George F. Lee / firstname.lastname@example.org
Joe Tsujimoto, a teacher at Punahou School, is the author of the book "Morningside Heights: New York Stories."
New York community seen with aloha
What's Bamboo Ridge, our most dependably local publisher, doing putting out a book of New York stories? Try wait; everything will be revealed in time.
"Morningside Heights: New York Stories"
by Joe Tsujimoto
(Bamboo Ridge Press, $20)
There are two upcoming readings and book signings by Joe Tsujimoto:
Wednesday, Oct. 1
» 7 p.m. reception, 7:30 p.m. reading
» University of Hawaii at Manoa, Campus Center Ballroom
Friday, Nov. 7
» 6:30 p.m. Reading, reception to follow
» Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii Ward Warehouse (together with Mavis Hara, author of "An Offering of Rice")
Although Joe Tsujimoto's loosely connected coming-of-age tales are set in Morningside Heights, the west-side Manhattan neighborhood not far from Harlem, they've got a distinctly local feel. The sounds, the smells, the crowds and the place names might all evoke a big city, but the young boys who run through these streets and the stories offered up here definitely could have been plucked from the streets of Kalihi or small-town Hilo.
The lifelong friendships the boys make and the way they hang together, despite their different backgrounds and knowing they will inevitably have to separate, all will appeal to Hawaii readers.
The book's narrator is Kenji, who grows up in New York and takes a circuitous route that eventually lands him as a middle-age man in Honolulu, much like Tsujimoto himself, who grew up in New York but now teaches creative writing at Punahou School.
Tsujimoto is perhaps best known in scholarly circles for several books he's written aimed at helping others learn to write or teach writing. This is his first published collection of fiction, and it's got the depth and well-polished sense of a work that's been a long time in the making.
The first half is set on New York streets that will seem familiar to anyone who grew in up in just about any ethnically mixed Honolulu neighborhood in the past 50 years. It's the kind of place where the "dry cleaners on the corner, which would later become a flower shop owned by a Greek, used to be a shoe repair store run by two Jews." And it's the kind of place where the Irish, the Jews, the blacks, the Puerto Ricans, the Haitians and even an odd Asian come together to give the neighborhood life.
As the book opens, a 16-year-old Kenji has just been kicked out public school.
"So, big deal. I got kicked out of school," he says. "My mom cried. My sister stroked her hair. Big Deal. And I walked out of the apartment and into the street where I belonged."
It's there, on the streets and in the tenements, that we meet the multiracial cast of characters who will be Kenji's band of brothers now and in the future, even as they get old, get married, go off to war, turn into alcoholics, die or, even more sadly, fade away into respectable adulthood.
Together they run the streets and sometimes cross over into the other New York world, the one represented by nearby Columbia University, where Kenji and his friend Sully work in the business library and spend much time eyeing the coeds.
The stories are funny, quirky, sad and full of life, just like the kids who take part in them as they work their way toward a sometimes too-early maturity.
It's the people on the periphery who really bring the scenes to life: Red the Cop; Beano, the black, one-armed elevator operator; Mr. Draper, the gay college librarian who looks out for Kenji as best he can and helps several of his friends get into college; Adrian, the full-blooded American Indian who sees an omen of disaster in his living room on the Halloween night when Kenji may have heard the ghost of his dead father; Virgil, the body-building ex-con turned chef, poet and philosopher; or Momo, the poolroom bookie who will eventually "put a .32 in his mouth and blow himself away, outwitting Mr. Cancer."
Eventually Kenji leaves Morningside Heights behind, joins the Air Force during the Vietnam War, works his way through several love affairs, a long, rather doleful marriage that takes him to Upcountry Maui, divorce, a return to Manhattan and ultimately back to Hawaii. Having suffered much love and loss, he's never quite able to leave the old neighborhood behind.
And that's the kind of story that resonates wherever you grew up.