This is a guest post from Connie Pan. Originally from Maui, Connie Pan earned a BA in creative writing from Grand Valley State University and an MFA in fiction from West Virginia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Fiddlehead, Carve Magazine, PRISM international, Hawai’i Review, Bamboo Ridge, and elsewhere. An aspiring novelist, she lives in California, where she is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @panlikepeter.
An army brat, my family moved every three years. From Nuremberg to Missouri to Berlin to Oklahoma, nowhere felt like home, so I observed the things about my family that remained consistent: the ukulele-rich parties with spoon drums and talking story, my dad’s flashy Tori Richard shirts, the care packages filled with aloha-print and shell-adorned everything. We ate foods no one I knew ate: adobo, Spam, chow fun. We removed our shoes at the front door. The only place that felt like home were those concrete, unchanging things. When I learned they belonged to the place we always vacationed—Hawai‘i—I put all my home energy there. If I forgot what the island looked like, a Maui on My Mind coffee-table book refreshed my memory. When my dad retired, we moved home. I was ten.
After my parents divorced, my mom moved me to Michigan. I was fifteen, heartbroken. What my pre-Maui and post-Maui lives have in common is reading. In strange places, I looked to books for friendship, comfort, distraction, peace.
It wasn’t until college that I found books with stories like mine. I clung to them fiercely. I loved them differently than the others. The way I feel about Hawai‘i resembles how a teenager lusts. Whenever I hear its name in a context that I’m not controlling, my ears perk, my heart swoons, my eyes moon, and I cannot disguise my excitement. These four books made the long stretches between going home bearable.
Talking to the Dead by Sylvia Watanabe – This collection features the interconnectedness of a Maui village before the surge of development. Each story beautifully illustrates small-town life with gossip, the weight of names and familial pride, claustrophobia: “From where we were, we could see into the yards of all the houses around us.” These stories are a heartfelt homage to the way it was.
Sista Tongue by Lisa Linn Kanae (and other Tinfish books) – Once upon a time, I was a devout AWP-er (you know, that huge conference aka party that happens annually). Every year, I hunted down Tinfish’s table at the bookfair. My first purchase, the beautifully designed Sista Tongue, juxtaposes the narrator’s relationship with her brother, a late talker, and the history and sociology of Hawaiian Pidgin English. Kanae explains my response to discovering her book perfectly, “When local Hawai‘i students hear the rhythms of their own voices in their own literature, they are pleasantly shocked. It is as if they had never imagined their world was significant enough to be in the pages of a book.”
Folks You Meet in Longs and Other Stories by Lee Cataluna (and other Bamboo Ridge publications) – In the local bookstore of my hometown, my love of yellow drew me to this book. Then my love of Longs Drugs. I bought my first tube of mocha lipstick there. During a rebellious streak, I bought green hair color there. Before my brother’s wedding, I bought safety pins to fix the hem of my skirt there. Whenever I forgot shaving cream or contact solution or sunscreen for the journey home, I drove to Longs. This collection features the people that wander the aisles of this beloved store that sells everything from liquor and tampons to rubber slippers and mochi crunch. In the hopeful book’s opening monologue (“Nadine Tam Sing—Longs Worker”), the speaker says, “I seen it all. I seen it all two, three times. The whole world comes into Longs.” Yes, they do.
This Is Paradise: Stories by Kristiana Kahakauwila – A friend gifted me a circled Elle review of Kahakauwila’s story collection, and I bought it immediately. The first reading, I couldn’t dog-ear the pages because those beautiful deckle edges. The opening story, the epitome of control, pieces together a Waikiki crime through the point of view of three different groups of local women. The six stories masterfully display the colorful people of Hawai‘i. Like the women who left and returned in the title story, while abroad, I dreamt of the ocean: “For the first time since we were college kids, we dream of the rolling ocean. Not of boardrooms or courtrooms, classrooms or meeting rooms, but of waves, of room, as much as we can bear, and the space of the sea.”