The Color of Air by Gail Tsukiyama is a beautifully written novel that reveals the importance of community and how a shared history will always tie people together, no matter what stands in their way — whether it be physical distance or a volcanic explosion. It is truly a story for everyone, about everyone.
The historical fiction novel takes place behind the Mauna Loa volcano explosion in 1935 in Hawaii. Ironically, this natural disaster does not push the Japanese immigrant community out of Hilo, but rather draws the community even closer together as they continue to protect one another from both Mauna Loa and burdens of the past.
It is astonishing how Tsukiyama is able to turn this small community into a world with so much to explore. Readers slowly peel apart the layers of each character, and while the progression is a bit slow, it is worth savoring to truly understand their relationships with each other.
The story initially focuses on Daniel, who finally returns from the mainland for the first time since his mother’s death. But the attention then shifts to people around him, such as Koji, who had been head over heels for Daniel’s mother since they were young, and Mama Natua, a beloved elder community member.
As the novel navigates through each one of their perspectives, we read of the different sources of love and strength that come from the community. A love that is just as, if not more, stronger than familial love. All the characters are initially holding in their burdens and secrets, but as they open up to one another, just like Pele (the Goddess of Fire) letting go of all her anger, their relationships become even stronger. The bonds between Daniel and Koji, the Hilo aunties, and the many other community members, are evidently so powerful and bright that they color the air of Hilo.
The Color of Air reminds me of the small Asian American community that I grew up in and created a sense of longing for home. Reading of Daniel’s community revealed to me the importance of the community you grew up in. While we tend to want to get out of our comfort zones and explore the other spaces out there, it is also essential to acknowledge all those who supported you when you had nowhere else to go. These are the people who will always be able to take some of the burden off your shoulders and allow the air to carry it away.