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Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, June 16, 2000

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Discovering a love of writing was a revelation for Chris
McKinney:"In high school, I used to think just give me
a job where I'll make a lot of money, that that will be
cool. That changed when I started getting into English."

Skin and ink: The tattoo

Author's anger gives way
to awareness -- and a novel
that explodes images of paradise

By Cynthia Oi


Somewhere between laughter and anger, Chris McKinney seems to have found clarity.

At age 27, the writer wears a seriousness layered with caution or thoughtfulness, which one -- maybe both -- is not clear after just one conversation.

Unblurred, however, is his passion to write.

"I write. I try to write good stuff that I can respect," McKinney says as he sits in the cafe lanai at Borders Ward Centre where, downstairs, copies of his first novel are prominently displayed.

Published as a trade book last year and as a mass market paperback in January, "The Tattoo" is on top of the local bestseller list.

The novel slices off the surface of beautiful Hawaii. McKinney's scenes are of stagnant, muddy shorelines; tawdry, neon-lighted streets; and people uglied by racism, poverty and hopelessness.

The story is about Ken Hideyoshi, a man whose life is as embedded with violence as his tattoos with ink. Although he tries to rub away the patterns his father and his environment have pierced into him, they are indelible.

Mutual Publishing
Author Chris McKinney illustrated his book, "The Tattoo,"
with photographs by Ian Gillespie that show the underside
of paradise. This gritty image faces a page carrying the
Beamer Brothers' verse: "Each time Honolulu City
lights, will bring me back again."

"Dad" Hideyoshi is determined to toughen his son to face a harsh world, but cannot demonstrate the love that motivates him to this end. Ultimately, the long reach of his abuse yanks Ken back into the heritage of rage they share.

The images come in part from McKinney's own life. "That's the cliche," he says, a small smile lifting his round cheeks. "Everybody's first novel is semi-autobiographical. And this one is."

He is careful in providing details, wanting some distance between himself and his character. But he does explain how the fiction has basis in reality.

"There are things you learn when you grow up in a particular kind of household," he says quietly, his eyes sliding away. "One of the things is that the only types of emotions permitted are laughter and anger."

Discovering the feelings between these has given him his place, but not without difficulty.

"I have seen this. I've lived this," he says, and the resulting attitude has gripped hard during periods of his life. He describes this "attitude" with a two-word profane phrase that translates into "who cares?"

McKinney grew up in Kahaluu, the primary setting for his book. His parents divorced when he was a baby; both remarried and his father moved to the mainland.

He would spend the school year with his father and his new family, and summers in Hawaii with his mother and hers.

"When I first moved, I hated it," he recalls. "But if you stay nine months in a place, it gets OK. I could deal with it. But every time I came back here for the summer, I didn't want to go back."

When he was in the 6th grade, he didn't. The decision to stay in the islands was "traumatic. It was at the airport. I said I didn't want to go and my dad over here backed me up."

He acknowledges the influences of both his fathers.

"Talk about two completely different human beings -- it's amazing," he says.

His birth father is "very quiet, very reserved, extremely intellectual, devours books."

"I consider myself the quiet type, as opposed to someone who walks into a room and lights it up. I think those genetic arguments are right."

About the other man, he says simply, "He's my father. Jimmy Fukuda raised me."

Fukuda, a machinist with the Hawaii Newspaper Agency, is a tough, no-nonsense fellow. He is talkative but never says outright how proud he is of his stepson, instead making oblique statements like "he has groupies, you know."

McKinney attended Mid-Pacific Institute because "my mom would have nothing to do with public schools."

He did well academically, then the "attitude" began to take hold.

"Senior year, I kind of disappeared. I didn't go to school. I was always kind of a slacker, but I took it to some extreme and that continued on for the first two years of college.

"The only thing I learned in my first two years at UH was how to play the ukulele and drink a lot of beer."

"I had that 'attitude.' I didn't care. I was very angry. Some of it was because of the way I was brought up. The laughter and anger. I wanted, I wanted -- what, I didn't know."

Then something changed. The "attitude" that had bound him became liberating. Not caring freed him to begin etching his own life.

"I always had this big desire to write," he says. "In high school, I used to think just give me a job where I'll make a lot of money, that that will be cool. That changed when I started getting into English."

Although he is three-quarters Asian, contemporary Asian-American literature had little appeal. It was while working on his degree in English that he found resonance in African-American literature. "Man, this was stuff that hit me."

With "The Tattoo," "I was making a political statement. That book was something I had to say -- about power, abuse, the social-economics of Hawaii, racism."

The "attitude" also opened the scope of his writing, leaving little desire to be categorized in a "local literature" niche. In fact, he shuns the established island literary venture, Bamboo Ridge.

He had approached an editor of the journal/publisher for a quote from a member of the group to use on the cover of "The Tattoo."

"They blew me off," he says.

"Bamboo Ridge started out as a grand project that was supposed to nurture local fiction. And the strange thing that has happened over the years is that it's become the establishment," he says.

"They like what's safe. They like nostalgia -- all those little details about growing up in Hawaii, picking mango, small-kid time. It's just reminding readers of what they want to be reminded of."

McKinney is working on his second novel, and hopes to have a draft by the end of summer.

The writing is more difficult now because he is teaching. He will begin full time at Honolulu Community College next semester, having also taught classes at Leeward Community College and Chaminade University.

Although he's only 27, he feels that time is flying.

"High school felt like forever. College didn't. Grad school was like a blink.

"I've been teaching for two years now and I can't believe how fast that was. You graduate from college and suddenly you're staring at a career and that's like 20 to 30 years.

"That's what I'm a little bit afraid of, the idea of a fast 20 years."

When he's not writing, McKinney reads. He mentions Ian MacMillan, William Styron and Toni Morrison. He considers Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" the "most flawless novel."

He pumps iron because "it's the exercise I can do consistently and tolerate the most."

He lives alone and has no significant other right now.

"I found somebody once. It didn't work out," he says softly. "I don't get involved with a person lightly. There are people who fall in love every month, three times a year. I'm not that way."

He can live on gas station food "for about two weeks at a time," he says. "The nachos, the personal pan pizzas, potato chips."

"I'm a diet Coke fiend. I need it. Two 32-ounce cups a day. And you know how once you get into something, everything has to be perfect? With my soda, it has to have the right amount of ice and it has to be a fountain soda."

He likes movies -- "The Godfather," "Pulp Fiction" -- but has no desire to write screenplays.

"I don't think I have it in me to be that kind of writer."

He also has no expectation of becoming rich and famous.

"I'm trying to write good books. Mine is just that, I try to write books I can respect and maybe other writers respect."

"To think about what the public wants. I can't care about that."

Again, the "attitude."

Meet the author

Chris McKinney signs copies of his book, 'The Tattoo':

Bullet Waldenbooks Windward Mall: 4-5 p.m. June 24; call 235-8044
Bullet Waldenbooks Pearlridge: 3-4 p.m. June 25; call 488-9488

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