By Kalani Padilla

 Otsuji, Derek N. The Kitchen of Small Hours. Southern Illinois University Press, 2021. $16.95

Paradise is a Homeplace: The Importance of Hawai’i Local Authorship in Derek N. Otsuji’s The Kitchen of Small Hours

Hawai’i-local poets like Derek Otsuji work from the vantage point of a complex ethnic lineage. Reading Otsuji’s work I am reminded, as a Hawai’i writer myself, that we are descendants of many cultures that are more discrete on the continental U.S. Home supplies the Hawai’i writer with a storehouse of experiences and images: in the islands, the deep greens of the Hawaiian rainforests, the undeniable red of red dirt, the golds of Chinese New Years, and the silken pastels of Japanese kimono all find a way to dwell in our imaginations—and persist in our ethnic heritage regardless of where our families emigrated from.

Derek Otsuji’s debut collection The Kitchen of Small Hours draws over and over from this cultural well. For many readers, Otsuji’s poems will seem to travel a lot: speakers and subjects emigrate, cut sugar cane, drive taxis, play in the irrigation ditches, visit the Hongwanji temple, hang laundry, run after falling avocado, swim in the Ala Wai canal in Waikiki. In reality, all these things are found in about a 45-minute radius, since time and intergenerationality link them together in one place.

So I wonder if our mixed-heritage upbringing gives us a flexible sense of cultural association. Otsuji’s collection seems to place trust in the possibility. Specifically, the possibility that living on O’ahu or on Kaua’i allows local people to imagine a unique ethnic interconnectedness and long-standing heritage in their surroundings. It binds images together into one collection that allows the reader to exercise—and be awestruck by—that same cultural flexibility and agility. Perhaps these chop suey images are tools that are endemic to us and uniquely ours to employ. I think, for example, of “Uncles Talking Story on ihe Porch”

Talking story on the cool porch at night,
where the moth flits like a feathery ghost
and the gecko, like a brown god, keeps post
under a naked bulb’s yellowy light.
they tell of childhood’s wide misadventures
among drainage ditches and brown canals,
rehashed school rivalries, classic fish tales,
war stories and faddish dances, departures…

As a reader I’m fond of the vernacular quality: “Talk story” — the local idiom used to describe, as the poem suggests, the way locals choose to pass hours and hours exchanging stories with friends. To call these characters “uncles”: they could be brothers of the same family, but in the islands, most any man older than yourself can be called “uncle” — both affectionately, and as a matter of respect.

But the poem also employs a sophisticated attention to the deeper kaona, or hidden meaning of each poem’s place. In the dimly lit scene above, a “moth flits” around the men, which both increases the presence of night and alludes to east-Asian folklore that migrated to the islands: in Chinese folklore, moths (especially the huge ones!) are visitations of deceased ancestors. “Feathery ghosts,” they listen in on the men’s familiar stories. The presence of the gecko who “keeps post” also physically locates the reader — their chirping sound the equivalent of cricketsong, or a hooting owl; the gecko’s being “like a brown god” links the scene to the ancient Hawaiian tradition of claiming ‘aumakua or guardian spirits.

Multiple conversations occur in harmony in this poem: the reminiscent talk-story among the uncles, and the ancestral conversation among the mythologically and spiritually real. Yes, I think that at its best, Hawai’i’s literature preserves space for the past to be in conversation with the present. I also recognize Otsuji’s collection as a narrative encyclopedia that captures vestiges of Plantation Hawai’i or modern Hawai’i in amber. When the reader is brought into the speaker’s childhood memories in “The Old Flamingo Restaurant”: 

Empty now, boarded up, sporting a graffiti tag
like a black eye, the old Flamingo Restaurant
sits on the auction block. But I remember
those three weeks, now years ago
—of family, by illness, brought close,
of endless talk of loved ones living and dead.

A complex relationship between three generations is depicted in this poem, and is perhaps being forced physically further into Hawai’i’s past now that the place itself no longer exists in the same way. And yet the existence of the poem defies aspects of the loss it depicts. Throughout the collection we also go with the speaker to Bishop Museum; to some swimmable version of the Ala Wai canal (to which we now would say—yikes!); to the period of Hawai’i colonial history where people emigrated for the Big Five’s empty promises of a rich life. Otsuji builds this visual grammar and aesthetic of Hawai’i cultural loss, perpetuity, and inheritance. 

Hawai’i local writers have access to a unique set of cultural images and associations, as is apparent in Otsuji’s work. But to employ them often requires one to grapple with the settler histories that rendered them into life. So it is rare, for me at least, to find a Hawai’i author whose work does not invoke these tensions. One of my urgent questions as a young writer from Hawai’i is, how much of that grappling must occur on the page in order for the poem to be justified? Is there anything we can write about that isn’t a slight to the land’s pre-colonial life? The encounter depicted in “Among The More Innocent Touristic Amusements of the Old Waikiki” creates room for the reader to think with skepticism on their own participation in the landscape:

My father tells the story of tourists
who came to the bridge to amuse themselves,
tossing dimes into the canal, to watch
as he and bare skinned cousins, brown as seals,

dove in to chase the winged heads down dim depths…

And returning to “Uncles Talking Story,” a reader who is not from the islands is invited to imagine, with more earnest curiosity, the lives of those who are; likewise the local reader may relate to, or have questions about the “cost”:

Rich with regret, the voices talk all night, 
their ample stage: a porch, a yellow light,
Each story says, “I lived, I loved, I lost”
Each sigh recounts, then tallies up the cost.

What is clear to me in reading The Kitchen of Small Hours is that the ethnographical task can be beautifully pursued when the hermeneutics of curiosity, skepticism, and generosity are working altogether between the lines. Otsuji’s poems don’t seem to fixate on the question of who should, or gets to, write what—rather, they seem bound only to honesty and honor toward memory. And that observation must be at least part of the answer to the questions I have, as a writer who shares his interconnected homeplaces.

Kalani Padilla (all pronouns) is a Filipino-American and kama’aina poet from Mililani. Kalani is a Whitworth alum of English (B.A.) and Theology (M.A.); currently, Kalani tends home in Missoula, Montana, an MFA candidate, writing mentor, night baker, yogi, and river rat. Kalani’s poems, essays, and short stories live with Bamboo Ridge Press, Waxwing, Waterwheel, Figure 1, and the Academy of American Poets.

Comments are closed.