My grandfather used to keep a stash of assorted chocolates in the linen closet under a stack of carefully folded towels, and every now and then he'd sneak away from the family gathered around the kitchen table and embroiled in a heated game of pinochle to retrieve the three-pound box, offering each of us our choice. Then, he'd return the box to its hiding place, which wasn't so hidden, because we all knew where to find it.
I read each of Lisa Linn Kanae's stories like one of my grandfather's chocolates, parsing the collection out over a couple months, enjoying each story, living with each character--or family of characters--for a time before moving on to the next. I savored these stories; I did not devour them. But it would be easy to devour them.
Islands Linked by Ocean is a collection of short stories all set in Hawaii, except for one. That story's set in Las Vegas, which everyone calls the eighth Hawaiian Island, anyway, so, really, we can say all the stories are set in Hawaii.
I remember once when I worked as a concierge, a visitor asked me, "Where are all the Hawaiians?" and I was struck dumb by the question. So many images and retorts went through my mind--still do--that I didn't know which one to choose. I suppose, in a weird way, it was like when Grandpa presented me with that three-pound box of chocolates. There were only so many that had caramel in the center, my favorite. I learned to choose the light brown, squared ones with a swirl on the top. When I sat behind my fake-wood concierge desk, I only had one response, and I wanted it to be the exact right one.
Today, I cannot remember what my response was. I'm sure I fumbled over my words, trying to be careful what came out of my mouth, trying to be sensitive to everyone--the uninformed visitor, as well as those very first visitors to these islands.
Now, I can point to a sleek, little book--white with light blue, stylized letters set in all caps.
In Kanae's book, you'll find a teenage boy who discovers a scared and emaciated pit bull tethered to a dumpster. The dog thirsts for love as well as the hubcap full of water the boy offers her. When the boy takes the dog home with him, we learn about his troubled but healing relationship with his hard-working mechanic father in the aftermath of the abandonment of the boy’s mother.
You’ll find a six-foot-four woman with size 12EEE feet to match, in a piece that acknowledges Liberty House days and outlines the trouble with finding the perfect pair of shoes. And the perfect man.
You’ll find a young girl entering her goth phase who finds her great uncle collapsed on a bathroom floor of the library.
You’ll find stories set in Barnes & Noble, Ala Moana Shoppping Center, and the Neil Blaisdell Center.
You’ll find stories set during a UH football game, a bridal shower and a Luciano Pavarotti concert.
There will be fights and misunderstandings. Divorce and death. Reunions and family. Lots of family. It’s Hawaii, after all.
It dawns on me now that Kanae does not rely on the extremities of society to captivate her readers. There’s not a drug addict or alcoholic protagonist in the bunch. What she has managed to do with this collection is present everyday people dealing with everyday challenges. That's what makes these stories universal. The themes are familiar. We can relate to the "always a bridesmaid, never a bride" character. We can empathize with the boy abandoned by his mother. We can feel the angst of another jilting by a lover, the fear of losing a loved one, the compassion for an abused animal. But what makes this collection of stories unique is Kanae's use of dialogue, setting, description and characterization. These are firmly rooted in Hawaii, reaching clear down to the hot spot that formed this chain of islands.
In "The Steersman," outrigger canoe coach Cyril steers his crew far off the shores of Waikiki.
"Numba One, slow down," Cyril yelled. "Neva mind. Jes hold up, already." I sat there waiting to get reamed out for rushing, but all Cyril did was turn the canoe towards Diamond Hea. I had been so preoccupied with fear, pain and that damn outside buoy, I hadn't noticed where we were. Stretched out before us was the most recognizable view of Waikiki--the skyline at night. Staggered columns of hotels. The saucer-like structure atop the Waikiki Business Plaza. Kalakaua Avenue streetlights and traffic. All lit up and casting glimmering reflections on the water. I had been to Waikiki thousands of times--grew up on her beaches, worked in her fast food restaurants as a kid and drank in her nightlife as an adult, but I had never seen her while sitting in a canoe that was about a mile out from shore.
Cyril waited a few minutes, as if he knew our eyes were too greedy to look away. And then a warm yellow aura began to rise from behind the open crater of Diamond Head.
"There she is," Cyril said.
The first arc of the moon as wide as the opening of the crater began to rise out of Diamond Head and lit up the night sky. We sat there for at least five minutes. Our faces gradually glowed luminously as the moon lifted higher into the sky and bathed us with silvery yellow. We were speechless.
"Good job, you scrubs," he told all the crews. "We go in. Keep it long and hard."
In "Swift Blur of Passing Vehicles," Shanoah races home after finding an emaciated, scared dog tied to a dumpster.
He plowed through four clotheslines, dodging suspended sheets, shirts, bra cups and socks, kicked shut an open oven door of an electric range left on the sidewalk near his mailbox, and then paused at the bottom of his porch and winced. The porch, littered with fallen money tree leaves, reminded him of an anticipated Ala Moana Bowls swell. If he wanted to surf that weekend, he knew he had better grab a broom before Pops came home.
"We not pigs," his father had often told him. "You gotta keep your shop clean, boy. Clean. This is our 900 square feet. Get our name on the deed. Yours and mine."
A year ago, after Shanoah's mother moved out of the house, Pops had become obsessed with neatness as if clean was a religion, Shanoah had thought. And although Pops rarely mentioned her name, Shanoah had suspected that his father wanted the house presentable in case his mother decided to come back. Pops also started lecturing about how their neighbors along the lane had to rent their apartments in the two-story hollow-tile buildings that seemed dwarfed in the shadow of a colossal wall of luxury condominiums so dense they blocked most of lower Makiki's share of the Koolau mountain views. "Nobody can afford a frickin' studio in Honolulu anymore, let alone one two-bedroom one-bath," Pops would say to Shanoah. "Our house is the last one left on this lane. You know how lucky we are?" Lucky, Shanoah had thought? The only thing that separated their house from the highway was a narrow, pot-holed, single-lane road and a rusted chain-link fence overrun with buffalo grass, ivy gourd and hale koa.
Kanae isn't fabricating anything in Islands Linked by Oceans. These stores are so real and true and original, even, they embed themselves in the DNA of my consciousness. Years from now, I might even recount these stories and believe that I witnessed them myself. That I was there. As I passed around a box of mixed chocolates over a night of storytelling.