In the fourth of our interviews with Issue 25 prose contributors, prose co-editor Lauren Alwan talks with Lillian Howan about her story, “The American House.” Set on the island of Taha’a, in Tahiti, the story centers on the mystery of a house in which stories converge and contradict each other and questions are not always answered. Here, Lillian sheds light on how the story came about, the allure and illusions of American culture, and how the term bookworm takes on a different meaning in a tropical climate.
We love the genre-bending mood in your story, “The American House.” Can you tell us how you came to write the story?
On a journey in the islands visiting family with my husband, I visited Taha’a. The family who was driving us around the island stopped by the side of the road to show us a spectacular house, the grounds extending some distance below the road. It was described as “The American House.” When my husband asked for more information, everyone responded that an American had lived there, but now it was empty. More questions produced a small additional detail: it had been for sale for some time, two years maybe; the exact length of time remained vague. My husband spoke in French and in Tahitian, but the answer always stayed the same: it was the American House. It was empty.
This glimpse of the American House planted itself in my mind, eventually growing into this story.
There’s an inherent mystery in the house, in the conflicting stories that surround its history, as well as a cultural distance that comes from its American connections. Can you talk a bit about those contrasts?
A certain mystique about America exists in Tahiti where my family is from, an attitude fostered by American action movies. America retains a certain allure, mixed with violence, both attractive and repellent. There’s a masculine illusion to “America,” fostered by early Westerns, Clint Eastwood movies, the Die Hard series, Arnold Schwarzenegger…continuing on to this day.
This illusion isn’t real or connected to daily life, but it’s powerful.
In the story “The American House,” there’s something strangely compelling about the commodity, The Package, but when our protagonists actually approach the American house, they find it enveloped in an eerie silence, devoid of any signs of everyday life.
Like “The American House,” your novel, The Charm Buyers, is set in Tahiti. Can you tell us a bit about the importance of place in your work?
Place is so important, it’s almost the main character. The tropics are hot and humid with a profusion of plants and trees, green fragrances, odors, and smells. The physical reality can be overwhelming. In a temperate climate, one can think for long periods of time without the physical world imposing itself into one’s musings. In a tropical climate like Tahiti, this is impossible. In The Charm Buyers, one of the characters, who has arrived in Tahiti from France, decides to create a chess set out of natural materials. The narrator who has lived in Tahiti all his life knows that this is a terrible idea, and, sure enough, the chess piece is devoured by insects after only a few weeks.
In California, I always thought that “bookworms” was a charming phrase, but in Tahiti, I learned that book worms are real and invasive. I’ve opened too many books in Tahiti to find that I’ve disturbed the squirming worms and larvae living within the pages. Having said this, I read The Great Gatsby and many of Carlos Castaneda’s books in the vast library that belonged to one of my uncles. In the silence as I read, I could sometimes hear the subtle rustlings of the insects who had made the library their home.
We love the voice in this piece, and the collective experience of the narrator’s point of view. How did you come to employ that stance in “The American House”?
The family structure that I grew up with was a huge, extended family. This is changing in Tahiti, with families becoming smaller in size, but there’s still a sense of being connected and related to numerous family members. I have over 60 first cousins, with each person completely unique—no one even remotely resembling another—so that, in my age group, there are over 60 completely different opinions about any one subject. When I’m in Tahiti, it seems as if I’m always surrounded by a chorus of voices, the collective “we.”
I am also an only child, so, at the end of the day, I was always in a separate place, alone, with time for reflection. Perhaps that is why I write stories, especially novels. I remember visiting Tahiti the summer before I turned eleven and creating an entire massive, convoluted (and horribly clichéd), novel in my head.
When I wrote “The American House,” this collective voice, the “we,” emerged to recount this story.
We’d love to know a favorite recent read—and can you tell us what you’re working on now?
I’ve recently read the poetry of Angela Narciso Torres, author of What Happens Is Neither (Four Way Books). As I’ve reflected on my answers to your questions, my mind has turned to her poem “Self-Portrait As Rosary Beads” in To The Bone (Sundress Publications) which captures how the individual and the collective, the mystical and the everyday are interconnected: “…I am faithful as breadcrumbs / on barbed wire. Lose me to birds or to night’s / starred thicket. Touch and be splintered, / sundered. Soothed, surrendered. / My scent on your fingertips.”
A few days ago, I read The Collected Breece D’J Pancake. I’m on the board of the Ms Aligned: Women Writing About Men series, and our last issue Ms. Aligned 3 featured a powerful interview with Ann Pancake, the brilliant author of Strange As This Weather Has Been and Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley: Novellas and Stories. Both Ann Pancake and her distant relative Breece D’J Pancake write about Appalachia. There’s a lot in their stories that resonate with my experience of being Hakka Chinese. After a long period of being itinerant, the Hakka settled in hilly regions, remaining isolated from the majority population, and then immigrating from China abroad to Tahiti (in the case of my grandparents), Hawai’i, Jamaica, Malaysia, and other countries throughout the world. Breece D’J Pancake’s “Trilobites,” a story that has achieved near-legendary acclaim, was difficult for me to understand at first, but the more I read, the more its reality drew me inside with an all-encompassing intensity.
Breece D’J Pancake’s characters in “Trilobites” could be distant cousins of some of the characters that I write about: geographically isolated, surrounded by limitations and immense beauty, and this includes MeiMei and the narrators of “The American House.”
I’ve recently completed a novella that adapts Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to Tahiti where Christmas occurs in the sweltering Midsummer, and Scrooge becomes the Hakka Chinese miser S. C. Oong, transformed one night by the visit of three tupapa’u spirits.
I’m also on the eighth, or maybe the ninth draft, of a novel set in Tahiti. It’s not exactly a sequel to The Charm Buyers, which had the honor of receiving the biennial Ka Palapala Po’okela Award, but some characters reoccur in both novels. Themes overlap as well: the true nature of magic and the struggle for real identity. I’m not sure if my writings could be called magical realism—perhaps the inverse, realistic magic, is an accurate description. Reality is stranger than rationality might admit—more slippery and weird, in disturbing and enchanting ways.
Read “The American House,” here.
Lillian Howan spent her early childhood in Tahiti and later graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. Her writings have been published in Asian American Literary Review, Café Irreal, Calyx, Jellyfish Review, New England Review, South Dakota Review, Vice-Versa, and the anthologies Ms. Aligned 2 and Under Western Eyes. Her debut novel, The Charm Buyers (University of Hawai’i Press), received the Ka Palapala Po’okela Award for Excellence.