Acclaimed novelist Gail Tsukiyama’s latest novel, The Color of Air
, transports the reader to the verdant rain forests and smoldering lava beds of Hawai‘i in the early 20th century. Centering on the Japanese American immigrant community of Hilo on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, The Color of Air
takes an intimate look at how a diverse group of individuals navigate backbreaking work on the sugar plantations, institutionalized racism and segregation, illness, heartbreak, and natural disasters by forming an extended family deeply tied to one another and to the land. Kirkus
writes, “Well-paced and lush, this is a captivating historical novel that shows the power of love and human resilience.” It's a pleasure to share The Color of Air
as Indiespensable Volume 87
: It’s such a treat to speak with you! I read The Samurai’s Garden
and Women of the Silk
as a teenager, and both really opened my eyes to cultures and historical situations that I otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to, which is something your work continues to do.
Are you thinking about educating your audience when you choose a book theme, or do you write more to satisfy your own curiosity?
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: I would say it's two-pronged in the sense that it always begins with my own curiosity: What happened? How did this become something that happened?
For instance, with Women of the Silk
, how did these young women come together 100 years ago to live independently without husbands or family? That kind of curiosity has set the tone for every book that I've written — I've needed to answer for myself these questions that I start asking.
I always feel too that being with a book, for the years that it takes to write them, is a bit like a marriage. There are so many stages in which you want to divorce this book and start something new, something fresh, something you can bite right into. So it has to be a subject matter that captures my heart and mind, which will take over my life for these years and where I’ll feel the comfort of being there and finding the answers to what I'm looking for.
Then comes the second prong, which is here I am, a writer who is writing from the San Francisco Bay Area, who is writing about other places, at other times in history. I have to find a bridge between the reader and the time and place, where they understand everything.
In historical fiction, or in the types of stories that I find myself writing, I always feel it's interesting that there are some things in the background that are hugely different from the lives we live now. Then, there's the other side that’s exactly the same. We all feel the same things. We all react to things in the same way. Those are the things I think about when I'm writing down characters, when I'm trying to think of how a person would react to a situation even though it's 100 years in the past.
But my main concern has always been finding the connections between how a character feels and thinks and how they've grown up and where they live.
: What questions led you to explore Hawai‘i and the immigrant community of Hilo in the first half of the 20th century?
Becoming a writer is a learning process that never ends.
: I'm part Chinese and part Japanese, but my father grew up in Hawai‘i. A lot of the books that I've written are inspired by the fact that, culturally, I seem to be ping-ponging back and forth between my Chinese side and my Japanese side. It’s a search of who I am and where I've come from. I don't think it's conscious.
A perfect example is the The Samurai's Garden
. I didn't have any Japanese background growing up other than eating sushi and everything else that being in the Bay Area and visiting Hawai‘i and Japan taught me, but I wanted to figure out how it plays a role in who I am today.
My mother's favorite brother wanted to be a painter and had gone to my great-grandfather's beach house in Tarumi, Japan, to recuperate when he was sick as a young man. I thought, Is there a story there?
It brought together both my Chinese and Japanese heritages and allowed me to spend some time with Japanese culture.
I began by reading everything about Japan, from the language to the kind of fences they used in Tarumi, to the beaches, everything, and gradually realized that nature was such a big force in the Japanese culture that I could divide the novel into four seasons. It would be one year in this young man's life.
You see how structure sometimes slowly builds itself without you even knowing? It's in the research for me, a lot of times, that I find structure.
Through all the books I’ve written, I’ve gone back and forth in terms of exploring Chinese and Japanese culture. Then came this long pause after my seventh book. I wanted to make headway in a different direction. I began to think about Hawai‘i a lot because that also is part of my culture. I thought, Are there any particular times in which something happened that I could set a story to?
At first, I thought, Oh, was there any great tsunami?
Because of Japan and what happened there… There are so many starts and stops to writing a book. It doesn't flow out on the page. If it does for some writers, they're incredibly lucky or incredibly talented.
The starts and stops happen so often that you probably write hundreds of pages before you find the beginning of where a book is. I don't allow myself to worry so much about where it's going to start. Of course, you need a good start because it pushes you forward, but I just have to get things down.
I started to think to myself, An eruption… an eruption that causes an entire community to look back on something, to find something, to discover something.
That became the seed of what would become The Color of Air
I don't make a lot of outlines. I free-form it when I'm beginning a novel. I let either the idea of a place begin a novel, or a character, or sometimes both. With The Color of Air
, it was really both, in the sense that I wanted the island to become a character.
: It's fascinating to hear you talk about your free-form process because one of the things that I was really struck by is how organized the novel is. Each chapter title is so specific that I wondered if they formed your original outline.
: For some reason, the way I work tends to be more formless, looser. I find structure in the afterward, particularly for The Color of Air
Each book has been a different process. That's what makes writing, in some ways, much more difficult than you’d think. It's not A, B, C, D. It doesn't follow the alphabet all the way through, which I sometimes wish it would. It becomes harder the more I write.
[I ask myself]: Why isn't it falling into place? Why do I hear this voice here and then this voice out here?
I somehow have to bring it all together. Sometimes, it doesn't form itself until the entire story line is finished.
I didn't have the same problems with my other books. With The Color of Air
, I had to find the story before I could find the voices.
Becoming a writer is a learning process that never ends. That's the gift of it. That's the anxiety of it. That's what makes you want to be a better writer, to find things in different ways, knowing that it’s not going to all fall on the page the way you thought it would when you wrote your first book.
: The Color of Air
isn’t just rich in historical detail; it’s infused with the scents and sounds of the Big Island. Your attention to the natural environment transports the reader into the tropics, but just as importantly, it anchors a lot of the novel’s tension and action in the landscape, in the lava flow, outside of human influence.
You mentioned that it was important to you to have nature be a character in the novel, and I wonder if there's something about the Big Island that demands that.
: Hawai‘i constantly remakes itself. Every time it erupts, it gets bigger. It fills in more land. The Big Island in particular is fascinating because of all its little, I want to say, subcultures.
You have areas of the island that are lush rain forests. Other areas look like the moon. Then you have other areas that are more built-up in terms of towns and everything. I find it fascinating that on one island you can have all these different environments.
The other thing that's been on my mind is the big role the environment plays in how people live and embrace the land. A lot of it has to do with what I'm feeling personally: What are we doing to our planet? Look at what has changed in the last 10 years. How is it going to be in 10 years for our children? There's a line in the book where Koji is thinking that we're just visitors here on this island. We are visitors on the planet also and we have to take care of it. We have to allow the planet to breathe. Part of what I was worrying about in real life went into the writing of the novel.
The Color of Air
provided the platform for me to go back in time, to show how this island is continuously regenerating itself, and how the people who live on this island realize that the island plays a great role in how they live, and how they should live and take care of it and embrace the things that happen.
I never mean to be so tender.
: The 1935 bombing of the Mauna Loa lava flow that the book recounts is so weird and fascinating! It’s also a reminder of the large military presence in Hawai‘i, whose ideology, I imagine, often runs counter to traditional Hawaiian conceptions of nature and controlling nature. You've got the community of Hilo, which is basically saying, "Pele's going to do what Pele's going to do." And then you have the military being like, "We'll just bomb it. It'll be fine!"
: Doesn't that sound familiar in so many ways?
: That's what I'm saying — when I’m writing novels, I often find history repeating itself over and over and over. I found that a great deal when I was writing The Street of a Thousand Blossoms
, which is set in Japan during World War II. I found it fascinating to write from the Japanese perspective, because finally you're looking through the eyes of people, civilians, who were deemed the enemy.
It's the same way with The Color of Air
. You're writing about all these people who actually live in the community, who embrace the idea of Pele letting off steam. Then you have the military coming in and saying, "We're just going to use force and drop bombs."
Of course, the community never really believes that these bombs are going to stop Pele. She's going to stop when she wants to stop.
: The Color of Air
does a wonderful job of elucidating big sociopolitical themes like labor politics, domestic violence, and illness without allowing them to dominate the novel. Instead, the relationships between the characters, and especially the traits of tenderness, compassion, and resilience, take center stage. I think this is true of all your work, and am curious about how you strike this balance, and how you use the personal to explore the political.
: It's not conscious. It has a lot to do with style. My personal style as a writer tends to be character-driven. I like to look at how a situation affects a character and moves them forward.
Wars drive people to do things. Secrets drive people to do things. Volcanoes erupting will change the way somebody looks at life. I find that interesting. How will this volcano erupting define who this person is? How does aging make you look at life — what do you remember? What do you forget?
I always wonder… I hear words like this, “tenderness,” “sereneness.”
I never think, when I begin a book, that that's the way it's going to be received, because I always think I am dealing with issues that can be hard-hitting.
I never mean to be so tender. I want to love my characters, even if they're bad characters. I never want to leave a character without some kind of explanation as to why they have done something or who they are.
That's why I pay so much attention to the characters and how to characterize them, so that even though they might be living in a different time or country, the reader will still be able to experience what they experience and understand how they live; in this case, for example, understand why they believe in the gods and the goddesses of Hawai‘i and how much power they have over a community.
Once I do that, then I feel I've done my job.
: One of the things that drew me to The Color of Air
in this particular moment in time is the novel’s emphasis on the importance of having a physical community — for health, for healing, for becoming a fully realized individual. It takes on special resonance right now when so many of our relationships are restricted to a screen.
I’m guessing you finished writing The Color of Air
before the COVID-19 lockdowns began, but have your experiences with quarantine this spring impacted how you think about the novel’s themes of community and extended family?
: The change, at first, wasn't as extreme for me because it's something I do so normally. I work from home; I have to be enclosed at home in a quieter kind of situation. I didn't even think beyond that. Then the quarantine lasted longer. Then I began to think, Oh, The Color of Air
I’ve always believed that luck and timing have so much to do with writing. Things sometimes magically happen that you couldn't dream of when you began the book.
I wouldn't wish for a volcano to explode and lava to start flowing, but that did happen in Hawai‘i during the writing of this book. Likewise, I couldn't imagine us quarantining now, that we would have to depend on the communities around us so much.
It resonates with the community in this particular book, who would do anything for the people of Hilo because they're family. I love the idea of that because I’ve always felt like maybe there wasn't enough of that here. We’re busy with our own lives, doing our own things. It's a whole different world. It's faster. It's more crowded. People are less inclined to see one another often.
Then we have a pandemic here. When something like this happens, you really see that there are neighbors who care about you, who want to help if they can. There are people doing things on the front line that we wouldn't dream of doing, but they'll do it because that's what they're trained for.
In times of despair, when things are bad, I see that we are here for one another. That's a really lovely thing.
: That's the nicest summary of this whole situation that I've heard.
The novel opens with a beautiful epigraph by Natsume Soseki
, which is later echoed by Mariko, and also gives the novel its title: “[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.” What drew you to Soseki's quote?
: I was incredibly fortunate that I was reading through a lot of Japanese authors and I just stumbled upon this. These lines just said, This is what this book is about
. It so fit the island and the community and the way they saw nature that I knew immediately that this was going to be the epigraph.
I love the wording of “the color of air.” It flows through the entire book, this idea of the color of air being very different depending upon where you live and how you live.
I had to find the story before I could find the voices.
: It ties in so beautifully with the theme of memory, which is key to the book in so many ways, from the flashbacks to the “voices” chapters to Mama's dementia. To me “the color of air” serves two functions: One, it’s a soothing reminder that nothing remembered is lost — allowing for those we love and lose to remain with us in some form. But it’s also a political idea that asserts that a place belongs to those whose memories, good or bad, have helped inform it. It creates an important narrative of Hawai‘i as belonging to the Native Hawaiians and to the Japanese Americans and other immigrants who helped it prosper and made it their home.
: When I began the book, part of the seed that was placed in my mind was how did Hawai‘i become the Hawai‘i it is today, this immersion of so many different cultures, and if there is a Hawai‘i culture.
I'm not saying Hawaiian
culture, but the Hawai‘i culture that we see today. It's this amalgamation of foods, of language, of cultural ways of living on the island that comes from the Portuguese, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Puerto Ricans, the Filipinos. We also can't forget the original Hawaiians. That's what our Hawai‘i of today looks like.
What I find is really wonderful is these immigrants were brought in as indentured servants, but what remains are these beautiful cultures that came together in a melting pot. What is gone are the plantations.
How did these communities come together to become the community that we see today on the islands? That was the thing that drove me forward from the very get-go.
I did make a research journey back. I actually went with Mary Roach
. It was during the flow of Kilauea. It flowed for months. We got near enough [to the flow] that I could see and hear everything I needed to write that scene with Koji and Daniel and feel like I was doing it correctly.
Everything is about timing. It was like, There's a lava flow flowing now! I’m writing a book about a lava flow. Go!
: In addition to writing, you’re the Executive Director of WaterBridge Outreach: Books and Water
, a nonprofit that provides books and literacy materials and finances clean water and sanitation projects in communities in the developing world. How does your writing inform your outreach work, or vice versa?
: That's a really good question. I've never tied it in that same way because the work that I'm doing for WaterBridge comes from a deep place — it's something I’ve wanted to do ever since I was really young. I wanted to join the Peace Corps, but at the time my mother was very nervous about that.
Then books came into my life, and writing came into my life, and it became the passion that drove me. I was fortunate to get published and to have readers. I got to a stage in my life where I thought, Now I can give back. Now I can somehow, hopefully, put books into other kids' hands.
WaterBridge grew out of what began as the Kiriyama Book Prize. When that came to an end, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to become something else, through which we could put books into the hands of others. My cofounder was very interested in water. We've tried to merge both ideas, nourishing the body and the mind. We do water projects in other countries and we set up mobile libraries.
At this point, I don't feel that my WaterBridge work has ever crossed over to my books in terms of place. Yet, I have seen so much and felt so much. Our lives go into our books in one way or another. I think that WaterBridge has sensitized me to so many things, and that kind of sensitivity has probably gone into my characters, and into how I see the world and the worlds of my characters, and certainly their countries and the land.
I think [doing this work] opens your eyes and gives you a greater sight, a richer way of living life and seeing people and how they live, what they care for and how they make do. And so, with all of that, I can't imagine it doesn’t go into the work I do. Our everyday lives can't help but become a part of who we are.
÷ ÷ ÷
was born in San Francisco, California, to a Chinese mother from Hong Kong and a Japanese father from Hawai‘i. She attended San Francisco State University where she earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree and a Master of Arts Degree in English. She is the bestselling author of seven previous novels, including Women of the Silk
, The Samurai's Garden
, and A Hundred Flowers
, and has received the Academy of American Poets Award and the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award. She divides her time between El Cerrito and Napa Valley, California. The Color of Air
is her latest book.