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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Kathleen Tyau

At a glance
A Little Too Much Is Enough
by Kathleen Tyau

226 pages, $$12

Kathleen Tyau is one of those writers who earned a lot of fame and fortune right away.

OK, just kidding. Irony isn't always the best way to make a point.

So let's introduce Tyau this way: Once she started writing, Kathleen Tyau earned well, she got a prize.

See, Tyau, raised in Hawaii and a 1969 graduate of Portland's Lewis & Clark College, didn't even see her first book published until 1996.

But that book, a collection of stories titled "A Little too Much is Enough," promptly won a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award. Which is one of the reasons why we've made it the February read of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

Prepare yourself, though. As anyone who has ever spent any time in the islands knows, the local dialect - pidgin English - isn't the easiest of slangs to pick up. And "A Little too Much Is Enough" is filled with it.

Take this one out for a linguistic exercise: " 'Aay, no make li' dat,' shouts Alfred. 'No make li' dat, I told you. Aay, no throw the mango. You like beef or what? You like I break your face?' "

As Tyau said in an interview just before her 1996 reading at Auntie's Bookstore, she intended to capture the life as she experienced in the 1950s, through statehood in '59 and on into the'60s.

And part of that life was language - though in Tyau's home language meant standard English. The same wasn't true while playing in the neighborhood or going to school.

"We were not encouraged to speak pidgin English," Tyau said. "We only spoke it with our friends."

When it came time to write, though, she did what a lot of other native islanders are doing.

"There's really quite a body of literature in the islands now that's written in pidgin," she said.

Though she's lived in Portland since leaving Hawaii for college in 1966, Tyau remains at heart an islander. Her father's side of the family hails from the island of Ni'ihau, the one island that still retains native Hawaiian language and culture. Her mother's side was Chinese.

It was through an attempt to keep her native connections that, after the better part of two decades doing hand-weaving and working as a legal secretary, Tyau began writing. Her first attempt, which came through a fiction writing course that she took at Portland's Oregon Writers Workshop, was the instructional story "How to Cook Rice."

"It was written so my nieces would have some sense of what their grandmother was like," Tyau told the Honolulu Advertiser, "because she died before they were born."

From there, though, she branched out. Besides "How to Cook Rice," her collection includes 16 more stories that, overall, create a narrative of wider appeal.

"Tyau's sparkling dialogue reveals the cadences of a spoken English influenced by both the Hawaiian and Chinese languages, especially when depicting rituals revolving around the preparation of food," wrote a reviewer for the literary-review journal Booklist. "Even though the experience is vicarious, it is still satisfying to share the lively meals in Tyau's often poignant narrative."

Without a hint of irony, then, you could describe "A Little too Much is Enough" in a single word.


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