Islands Linked by Ocean
By Lisa Linn Kanae
Bamboo Ridge; 172 pages; $18
Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Just as each separate Hawaiian island nonetheless comprises one connected state, when read together short stories can also evoke a complete narrative vision. Each story in Lisa Linn Kanae’s new short fiction collection “Islands Linked by Ocean” provides a distinct puzzle piece depicting people, places, and things that matter to all residents—like a good UH game, resenting how Liberty House morphed into Macys, or losing a loved one who now lives far away—but once connected, a full and buoyant portrait of modern life in Hawai`i appears.
As one would expect of a composition and literature instructor (Kanae teaches at Kapi`olani Community College), Kanae’s prose is clean and precise, each story well composed with only a few stray or ill-fitting details and forced endings. Yet not all stories soar with fresh observations and memorable plots, gliding by without much impact as in the spoken-word style rant “Strawberry Scented” about how things have changed since the narrator’s youth. Many stories also begin with superfluous introductory paragraphs that are intriguing read on their own as short prose poems, but rarely add depth to the plot.
Instead, Kanae’s writing is at its best when she hits the ground running from the first sentence, and often a clever, humorous title. “Luciano and Da Break Room Divas” is successful and immediate with a pidgin narration about ladies supporting their colleague, and a moment when Pavarotti’s music eliminates invisible but keenly felt class boundaries. “Hoku’s World” features a teen who dresses in a goth style despite 80-degree heat, alongside Kanae’s direct but tender illustration of how technology creates distance from the simplicity of past while at the same time connecting us to stories of old in new ways.
Another standout, mainly for its courageous intention, is “Born Again Hawaiian,” about a couple with two different ways of “being Hawaiian” but nonetheless find a way to stay together. The story begins with spot-on local details as Sheldon settles into his papasan chair to watch the UH game, and later Kanae gently and compassionately highlights his struggle with his wife’s decision to change her name from Melissa to Manu and to focus on sovereignty, while wanting her to do as he was taught: “Be humble. No makes waves. Take it in stride.”
In the end, the best piece is the collection’s first. In “The Steersman” the prose pulses with life as Ka`upena dissolves into the anonymity of a novice paddling crew, trying to decipher the enigma of her virile coach Cyril. Unlike her malihini crewmate who “had no clue about the way Hawaiians teach and learn,” Ka`upena listens and keeps her mouth closed (while the reader gets a paddling education), and eventually Cyril teaches everyone—reader included—about a lot more than how to win a race.
While not every story lands out of the park, the perceptive social observation, range and flexibility in voice, age, and subject, and compassionate insight into island life that Kanae demonstrates in “Islands Linked by Ocean” mark her as one local writer to watch well into the future.