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Nona Watanabe makes her humble chicken dish so well it might just be a divine calling, but her outfits and skin are never quite the “right” colors for her to feel like she belongs. Her boyfriend Harry can fish and never return empty-handed nor unsatisfied with his simple life, but he can’t shake the memories of his long-dead wife in order to fully embrace his second chance at love. Steve Yates is the richest man on Earth and has just bought a gorgeous stretch of Hilo coastline, but his money can’t purchase the one thing he wants most: his wife’s health. Kam Schulman, haole that he is, moved to Hilo after Hawaii’s music called to him, but he can’t be sure his new bandmates acceptance isn’t provisional. And Noelani Choi is the most naturally gifted hula dancer on the island, but her desire for meaning has drawn her away from the dance and towards an alienating obsession with Jesus.
These are just a handful of the characters that populate He Mele A Hilo: A Hilo Song, Ryka Aoki’s debut novel. The book, like a carefully calibrated structure–a tool, bridge, sculpture, recipe–would fall apart if even one element were out of place. Aoki, their creator, their steward, has made sure none will do so. Her building blocks: a lively group of co-occurring stories that cross in meaningful, almost predestined ways, and happen because of, to, and through the many vibrant, flawed residents of present-day Hilo, Hawaii. It’s a simple, easy pleasure to let it all unfold before the mind’s eye, the effort behind its construction invisible as the stories neatly cohere.
The list of characters–and their attendant chances for redemption–easily triple when considering the many minor story-lines that feed into the whole. Each figure is touched by enough quirky characteristics and backstory to keep them unique–no easy task, but Aoki pulls it off by drawing on the sounds, smells, and rhythms associated with each individual and the different spaces their hearts compel them to inhabit. Even bit-parts get a loving dose of humanity, the core of their motivations and faults excavated in the space of a well-honed paragraph or exchange.
The narrative moves briskly, held together by richly wrought settings that dare a reader to reduce them to the sickeningly sweet palm trees and sunsets that dominate mainlanders’ imaginings of Hawaii. Dashes of humor and hints of allegorical meaning make the tale feel almost mythical, as if passed down to the reader through an oral history. The effect is achieved largely through Aoki’s measured use of dialect. Often an instant failure-to-launch for less disciplined writers, Aoki’s reliance on local Hawaiian terms and slang help transport the reader wholly to her humor-tinged, magical realist world. That strong narrator’s voice is second only to the characters’, whose dialogue is warm and life-like, sculpted towards its uses in plot propulsion, and filled with enough silences to hold space for deeper meanings.
Despite the fact that none of He Mele A Hilo’s characters are explicitly L, G, B, or T — at least, certainly not the main ones, and if minor ones are, it’s suggested tangentially or whispered in rumors — a review for a site on LGBT writing is apt, as Aoki is a queer trans woman herself. This novel, then, is a somewhat unique entry into the LGBT literature canon, which has seen relatively few transgender writers successfully publishing literary fiction, and an even smaller percentage of them opting, like Aoki, to not include any explicitly trans characters. This pushes readers to contemplate: What is queer literature? What is trans literature? What is the author’s role in making it so? In what ways do the distinctions matter? There’s a neat parallel here with how characters like Nona and Noelani question the contested nature of “Hawaiian-ness”; the way identifiers jumble to make us worry, perhaps a bit too much, about the sharp corners of “belonging.”
And there’s a little push to break out of what’s expected of one’s identity — or one’s perception of what the identities of others mean–that can trigger new, and for the residents of Hilo, oftentimes transcendent insights.
He Mele A Hilo: A Hilo Song
By Ryka Aoki
Hardcover, 9781627290074, 235 pp.