He Mele A Hilo: A Hilo Song By Ryka Aoki

A Book Review

October is a month of chill and wet leaves and for me early mornings commuting for as long as forty minutes almost every day. How does one survive in a small rickety bus for that long? I chose to read.

I had come to the library not long ago and pored over the many books at GWL. I took out three since I’m picky and like to keep my options rather open. One was a short collection of crime stories, the second being a book called The Magical Toyshop, and lastly, a thick bright book titled He Mele A Hilo: A Hilo Song.

I found the first novel Reader, I Murdered Him Too interesting, The Magical Toyshop, I have to confess, I have not yet finished, and the last book in my bag, written by Japanese American novelist Ryka Aoki, has now been read over in full, rather enthusiastically.

This particular book titled He Mele A Hilo is a book about Hawaii- right down to the title, the setting, characters and the prose (which is written and infused with the local Hawaiian dialect called Pidgin English). It’s a novel that celebrates Hawaii and its many colours, and it’s so fondly written that all I could do after I had closed the final page was smile as much as I was thoroughly moved.

Writer Aoki weaves the everyday culture and lifestyle of the people who live and flock to Hilo with a warm magic that feels genuine and uplifting. The prose is approachable (there’s a glossary at the back of the novel for all non Pidgin speakers) and its characters diverse and varied- you wonder how you’ll keep up with them as they explore their place in the island, in song and dance and love and religion but Aoki puts such dedication and spirit in each one that you feel for everyone; wether that emotion you feel towards that character is love, sympathy or simply the desire to understand them better.

Each character, my favourite being the quietly emotive Nona Wantanabe, has their own development and charm that keeps you rooting for them from start to finish. Their thoughts are riddled with many philosophies and beliefs that acknowledge the diverse development in the modern world as each character interacts with another so different from themselves.

Hilo, the town in which we follow these people’s stories, is a lush and sunny environment that opens doors to a culture I knew next to nothing about save for the commercial view of Hawaii in Western media. To know now that hula and its dance form, its song and chants, is a sacred and integral part of their society has radically changed my view on what I now see as mediocre representation of a beautiful and powerful art form that means a lot to those who dance it.

And tasty fried chicken is no longer just chicken, it’s a symbol of love and friendship.

Aoki’s work here is memorable, warm, and full of impact. I can say quite confidently that He Mele A Hilo became a solace and reprieve for me at dawn and after a long day. It’s richly funny, full of wit and wonder. It won’t be long before I pick the book up again, or wait, hoping with excitement, for another sunny journey to come along in Ryka Aoki’s name.

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