Friday, August 7, 2020

Q&A with Gail Tsukiyama

Gail Tsukiyama is the author of the new novel The Color of Air. Her other books include The Samurai's Garden and Women of the Silk. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Color of Air, and why did you set it during the eruption of Mauna Loa in 1935?

A: I've always wanted to write a story set in Hawai'i. In so many ways, the beauty and sense of place writes itself. Also, my father was born and raised on Oahu, and I had visited many times growing up.

As I began to research, I realized that so much of Hawai'i's history has been distinguished by not only its beauty, but also by its natural disasters; the tsunamis, typhoons, and volcanic eruptions. The Big Island of Hawai’i where my story takes place is the product of five volcanoes, three of which are still active. Every time there's an eruption, more lava land mass is added. I found the idea of it fascinating.

At the same time, I was interested in how Hawai’i became the melting pot of blended cultures that has shaped the community of Hawai’i as we know it today. That curiosity led me back to the mid-to-late 1800s when the first influx of immigrants brought over as cheap labor to work on the sugar plantations created a new cultural identity.

Suddenly, the islands were populated by Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans workers all living separately from each other on the plantations.

When I read an eruption of Mauna Loa in 1935 had lasted six weeks, inching closer to the town of Hilo, I knew it would provide the perfect backdrop.

During the 1930s, there were also other seismic happenings that would work on both a physical and emotional level for the plot; the plantations and their suppression of the workers, the growing labor movement, the Depression, and the return to Hilo of my character Daniel Abe from the mainland after 10 years, stirring up all the memories and secrets buried within the close-knit community.  

Q: You tell the story from the perspectives of various characters--both living and no longer living. What did you see as the right mix between your ghost narrators and the living characters?

A: I knew that the themes of love, loss, and the tragedies of the past would move through the lives of all the living characters, and that their lives were interlinked with certain nonliving characters that would return to end each chapter with their ghost voices.

There are two important characters whose deaths shaped the lives of the living characters, so when I was thinking of structure, I knew I wanted them to anchor each chapter with their ghost voices. 

Q: Can you say more about the research you did for this book, and whether you learned anything that especially surprised you?

A: I researched from the very beginning and have for all my novels. For this particular book, I also visited the Big Island during the Kilauea volcano eruption in 2016. I was very fortunate to be able to see a lava flow up close and experience the immense power of it. It’s always a surprise that something appears so majestic and natural can also be so deadly.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The book’s title comes from the epigraph:

[T]he very color of the air in the place I was born was different, the smell of the earth was special, redolent with memories of my parents.  – Natsume Soseki

This is where my poetry background jumps in! It’s perhaps a more abstract title for some readers, but it’s a reminder that the place we are born is forever a part of who we are, no matter how far we go. The color of the air, the scents and sounds, the flora and the fauna, will remain with you, ingrained in the essence of your history.

Hawai’i lends itself perfectly to the idea of sensory memory. Daniel feels it from the moment he steps back on the island. The idea that even the air could take on a different hue in the place you were born complemented the storyline for me. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new novel that still feels too early to talk about yet. Let’s revisit this question in six months!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I’m not writing, I’m also the executive director of WaterBridge Outreach: Books + Water, a small, non-profit, grassroots organization that donates books and literacy materials, in English and local languages, supports mobile and stationary libraries, and finances clean water and sanitation project in communities and villages in the developing world. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Gail Tsukiyama.

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