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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 28, 2002

Water and family at heart of second book club pick

Hear readings of Kathleen Tyau's "Makai" (RealPlayer plug-in required)
 •  Reading 1
 •  Reading 2
 •  Reading 3

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

Kathleen Tyau is almost the stereotypical Northwesterner now. She and her husband, Paul Drews, live on 52 acres of evergreen forest outside Portland, Ore. She is a weaver and bluegrass fiddler. He works for Intel. Both are committed environmentalists.

But as a novelist, Tyau is still an Islander. "I'm a character writer. I'm inspired by people. For me, Hawai'i is where my material is. That's where the people are who are most interesting to me," said Tyau, who lived in Waikiki, Pearl City and Moanalua as a child and graduated from St. Andrew's Priory. On her father's side, her grandparents are from Ni'ihau; her mother was of Chinese ancestry, and, though her parents divorced when she was 5, she and her siblings grew up in the midst of a large extended family. The second-oldest grandchild, she lived with her popo for a time in Pauoa, shopping in Chinatown and stopping at Char Hung Sut for dim sum afterward.

People — her relatives, those whose oral histories she researched at Hamilton Library, friends of her mother's that she interviewed — are the springboards for the characters in her two novels,"A Little Too Much is Enough" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995) and The Honolulu Advertiser Book Club's second selection, "Makai" (Bluestreak/Beacon, paper, $15).

She said local people are interesting and challenging to write about because "they are less self-aware, less self-conscious. They may be shy and embarrassed, but they're also ... more natural."

At the center of her story in "Makai" is a woman many in Hawai'i will recognize: Alice Lum, a second-generation Chinese American, a dutiful but spirited wife, a long-suffering mother who is loved but also taken for granted, the keeper of a revolving-door household, one who sees all and says little, and whose youth holds stories her children cannot fathom.

The inspirational nugget for the book was a story Tyau heard from a Maui friend, about a woman who, driving the Hana Highway near Kaupo Gap, was washed out to sea with her two children during a flash flood. She managed, somehow, to get back to shore with both of the kids but suffered a mental breakdown afterward, or so Tyau was told. (The author was never able to find a firsthand account of this particular incident, but did interview a firefighter and a forest ranger on Maui with experience of these kind of incidents along the old, treacherous Hana Highway.)

For Tyau, who loathes the feeling of her head underwater, whose deepest fear is drowning, the story was a haunting one. If she could summarize in one sentence what the book was about, she says, it is about her own fear of water, and, more metaphorically, about the way that makai — toward the sea — is both the place of strangeness and danger, away from home, and the means of returning home again. Alice is mauka, the center of the island, home.

From the bare bones of the Maui flash flood story, she fashioned a novel about a girl growing up in the 1930s and '40s in Hawai'i, a "Priory Girl" with dancing feet who is on her way to becoming a woman in her own right when she is sidetracked by marriage, then marked forever by the near-drowning, and seemingly passed by. However, the return to Hawai'i of Alice Lum's childhood friend, Anabel Lee, who is the instigator of many adventures and both Alice's goad and the object of her envy, provides an opportunity for re-examining Alice's past, her present and her future.

Though Tyau mulled over the first 100 pages for three years, it wasn't until she heard Alice's voice in her reveries that the first six chapters came tumbling out. She was thinking of a woman she met at a Pearl City book-signing, who diffidently asked how long the book had taken to write, and when the next one would come. "She reminded me of my mother and of my Chinese aunties, just quiet and shy." But aware and interested, too.

For Tyau, it was important to write about women like this, one of the Alice Lums of Hawai'i. "I wanted to give her a voice. I wanted to write from the point of view of the Hawai'i auntie who doesn't say much but who is really behind every Hawai'i family. She's the one who dishes out the food and arranges the parties and takes charge of everyone and yet really stays in the kitchen and washes the dishes," she said. It was particularly important to Tyau to pay tribute to these women because her mother and a number of the other women in her family died young, and she knew what a hole their absence left in the fabric of the family.

 •  Book club basics

Here's how to get involved in The Honolulu Advertiser Book Club:

Membership: There is no formal membership. Just read the book and participate in the virtual discussion by sending in your comments and questions.

Our book: "Makai" by Kathleen Tyau (Bluestreak imprint of Beacon Press, paper, $15)

Reading period: Through Sept. 6

Next "discussion": Sept. 15

To participate in the discussion: Write Wanda Adams, Books Editor, Honolulu Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802. Fax: 525-8055. E-mail: bookclub@honoluluadvertiser.com

Listen: To the "Sandwich Islands Literary Circle" at 9:30 tonight, KHPR 88.1 FM, KKUA 90.7 FM Maui, KANO 91.1 FM Hilo; or hear the program online, starting tomorrow at the URL below.

If you have trouble finding the book: Please call Wanda Adams, 535-2412. We want to keep tabs on supply.

Experience the book club online.

"I don't think the people who are outside of Hawai'i, who don't have experience with that kind of family dynamic, can really understand Alice. They think of her as a passive woman," Tyau said. "They don't realize how much power she has in the family because she is the accepting one, she is the one everyone comes to, she gets along with everyone."

Like many who have left Hawai'i, Tyau misses most her family ties. After that, and ironically considering her book's theme, she misses the ocean. Signing off from the phone interview, she tells the reporter, "Go swimming for me."

She says she misses Hawai'i most when the weather is good in Oregon. "I miss it when it's warm, because you can cool off in the ocean ... I think of the ocean as a kind of healing place, the salt and the water. As children, whenever we had little cuts, we'd go to the beach and the ocean ... the ocean healed us," she said.

Kathleen Tyau moved to Oregon in 1965 to attend Lewis & Clark University. She had wanted to go to school on the Mainland since small-kid time, inspired by watching the old "Cinerama Series" that showed the vast sweep of the continent. "I remember just seeing miles and miles of farmland, forest and mountains, and after that, this was where I wanted to be," she said.

Her intention was to major in journalism and explore contemporary environmental issues.

"It wasn't until I took a class in fiction writing that I started writing about Hawai'i. It think it's because the assignment was to transform biography into fiction and so we were encouraged to talk about family stories. The first assignment was to write about someone who first told you stories and if there was no one, to make it up. So I made it up," she recalled.

Tyau said her family "talked story" a lot, but didn't tell what she considers true stories. "An anecdote is not really a story," she said. "A story has more of a point to it. It's leading somewhere. It's not a joke. A story has a message beyond the actual details of the plot."

Still, her writing is rooted in her childhood. Her family will tell you they always knew she'd be a writer; she was forever scribbling, holed up away from the rest. "My family says that when Kennedy died, I went into my room and was typing away on my mother's typewriter. I don't remember that," she said. Now, her family members tend to tease when she is around — "Be careful what you say, because Kathy's taking it all down. You might end up in a book" — even though she insists she would never use someone's words unless she was purposefully interviewing them.

Tyau's first book, which began as a now-legendary writing-class exercise, "How to Cook Rice," actually was written for her family. "It was written so my nieces would have some sense of what their grandmother was like, because she died before they were born," Tyau said.

It turned out to have much more universal appeal, because food, whether it's rice and noodles or potatoes and kugel, plays a key role in family life. "My intention was to write about growing up in Hawai'i in an extended Chinese-Hawaiian family and to write about it from the perspective of food," she said, "I found out a lot of people resonated with that kind of material." The book won a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association award.

"Makai," which began as a book about water, the fear of water and the need for water, was more challenging. She started out writing a series of pieces about water, the beach and so on. "But water is a much more abstract thing than food," she said. "I needed to get back to the people, to find the story in my characters. They are the source of my inspiration."