“You Got Poi, Bra’?”
Every Thursday without fail, there is a familiar question put to me where I work in the produce department of Uwajimaya in Seattle’s International District. “You got fresh poi, bra’?” That question is always accompanied by a beaming smile and a “mahalo” when the answer is positive. Hawai’i is often forgotten on the mainland except as an “island paradise” getaway but in reality, it’s a very vital culture with a unique identity and issues of its own. In this issue we try to spotlight that state and island culture.
Mahalo to the Pacific Reader and International Examiner staff and to all the reviewers. And to our readers, enjoy the power of literature until we meet again. –
— Alan Chong Lau, Coordinator of Pacific Reader
By Judith van Praag
Poets and writers often write about place: some imagine a metaphorical island inhabited with characters brought to life by their imagination, and some live on actual islands where they chronicle the history of their people. Others are inspired by their surroundings to write fictional accounts.
In her first book of poetry, poet and writer Juliet S. Kono describes her 1943 birth on the Big Island of Hawai’i in Hilo in “Black-out Baby” (“Hilo Rains,” Bamboo Ridge Press, 1988) as an ominous beginning to life colored by the attack on Pearl Harbor on the nearby island of Oahu. Relatives who lived on the mainland were interned and Juliet’s parents and verbal aunts talked about the war all the time. Young Juliet didn’t understand what was said, but she was always listening. “We loved to hear the family stories.” That she was listening is reflected in her poems and in her short stories.
More than by the war, however, Juliet’s mother appeared to be traumatized by the Tsunami of 1946 that devastated downtown Hilo on April Fool’s Day. “I think my mother suffered from PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder],” Kono said after a reading of her poem about that disastrous day. How a mother’s traumatic experience affects a child for life is clear in her second book of poetry, “Tsunami Years” (Bamboo Ridge Press, 1995), in which Kono addresses the Tsunami from the points of view of several characters swept away by that great Aleutian wave.
Juliet Kono is not scared away by pain, the anguish of others or her own agony. Parents suffering loss will recognize the blues in her “Country of Grief” in “Tsunami Years” — one of a series of poems about the death of a child — and find solace in her sharing.
Kono spent her childhood in Hilo during the last years of the Territory before moving to Honolulu with her parents. Kono’s grandparents were “Issei” (Japanese immigrants) without rights to become naturalized citizens. The laws changed two years before her grandfather’s death in 1954 but he didn’t become an American citizen. His wife studied for her citizenship but didn’t take the exam.
“Everything was a puzzle to me as a child,” Kono said. “We still adhered to many of the Japanese and Buddhist traditions while my grandparents were alive, and did many things American as well. I learned the Lord’s Prayer in school and did the Vandan Ti Sarana at church. We celebrated Easter and the Buddha birthday at around the same time.”
Kono’s children are “Yonsei,” fourth-generation Japanese Americans. The “Hilo Rains” poem “Yonsei” tells of the son who lives a different life, far removed from the old ways, “And yet once a year you come with me in your dark brooding — like a craving — to visit the ancestors’ grave sites and pray.”
Kono went back to school after raising her children, receiving her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Winner of the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, the James Clavell Award for Fiction, the American Japanese National Literary Award and the Ka Palapala Po’okela Award for Excellence in Literature, she also received a U.S./Japan Friendship Commission Creative Artist Exchange Fellowship in 1999.
In her first book of short stories, “Ho’olulu Park and the Pepsodent Smile,” (Bamboo Ridge Press, 2004), Kono relates the predicament of a Japanese woman who’s married off as a picture bride to a Japanese emigrant in Hawai’i in “Hiroshima Present.” Highly stylized and poetic, this opening story breathes ancient Japanese culture. The author herself suggests the particular style in this early story is the result of self-consciousness. Perhaps she aimed at writing perfect English rather than letting her characters speak their own lingo. In subsequent stories, Kono honors her heritage as well as the islands’ culture by letting her characters speak pidgin.
Aided by her well-drawn characters, Kono leads the reader through different phases of the history as well as the present day life of the islands. She ends her book with “Rock Fever,” about a modern-day bride and her predicament in nursing an ailing, elderly mother-in-law. The story is reminiscent of “The Elizabeth Poems” in “Tsunami Years.”
In the prologue to “Ho’olulu Park and the Pepsodent Smile,” Kono writes that her stories are based on secrets, lies and shame. This foreshadows a major conflict between fiction and nonfiction. Such an exposé suggests that the author and narrator are one and the same. But Kono insists that there’s only a kernel of truth in the stories. So be it, as long as the reader can relate..