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Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, February 5, 2001

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Authors, from left, Nora Keller, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Cathy
Song and Juliet Kono, will read from their works in
a benefit for Bamboo Ridge.

Chick chat

A four-way conversation with
Hawaii's foremost
writing women

By Cynthia Oi

SHELTERED from the noonday sun by a wide, green umbrella, a quartet of luminous women writers picks over a plate of veggie nachos on the table at Cafe Laniakea.

They are there at the request of the Star-Bulletin to talk about their craft; Bamboo Ridge Press, its founders and friends Darrell Lum, Eric Chock and Wing Tek Lum; and a lot of other stuff.

Nora Okja Keller, Juliet S. Kono, Cathy Song and Lois-Ann Yamanaka will read from their own works in "For the Love of Words," a fund-raising event next week to benefit Bamboo Ridge, the 22-year-old publishing house that focuses on Hawaii writers.

'For the Love of Words'

Authors Juliet S. Kono, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Nora Okja Keller and Cathy Song will read from their works:
Bullet Date: Feb. 12 (7:30 p.m. reception, 8 p.m. performance)
Bullet Place: Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St.
Bullet Tickets: $10, the cost of a membership to Bamboo Ridge Press.
Bullet Reservations: Call 626-1481 or email Reservations required.

'Father of the Four Passages'

Lois-Ann Yamanaka will read and sign copies of her new novel:
Bullet March 3: 2 p.m., Borders Ward Center
Bullet March 7: 6:30 p.m., Moili'ili Blind Fish Tank, 2469 S. King St.
Bullet March 10: 8 p.m. Barnes & Noble, Kahala Mall
Bullet March 17: 7 p.m. Borders, Waiakea Center, Hilo
Bullet March 16: 7 p.m. Book Gallery, Hilo
Bullet March 24: 5 p.m. Borders, Lihue

Keller, 35, is the author of the acclaimed "Comfort Woman." She will read from her new novel, tentatively titled "Fox Girl," to be published early next year by Viking Press.

Kono, 57, a pioneer in the island poetry scene with her 1988 collection, "Hilo Rains," has also edited with Song "Sister Stew," an anthology of women writers. Kono will read from her new novel, "Anshu."

Poet Song, 45, who along with Keller and Yamanaka have won the Elliot Cades Award for Literature among other literary honors, will present pieces from her new collection, "The Land of Bliss." It will be published in the fall by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Yamanaka, 39, winner of a Lannan Literary Award and an American Book Award, will read from the just-released "Father of the Four Passages." Her trilogy -- "Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers," "Blu's Hanging," and "Heads by Harry" -- has received critical praise nationwide.


Why is it that the reading features all women?

Yamanaka: Because somebody came up with a silly title like "Babes of Bamboo Ridge," but we said, "If you make that title ..."

Keller: Nobody's going to be there -- including me.

Yamanaka: Me, too.

Keller: I think it started a couple of years ago when we read at Wellesley (College in Massachusetts).

Song: I think Darrell came up with that title and he said he made it so bad that people would think of another one.

So, Bamboo Ridge -- how much did it help in your writing careers? How important is it to you to be associated with that group?

Song: For me, years ago when I first saw the publication, I just thought "Oh, here was a place I could finally send my work." I saw Susan Nunes' book, "A Small Obligation" and that to me was very transforming. To see a collection of short stories that were about Hawaii by someone I kind of remotely knew... It made writing something you could do with what you had, because it was here, by someone you kinda knew. ... It meant a lot to me as a young writer.

Keller: They offered a lot of guidance. It wasn't just the publication, it's the people involved in it and who are willing to meet with you and nurture the writers on a one-to-one basis. They are just so open to new things. I would be writing, but they were instrumental in my development.

Kono: We've all helped each other.

Song: It's all very interdependent. We all benefited. We've been on both sides; we've been able to help and able to be recipients of help.

Keller: When I write, I write, and before I show anybody, it's pretty much a completed piece and I know in my mind the direction before I share it. So it helps to have that input, like this isn't working and that is. It lets me know if I'm on the right track.

Yamanaka: They've been so incredible and generous -- Eric and Darrell. Because as writers published already, they could also offer advice and wisdom. Wing Tek --he was just so incredible in difficult times. But the readings -- like Susan Nunes' book was important to me, too ... -- I sat in those readings and was just blown away! That must have been in like 1982 and I was right out of high school and there she was writing about Hilo. It was an incredible thing for me.

Kono: For me, Bamboo Ridge gave me an entree into this world that I really would not have attempted to get into.


'People used to think president
was something you should strive for.
But now it's like, eeyuuh,
who would want to be?'

Nora Okja Keller


'This place is too small to
burn your bridges like that.'

Lois-Ann Yamanaka


'I saw this self-help book
about surrendering to your husband.
I thought it's really pulling
women backward.'

Juliet Kono


'You don't compare your life
with someone else's. It's learning to
appreciate what you have.'

Cathy Song


Bamboo Ridge has been criticized as clique-ish, kind of like an exclusive club. Some say its time has passed, that younger writers don't feel encouraged. Are these valid?

Song: There always will be detractors.

Kono: Nobody has stopped anybody, no matter how old or young you are. Some people try to put their own agenda onto Bamboo Ridge. But it's their prerogative to reject or accept. ... It is their publication.

Song: They've been there a long time doing a lot of work at the expense of their own lives. A lot of (new writers) don't want to do the work. They don't want to put in their time. They want an instant thing.

Yamanaka: There are so many other small presses that are looking for works, literary small journals, just like Bamboo Ridge. I think if you have a specific writing style, you have to find a journal that publishes your kind of work and if Bamboo Ridge is not your cup of tea, there are many different literary journals ...

Keller: And they cannot be everything to everybody in Hawaii.

Yamanaka: I don't like that whole mentality. I think Eric and Darrell and Wing and all the people that were involved in Bamboo Ridge spent so many hours, made so much sacrifice. It's kind of like knocking down the old guard just to make space for yourself. I don't think that's how Bamboo Ridge was ever operated. It was always a hand extended. It makes me sad that young people feel as though they gotta knock down the writer that came before them in order to create a space for themselves, which is not the way that it should work. You know what I mean?

Song: I can't help but feel a lot of that can come from sour grapes.

Kono: Bamboo Ridge gets tons of calls and there's so much to wade through. It isn't necessarily a blow off. Sometimes people just want a freebie, they want a free consultation and nobody can do that.

Keller: To be honest, the other side of that, too, is that we're all kind of disorganized.


Keller: You get a phone call and it gets lost or you say, "Oh yeah, somebody's going to call," and you forget. I'm totally guilty of that.

Who are the hot young writers in Hawaii now?

(Big pause)

Yamanaka: Aside from us guys?


Nora: Yeah, can you clarify that? Young?

Is there an ethnic literature label on your work? Does that bother you?

Song: If you need to sell your book for ethnic study courses, then that's OK. But there's something wrong with saying this is mainstream and that's not.

Keller: It can hurt you if the publisher says. "Oh, I have my quota of ethic literature, Asian-American literature." ... One publisher in the beginning -- it was a weird thing. They said, "Oh, we already have a Korean author," and their position was that our books might compete against each other, which is total garbage, right? But the whole label thing, it doesn't impact me in my writing in any way. It doesn't change what I do.

Yamanaka: It doesn't change what you're going to write or what you do next. There are worse things than that, being called an ethnic writer. That may be one of the more pleasant labels shoved at me.


Some of you have teaching backgrounds; do you think kids are being taught that language and literature are important?

Song: Quick answer: No. My own kids ... they read the books they have to, but there's so much competition for their attention -- TV, the Internet, games ... They watch a lot of movies, this generation. It's something like the biggest movie-going generation ever. I don't mind that, but there's so much junk. These movies that they're marketing for kids -- they are so trashy and the values they try to pass on are so trashy.

Kono: I didn't have a television until I was, like, in 12th grade.

Yamanaka: Well, we nevah have cable. We had like only three stations, too, yeah.

Kono: Yeah, and ours came one week after all the United States saw the programs, like the Beatles.

Song: And now these reality shows, like "Temptation Island" ...

Keller: You know, I watch it. Jim (her husband) just gives me a hard time.

Kono: Everybody watches TV, it's the voyeur thing. We all are voyeurs. Is reading voyeuristic when we read?

Keller: Well, you're not because when you read you engage yourself. You put yourself in the narrator's mind. When you're watching "Temptation Island" you know you're not that girl with that big chest sticking out.


Is your success frightening? Do you think you'll run out of ideas or do you worry that you won't be able to follow up with another success?

Nora: There was a moment after "Comfort Woman" ... I wondered if there was gonna be another book, another idea. You really go on faith ... until you start to write again. But you know what's scary? I had to go on tour ... nobody tells you how tough that's going to be. When you write, it's such a solitary life ... (On tour) you have to meet all these new people constantly and talk about your own work. You feel so vulnerable when your work first comes out.

Yamanaka: 'Cause you don't talk about your own work. You are your work ... it's all in your head, yeah.

Has your success made you financially secure so you don't have to flip burgers at McDonald's or, worse, work as a reporter?

Song: I'm a poet so that question doesn't apply to me.


Keller: My husband is my support. If it wasn't for Jim, I'd have to be working, teaching, making cafe lattes at Borders.

Yamanaka: But that's why you have a college degree, hah, so you can fall back on your college degree.


Keller: What "Comfort Woman" did give me was time. It just buys you time, buys you maybe the next year. It doesn't buy you anything material.

(Grinning, Lois-Ann nudges her and whispers "the swimming pool.")

Keller: Oh, the swimming pool. OK. The money from "Comfort Woman" we used to put in a swimming pool in the back yard. So Jim calls it our comfort pool.


Kono: As I grow older, I have to think about things. Those things come to mind. I guess that's why, in a way, I have to look at security. It's almost stupid in a way. I guess I could just quit (my job) but there's always part of me that always has this, "Oh what if something happens to my husband?"

Do you worry about getting old?

Keller: I worry more about dying. Since I had my children ... I just worry about what would happen to them. That's kind of my obsession.

Kono: The scary part about dying is it takes so long to happen. We all want to die, like, "Oh, you're dead," but that's really, really rare.

So you guys don't want to be Bamboo Ridge babes?

Keller: No, we are Bamboo Ridge babes. We just don't want to be labeled that.


Are you feminists?

Keller: Yes, I am.

Song: Yes.

Kono: Yes.

(Yamanaka nods.)

Song: To be a writer you have to be a feminist. You look at things from outside the status quo. In many ways, that's already built in when (women) choose to be writers. ... And a writer that's going to offer a minority perspective, that's built into that, too.

Do you consider yourselves lucky?

Yamanaka: I real lucky. I always tend to moan and whine a lot, yeah? But the bottom line is if I wake up tomorrow morning and I look in the mirror and I'm still the hero of my life, I'm fine. And my New Year's resolution for two years in a row has been (that) no matter what kind of day or what, if there's one joy that I can find in this day, one thing I can be grateful for or joyous about, that's all.

Keller: Whoa, mine was drink more water.

(Lot of laughter)

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