about cave dwellers staring at a rock face who mistake flickering shadows for the actual substance of life. Plato suggests this represents our limited understanding of the world. He recommends stepping out into the light.
Change your view, blow your mind.
Highly acclaimed for her previous four books
of fiction detailing the Indian immigrant experience in America, Lahiri blew the literary world’s collective mind in 2012, when she jumped ship to Italy and began to write in a new language. (She has since returned and now teaches writing and translation at Princeton.)
It was a radical move for an American writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000 with her debut story collection, “Interpreter of Maladies.” Lahiri, turns out, was in love — with the Italian language. She explains in her 2015 essay collection, “In Other Words” (her first book written in Italian): “I think I am escaping both my failures with regard to English and my success. Italian offers me a very different literary path.”
“Whereabouts” is a headier, more ephemeral book than Lahiri’s earlier ones. The characters are lightly sketched, though her prose shimmers with precise detail. The novel can be read as a character’s crisis of disorientation and loneliness. And it offers a philosophical parable on fears that keep us in the dark. Yet, as always with Lahiri, there’s more to unpack: The bridge scene is as much about the “mute spectacle” of the silhouettes as it is about the bridge itself.
Whether it’s an Americanborn son misunderstanding his Bengali father’s wishes in “The Namesake” (2003), or an Indian guide seeing dangers that American tourists cannot in “Interpreter of Maladies,” Lahiri has demonstrated that she is a master of cultural collisions. “Whereabouts” returns to her everpresent theme, now in an Italian setting, of the terrors and joys wrought by bridging worlds.