A passion for feasting

A LITTLE TOO MUCH IS ENOUGH by Kathleen Tyau, Women's Press pounds 6.99
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The Independent Culture
MATERNAL grannies called popo, wearing muu-muus and eating pupu may sound like Jean-Paul Gaultier in conversation with Antoine de Caunes. In fact, it is the sprinkling of Hawaiian language which flavours Kathleen Tyau's debut novel.

Her heroine, Mahi (short for Mahealani, meaning moon), who starts out in a lyrical though uncloying sort of baby talk, picks up the Chinese language from her popo at the same time as she learns how to cook Chinese food. Mahi's voluble extended family is predominantly Chinese, with varying percentages of Hawaiian, Japanese and Portuguese in the mix, and all united by a passion for feasting.

"I wanted to write about Chinese Hawaiians and their obsession with food and giving so much," Kathleen Tyau has said of her book, adding, "that is how they love, too." Nevertheless, Mahi proves a remarkably contained adolescent: if her father says she may not date that haole (white boy), she weeps, but soon decides he was not that hot anyway.

It would be as well to padlock the fridge when Tyau starts describing a nine-course Chinese wedding lunch featuring shiny black mushrooms, thick slices of abalone, oyster rolls and much more. At an al fresco banquet for 300 or so, she describes the luau, which concentrates on succulent pigs sizzling under banana leaves in holes in the sand.

In each chapter Tyau shifts her focus, and sometimes the narrative voice. Various relatives offer up curious family secrets, memories of the bombing of Pearl Harbour with an abundance of well-meant familial advice, ostensibly to do with food but usually implying more. A lovely chapter called "How to Cook Rice" explains the correct handling of orchids and fathers (save the rice rinsewater to drench your orchids each day; fathers require a more complex strategy). A highlight is the hula lesson which teaches the novice how to be a "sassy little wahine" by tying a scarf around your muu-muu and getting your okole in motion, while scolding leering onlookers with "No, no! Keep your eyes on the hands."

Like her heroine, Kathleen Tyau left Hawaii to attend university in Portland, Oregon. She was encouraged to spread her wings by a wise mother, who also taught her that you do not have to lose the places and people you leave behind. By remembering them carefully and, in Tyau's case, eloquently, you can carry your heritage in your heart. To deliver this message without sounding twee or soppy was surely the trick, but Tyau's clear and playful prose achieves just that.