Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Gail Tsukiyama’s novel, “The Color of Air,” paints a vivid picture of old Hawai‘i. The time of sugar cane plantations, where the dreams of immigrants from Japan, or other countries, were made and lost. A time when haole overseers dominated and often brutalized the workers of Hilo’s sugarcane fields. It’s fiction rooted in history, immersing the reader in the daily life, fears, loves and losses of those who came before present-day locals. It braids together the stories of a few families and creates finely textured lives of several individuals. They grapple with the harsh realities of being an immigrant and laborer, facing the present in light of the past.
Daniel Abe, son of Japanese immigrants, returns to Hilo after a mainland education and prestigious medical work. His hometown is proud of Daniel, but his inner anguish doesn’t match the town’s view of him as a successful doctor. The real reason of his return, a misdiagnosis, stays unvoiced. His mother Mariko died two years prior, and Daniel often feels a “sudden sharp pain of longing that was another form of grief.” Equally troubling are uncertainties about his future and past. What work will he do next? Why did his father abandon the family in his childhood? What is the meaning of his hazy memories of that time and how can he learn more when “his mother and the entire community had erased all memories of his father from their lives”?
Koji Sanada’s story evidences the terrible hardships of working the cane. His initiation comes as a mere teen.
… By the end of the day, Koji could barely lift his left arm and the palm of his hand burned and bled watery pus from his broken blisters. Only then did he realize how much his parents had endured every day since they arrived.
But Koji also illustrates the dignity of ability, as he rises up the plantation ranks. His life intertwines with Daniel’s for he is “the closest thing Daniel had to a father,” and the older man holds answers to Daniel’s quest for his family’s past. Shame and regret seal Koji’s lips. The novel artfully weaves together Koji’s desire to reveal his secrets to Daniel and fear of the repercussions of telling. A mesmerizing plot line forms around their tangled relationship. Then on an excursion together, a suddenly increasing volcanic flow interrupts an attempt to repaint the past.
Nori, a dear friend of Daniel’s deceased mother, considers Daniel as her own and prepares chicken and taro, his favorite, for a community feast for his homecoming. Townspeople, and eventually Daniel as doctor, care for an elderly woman afflicted with severe dementia. Two sisters call her Mama Natua because of how she saved them from domestic violence. This is a time when kazoku, or family, extends beyond blood lines. People take care of each other.
One of Koji’s ghosts is his friend, Razor, who once took on the fight for social justice, organizing labor and taking huge risks to better the plight of his people. Koji doesn’t. His failure to prevent Razor’s assassination haunts him. But the novel reveals a powerful, personal reason Koji wasn’t with Razor as promised, and Koji eventually makes peace with what he did. Daniel’s love interest also must grapple with her fears, and the past, before she can allow a relationship to develop with Daniel.
Tsukiyama writes not merely about individuals, but a town, about the community and its underpinnings. The general store is a character in the novel. The aunties meet there to chat and play cards regularly. It’s where news — like Daniel’s homecoming or of Mauna Loa’s flows — are announced and heard. That volcano, the largest volcano on earth, 40 miles from Hilo, plays a pivotal role in the book. Anxious people monitor its progress for day after day. Then, in December 1935, it sped towards the town — a reality informing the novel. Stores and homes, the precious little wealth these people own, were all at risk. The strange steps taken to stop that destruction are accurately depicted in Tsukiyama’s tale.
While her home is the San Francisco Bay Area, Tsukiyama has long loved the Hawaiian Islands. As a child, she often visited with relatives there, and so she dedicates her story to “all the Hilo Aunties who have graced my life.” Author of nine historical novels, Tsukiyama researched the base for her story extensively in 2014, at the time Kilauea was flowing, observing the volcanic flow directly and adding heat to the story.
Her visits to the Hawai‘i Plantation Museum and the Laupähoehoe Train Museum of the Big Island added vital and atmospheric specificity. Her research at Edwin H. Mookini Library at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo dug into injustices, plantation labor organizing and lynching, and formed characters and incidents that were a composite of the real deal.
Tsukiyama pens vivid details in graceful language. Here are samples of the novel’s lyrical quality:
“[t]he very color of the air in the place I was born was different, the smell of the earth was special, redolent with memories of my parents.” Details far from the typical tourist environs are evoked with language like this:
… Koji Sanada approached the green bungalow where the pungent scent of rotting mangoes mingled with a hint of smoke, the bitter remnants of the preharvest cane burning that drifted down from the surrounding plantations.”
Recently I encountered a bronze plaque in front of the Sueoka Store of Köloa, Kaua‘i honoring its founders and the 100th anniversary of the general store in 2018. The store originally opened in Köloa Plantation’s Japanese camp and later relocated in the town of Köloa. Mankichi and Yoshi Sueoka’s family-run business “continued to serve its community with aloha.” That plaque and store manifested a key component of “The Color of Air” — the spirit of family that sustained the plantation workers and other Hilo residents amid threats within and without, a spirit centered at the general store.
Carol Park explores geographies, internal and external, from California environs to mazes of Japan. Her fiction appears in The Ravens Perch, The Harpoon Review, Birdland Journal, Shark Reef, the Antarctica Journal, Red Wheelbarrow and several anthologies. Read her words at CarolPark.us.