Author works: Gail Tsukiyama

The book cover depicts the small town of Hilo at the shoreline, with buildings in shades of white and brown against a foreground and backdrop of turquoise sea and sky; in the distance, Mauna Loa is erupting into the sky, with yellow flame and reddish clouds above the silhouette of the mountain.

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By Julie F.

The beloved bestselling author and recipient of the Academy of American Poets Award and the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, Gail Tsukiyama returns with The Color of Air. A novelist whose dual Chinese and Japanese background features prominently in her writing, Tsukiyama presents a novel whose prose flows like the lava threatening her characters, with the grace of stringing leis with fragrant jasmine, kukui nuts, and ti leaves. The literal and figurative emblems of Hawai’i leap off the page and into the vision, sounds, taste, and touch of readers as they live alongside the Hilo locals, and hear the voices of the ghosts they cannot let go.

The residents’ stories move through alternating sections from 1935 to the even deeper past — a rich, vibrant, bittersweet chorus which tells the interweaving stories and a lifelong bond to each other and to others in their immigrant community. Even as the eruption of the Mauna Loa volcano threatens their lives and livelihoods, it also unearths long-held secrets that have been simmering just below the surface.

What I love about the book is that there is a subplot for everyone. If you’ve had a relative challenged by dementia or Alzheimer’s, you see how Mama Natua’s family tries to cope with the help of Daniel, the Hilo native and urban Chicago doctor who has returned to the island to work among his people. Daniel himself wrestles with paternal abandonment, maternal loss, and the guilty sting of feeling that he failed a patient on the mainland. His high school sweetheart, Maile, has an abusive relationship in her past and is tentative about finding happiness again. Razor, the best friend of Daniel’s uncle Koji, tries to unionize the immigrant workers who are taken advantage of by the sugar and pineapple plantation owners and overseers. Each person has their secrets and struggles, yet all come together to find solutions. That’s one of the best things about Tsukiyama’s novels: the sense of love, community, and found family that permeates each page, with characters who learn to face and overcome their fears in order to adapt and grow.

Another strength is the remarkable visual and sensual imagery of the island, which is like a living being itself: “just as volatile and unpredictable as anything a big city could offer” (48). The native Hawaiian words interspersed throughout give the reader a sense of the geology, the fruit, the pikake blossoms, the music of the Filipino bands in the town, and the diversity of languages spoken on the island (at one point, she notes that signs on the street were printed in Tagalog, Portuguese, and Japanese). Hawai’i is truly a distinct cultural melding of sounds, sights, and scents, and Tsukiyama’s descriptive language conveys its unique beauty.

In her years aside from writing, Tsukiyama co-founded the nonprofit WaterBridge Outreach: Books + Water. Alongside bestselling authors Ann Patchett, Gillian Flynn, Karen Joy Fowler, Mary Roach, and Lisa See, the foundation’s mission is to give children in developing communities hope for the future through nourishing their minds and bodies with books and water.

Gail Tsukiyama was born in San Francisco, California to a Chinese mother from Hong Kong and a Japanese father from Hawai’i. She is the bestselling author of Women of the Silk (available from HCLS in eAudiobook format from Libby/OverDrive) and The Samurai’s Garden, as well as the more recent A Hundred Flowers (also available as a book on CD and as an eAudiobook from CloudLibrary).

Julie is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch. She loves gardening, birds, books, all kinds of music, and the great outdoors.

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