Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lisa Linn Kanae, _Islands Linked by Ocean_ (Bamboo Ridge, 2009)


[Lisa Linn Kanae & Kimo Armitage]

This past Thursday, Bamboo Ridge Press launched (and the word is entirely appropriate in this context) Lisa Linn Kanae's book of short stories, Islands Linked by Ocean at UHM's Campus Center. Before I get to this new book of hers, let me say a few words about her previous book, Sista Tongue, which Tinfish published in 2001. Sista Tongue remains one of our most important titles; the book is taught in Hawai`i, Australia, England, and the continental United States. It combines the history of Pidgin English in Hawai`i with memoir with story telling with the aggressive design work of Kristin Gonazalez (now Lipman, who also designed Lisa's new book, albeit with more subtlety). I have always considered the chapbook to be an experimental essay, but a colleague once told me that her class had knocked their heads together for over an hour on the question, "why is this a poem?" When I asked why ask that question, she noted that Tinfish had published it, and Tinfish publishes poems. So be it. It is also a poem.

In Sista Tongue, Kanae celebrates a generation of Pidgin writers, most of whom flourished in the 1980s and 1990s, everyone from Eric Chock and Darrell Lum to Lois-Ann Yamanaka and Zack Linmark. These writers gave credence to a language that, as Kanae explains so patiently in her book, was considered much more impediment than speech, more impoverishment than song. Their work in Pidgin enabled her to write about Pidgin as a subject; her book joined theirs as a significant work of local literature. At least a generation of students since has found Sista Tongue an enabling text, poring over it for the history of a language some of them are still ashamed to speak.

With this new book of short stories, Kanae joins those who have used Pidgin not simply as subject, but also as medium for their work about Hawai`i. Most of the stories keep to the convention of narration in English, dialogue in Pidgin, though "Luciano and da Break Room Divas" does not. This story chronicles an office conflict between the high and mighty new secretary (well educated, standard English speaking) and her new office mates (working class Pidgin speakers), one of whom is trying to deal with the first anniversary of her husband's death. The characters encounter one another outside the office at a Luciana Pavarotti concert, where the one character, Hattie, exiles her demons in the wash of the singer's voice.

Many of Kanae's stories take on a comedy of manners theme; there are stories about a wedding shower (with condom contest, notably replayed by some of Kanae's friends and colleagues before her reading), about the paddlers in a canoe, and several about love gone wrong. The stories take place at Ala Moana shopping mall, Barnes & Noble, in front of the television screen (where UH takes on Vegas) and other remarkably ordinary Hawai`i places. The first story, a long exposition about paddling that has little of the intro to fiction conventional climax and denouement about it, is full of wonderful voices and characters, from the foul-mouthed Cyril, who keeps the stroke, to the haole paddlers who somehow fit in. Each story tackles a serious subject, but treats it with ostensible lightness. A story about a Hawaiian couple trying to come to terms with his contentment with American consumer culture and her resentment of it ends by suggesting that a next generation might provide them with a fresh way to deal with the conflict.

But my favorite of the stories is the final piece, "Islands Linked by Ocean," an autobiographical account of the death of Kanae's father in Vegas (surely another island in the Hawaiian chain). This essay finds as its center the appearance of fish in odd places (a picnic bench, a sidewalk at Kapiolani Community College), fish that comes to symbolize a family member's safe journey. In this case, it is the journey of Kanae's father, a man who delivered bread, did not believe in higher education, yet is proud of his daughter, the English teacher. There is something about the way Kanae searches for a meaning outside the story here that I find especially compelling. Her approach to a world not simply of the here and now but also of spirit is crucial, and moves the book from the realist world of Honolulu to a realm understood best through Hawaiian cosmogony. Having read a number of Master's theses recently that appear to mock attempts to reach for meaning outside the daily muck, I was poised to appreciate this ending to Kanae's book. I wish there were more stories and essays like this one in the canon of local literature; this one suggests fresh possibilities for writing in and about Hawai`i.

A couple other notes:

--One of my students who attended the reading asked why Kanae wept at the end of "The Steersman" when she got to the end:

"Long before the image of a moon above Diamond Head had become the darling of aloha shirts, postcards or ninety-nine-cent calendars sold at Longs Drugs, long before there were enough hotels to create a Waikiki skyline at night, there was the ocean and the Hawaiian outrigger canoe. I knew what I saw from where I was sitting was as rare as beauty, truth and magic combined in a single moment. I knew why Cyril Poepoe had us take the long way home."

Kanae's tears gave the listener access to the way in which words are allegorical, mean more than they say. "Mahealani" is at once the moon and Mahealani Dudoit, founder of `Oiwi journal, and inspiration to Kanae and her group of writer friends, including Michael Puleloa, Kimo Armitage and others. Read alone, the passage might seem nostalgic, but when Kanae performs it, opens up as elegy. The moon is the moon, but it is also a mentor.

--Kanae clearly cares about sentences, as well as plot. Much of the fiction I read, here and elsewhere, seems to so fetishize plot elements that sentences get dropped in like coins in a slot machine; if they work, it's because the writer hit a jackpot. When they don't work, it's because the game was chance, not work. Kanae's sentences are worked, and work well.

--I love the homage to Allen Ginsberg in "In the Customer's Hands." Another visiting spirit to Kanae's book, "His ability to transform disillusion and cynicism into lyricism made me look around the stores and wonder if Ginsberg would enjoy observing the crazies roaming the aisles. I think he would." If Ginsberg saw Whitman in a supermarket fondling the vegetables, then how appropriate that Kanae find Ginsberg at home in a bookstore the night of his death.




1 comment:

Jill said...

I really like the cover design of her new book. I am in the process of figuring one out for mine! It's tough. :)