A writer with the proper credentials
By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor
Here is the first story he ever saw published.
These two stories landed him a full-ride fellowship at Boston University, where he earned his master's degree in creative writing.
That won the Honolulu magazine fiction contest.
This one he read last month when he was given the Cades Award for Literature "for his perceptive stories about everyday life in contemporary Hawai'i."
And this is the story that became an award-winning short film.
But Yamanaka says he never fully owned the title of writer until last month at the Cades Awards program at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. That was the first time that his wife, his mother and his colleagues at KITV, where he is a reporter, heard him read his work.
It was, he said, with a touch of characteristic gentle humor, like the moment when a cross-dresser first appears in public in makeup, dress and heels. It was the first time that his private life, his professional life and his writing life represented by those who had taught and worked beside him at the University of Hawai'i, where he got his undergraduate degree were together in the same room, he said.
"I kind of wept like a child on stage," said Yamanaka, for whom reading is an experience fraught with tension, anyway.
Yamanaka, who got into reporting as a way to make a living when he returned here from graduate school, never talked about his fiction work to his co-workers. He doesn't talk about his pieces in progress (there is a novel soon to be born, but that's all he'll say about it). He just goes home and writes whenever he can spare a moment from his wife, Laurie, and 2-year-old son, Caleb.
After that reading, he said, he concluded that "the only thing I was born to do was write. I have to do it."
Yamanaka, 38, grew up in Kalihi in a family for whom, he said, the term "working class" would have been a compliment. His father was an insurance salesman, his mother a homemaker. Playing ball, hanging out at Kapalama Elementary, Kalakaua Intermediate and then at Farrington High School, he shared the dreams of the boys around him: He thought more of being the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys than of going to college. He was a reluctant reader, he recalls, borrowing books from the library but neglecting to read them. But at some point, he began to write.
His subject was that world of Kalihi and boys and dreams, the basketball courts, the small shops and plantation-era houses, the narrow streets and pool halls and bars.
"I was just writing stories about guys I grew up with, played ball with and went to the beach with. I was actually quite surprised when people liked them," he recalled.
His professors at Boston University urged him to seek out a graduate course in creative writing. There was no money for such a venture his father died around this time but Yamanaka applied to several schools anyway. Then Boston University granted him its Helen Deutsch fellowship on the basis of what are still two of his best-known stories "What the Ironwood Whispered" and "The Day Mr. Ka'ahunui Rebuilt My Old Man's Fence."
Ian MacMillan, an award-winning writer and an English professor at the University of Hawai'i, worked with Yamanaka in a one-on-one tutorial, reading 150-200 pages of manuscript in the course of a single semester in the mid-1980s.
He calls Yamanaka "one of the best pure short story writers I'd ever seen as a student," and considers him one of the best two or three writers he has encountered in 35 years of teaching.
One thing that readers often remark on in Yamanaka's stories is their endings: He rarely ties things up with pretty bows. He leaves doors open, beds unmade, questions unanswered.
In "Ironwood," for example, a Kalihi teenager with a bright future makes friends with a dangerous guy rumored to have committed a murder, a guy who nevertheless has dreams and a tender side. In the end, Yamanaka has not told us what will become of either. The story begins with a question, "What causes a man to commit murder?" In the end we still don't even know if a murder was committed, much less what the motivation might have been.
This, MacMillan said, "is a kind of ambiguity that makes you think." Or as Yamanaka says, "Instead of giving them X, Y, Z, you give them X and Y and maybe they can fill in Z."
One puka many readers want to fill in is Yamanaka's history. He has been amused to hear rumors that he went to Iolani, the prestigious private school.
He recalls a reading he gave at Windward Community College recently, after which a large, tough-looking guy approached him. "Did you go to Farrington?" the guy demanded. "Because if you didn't go to Farrington, I would be tempted to kick your ass."
Yamanaka took it as a compliment: "He was saying, 'You described people that I knew. You told my truth.' He just wanted to make sure I had the proper credentials to do that."