I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
June 1, 2022: Jeffrey J. Higa
Jeffrey J. Higa, whose great-grand parents immigrated to Hawaii from Japan and Okinawa, did not give up when rejections accumulated and agents requested novels instead of stories. Instead, he submitted his wonderful collection to contests. Now, after twenty years of hard work and persistence, his first book, Calabash Stories is the winner of the Robert C. Jones Prize from Pleiades Press and out in the world for you to read.
After growing up and finishing high school in Hawaii, he headed to Troy, New York, where he studied science in school and lived above a used bookstore where paperbacks could be bought for a quarter. Of course, writing won out over science.
Jeff is a storyteller with old world voice. In each story, I felt in the presence of a captain steering with confidence, pointing out things I should see and just what I needed to know when I needed to know it. These nine stories feel rich in family and friends and place and truth. Each one shines a light on at least one moment that the character will never forget. Each one is built with sentences packed in details and complications and surprises.
“The Shadow Artist” tells a beautiful story of the journey of a man’s life. Here’s that storyteller’s voice: “It was then that the Shadow Artist’s real work began.”
“Christmas Stories” gives us this description of where we are: “I enjoyed the bus ride from the fevered alleyways of our dusty community up into the cooler reaches of the Ko’olau Mountains and into the shaded valleys of breadfruit and banyan trees.” This story is full of voice, that of a teen-aged boy, like “‘I’m not lying,’ I lied.” And,
Although I didn’t know what he was asking, I didn’t like the way he was asking it, so I shoved the package at him and said, “Here, here’s your gift.” I knew it wasn’t the proper thing to say, but I didn’t care. It was my father’s fault for getting me into this in the first place.
In “Trading Heroes,” our main character describes the home he’s left behind.
Home was Hawaii, the place where all my relatives and grandparents lived, the place where both my parents were born and raised, and the only mooring post, in our nomadic military life, that we ever meant when we talked about “going home.”
“Lost Boys” is all about the storytelling and told from the point of view of “us kids,” although the “I” does make one brief appearance. This story rises up out of the stuff of life and feels like an old story that you might here at the end of the day around a fire.
Some of us say the fighting chickens came next and some say the beatings, but we all agree that by age six, Chick had become something like a wild animal: untamable, unruly, and uncommunicative.
“The Icebox Stay Coming” is a fabulous title for a fabulous story, and I believe it’s a story only Jeff could tell. I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the central image and there’s a beautiful description of the yards spilling together. But it’s this line I want to share with you because I just love it:
It would be from Grandma that I would learn how to get things done in this world–not by charming the lunas and their bean counters, but by befriending the people who actually carried the loads, for they were the ones with the most to offer.
Check out this visual with sound from “Relievers.” “[Grandma] strutted into the kitchen, the shin guards flapping against her legs creating a ripple of applause every time she walked.”
“The Summer of Miracles and Lies” may be my favorite story, but really I loved them all. This one goes big and complicated and then whispers a multi-layered last paragraph that will also stay with me. Here’s a sentence from near the beginning that is packed, as I promised above, with details and complications and surprises:
It was here on an early May morning in the summer of 1972, while Calamansi slept like a sun worshipper, his face turned toward the heat that poured through the shed’s only window, that I blackened over his window with a blanket and waited for the darkness of the false evening to prod him awake.
“Us Guys and the Devil” has the quirkiest first sentence: “It was the air-conditioning that won us over.”
Sometimes, Jeff’s sentences are whole stories in themselves, like the first line of the last story, “Wooing Elizabeth.”
When people asked my Aunt Elizabeth about Uncle Mike, she would tell them, ‘Oh, he’s at HCC,’ hoping they would think he was teaching classes or something at Honolulu Community College, when in reality, anyone who knew anything about him would know she really meant the Halawa Correctional Center.
Jeff’s play Futless won the Hawai’i Prize from the Kumu Kahua Theatre, and his story “Christmas Stories,” included in this collection, was serialized and broadcast by Aloha Shorts on Hawaii Public Radio. His story “The Shadow Artist,” also included in this collection, received an honorable mention in the Kurt Vonnegut Speculative Fiction Prize from the North American Review. Last November, Jeff was featured in Poets & Writers annual “5 Over 50.” He currently lives in Honolulu with his wife, the biologist Marguerite Butler, his daughter, the poet and actor Raine Higa, and their good dog Tim Tam.
Come back on JUNE 1st to read how JEFFREY J. HIGA spends his days.