Saturday night, Mike and I attended a taping at the Atherton Studio for the Performing Arts in Honolulu. The program is Aloha Shorts and it airs at 5PM every Monday evening. My friend and fellow Aloha Chapter member, Michael Little (see link at right), was reading from his story “Mango Lessons,” along with three other members of the Bamboo Ridge Writers.
We found the radio station, found parking at the Daiei across the street, and even bought an eggroll at one of the many little fast food joints to make it legitimate. Mike devoured the eggroll and we crossed the street, illegally of course. The radio station was smaller than I expected, the tiny lobby deserted. Voices came from somewhere deeper inside. We heard Michael laugh and followed the sound to the studio around the corner.
A lady smiled and waved like she knew me when we entered. Mike said, “Who’s that?”
“I think Michael brought her to the luncheon last year but I can’t remember her name.”
We later learned that she’s Joy and she’s the Managing Editor of the Bamboo Ridge Press. She remembered us from the luncheon and knew our names because we were on tonight’s guest list. We had a wonderful conversation, even laughing about us forgetting her name. I knew I’d met her, but Mike had forgotten even that, so we teased him all night long, introducing him to Joy again every time we’d talk to her.
Michael had promised wine and pupus. The pupus weren’t great–sushi, chips, dip, veggies–but the wine was fabulous. I was struck by how writers are borderline alcoholics really (tongue in cheek, but only just). The wine selection was amazing, like everyone there was a closet sommelier. Bordeaux, merlot, shiraz, shiraz-cabernet, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay. I chose a Spanish shiraz called Mad Dogs Englishman. It was quite good. The cups were plastic, but it was a small price to pay.
We sipped and munched, talking in clusters. Michael told me I should join Bamboo Ridge, but I don’t write local stories (yet) and these writers do. Michael is a haole, but he’s lived here 25 years and writes stories full of local color and dialect. And his wife is local Japanese. Hawaii, in many respects, is like another country. Until I know its rhythms better, I don’t feel confident enough to write authentic Hawaiian life.
The taping was supposed to start at 8PM, but didn’t begin until about a quarter after. A gentleman, whose name I’ve already forgotten, coached the readers in their duties.
“If you mess up a line, go back to the beginning of the sentence and read it over again, yeah.”
He had a copy of each story and followed along, marking places where the readers flubbed and didn’t catch it. At the end of each reading, he had them reread the places he’d marked.
The first lady to read was a small, local woman. She was dressed in a skirt and blouse, and though she wore platform wedges, she still was shorter than the music stand with the microphone hovering over it. She read her story confidently, only messing up a couple of times, until she reached a part that made her emotional. She’d written a story close to home, based on her father’s death from cancer, but what made her cry was the part about her parents divorcing. She got back on track pretty quick, though. The prose was lovely, and she read it with deep feeling.
Next up was a Navy wife. Her prose was also gorgeous, and her reading was full of character, but the story felt like something I’d heard before. It’s probably because I too have the military background and the theme is a common one in this world: husband goes to Iraq and gets killed. What made her story different was that Navy men aren’t supposed to be in the thick of things. They deploy on ships and stay there. Her character had been assigned to shore duty and gotten killed in the performance of a routine job. At the end of her reading, she too was emotional, though only slightly so. Her husband sat in the audience, in his Navy uniform, the same rank as the character who died, the same physical description even, and I imagined she was thinking, like we all do when we hear something like this, what if it was my husband?
A poem followed. A young woman stood before us, arranged her papers, and began to speak. Mike and I looked at each other, eyes wide. She sounded like Minnie Mouse. At first it was grating, but then it got cute. I don’t know why my perception changed, but I think I must have needed a moment to get used to it. I wonder what she’ll sound like on the radio.
I learned more about Micronesians than I ever knew as she read her poem. I imagine there’ll be some editing, however, because she used one of the 7 words you can’t say on television. It was sort of funny hearing the f-bomb in that high-pitched little girl voice.
Finally, Michael got up to read. His story is based on his own life, on an incident that happened when he was newly married and it was time to pick the mangos from the giant tree in the yard. Grandpa climbs the tree while everyone else looks on. The more Grandma tells him to come down, the higher he climbs. And the unnamed narrator, the tall haole man, wields the bamboo pole with its basket that contains the precious cargo. His arms ache from the strain, but he can’t fail Grandpa, even when the rest of the family abandons them both for lunch.
Except it isn’t the story so much as the performance of it. Michael performed like it was something he did every day. His reading and inflection were perfect, even of the local dialect, and he brought down the house. After the first two stories, we needed to laugh.
What struck me most, however, was just how much reading aloud is an art. As an undergrad, I once took a class from a man whose PhD was in the performance of literature. I will never forget e.e. cummings’s Buffalo Bill thanks to that man. When I read a line from it recently, in Joan Didion’s memoir, I knew where it came from instantly. She took a day or so to find it after the line popped into her head, but to me that line is like any of the various Shakespeare quotes running through my head: instantly identifiable and unforgettable. And all due to one man’s rousing performance.
Already, the stories and poem I heard on Saturday night are in my head, more memorable because they were told to me. Not the words, necessarily, so much as the feeling and plot. And another feeling too: the world is full of talented writers. Here, on this island, I’ve met so many. It could be discouraging, I suppose, but mostly it fills me with a desire to create my own stories. I too want to share my work with an audience, though I can’t imagine reading my story while a tape rolls and a group of people watch me, waiting for the laugh or the chill or the tears I might bring.
Michael was jazzed after the reading, and since Mike and I hadn’t eaten yet (pupus notwithstanding), we three decided to go to Compadre’s. It was nearly 10 at night, but all I’d had all day was breakfast, so I figured I could handle Mexican food.
We’d finished eating when we noticed that Michael’s attention had strayed. Mike and I both turned around. In the restaurant next door, we could see people in costumes dancing. A gold-clad woman stood out, her headdress a gigantic concoction with beads and gold discs that looked like something a Thai goddess would wear. She danced on a table, her body lean and lithe with the kind of grace that comes from being a performer.
“It’s a guy,” Mike said.
“No, it’s a woman,” I said.
“It’s a drag queen,” he insisted.
“She’s got boobs,” I said. “They’re small, but they’re there.”
“You think it’s a guy?” Michael asked.
“Yep.” and “No.”
So then we asked the waitress what was going on. She had no clue.
dancing are amusing, especially when they think they know how to dance and don’t. The gold-clad person did, the sweaty guys in ties didn’t. We began to see other costumes, one of which was definitely a guy in drag, and my favorite, a bare-chested man with a tie (the chest was nicely muscled, tanned, and oiled).
Mike couldn’t leave it. He had to know what was going on, so he asked another waitress.
“Oh, it’s the Iona Dance Company fundraiser.”
Ah, now that made sense. We never did find out if it was a man or a woman in the gold costume, but I think it was a ballerina-thin woman.
Michael’s earlier performance was every bit as good. The art of reading aloud may not require flashy costumes, but it’s demanding in its very own way. How about a fundraiser for writers who read aloud? We can hold it in a restaurant and everyone can wear costumes. But no dancing, I beg you.