THE REVOLUTION OF EVERY DAY and LANDFALL highlight strength of Portland’s novelists and indie publishers

Revolution of Every Day  Cari-Luna-350x300

The Revolution of Every Day

By Cari Luna

Tin House Books: 2013

388 pages, $15.95


Landfall-Cover-FINAL-web-sized  ellen_urbani


By Ellen Urbani

Forest Avenue Books: Aug. 29, 2015

277 pages, $15.95


If you felt the axis of the literary world tilt recently, it was just the movement of writers and other creative types west from New York City to Portland, now often referred to as the Brooklyn of the West Coast. Portland has always been a bookish town — it wouldn’t be home to the massive Powell’s Books complex if it weren’t — but now it seems there are nearly as many writers as readers in the City of Roses.

So it should come as no surprise that a lot of good writing is coming out of PDX now. Two prime examples are the recent novels by Cari Luna and Ellen Urbani. While both are set in other cities — former homes of the authors — but they share a certain aesthetic: intensely focused, character driven stories where the setting is one of the protagonists and the prose sings.

Luna’s The Revolution of Every Day follows a group of ambitious squatters (no, that’s not an oxymoron) as they save NYC’s Lower East Side in the mid-1990s. The NYC of 20 years ago was a much more difficult place than it is today; the LES had been more or less abandoned by developers and middle class residents and had become a neighborhood of derelict buildings, high crime, and drug use. Enter a ragtag group of down-and-outers who slowly bind themselves into extended families, each living in one reclaimed building. Novelist Susan Choi aptly refers to them as “urban homesteaders.”

Revolution follows one small group of characters in one building as they try to save themselves by turning “Thirteen House” first into a home and then into a community. Amelia was a runaway taken in by Dutch immigrant Gerrit seven years earlier. Steve and Anne are the den parents of the building. While Gerrit is the silent planner and worrier, Steve is the driven rabble-rouser with the ability to work a room and make things happen. Cat is a legend of the downtown scene who runs the nearby Cat House but is now a shadow of her former sylph.

Luna puts us inside Thirteen House, allowing us to get to know the main characters, their dreams, and the fraught histories that brought them together. They are determined, even desperate, to create a communal, humane lifestyle in the former tenement that they have rebuilt with found materials and sweat equity. Doing so is the only way they can live, work, and dream in the city and avoid returning to their hometowns or anyplace else.

Gerrit’s slowly developing love for the younger Amelia remains unrequited, although she is grateful and indebted to him for saving her life. Steve and Anne maintain a marriage and partnership that is the envy of their peers but which has recently developed cracks in the foundation. Amelia is pregnant, and Gerrit is not the father. Anne is having doubts about whether the squatter’s life is really what she wants. Add to these domestic dramas the fact that Mayor Giuliani’s mission to clean up the city includes reclaiming the blocks of abandoned buildings and selling them to developers as part of a gentrification project.

After living and fighting the power with these characters for nearly 400 pages, I felt as if I had made (and then lost) several friends when the book ended on a bittersweet note (no spoilers here!). They have taken up residence in my mind and appear to be settling in permanently. The Revolution of Every Day is a novel that everyone who loves, or has ever loved, New York City needs to read.


The events of Ellen Urbani’s Landfall straddle Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. The story concerns two sets of mothers and teenage daughters, the determined and aloof Gertrude Aikens and her preternaturally bright daughter Rose, and the mentally unstable Cilla Howard and her prematurely maternal daughter Rosebud. Gertrude and Cilla are single mothers, the former living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the latter in New Orleans, having fled Alabama twenty years earlier.  A freak accident brings the characters together momentarily in the aftermath of Katrina before spinning them off in opposite directions, their lives forever changed.

Urbani’s depiction of Hurricane Katrina and the nine circles of Hell it brought to New Orleans is an indelible portrait of death, destruction, and the impulse to survive. Having survived the flooding, but just barely, Rosebud is forced to set out east, headed back to the Alabama her mother left two decades earlier. Rose, separated from Gertrude, searches for answers to her dilemma and a way forward in the past her mother carefully hid from her for 18 years. Considering this tightly woven parallel plotting, it’s not surprising that there is a secret in past that connects the girls and explains much.

But the heart of this novel is Katrina and the close-up view of the days and weeks following the hurricane. Urbani takes readers from the images on their TV screens and computer monitors into the experience of those who sought shelter in the Superdome, those who attempted to flee the city, and those who stayed behind to ride out a storm they underestimated, only to face the unprecedented flooding, death, and destruction that followed. Urbani provides a wealth (perhaps an overabundance) of historical and socio-cultural background and has plenty of criticism for the politicians and other government agencies responsible for, first, protecting New Orleans and, later, saving its residents and helping to rebuild their shattered city and lives.

The other highlight of Landfall is Urbani’s prose, which manages to be both muscular and lyrical in equal measure. There is something distinctly “New Orleans” about this tender-and-tough combination that makes it the perfect voice for this heartbreaking story.

If you’re looking for other Portland writers to explore, I recommend Rene Denfeld’s transcendent novel, The Enchanted, and Liz Prato potent story collection, Baby’s On Fire. Fiery poet Wendy Chin-Tanner is also worth your attention.

Guest Blogger Virginia Pye: A Restless Writer Comes Full Circle

Dreams of the Red Phoenix  Virginia Pye author photo 2_0

A little over a month ago, I moved back home. Not into the house where I grew up, because it’s been torn down. Not into the suburban town where I was raised, because it’s crowded with young families, and my husband and I are now empty nesters looking for a more urban life. But I moved back to Cambridge, Mass., where I went to middle and high schools, waiting every afternoon at a bus stop a few blocks from our new home, hanging out with friends in Harvard Square, a fifteen-minute stroll from our current place. A slim number of the shops there are as they were thirty-five years ago when I left. People complain that the Square looks like a conventional mall now, but at least the streets are the same—still torn up with constant construction—and I’m happy to report that the handsome Cambridge houses are in better shape than in the late seventies and early eighties. As I take in these familiar surroundings, I’m awash in an ever-shifting haze of recognition: I know this place, I keep thinking. I know it. And yet, it’s strangely new to me as well.

I’ve moved over a half dozen times as an adult, each time for my husband’s work. He’s an art museum curator, now a director, and in his business, moving is pretty routine. But every time we left a home and friends, it’s been heart-wrenching. And yet I agreed to do it, and often was the one to nudge us forward, not because I was unhappy where we were, but because I was curious about the next place. I have needed distinct chapters in my life to keep things interesting. Curiosity has propelled me forward into each new city.

I think it’s fair to say that curiosity is crucial in a writer. Curiosity and empathy. Together they allow writers to go into the minds and worlds of others—their characters, of course, but first the people in our lives we come to know and love. I have put down roots in each city where we’ve lived and while those connections can wither if not tended to, they’ve nourished me and spread a wide and luxurious canopy over my life. I’m grateful for the friends I’ve made and held onto over decades.

Somehow this brings me around to thoughts of my heritage, my people. My grandparents, the missionaries in China, clearly chose a challenging path that took them far from their original homes. Their lives, though, were rich and, it seems, rarely boring. They made friends with the Chinese in the western plains of North China while also remaining loyal to the folks back home. In the Victorian tradition, they signed each letter to their stateside family members with heart-felt longings. They missed the familiar world they had left behind, but not enough to return to it.

I remember my mother each year sending out stacks of Christmas cards to friends that she and my father had accumulated over the course of their lives. They, like my husband and I, had lived in a number of places, but also my father’s work had propelled them to take extended trips in Asia where they made more lifelong connections. Her handwritten notes—some stretching into several pages—offered not the perfunctory printed reports that accompany Christmas cards these days, (when people even send them at all), but personal letters. Real letters to help keep her and my father tethered to their pasts.

That tethering is also crucial for a writer: we have to know whence we came in order to understand and write about where we are now. For years as a younger writer, I wrote novels inspired by the chapter of my life I had just completed. For instance, when I lived in Richmond, Virginia, and finally put our second child into kindergarten and returned to my desk, I wrote a novel set in West Philadelphia, the city we had lived in before moving south to Richmond. I needed to go back and digest that previous place by writing about it. In West Philly, I had written about New York City, where we had lived just before that. And in New York City, I wrote a coming-of-age story set in Cambridge, because that was the world I had recently left behind. In each case, I was using my memory of a previous home to fuel a fictional story in that setting: each novel helped me make sense of an earlier chapter so I could let it go and move on.

Now that I have come full circle back to Cambridge, I’ll be curious to see how it filters into my work. I can already tell that I have a strong sense of belonging here, something I had to cultivate over time in other cities where I’ve lived. In Cambridge, I take it for granted that I “get” the culture and that people here will “get” me, though that remains to be seen. But as I walk my dog in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, I first pay a visit to my parents’ graves. I live less than a mile away from them now. Having lived apart from them my entire adult life, the sad irony of moving back after they’re gone pinches and hurts. But there’s also a sense of ease and comfort in being back. Though I’ve been loath to admit it, I’m pretty sure this might be my true home.

And, although it’s familiar, plenty of surprises still await me here; my curiosity will be rewarded by altogether new sights and experiences, and most of all, people. So far, the crazy moments of recognition are what thrill me. The other evening, my husband and I were going to a museum event downtown at the Boston Athenaeum, a venerable historic library and art collection in a handsome building on Beacon Street. Just out college, when I worked nearby at Little, Brown & Company, I used to take my lunch hours in the Athenaeum’s main reading room. On this recent evening, I was curious to see if I still remembered it.

But as we approached, I looked at the imposing building next door to the Athenaeum and was knocked back on my heels: at 14 Beacon Street stands Congregational House, the home of the Congregational Library. When I was a twenty-year-old I had never noticed it, or if had, I doubt I would have known what it meant to my family. But in the years since, and especially while researching my two novels, I have read my grandparents’ papers and learned that 14 Beacon Street was the home address in the United States for Congregational missionaries abroad. This was the office where my grandfather sent his reports and letters written on onionskin paper in faded blue ink.  These were the stone steps my father had climbed as  boy when he arrived on leave from China. This was our family’s home base in the United States for those many years when they lived far, far away. And now this city is mine again, and perhaps always was, and will be, even if another move awaits me in the future.

Virginia Pye’s second novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, will be published on October 13, 2015. Author Gish Jen has called it, “Gripping, convincing, and heartbreaking…a real page-turner and thought-provoker—wonderful.” Kirkus writes: “There’s a comparison to Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, but this unflinching look…shares truth in its own way.” Her debut novel, River of Dust, was published in 2013 by Unbridled Books and was chosen as an Indie Next Pick and as a 2014 Virginia Literary Awards Finalist. Virginia has published award-winning short stories in literary magazines, and her essays and interviews have appeared in The New York Times OpinionatorThe RumpusHuffington Post, and forthcoming in Literary Hub. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and has taught writing at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania. Since graduating from college, she has lived in Cambridge, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, and now, coming full circle, Cambridge again.

Elise Blackwell on Gathering: Writing as an Approach to Life

Elise Blackwell 2  The Lower Quarter

In his wonderful essay about the temporary loss of his eyesight, Teju Cole wrote, “When we write fiction, we write within what we know. But we also write in the hope that what we have written will somehow outdistance us. We hope, through the spooky art of writing, to trick ourselves into divulging truths that we do not know we know.” We seek to write, as Flannery O’Connor asserted, fiction that cannot be paraphrased. This isn’t something you can accomplish by sitting down x number of hours per day—though sit down those hours you must—unless you have let life run through you, have let life saturate you to your fingertips.

I’m not speaking of Hunter S. Thompson-style experience, and not Jack Kerouac’s. I’m talking about writing as an approach to life, a penchant for observation, a way of collecting and processing evidence about the human condition. Mostly this entails careful watching, by which I also mean listening and smelling and tasting and touching the world.

I’ve learned to hide my staring most of the time. At least I think I have. I’m married to another novelist, and if you saw us dining out, you might suspect that our marriage is an unhappy one because we’d be conversing minimally. The reason we aren’t talking to each other is because we are eavesdropping on the tables behind us. Graham Greene, visiting a hospital, happened to observe a mother at the bedside of her dying son and was horrified to realize he was taking notes. Maybe he was horrified. Maybe he merely thought he should say he was horrified, that he should pretend to have a human conscience as well as a writer’s.

I’m never “looking for material,” but I’m always collecting it. There are two orientations or forces at work: an intense curiosity about people and a mode of thinking—a way of making sense of the world. Some people bring order to the chaos of perception through equations, some through social scientific hypotheses, some through three-act plays or three-movement concertos. I think in novels. My books are where I place the things I observe against each other and find connections and dissonances, where I test notions about how people behave under certain conditions, where I seek to discover—back to Cole—what I do not know I know through narrative.

I’m often asked for writing advice. Sometimes these requests come in the form of insincere emails from strangers who are really asking me to help them get published. And sometimes they are sincere appeals for a kick in the pants from young writers struggling with self-discipline. When I teach, my writing advice often takes the form of craft points tailored to the piece of work at hand. Yet I’ve come to feel that the best writing advice falls more under the category of How to Live.

If my Twitter feed is representative, many writers and readers are interested in the habits and routines of artists—which ones kept monk hours and which were night owls, who drank the most coffee and who the most wine, whether those married only to their work had a lifestyle advantage over the householders. Behind this curiosity lies an understanding that writing, while also a craft, is an art and a way of being in the world—and that the art and the living are crucially related.

So my best and truest answer when an aspiring writer asks me “How do you write a novel?” is not about craft and not about work habits in the narrowest sense but rather about how to be in the world. It’s about what you put into yourself well before it’s about what you put onto the page. Am I talking about reading well and eating well and exercising and avoiding garbage websites—the kinds of things that fall under the label of what Dani Shapiro describes beautifully as “taking care of your instrument?” Yes, of course. But you can also treat yourself terribly and write well if you’re willing to settle for a short career and/or an oeuvre with modest ambitions. Mostly I’m talking about gathering. I’ll stick with one day’s example:

A few years ago, I was at a dinner in New Orleans. There were some interesting folks at the dinner, but the conversation was mostly unremarkable, in part because no one at my table really knew each other. Then a young woman who’d quickly downed a couple glasses of the wine starting dropping lines. “The first guy I went to third base with was gay,” she said at one point, and then a bit later, “I lost a hundred pounds last year.” Her desire to punctuate the conversation with a bit of pepper, together with the moment when a wealthy woman got an oyster stuck in her throat and turned (literally) blue before somebody gave her the Heimlich, is what I remember about that dinner. I’m a little embarrassed—and maybe only a little—that I wasn’t the one who leapt up to help the affluent choker. I was busy taking notes. That oyster scene will almost certainly make its way into a piece of my fiction at some point. It’s unlikely that I will use either of the young woman’s lines—they’re a bit gimmicky and I suspect that, at most, only one of them was true—but I learned something about the dynamics of dialogue that evening. So, apparently, did the writer I was seated next to, who, two nights later, greeted me by saying, “I gave a Dominican hooker my watch last night in exchange for her life story.”

I love Teju Cole’s description of the peculiar alchemy that transforms what writers bring to their work into what the pages become, a process that is not only mysterious but sometimes seems as fantastic as the promise of turning lead to gold. Yet it is crucial that we bring some valuable to the paper or the screen, that “what we know” is a rich and fertile bed. Writers should nourish the parts of themselves that write through challenging reading and thinking, through art and nature, through conversation, and by watching. Most of the best writers I know—and of course there are exceptions, there are always exceptions—conduct field research when they aren’t sleeping or working. They are collecting lines, gestures, images, ideas, faces, and smells so that when they sit down to write they have the stuff that their spooky art might just transmute into something noble and shining. When a writer is really stuck, I tell her to ride the bus.

Elise Blackwell is the author of five novels: Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, Grub, An Unfinished Score, and The Lower Quarter, which will be published by Unbridled Books on September 21. Her work has been translated into several languages, and her books have been named to numerous best-of-the-year lists, adapted for the stage, and served as the inspiration for a Decemberists’ song. Originally from southern Louisiana, Elise has lived in assorted far-flung places and currently resides in South Carolina with her husband, the novelist David Bajo, and their daughter, Esme. She teaches at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. New Orleans remains her favorite city in the world.

Center for Fiction announces seven finalists for First Novel Prize

Seven debut novels, four by women, have made the short list for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.

Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Tanwi Nandini Islam’s Bright Lines (Penguin Press), Sophie McManus’s The Unfortunates (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and Lori Ostlund’s After the Parade (Scribner) made the cut from a long list of 29 novels.

The other finalists are Against the Country by Ben Metcalf (Random House), The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (Little, Brown), and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press).

The longlist included such acclaimed novels as Black River by S.M. Hulse (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Girl at War by Sara Nović (Random House) [see my review here], Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian (Algonquin Books) [see my review here], The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson (Penguin Press), The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein (Bloomsbury), and You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman (Harper).

The author of the winning book is awarded $10,000 and each shortlisted author receives $1,000. The winner will be announced at the Center’s Annual Benefit and Awards Dinner on December 8 at The Metropolitan Club.

Full story here:

Huffington Post on 10 women who didn’t publish until they were over 40

RobinBlack2014     mira-jacob  lydia netzer

Left to right: Robin Black, Mira Jacob and Lydia Netzer


Today’s must-read. Kudos to RHLAOB faves Robin Black, Rachel Cantor, Mira Jacob, and Lydia Netzer! I’ve heard only good things about Marian Palaia and Claire Fuller. You all know Elizabeth Strout as the author of Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, and Amy and Isabelle, her debut in 1998; her latest novel is The Burgess Boys (2013).

THIS IS PARADISE a powerful exploration of lives lived in the Hawai’i that tourists don’t see

This is Paradise cover art Kristiana Kahakauwila by Katty Wu

This Is Paradise: Stories

By Kristiana Kahakauwila

Hogarth Books, 2013

238 pages, $16.00

The cover photograph of Kristiana Kahakauwila’s This is Paradise depicts a miniature hula dancer on a car’s dashboard; through the dirty windshield we can see blurry headlights in a nighttime street scene. David W. Dellinger’s photo is the perfect visual for Kahakauwila’s stories about the real Hawaii: beyond the tourist images and fantasies of Hawai’i lies a real place, where island residents live and love, dream and die, and struggle desperately against economic, cultural, and ethnic forces beyond their control.

These six stories are suffused with a bittersweet sadness for what could have — or should have — been, for words unsaid, emotions unexpressed, and customs misunderstood. Kahakauwila is the daughter of a Hawaiian father and German-Norwegian (American) mother and grew up in Long Beach, California. She made frequent trips to Hawaii (mostly to Maui) to visit family and was thus occasionally immersed in the local culture, but she was essentially a Southern California girl. Her ethnic and cultural heritage positions her ideally to write about the two Hawai’is, the tourist version and the locals’ version, with both objectivity and sensitivity, as well as insight and compassion.

I’ve long been fascinated with people who simultaneously exist in two races, religions, or cultures or who alternate between them. The tension between the two, the expectations of others (whether family members or society generally), and the individual’s desire to have a unified identity are ripe with the type of conflict that can make for great stories and novels. So I was intrigued with the premise of This is Paradise and, having lived in Honolulu from age 10 to 12,  curious to see how Kahakauwila would address the issues of being hapa-haole (“how-lay”) and living in both California and Hawai’i.

Could a young writer, in her first collection of stories, manage the challenge of depicting and making sense of these tensions? At the same time, could she capture Hawai’i’s own divided identity as tourist paradise and home to a wildly diverse population? I needn’t have worried. Kahakauwila has written a stellar collection of stories in which she faces these issues head on without blinking.

The collection opens with the title story, which may well be the best summation of how Hawai’i is experienced differently by tourists and residents. Three groups of narrators — surfer girls, hotel housekeeping employees, upwardly mobile professional young women — tell the story in the first-person plural “we.” These characters are connected by their interactions with and jaded observations of one young female visitor. “The tourist girl is white. They’re all white to us unless they’re black. She has light brown hair, a pointed nose, eyebrows neatly plucked into a firm line. She wears a white bikini with red polka dots. Triangle-cut top, ruffled bottom. We shake our heads at her. Our ‘ehu hair, pulled into ponytails, bounces against our necks. Our bikinis are carefully cut pieces with cross-back straps and lean bottoms. We surf in these, sista. We don’t have time for ruffles and ruching. But she does, like every other tourist. Her blue-and-white hotel towel labels her for what she is…. So when we see her studying the warning [sign], chewing the right side of her lip, we laugh. Jus’ like da kine, scared of da water. Haoles, yeah.

The “tough girl” surfers are fascinated by this one young woman, for reasons that mystify them. Why should she stand out from all the other tourists? Is she somehow “marked”? That night they encounter her again in the Lava Lounge on the Waikiki strip: “[w]here else can we go for a strip of bars and clubs?” They eat, drink, and observe the typical mating dance. “She keeps glancing around the bar, sizing up the men and the plastic tiki decorations. The night’s possibilities widen her eyes. We want to make fun of her, but she possesses a certain girlishness that awakens our forgiveness. It’s not her fault she’s haole.”

Susan is there with her younger brother, who is trying to keep a watchful eye on her. The girls overhear her whispering to her brother. “Everyone talks about aloha here, but it’s like Hawaiians are all pissed off. They live in paradise. What is there to be mad at?”

“We look at each other, and we feel the heat rising in our faces. Our families are barely affording a life here, the land is being eaten away by developers, the old sugar companies still control water rights. Not only does paradise no longer belong to us, but we have to watch foreigners destroy it. We have plenty aloha for someone who appreciates. We have none for a girl like this.”

The night is long, stretching into the next morning, when the girls return to the beach for a sunrise surf session. There they are surprised to see Susan yet again, for the third time in 24 hours. But something has changed; something happened last night. Hawai’i was not what Susan expected it to be, dreamed of, longed for. It was much more, and much less.

As if the opening story were not powerful enough, Kahakauwila follows it with what might be the best story in This is Paradise. “Wanle” puts us inside the life of a young woman who is following in her deceased father’s footsteps as a legendary cockfighter. As with the tourist girl in the title story, Wanle bears the burden of her illusions. Unlike Susan, Wanle is unaware of the reality of her circumstances and of her father’s life. Kahakauwila depicts the lives of locals who live, work, and play well off the Waikiki strip and whose lives are unaffected by the omnipresent tourists. This 40-page story is both a coming of age story and a love story, and it serves as a perfect counterpoint to the title story. By the time I’d finished these two stories, I knew I was in the hands of a young master (“mistress”?).

“The Road to Hana” finds a young couple driving the notoriously long, narrow road on Maui, giving them plenty of time to talk. Cameron is the son of parents from Minnesota, but he was born and raised in Honolulu and considers himself a local. Becky is from Las Vegas, but her parents are Hawaiian and her powerful connection to the islands leads her to move there, where she meets haole Cameron. Is he haole (which also means “mainlander” or “foreigner”) or is he local, Hawaiian? What does it mean to be Hawaiian? Is Becky Hawaiian even though she grew up on the mainland? Are her parents and relatives, and their culture, enough to make Becky one of them? She looks Hawaiian, but Honolulu is not her home, as it is to Cameron. The road to Hana is as twisty, unpredictable, and dangerous to their relationship as it is to the inattentive driver.

“Thirty-Nine Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral Into a Drinking Game” was the first story Kahakauwila wrote, and it is clearly autobiographical (at least in part). Rule 8 states, “With your degree in English, your aunties expect you to deliver the most grammatically correct homage to your grandmother. Take this responsibility seriously. Your copyediting skills are all you have to offer your family. After all, you were not born on Kaua’i. You weren’t even born in Honolulu. No, you were raised a California girl, like your mother before you. She is haole. White. A foreigner. This makes you hapa haole. Half foreign…. You cannot hula or play the uke. You do not speak pidgin. You never add the right proportion of water to poi. But you can summarize your grandmother’s life in a five-paragraph essay, complete with thesis and topic sentences. And for this, you owe yourself a drink.”

How can a reader not love this woman? As a former English major who was under-employed for the first few years after college, I know the bittersweet feeling of being educated but not yet accomplished or respected by family members. Because, you know, you can’t actually do anything.

Kahakauwila reveals some of her family history in Rule 29. “Understand your dad was different from the outset. Hand him a beer. After all, to be a boy and to diverge; to watch football but not play it; to keep the books for your grandpa’s market instead of unloading the trucks; to leave the island for boarding school; to want to go to college on the mainland, with only one child to his name, and a girl at that, is to cease to want what men want. Your father is absent from your uncles’ stories not because he left, but because he was never of Kaua’i in the first place. Because he was in his own world. Because he is Hawaiian but no local.”

The last two stories in This is Paradise are actually, like the stories I’ve read recently by Molly Antopol and Alice Munro, compressed novels. “Portrait of a Good Father” and “The Old Paniolo Way” are the richest and most complex stories in the book. In 43 and 66 pages, respectively, Kahakauwila unfolds an entire world that could easily have been developed into a novel and yet seems complete as a long story.

“Portrait of a Good Father” is more accurately a portrait of a marriage, that between Keaka and Grace. Their son, John, arrives ten months before they are married. Daughter Sarah is born nine months after the wedding. They would appear to be a happy, even ideal young family. But tragedy intervenes, and Keaka and Grace respond in different ways. The result is their very own Kilauea volcano residing among the three of them. I hesitate to say more about this story, which is so layered in its character development and the narrative’s movement through time that I don’t want to spoil a single aspect of reading it.

“The Old Paniolo Way” tells the story of thirty-something siblings Pilipo (Pili) and Maile, whose father, Harrison, is slowly dying of cancer. Maile is the devoted daughter who has remained on her family’s Big Island ranch all her life, while Pili left for college on the mainland and settled in San Francisco, where he owns a very successful marketing business. In returning to the island, Pili returns to his painful past and has to decide whether, or how, to resolve some of these issues with his father. Should he burden his father in his final days just to free himself from the past and clear the slate for the future, or is that simply selfish? What will his future entail? Will he come home permanently to run the ranch with Maile? What does Maile want, from Pili and for herself? The hospice nurse, Albert, is ostensibly there to assist Harrison but he arguably provides more help to Harrison’s son and daughter.

Kristiana Kahakauwila has written a remarkable collection of stories that provide a great service to readers in showing the many sides of the real Hawai’i, the one in which Hawaiians live and tourists inhabit only briefly. This place and its people are far more intriguing than the version presented to the outside world by advertisers, marketers, and other promoters. I encourage you to spend some time in Kahakauwila’s Hawai’i.

Author photo by Katty Wu

COWBOYS AND EAST INDIANS is a unique contribution to Indian-American literature

Cowboys and East Indians Nina McConigley 2

Cowboys and East Indians: Stories

By Nina McConigley

Curtis Brown Unlimited: June 22, 2015

(First published in 2013 by Five Chapters)

162 pages, $10.99

Imagine standing out by virtue of your appearance when you want to blend in. Or being invisible because of that same appearance when you want to be noticed. That is the experience of many bicultural Americans; people view them as “different” because of their appearance when most of them are just as “American” — legally through citizenship and culturally through having been raised in the U.S. It is a situation in which one can feel constantly out of sorts, as though one is a square peg when the holes are round, and a round peg when the holes are square; things just never seem to align properly.

Nina McConigley explores this dual existence in the cleverly-titled Cowboys and East Indians, a collection of ten stories based on her experiences as an East Indian living in Wyoming. Where most fiction exploring the immigrant experience is set in urban environments, McConigley takes us to the high altitude, windy isolation and cozy cities of the least-populous state (584,000 as of July 2014), a place most people would never expect to find Indian-Americans.

McConigley perfectly captures the duality of being pulled in two directions, the culture in which you live and the culture in which your parents and older relatives came from. While it is possible to feel at home in both, there is often a tension in identity “code switching.” The dominant complicating factor is how other people see you; because you look a certain way, you are viewed as foreign rather than “American” (whatever that means). And because people see you as Indian or Asian or some other minority ethnic or religious group, you may well end up becoming a sort of ambassador representing your culture. That has been my experience living in a very Christian area with a relatively small Jewish population.

In each of these stories, McConigley explores characters’ attempts to navigate through their home and outside lives. She also shows us that Indian-Americans are not a monolithic group with uniform positions on religious, social, and political issues. She drives home what should be an obvious point; while the white, Christian majority, with its limited knowledge of Indian-American life, simplifies them instead of realizing that they are as varied as the majority themselves. (We always imagine that others are not as unique as we are.) Not every Indian is Hindu; not all Indian-American women wear traditional clothing; not all Indian-Americans speak one of the many languages spoken in India (there are 23 constitutionally recognized official languages).

McConigley’s characters are quirky, three-dimensional individuals who are working through strange places both literal and figurative. She writes with a pleasing blend of deep empathy, droll wit, and vivid descriptions of people and, especially, places. The unique nature of Wyoming makes it one of the most memorable characters in this collection.

The result is one of the best books of the past few years, a collection in which all the stories make a powerful impression, and one I expect will last a long time. Read it and you will see why Cowboys and East Indians won the 2014 PEN Literary Award. It is THAT good.