Oral History of Juliet S. Kono Lee

Oral History Project

Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project
Juliet S. Kono Lee


Interview of Juliet S. Kono Lee (JKL), conducted by Scott Kikkawa (SK) for the Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project via Zoom, in the summer of 2022. Juliet S. Kono Lee speaks of her family history; her childhood, notably the 1946 tsunami; her education; her development as a writer; her impressions of Bamboo Ridge and the literary community; and her future writing projects. Juliet S. Kono Lee also recalls Eric Chock, Marie Hara, Darrell H. Y. Lum, and others.


The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Juliet S. Kono Lee (JKL). The interview was conducted by Scott Kikkawa (SK) for the Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project. This is a single interview session.

Juliet S. Kono Lee and Scott Kikkawa have reviewed the transcript and made their corrections and emendations. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability by the Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project. The reader should bear in mind that they are reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.

SK: This is interview number one with Juliet Kono Lee, also known as Juliet S. Kono. Today is May 3, 2022. I’m Scott Kikkawa. I will be interviewing Juliet. What is your full name?

JKL: My name now is Juliet Sanae Kono Lee.

SK: What are all your names in all their iterations, from the very start?

JKL: Let me go back a little bit. I was born on July 16, 1943 and I’m a blackout baby, and my parents named me Juliet Sanae Asayama. That’s my birth name. After my first marriage I became Juliet Sanae Kono, and I wanted in a way to keep it Asayama, but we were restricted at the time. You have to take your husband’s name. So, it was Juliet Sanae Kono, and then I also began writing under that name. When I got married the second time I just added my second husband’s name, and my name became Juliet Sanae Kono Lee.

SK: Any plans to change it again? Maybe.

JKL: I don’t know. I’ll probably just go by Juliet Lee or something like that. There’s a lot of Juliet Lees, though, around.

SK: And you’re still writing under which name?

JKL: Juliet S. Kono, because it was so confusing. My audience would be confused if I suddenly changed my name. So, I just said, oh, you know, I’ll just keep the name Juliet S. Kono. Sometimes to be anonymous, I use Juliet Lee, but over the years I’ve had many, many nicknames. I was born Toots. My aunties called me Toots, and they called me names like Juju, Halfpint, Tag, Jewel, Chatterbox. What else did they call me? I guess those are the names. But I’m sure I heard other things like Chatterbox, and you know weird names, ’cause I used to talk so much.

SK: That’s great. What can you tell me about your family? That is, your family before you. Where were they from, and where did they live?

JKL: Let’s start with my grandparents. My maternal side, my grandfather’s name was Bunyamon Oshita, and he married my grandmother Shige Taniguchi. They both came to Hawai‘i separately. My grandfather was always already here, and my grandmother married him on the dock in Hilo, and then they walked eight miles up into Kaiwiki, where my grandfather had a house and she said it was horrible because she was wearing slippers, those woven slippers they used in Japan with kind of a thick heel, and she said she had her wedding kimono on, and it was just horrible trying to walk up to Kaiwiki, but that’s where the Issei generation settled on my mother’s side. And on my father’s side, it was Kisaburo Asayama married my grandmother, who was Tori Hagiwara and she came from Japan with her brother as her husband, because her real husband had already died, and one child had already died. And so when she came she just came with her brother and said her brother was her husband. Otherwise they were having problems trying to get in to the country and they came as laborers also. My grandmother, when she came to Hawai‘i worked in Wai‘anae, and then she met my grandfather Kisaburo Asayama, and they married at some later date in Wai‘anae and then they moved over to ‘Ōla‘a on the Big Island, and that’s that first generation. I hope I got this all right.

SK: So, originally your mother’s side was from—

JKL: Oh, I forgot my mother’s side. My mother’s side, my grandfather, who was Bunyamon Oshita, and we used to tease him “Big Bottom” because “O” is big and “Shita” is bottom but we were scolded because they said, “You cannot say that because it doesn’t mean ‘big bottom.’ It means something else.” The kanji means something else. So, we said, oh, okay, but we used to tease my grandfather, “Oh, we got big bottoms.” But anyway, he married my grandmother, who was Shige Oshita, I mean Shige Taniguchi from Hiroshima. My grandfather was from Yamaguchi. So, a Yamaguchi-ken man married a woman from Hiroshima. She was sort of educated. She was going to become a school teacher, so she was quite educated. But her father somehow felt that he had to have all his children except one daughter, to take care of him in Japan. Everybody else, he wanted them all in America, so that’s how my grandmother married my grandfather on the docks in Hilo, and then they had six children. My mother was the oldest, and her name was Atsuko Oshita. My grandmother on my paternal side also had six children, and my father was the middle child of their clan. My father and mother met at a wedding—somebody’s wedding—and my father sent my mother a drink, and that is how their romance started. And they got married.

SK: Where was this wedding? Was this in Hilo?

JKL: Yeah, this is in Hilo. The Shinmachi area had a tea house, and apparently my mother caught his eye, and he sent her that drink and that started it all. She was sort of older. She was twenty-four, which is sort of old for women. And so, my grandmother said you folks better get married, you know. So, they got married and my sister was born. And then I was born later.

SK: Where was your father’s family from?

JKL: My father’s family was from Kumamoto. Both of them are from Kumamoto in Kyushu. He was a big man. He was five feet eight, you know, considered a big Japanese, and when he came to Hawai‘i, eventually he became a luna, which is very unusual for a Japanese person to become a luna. But he was luna in the cane, you know, whatever they did for cane, the workers, or whatever. But he died young.

SK: What plantation was that, that he was a luna on?

JKL: ‘Ōla‘a. They had a house in ‘Ōla‘a right near the sugar mill. That’s where my father grew up.

The sad thing about my parents, my father quit school when he was in the sixth grade, because he got ill, and he couldn’t walk, and it took him a long time to regain his footing but by the time he got well he didn’t want to go back to school, and the kids used to tease him because he had a slight limp, so he decided to work in the cane fields. And my mother was sent to Sebastopol to live with her uncle, in a Taniguchi family in Sebastopol, where she worked on their apple farm, but she also had to quit school when she was thirteen. So, it was when she returned from Sebastopol, and then my father—they got together at that wedding or whatever—that’s how they met. So, it’s kind of a complicated situation.

SK: Where is Sebastopol?

JKL: By Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, along the coast in California. Do you know the movie, The Birds?

SK: The Hitchcock movie. Yes.

JKL: They lived close to the beach area, that Sebastopol area and they grew apples. They had an apple farm, and my mother worked there helping them dry apples, and she also worked for this department store family, their department store was called the White House. White House Department Store, and they were very fond of her, but she had to come home because she had a boyfriend, and my aunt said she was not responsible for her running around with this guy on a motorbike, so she was sent home. Everybody says it runs in the family, doesn’t it? Anyway, anyway.

SK: So, she was sent home, and she met her father at the wedding. When your parents got married, where did they live?

JKL: Oh, my father loved fishing, pole fishing, mainly, you know, shore casting so he wanted to live by the sea. So, he lived right on the oceanfront, right on the bay. Hilo Bay, across Lili‘uokalani Park, which was bad for us, because very shortly after, maybe two or three years, not sure about the time, the tsunami came [April 1, 1946 -Ed.], right?

SK: They were in a house across from the park. I know Hilo today. There are no houses there anymore.

JKL: Everybody had to relocate from that area. I don’t know if you know the pier? Have you seen the pier?

SK: Yes.

JKL: Suisan [Fish Market -Ed.], and then there’s a pier where people go fishing and everything right across the park. We lived right on the water. There was a wall, and then, you know, everything was lost.

SK: This was the Shinmachi neighborhood, which no longer exists today. I want to talk about that area. But before we do, you told me that you have an older sister?

JKL: Right.

SK: Do you have any other siblings?

JKL: Oh, no, no, just my sister and I, and she’s two years older than I am.

SK: When was your sister born? And when were you born?

JKL: I was born on July 16, 1943, right in the middle of the war, and my sister was born in ’40, wait, she’s two years older than I am so she was born in 1940 or ’41, I guess, 1941.

SK: Were you both born at home or in the hospital?

JKL: We were born in Matayoshi Hospital, one of the Japanese hospitals that Hilo had. There are a lot, maybe about four or five of them in Hilo. I was born in Matayoshi Hospital. There’s a prominent Matayoshi woman here in Honolulu, and she was part of the DOE, or, you know, her name comes up every once in a while, but they’re all that family, the Matayoshis.

SK: Is that hospital still around today?

JKL: Yeah, And I think somebody practices there. They still have the Matayoshi—it’s not a hospital—but it’s a medical sort of place. But yeah, interesting.

SK: Very. And so, you live for your first years in this Shinmachi area in Hilo. Could you tell me about that neighborhood, what you remember of it?

JKL: When the tsunami came, I was only about two, two and a half, so there’s very little memory about anything there. My aunt saved me. My mother took my sister, because when they saw the wave coming, it was kind of too late, right? My father went to start the car, and he wanted everybody to come downstairs to go into the car but by that time the wave hit the house. According to my mother, we’re sort of floating on the wave, but the wave was breaking up everything, and my grandmother told us, I mean, told my mother and my aunt was living with us, to leave her, just leave her, because she wasn’t able to do anything. So, they left her hanging on one of the veranda posts, and my mother took my sister and my aunt took me, and the house crashed into a mango tree and fell apart. So, we lost—we didn’t know where my father went—and my grandmother, we didn’t know where she was. My aunt took me under her arm, and she ran. When the water sort of receded, she ran. You know where the electrical plant is across the Suisan?

When the tsunami came, I was only about two, two and a half, so there’s very little memory about anything there. My aunt saved me. My mother took my sister, because when they saw the wave coming, it was kind of too late, right? My father went to start the car, and he wanted everybody to come downstairs to go into the car but by that time the wave hit the house. According to my mother, we’re sort of floating on the wave, but the wave was breaking up everything…

SK: Yes.

JKL: Anyway, there was an electrical plant area, and she ran towards that, and she fell into a great big hole with me, and it was lucky because the next wave went right over us and all the debris went right over us. To keep me alive, I guess she started jumping up and down because the water filled up the hole. So, she was just holding me up, jumping up and down, and then somebody came and picked me up and took me away, but left her in the hole. But she said she blacked out when the next wave came in and held on to the California grass, you know that tough grass, and she said she kind of blacked out, but then was able to get out and save herself, but she didn’t know where I was. My mother and my sister—my mother was badly hurt on her legs—the barbed wire from the war was still around parts of the coastline, and she had to climb over that, and she got hurt, slashed on her leg. My father, we learned later, went out toward the breakwater in the car and was pushed in with the wave at some point, and his car was found near our house. What was left of the property, the house, some tansus and stuff like that were there. He never spoke about the tidal wave. He never told us what he felt, or what he saw, or whatever, it’s really strange. My mother and sister went to the Ironworks. You know where the Ironworks is? You have it in your book, right? That area.

To keep me alive, I guess she started jumping up and down because the water filled up the hole. So, she was just holding me up, jumping up and down, and then somebody came and picked me up and took me away…

SK: Yes, that area.

JKL: They went way inside by the auditorium and they were saved. My father found me on a truck bed of the man who saved me. The man who saved me was trying to see who I was, but I was screaming so much, my father found me. My grandmother, they found her on the tree and she was practically naked from the, yeah, the waves and everything, because she had on her morning kimono, and the man who saved her died. So that’s how that’s how we survived. Anyway, that’s the story, and I’m sticking to it!

So that’s how we survived. Anyway, that’s the story, and I’m sticking to it!

SK: Wow! That’s quite a story. That’s how you started your life. Where did you go to school? Tell me about the schools you went to.

JKL: Okay, first of all, the K. Taniguchi store, they were very nice to my parents, and they had a rental, so they said we can come and live in one of their rentals. So, we live next door to these people with this big white house. I went to Hilo Hongwanji Kindergarten, which was just about a block away, and then after that I went to Hilo Union School for my elementary school. When I reached the third grade, I went to Princess Kapi‘olani Elementary School, and after that I tried for English Standard school. It was called Riverside School, but I didn’t pass it because I made a mistake when they asked me a question, and I couldn’t answer it very well, so I didn’t get in. I wanted to go to Riverside School but I couldn’t make it. Then I went to Hilo Intermediate School, then Hilo High School, and that was my education in Hilo.

SK: Tell me what it was like outside of school growing up in Hilo. What kind of things that you do growing up?

JKL: I was kind of a loner. The farthest I would go by myself would be to Kapi‘olani School, Mo‘oheau Street, and on the other side, the farthest I went was the library and Wailuku River was the boundary. I would walk by myself, any old place. I took the bike. I stole my sister’s bike and then I’d go riding down to Lili‘uokalani Park, and go fishing by myself. I would go flying kites with the boys. A lot of times, I was alone. I would go to the bakery, eat pies. I went to the library a lot, and near the library they had Dairy Queen. I went to the Dairy Queen. Right by the library, there’s King Kamehameha’s bed made out of stone. I remember once trying to lie down on the stone and I got scolded because they said it’s sacred, you can’t like down on the stone! But, anyway, I would do things like that.

SK: That’s great. you were in the library a lot. What did you enjoy reading?

JKL: You know, it was kind of sad because I signed up for a library card, and I was pretty young. When I was in the first grade, I would go by myself. We lived on Kīlauea Avenue, so I had a couple of miles to walk to the library. I would get there, and I would read—the younger children’s section was really small, and they hardly had any books. As I grew older, there were hardly any books for 5th, 6th, 7th graders. It’s not like today, where you have all these wonderful books for children and everything. I used to go to the reading hour when one of the librarians would read a story for us. I spent a lot of time at the library, and I would borrow books, bring them home, and my mother would drive me in the afternoon sometimes, to return the books. Later on, as I grew older, I used to go to my grandmother’s house a lot, and there, because they had my aunts who read a lot, they had books like All The King’s Men, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Of course, many of them I didn’t understand. But I tried read a lot, and usually I was by myself, and they had a Britannica Encyclopedia, and I used to always go through those. My mother, when I was in the 7th or 8th grade, bought us the New World Book encyclopedia. We immersed ourselves in that. But initially, it was Golden Books and records and stuff like that. We used to play “Pinocchio,” and those fairy tales. But that was the early part. Then, later on, I tried to read in my 9th grade year, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I think it was banned, but I don’t know. There are books in a section that you couldn’t touch, but I would go to the sections to see what they were. When I was in high school, Peyton Place came out, and I read that book. I heard a lot about what’s that book, Capricorn? By Henry Miller, or whatever. Tropic of Capricorn, or something like that. And I didn’t understand anything in that book, but now I want to read some of it again, because it’s kind of interesting. The writing was interesting. Have you read it?

I spent a lot of time at the library, and I would borrow books, bring them home, and my mother would drive me in the afternoon sometimes, to return the books. Later on, as I grew older, I used to go to my grandmother’s house a lot, and there, because they had my aunts who read a lot, they had books like All The King’s Men, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

SK: No, I haven’t read it. That’s on my very huge pile of to-be-read.

JKL: I try to get these weird books. But you know, of course, at school we had an anthology, and we read like Tale of Two Cities, and that kind of stuff that we were supposed to read. Yeah, but you know it’s like self-education.

SK: It sounds like you enjoyed reading. When was the first time you had read something that really spoke to you, something that you really connected with?

JKL: I loved my Golden Books because the words were so wonderful. I mean, I wasn’t thinking of writing or anything like that, but I liked nursery rhymes, and I liked the rhythm of words and stuff like that. And then the school, Hilo Intermediate School, had an anthology for students to send in their work. I hardly got selected because it was so junk, you know.

I loved my Golden Books because the words were so wonderful. I mean, I wasn’t thinking of writing or anything like that, but I liked nursery rhymes, and I liked the rhythm of words and stuff like that.

SK: What did you submit?

JKL: I tried to be elevated in poems and stuff like that. But nobody taught us how to do this, right? There were a lot of prose pieces and the poems all rhymed. They were awful poetry. But I would submit, you know? It was sad because the teachers didn’t know how to teach us either.

So, what can you expect the students to produce? There are some kids like Susan Nunes, she was really good. And a couple of other people who were really good writers. And Susan still continues to write so. What about you?

SK: I would say my experience is really close to yours. From an early age it was like that. For me, it was Dr. Seuss because of the strange illustrations and the cadence. I didn’t know you were submitting to a school publication. How old were you when you started doing that?

JKL: Seventh grade. But many things were rejected. I think only one or two got accepted in the three years that I was in Hilo Intermediate School. But that was okay, you know? I felt for myself, “there has to be more.” But I didn’t know how to articulate it to the teacher, like, “Will you please show me the way?” But nobody knew.

SK: That’s too bad. Did you write at all in high school? This was in intermediate school. When you got to high school did you write anything at all?

JKL: In high school, let me tell you something, a very sad story. I was in Dr. Kurashige’s class. He was a PhD from New-Somewhere in New York, and he came to Hilo because he got married to somebody from Hilo, and he began teaching English in Hilo High School. I was in this class, and he made an assignment. I wrote it, but I had no typewriter. It was just kind of messy in a way. But he said, I read all your essays, and I would like to read one of the essays, because I think it’s a very good essay. I want you to model your essays on something like this. And he started reading my essay, and I almost cried because I didn’t want…okay…what happened was that he gave me the paper in front of everybody, and everybody said, “Oh, Juliet, Wow!” But I wanted to cry because I did not want to be noticed. And so, I never turned in anything after that. Stupid, yeah? Isn’t that a sad story?

SK: It is a sad story!

JKL: I wanted to be like everybody else, and nobody make a fuss or anything. Anyway, I was having a hard time with myself in high school. I ran away from home, and you know, I did all kinds of stuff that was crazy. But I was in the 11th grade I think and I said, I’m never going to write again.

SK: Thankfully that turned out to be wrong, right? You actually did write again after that. But now I want to know what happened between “I will never write again” in the 11th grade and when you started writing in earnest. So, this happened sometime between high school and—

JKL: Many years after.

SK: You’re at the beginning of your adult life, so talk about that transition. Obviously, you went from Hilo to being here on O‘ahu at a certain point, so what happened in those intervening years?

JKL: I had a very checkered past. I ran away from home, as I said. I ran away to my boyfriend in Honolulu and I was caught and taken back to Hawai‘i. It wasn’t as dramatic as I say it, but I was yanked home, and I ran away from home again and lived with my girlfriend for quite a while, and didn’t go to my graduation. I had some kind of honor that I did not want. I said I did not do well, I didn’t deserve it. I was drinking, and I was smoking, and I was doing things like that. Not too much smoking, but we would go with boys, all that stuff. And then, when I was twenty, I told my mom I’ll never give you any trouble anymore in my life, and I kept to it. I never gave her any trouble after that. But then I saw all my friends and at the university, and they were just smoking away and drinking away and I was done. But of course, I also got married, right? And I had a child and I never went to school. I tried going to the university, I failed about three or four times. it was too hard to take care of a baby and take care of another baby husband.

SK: When was this? How old were you at this point?

JKL: In my twenties. And then I started school again before my second child. Then I found out I was pregnant and I had started school again, so I had to quit again. But that semester I did very well, so I knew I could do it, but I had to quit school because I had two children now. I had no prospects, so I worked for the police department. I needed a job after my boys were a little older, so I went to the police department. I worked as a police dispatcher and that’s where I met David. Hero David! I got divorced from my first husband after much trouble, and then David said, “I will send you to school.” So he sent me to school, but by then, after the first semester I tested out of all the initial English courses, and they put me on a non-traditional student scholarship, and I went free the rest of the way until I graduated with my BA. Then I went for my MA and also graduated both times with Highest Honors. Crazy, yeah? I was writing a lot from the time I was in dispatch. I was writing, I finished my first manuscript and that’s what I sent to Darrell and Eric.

SK: When was this? When you say your first manuscript—

JKL: In the 1980s. I was already in my thirties.

SK: How did you hear about Eric and Darrell and Bamboo Ridge?

JKL: I heard about the Talk Story conference and I was well aware of it, but I couldn’t go to the conference, but one day I went to the university because I wanted to see who these people were, but I didn’t dare talk to anybody because I was so scared of everybody.

I heard about the Talk Story conference and I was well aware of it, but I couldn’t go to the conference, but one day I went to the university because I wanted to see who these people were, but I didn’t dare talk to anybody because I was so scared of everybody.

SK: When you say “everybody”, was this Eric and Darrell? You were scared of Eric and Darrell?

JKL: I didn’t know much about—I knew Marie [Hara], I mean I knew her, she didn’t know me, but I knew her from before, because when I first went to school I met Marie—she doesn’t remember—though I remember her because she was so beautiful, and then you know she was she was running for some board or something for the school, for the university? Anyway, she was very popular, et cetera, et cetera. But I saw her name and about this conference and I read it in the newspapers, and I went down one day, and I think that’s when I saw Maxine Hong Kingston, and I’m really not sure, but I thought I saw Jessica Hagedorn. Dogeaters. She was the author of the Dogeaters and I thought, “Wow! Look at these people! They’re doing stuff like this!” And then that year, I think it was that year, I won a story contest The Advertiser sponsored for Christmas and I won that, and I got some kind of honor, and Wayne Westlake was among those people. I don’t know if you remember him, but he was also a writer. He got into a car accident, or something, and he died. I’m not sure. But anyway, I still didn’t know anybody, never met anybody. And then I started sending some of my poems and since I was at the university, I would give Darrell my poems for Bamboo Ridge. I don’t know how I connected to him but I knew he was in an office where he was a counselor or something, and so I would go there and give him my poems, and then gradually they asked me to publish a book. So that’s how Hilo Rains [Issue #37/38 -Ed.] came to be.

SK: What year was Hilo Rains? Do you remember?

JKL: 1988, it was published.

SK: When was your first poem or piece with Bamboo Ridge published?

JKL: I don’t remember. I’m not sure what piece. I can’t remember.

SK: I was sent a list, an index of all the authors that have been published by Bamboo Ridge, and you have many, but I think the very first one on record was “Blackout Baby,” and that was summer, 1980 [Issue #7 -Ed.].

JKL: Oh, yeah, I’m sure.

SK: The Talk Story conference you talk about, I believe was in 1978. So, two years later, you have a poem in a Bamboo Ridge publication.

JKL: Oh, my you remember more than I do!

SK: I don’t remember, I research, of course. I wasn’t there. I was in elementary school or something.

JKL: You’re a young guy.

SK: Not that young. Summer of 1980. A mere not even two years after the Talk Story conference, you have a piece in Bamboo Ridge and I think it’s really interesting and kind of amusing that you found Eric and Darrell to be kind of scary intimidating people. Could you could you talk more about that? About what your first impression of those guys was?

JKL: When I first met Darrell, he was busy because he had conferences with students. But I would just go in and say, “Here are some poems. I would like to submit these poems.” And he was really nice about it. And he said, “Okay, okay.” He’d take it and gradually they would accept this poem and that poem and later I had been writing, I was working at the police department, and during the night I would write all these poems and I was going to school, then I quit the police department and I went to school full time. It’s kind of interesting. When I first met Eric, he was very quiet. Eric was very quiet, but very nice. They’re both very personable and kind. They were amazing guys, you know. They knew what they wanted. They worked so hard. I never saw people work so hard on this mission, you know? It’s really amazing what they were doing. And I benefited from all that. It was right up my alley. So, I was quite lucky.

They were amazing guys, you know. They knew what they wanted. They worked so hard. I never saw people work so hard on this mission, you know? It’s really amazing what they were doing.

SK: That’s great, but when, so when you say they were scary individuals, it wasn’t that they were mean individuals.

JKL: It was that I was unschooled. I just started school. I didn’t know how that was going to work, and then I was already in my late thirties, I think. And you know I graduated when I was fifty with my MA. So, yeah, I mean, I was really a late starter, you know, so it’s kind of crazy. But that’s the story. You know we’ve been friends, Darrell and Eric. We’re all friends, for a long time.

SK: You mentioned Marie, too. Marie Hara. Can you talk a bit about when you first engaged with her? You said you knew her, or who she was before talking to her, and was this in association with Bamboo Ridge?

JKL: Yeah, I think. Oh, she was just you know she would say, “Oh, you’ve got to come to the Study Group,” and you’ve got to do this, and she was so encouraging and everything. It was just amazing. So many, so many, so many people she encouraged. I don’t know how she could keep track of everybody, you know? But we all had her blessing, and we all had her encouragement and everything, and she was teaching school and everything. And I was saying, oh my God, how does she do it, all this work? Plus, she was writing her own things, you know.

SK: So, she encouraged you to come to Study Group. How far back does Study Group go?

JKL: Well, I came in late and they had quite a lot of people. I don’t know when I really started Study Group. I didn’t go often, because I was in school, too, so I’m not sure when I started. It was an off-and-on thing at the beginning, but then, gradually, you know. And they would stay up so late! Until like one, two in the morning! And there were a lot of people I didn’t know. It was interesting.

I think Darrell and Eric can say more about all those things, because I wasn’t that knowledgeable about all the people that came.

SK: When you first started attending Study Group regularly, who were some of the members back then?

JKL: Of course, Darrell, Eric, Marie. Who was there? Maybe Cathy [Song], Mavis [Hara]. Who else can I say? Maybe Wing [Tek Lum], of course, Lisa. I think Lisa came in and there was Gail Harada. I’m not too sure of all the people but there were some people who came in, and they didn’t stay long, and they would go. Some people I don’t even know about, but the core was there, you know. Yeah. and we used to go to different houses, different people’s homes and get together, the same thing like we did before the pandemic. But yeah, it was nice. A lot of food, a lot of people, a lot of food.

SK: Was the format of a Study Group kind of similar to how it is today, where you eat first, then talk?

JKL: Yeah. Oh, yeah, there was Fuku [Tsukiyama]. You don’t know Fuku. She died before you came, I guess and she was a big part of it. Fuku. Yeah, of course, Joe Tsujimoto. Do you know, Joe?

SK: Yes, I knew Joe.

JKL: Oh, you knew Joe. Oh, yeah that’s about it. I think. I couldn’t say. Darrell and Eric have memories about that more than I do. I feel my memory going.

SK: It’s a special group, and I’m really proud to be a part of it today. So, naturally I’m curious about its history, and how it was back then. But it sounds like it was pretty much the same.

JKL: Yeah. We would follow sort of the [Peter] Elbow group kind of format on doing criticism and stuff. It’s a good thing.

SK: Was Wing Tek always the sergeant-at-arms? You know, he always makes the announcement that it’s time to start, calendar time.

JKL: Yeah, always.

SK: That’s great. I remember you were telling me a story about your first reading for Bamboo Ridge. Can you tell me about that? When was this? Where was this? What were you reading and what happened there?

JKL: Okay, Hilo Rains came out, right? Hilo Rains came out, and there was a reading. No, I’m sorry, I had a couple of poems published in one of the anthologies, and so I was invited to a reading, and my girlfriend was a speech teacher, and I said, “You know, I don’t know what a reading is all about,” and she says, “Oh, you go up and you read your poems,” and I said, “I’m just scared.” You know, I’ve never done this. I’ve never presented myself as a speaker. I don’t know how to talk. I don’t know what to say. She said, “Well, let me do it for you. Then you can model it,” and then she said, “Next time you go, you’ll know what to do and look at all the people who are reading, and you know, do that.” So, I went and she read the poem for me a couple of poems for me and she introduced me, of course, and people clapped, and then I sat down. It was the dorkiest thing, but I didn’t know any better.

SK: When was this?

JKL: The first reading I did, I think, yeah, the very first reading. So, it must have been poems that appeared in the first anthology [Issue #7 -Ed.], probably “Blackout Baby.” I don’t know, you know.

SK: In the early 1980s or something like that? And where was this reading, do you remember?

JKL: Oh, gee! Probably I couldn’t tell you. There was a room, I don’t know if they still use it, but it was like a dining room area next to an eating area. Auditorium, sort of small space. And yeah, there was a reading. I would—I couldn’t tell you really. In a room somewhere.

SK: Was this on campus?

JKL: On campus somewhere. But you see, I mean, I had even a hard time finding the place!

SK: Is it typical? My experience with Bamboo Ridge is that they had readings, quite a few readings before the pandemic. There were quite a few that were scheduled all over the place. But back when you first—like “Blackout Baby” goes back to 1980—were there always readings back then? And what form did they take at Bamboo Ridge? Did they always have readings?

JKL: Yeah, after every book was published, or whatever they had readings. I couldn’t go out all the time to the readings, because I usually worked nighttime, during the evenings. So, yeah, if I could, I would, you know, go to readings. But very seldomly.

SK: I know throughout the years you’ve been really prolific both in poetry and prose, in terms of anthologies. And then you’ve had collections published by Bamboo Ridge. And you have a novel, Anshū [Issue #97 -Ed.], which is one of my personal favorite novels. Can you tell me how that came to be?

JKL: Okay. It started as a poem, it started a poem. The poem is there in the very beginning.

If you look at it, a couple of lines from the poem, and then I wrote a short story, and then I looked at it, and I was writing with Cathy Song at the Volcanoes [Volcano House -Ed.]. I think. Yeah, you know she helped me think about what I could do, and it became a short story. I wasn’t satisfied. I felt it was more, and so I kept on writing and writing. I think I wrote—it took me ten years, and I think I wrote, like, at least twenty drafts, never satisfied. A man that I met who lived in New York said he would help me. And so, he read it, and then he edited a lot of it. So, I was really happy. Then he died. He got sick, and he died. So here I had a manuscript I didn’t know what to do with it, and I think I brought segments of it to Study Group, and they helped on that, and then gradually I put it all together, took out things, made it—I worked hard on it during a period of time. Different people help me, different places, and gave suggestions. I was lucky. Then I showed it to Darrell and Eric, and they were really great. One day they sat down, and they told me, “Do this. You know. This part is okay.” They were so insightful. And so, it’s not like you—you just go and you can generate this story—I mean it’s so wonderful I wish I could do that! It takes me a long time. That took me a long time. Short stories, Ho‘olulu Park [Issue #85 -Ed.], that was easier.

SK: It seemed like a lot of research that went into it. And because from the Big Island to Hiroshima and Tokyo. You got a lot of period details. Really, you made the setting and the period come alive and the hibakusha experience, too. Did you actually do research there in Japan?

JKL: Yeah. I won a scholarship, grant, it was called the, oh, what was that grant? I can’t even remember my own grant. Anyway, it was given by the Japan national something [U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission Creative Artists Exchange Fellowship -Ed.]. It’s here somewhere. But anyway, I won this grant, and it was a six-month grant, and they paid for everything, even visits from David to go to Japan. It was a fabulous grant. All the train rides to Hiroshima and back, and that they found me an apartment I could stay in. Everything was paid for. It was just amazing. I got this grant, and I wrote the first draft in six months, that ugly draft, but I had a kind of idea of what was to come, you know. But then after that it took me a long, long time to fix and cut. At the end, it took me ten years to finish. Amazing, yeah?

SK: Oh, it is amazing. The results are amazing.

JKL: I didn’t give up. So, what time is it now? Wow! I’m sorry, I’m just rattling on and on—

SK: Oh, no that’s the purpose of this, for you to rattle on so we can save this for posterity! At a certain point you made a transition from being a Bamboo Ridge writer to being a Bamboo Ridge editor. Although you probably never stop being a writer, you made a transition into being an editor. When was that? Can you tell me how that happened?

JKL: Okay, I think Darrell and Eric wanted to step down but then I said, okay, I will fill in, maybe for two years? Until we can find—it wasn’t very clear—until we can find somebody to do this and so I’ve been there, how many years now? Four years, five years?

SK: Probably more than that. When you first accepted my two chapter excerpt for Issue 108, I think that came out in 2015.

JKL: Yeah, 2015.

SK: You did that with Jean [Toyama] and Ann [Inoshita] and Christy [Passion]. You were editing before that, though, weren’t you? Before that issue. So, we’re talking seven years or more at this point [2022 -Ed.].

JKL: I don’t know. I’m going to be eighty years old next year. It’s too much! You can be editor.

SK: No, I’m glad you’re still doing it. I’m the beneficiary of your editorial skills. My books [Issues #116, 120, 123 -Ed.] would not be what they are without your work on them!

JKL: Yours is so wonderful to read and so wonderful to work with.

SK: It’s genre fiction. It’s easy. It’s drop a dead body in the story and figure out how it got there.

JKL: It’s not that easy!

SK: But at a certain point, you became an editor and how did that happen? Did they, Darrell and Eric, just asked you to?

JKL: No, I think it was a—I don’t know—it felt like a mutual thing that I was going to just to help out, and that helping out has, don’t know, they’ll have to help me out pretty soon!

SK: Well, as long as I can remember, which is not too long, right? You’ve always been on the masthead as editor.

JKL: Oh, okay.

SK: This goes back at least seven years, as far as I know, with my own personal experience. But I’m sure, for a little before that. Do you do you like the experience of being an editor? How does that differ from being a writer?

JKL: I find, I find it okay. It’s interesting for me, anyway, to see how we can fix something to be better, and I make suggestions, and I have to work with the authors when I make suggestions, and usually it pushes the person to fix something. And it always, I must say, it comes out better. Usually. Usually by the prompts, or whatever, you know so yeah that’s kind of exciting. And then, you say, “Wow! Look at this!” You know it’s really changed. Right, don’t you feel that? I mean, okay, so you can see it in different ways, maybe? And Gail helps a lot because she has a wonderful eye. She’s really good in the grammar and all that. So, I think as a team, I think we work pretty well.

It’s interesting for me, anyway, to see how we can fix something to be better, and I make suggestions, and I have to work with the authors when I make suggestions, and usually it pushes the person to fix something. And it always, I must say, it comes out better. Usually.

SK: Oh, yeah, I think, I think we have the best team right?

JKL: I mean, everybody working together, it’s really great. I mean, I learn for my own writing. Anyway, it has bettered my writing, I think. You think of different. You know ways of expressing yourself. So, I like that. You want to quit at 9?

SK: It’s up to you. It really is up to you. We could, we could talk about many, many, many other things. and we can actually have more than one of these interviews, if you would like.

JKL: Yeah, maybe at 9 o’clock or so we’ll quit, and then maybe we can have one more session.

SK: Sure, absolutely.

JKL: And maybe a shorter session the next time. Let me look at the questions you had.

SK: We covered quite a few of them, I think.

JKL: Oh, “Can you discuss what you are currently—” We can finish it. I think we can finish it.

SK: Okay, all right. I think that will be the next thing, is to talk about what you might be working on right now.

JKL: I’m doing a lot of experimental things, like I’m doing the haibun, which is writing a piece of prose, and then writing a haiku. And then I did the zuihitsu, which is like a collage of writings. And I’m doing a lot of that hybrid kind of writing right now.

I’m doing a lot of experimental things, like I’m doing the haibun, which is writing a piece of prose, and then writing a haiku. And then I did the zuihitsu, which is like a collage of writings. And I’m doing a lot of that hybrid kind of writing right now.

And I continue to write regular poems. And that’s what I’m doing with my own writing. I’m kind of enjoying, trying to really extend metaphors. I’m trying to work with metaphors more and really punch that in. But it’s really hard, you know, I read some of the newer poems, and I go, “Wow!” This really sends me out of all kinds of comfort zones, and the younger voices, the newer voices. It’s just tremendous, so many too, have you noticed?

SK: Yes. So many, so many right here.

JKL: Yeah, so many different voices. And I think of the younger poets and I think, “Wow!” They’re so different and way out, you know, and I think, “God, I don’t want to be in that same place I have been for a long time.” I want to grow, even at this age. I want to try. Maybe people would say, “Oh, that’s crazy.” But I really, really want to do that. I’m trying all kinds of things now. I feel happy about that, and I’d like to send them out and see how that works.

I want to grow, even at this age. I want to try. Maybe people would say, ‘Oh, that’s crazy.’ But I really, really want to do that. I’m trying all kinds of things now. I feel happy about that, and I’d like to send them out and see how that works.

SK: Is there another novel?

JKL: There’s Misao’s Body. I sent it out to a contest. I never heard from them so I don’t know what’s going on.

SK: Is it complete? Is the manuscript complete?

JKL: Oh, yeah, it’s done. I don’t know, even if I had never have it published, I’m kind of scared about it, because it might be too close to family, you know, and like my auntie told me once, she said, “I’m not gonna say anything anymore to you, because you’re too dangerous. You’re going to say something in your writing.” Can’t happen so I don’t know, I sent it out.

And I never heard from back from them, so I don’t know if they forgot, or what it is all about. The Italian—I know I signed permission for use of Anshū to be translated into Italian—but they never, I mean I signed everything to them—of course, I keep my rights—but I don’t know what happened. It’s really strange. Nobody’s ever contacted me, but Italy is having a real hard time with the pandemic, right?

SK: Yeah, they still are.

JKL: But anyway, that and then Japan is doing a translation. It got accepted by somebody, I don’t know, so that’s the kind of things that are going on right now.

SK: That’s great. You sound busy in a good way, keeping busy in terms of writing. What are you doing now as an editor? How many things are you working on as an editor right now?

JKL: One. We just finished Lee Cataluna [BR #121: Flowers of Hawai‘i -Ed.]. And yours [BR #123: Char Siu -Ed.] is coming up.

SK: Yeah, I’m working on it. I’m reminded that I have to send you back revisions.

JKL: Yeah. And because yours is what for the fall right?

SK: Joy was telling me everything’s getting pushed back, so I think mine is in the spring.

JKL: Oh, really?

SK: Lee’s and the speculative [BR #122: Snaring New Suns -Ed.] I think are slated for fall now. We’re under the gun in terms of getting it to the printer.

JKL: Oh, I thought everything was done for the speculative fiction.

SK: Oh, I don’t know. Joy was talking about the release schedule. It’s been pushed back.

JKL: Yeah, but I think we’ve got to try to get on back on track. I know it’s hard, but everybody’s behind, right?

SK: Are you working on the 45th anniversary issue?

JKL: I’ll be working with Darrell and Eric. So that’s, that would be great. What else? I’d like to see what kinds of submissions people are turning in, so don’t forget to turn in something. June is the cut off.

SK: Is it? Okay. I guess that’s kind of a neat lead into my next question which is, what do you think the state of Bamboo Ridge is today, and how does it compare to your experience with the press over the years? Is it in a better place than it used to be? How has it changed?

JKL: We try to keep it. We try to be true to the mission. If you read the mission, and we try to be true to it. And I don’t think we have really changed anything drastically. But I know there are areas that may need to be [changed], but I wouldn’t know where or how. What needs to be really remedied, I don’t know how we’re going to approach anything. How do we extend this? How do we grow it? Those are hard questions, really hard questions. I’m not sure of how we would proceed.

It’s a hard thing.

SK: That was, my next question is, what do you think the future is? Because every time we ask Wing Tek, he’s always kind of the voice of doom, where he says if we’re around two years from now, we’ll be lucky, or we have two years left, probably. But I understand he’s been saying this for the last ten years or so. Thankfully, he’s been wrong for the last ten years. But if you ask him at any given time he’ll tell you I think we can last for two more years. Do you think it’s probably better than that? What do you think that the future looks like?

JKL: Yeah, hopefully. We need younger people, but I don’t know how we can gather them, or how we can, I don’t know how different presses maneuver all this. I’m not sure. I’m not a, not a business person so that’s really hard for me to think about where do we take chances, or how do we take chances and we don’t want to fail. So, it’s a hard question. Where do we go from here is a hard question, very hard for me, anyway? My brain is not geared for that kind of Elon Musk strategy. What do you think?

SK: I think it’s important that, that Bamboo Ridge survives and continues to survive, because it fills a special need for Hawai‘i literature. There are other presses here, but I think the other local presses have to be driven by a profit motive. They’re very concerned with their bottom line, which means a lot of cookbooks, a lot of those large coffee table books, guidebooks and things like that about Hawai‘i. But in terms of literature, Bamboo Ridge, I think, is probably it. There are other presses that do put out literary work from local writers, but it’s not like what Bamboo Ridge is, right? Those writers have to show that they’re somehow commercially viable in order to get those presses to put their work out and Bamboo Ridge puts out what they feel is good, even if I know that “good” is subjective. But there is no other press that’s like it here, and I think that’s very important, that it survives and I think that for years you’ve been a big part of that, and I would hope that you and Eric and Darrell and those on the board, and those who continue to help in an editorial capacity will continue to do what you’re doing. I’m like you. I’m not a business brain of any kind. And it’s hard for me to see the future but I know that you are largely responsible for picking up my work and transforming my work. And it was something different for Bamboo Ridge. It was a detective book. I didn’t think that the press would ever do anything like what I wrote and here we are a few years later. And they have. And a speculative issue is another thing, too, which I didn’t think a few years ago would have been something that would have been done, but we’re on the verge of getting it. And I think that brings in a lot more different submission profile.

JKL: That’s interesting. That book is very interesting to me because it brings in the younger crowd, and it’s very different from what we’ve been doing. And that’s who we have to attract I think the younger people. And that’s the key to how, to how do we remain with our mission, and still yet continue changing with the, so, we get more of an audience. That’s hard.

We got to put our heads down and see. We have so many good writers.

SK: Oh, yeah, I think so.

JKL: I think it’s good. We’ve come this far and I think we just have to keep on going. See what it brings. I’m sure there’s a way. But anyway, I think we went through all the questions.

SK: I think so. And maybe we can have another one of these where we can maybe go, I would think, into a little more detail in those years. I want to talk, maybe a little more detail about those years of your writing and those first years of submitting and working with Bamboo Ridge, maybe going into a little more detail on your individual publications. We could talk about that in another one of these interview sessions, and I think that would be, that would, that would do very nicely for your complete story. I was really glad to get your actual complete story. Your family’s background, your background growing up, how you came to writing, and your life circumstances around that, and your impressions of Bamboo Ridge over the years. But I think in a second interview we can focus a lot more on your work and talk about that.

JKL: Maybe I could read a couple of poems or something, because I think there are poems that maybe will show the growth or the changes in the writing. I want to change. I want to finish a book also, but, and that’s completely different from anything I’ve ever written. So that’s another thing to think about. I had started it in Study Group. But I’m not sure if I want to continue it so maybe I have to bring it back again.

SK: Thank you, Juliet! This was really a lot of fun. And I hope that they are able to transcribe this. I don’t know what Donald’s plans are for this project, but I know that he was telling me that all these interviews are going to be held in the UH Oral History repository for viewing for anyone wants to view them. So, a hundred years from now, I guess people can listen to us talk about this. But I’ll be in touch with you. Thank you.

JKL: Thank you, Scott. Let’s get together one day.


Juliet S. Kono is the author of two poetry collections, Hilo Rains and Tsunami Years; a collection of short stories, Ho‘olulu Park and the Pepsodent Smile; the novel Anshū: Dark Sorrow; and a children’s book, The Bravest ‘Opihi. She co-authored two books of renshi (linked poetry), No Choice but to Follow and What We Must Remember, both initially online writing projects. She has appeared in many anthologies and collections and several of her poems are featured on the Poetry Foundation website. Her books have been recognized with Ka Palapala Po‘okela Awards for Excellence in Literature and she has received the Hawai‘i Award for Literature, the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, the American Japanese National Literary Award, and a U.S./Japan Friendship Commission Creative Artist Exchange Fellowship. She is retired and lives with her husband in Honolulu.

A product of Hawai’i Kai in East Honolulu, Scott Kikkawa writes noir detective stories set in postwar Hawai’i, featuring 442nd veteran Nisei Detective Sergeant Francis “Sheik” Yoshikawa. His critically acclaimed debut murder mystery, Kona Winds (Bamboo Ridge Press), was released at the end of 2019 and spent six months on the Small Press Distribution Fiction Bestsellers List. Red Dirt, his second full-length novel, was published two years later. Both were featured in HONOLULU Magazine’s list of “Essential Hawai‘i Books You Should Read” (published in 2022).

Winner of an Elliot Cades Award for Literature and honored with a selection for one of the “Other Distinguished Stories of 2021” in the 2022 Best American Mystery and Suspense anthology, the New York University alumnus is currently a federal law enforcement officer and lives with his family in Honolulu. He serves as a columnist and an Associate Editor for The Hawai‘i Review of Books. His fourth Hawai‘i Noir novel Sporting Girl is forthcoming from Bamboo Ridge Press in 2026.

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