'Hapa-fiction' expresses affection for small-town Hawaii
A NEW kind of Hawaiian fiction is emerging. Like its writers, it is neither wholly of the islands, nor of the mainland. It is both. This new genre of "hapa-fiction" -- male, ironic, hard-boiled in a Raymond Chandler kind of way -- is well represented in the work of Lou Zitnik and Michael A. Herr.
Both writers are Hawaiian by adoption. Zitnik was born in Panama, educated in the United States and now lives in Hilo. Herr is a mainlander who migrated to the islands years ago. Like Zitnik he closely observes local people, geography and culture, celebrating all three in his work. Hapa-fiction is characterized by a love of Hawaii and its small-town populations. Honolulu rarely gets a look-in.
"Blues in Paradise: A Weekend of Stories,"
by Lou Zitnick (available through lulu.com
, 183 pages, $15)
"Is Chicken Skin a Local Delicacy?" by Michael A. Herr (available through lulu.com, 161 pages, $14.95)
Framed typically in short stories or extended vignettes, sometimes loosely connected, Herr and Zitnik's tales revel in the lilt and expressiveness of modern Hawaiian-English. I don't mean pidgin, though their narratives often catch the vivid turns of phrase of everyday speech: "Yeah, he really bus' Kimo's ala-alas," writes Herr in "Ahana Koko Lele" ("Fool Me Once ..."). Zitnik gives this snatch of barroom chat in "Cockfight Serenade":
"I think maybe I'll buy a rooster," Michael said, wondering how the conversation had shifted to dogs. "The biggest meanest rooster I can find, and fight him against Santiago's chickens. I'll kill them all."
Palani stroked the side of his head with a tired hand, as if the motion would wipe away the heavy feeling of the fading afternoon. "Santiago doesn't fight his chickens."
"Too old to fight," said Bobby. "You know that."
"The chickens?" Chang said.
"Him too," said Bobby.
Hapa-fiction deals with island culture from within, though observed with genial accuracy from the outside. That is its strength. It is effortlessly of the islands yet manages also to establish a broader perspective. Typically though not invariably set in small-town bars -- Zitnik writes mostly about Hilo and Upcountry Maui, Herr about Primo's, a local watering hole on Kauai -- its characters are immediately recognizable.
Among them we find Mani Matos, who "always stay fixing everything with duct tape" (Zitnik), and One-Cup Charlie, a dead-shot pool player although he has only the thumb and little finger on his right hand remaining (Herr). Others include Leroy Mendosa, the one-legged Korean war vet and barber who wins Primo's ugliest-toe contest; Moki, who comes in a close second "and would have won if we hadn't reminded him that dirt and grime didn't make for an ugly toe"; and Frankie, who once dated the prettiest girl in town (but don't tell the jealous Primo).
The settings, too, are full of rich local detail, like Kamodo Bakery cream puffs from Makawao (Zitnik) and the "Pau for Now" announcement posted at 10 a.m. on the door of Malama's Sweet Shop on Herr's Kauai. The store sells day-old malasadas, and around town there's an unfortunate kid named P. Lau everyone calls "pilau" (dirty), an ongoing local joke. One evening Primo serves delicious sweet-and-sour pupus made from the deer he accidentally kills with his automobile. His bar boasts Waikane, a full-blooded menehune, and Goro Iwasabi, a resident obake (ghost) that the regulars take completely for granted.
Cars are important, whether in need of repair or barely running. Herr's fictional narrator, Bryan, drives a VW bug in four colors: "one front fender red, both black fenders blue, the hood yellow, and the rest of it white, underneath a light coat of rust. The rear seat was patched with duct tape and the sunroof was still stuck partially open."
Nonresidents might have a difficult time with these story collections, but those who live here will be enchanted, amused and charmed.
Michael Egan is a published author, scholar in residence at Brigham Young University-Hawaii and adjunct professor of English at TransPacific Hawaii College. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org