April 16, 2008

words and "we"s*, installment 2: The Ken Momochi Files

Ken Momochi and I met in October 2001 at Bamboo Ridge's "Try Write!", a festival-institute of sorts for anyone local who'd ever wanted to put pen to paper. In attendance were struggling writers, published writers, prolific published writers, dreamers, posers, and no shortage of weirdos. (It was held at UHM's Campus Center, after all.)

I was a poser - having written scads of stories and poems as a kid, the usual melodramatic journals, essays, short stories and letters in high school, and four well-liked (by a total of three professors) short stories in college, I fancied myself in the struggling writer bin, but really, I was a poser. My writing had turned from creative to pandering - online journaling, cute-ifying my prose or using words as cheap barbs, forgetting how to think privately and therefore create true substance.

I was happy to be there, though - I felt like it might be the start of a new era. There was a vibe to the gathering that I can't quite describe. It was just a month after 9/11; everything was fresh and raw, and - even in the islands, so remote from New York - larger than life. Healing had been the theme of the presentations the night before. I had come alone and stayed that way for most of the morning, happy as a clam to keep to myself - my cup of coffee and I - just people watching, eavesdropping, popping in and out of lectures and workshops.

It's true that every good friend was once a stranger. I do not know who broke the ice first when I met K in a food writing workshop, although I think it must have been him because I was intent on staying in my clamshell. But we ended up sitting next to each other, and it was not a workshop in which you could remain silent. It was hokey, and required hokey discussion. We gamely ate whatever weird morsels they passed around in tiny tupperware containers, exclaiming and writing silly prose about dried melon getting stuck in my teeth (for him it was, "I don't KNOW what green tea sounds like in my mouth!") ... Later, I divulged that I thought the workshop had sucked, and he said he'd liked it, and thus, from the very start, we were friends who did not always have to agree.

We had lunch with a mutual friend; it was over cold teri beef and warm Pepsi that I found out K was at the institute because he wanted to write a memoir for a friend who had recently passed away in a diving accident. The three of us decided to form a writers' group - something I desperately missed about the English program I'd just graduated from - and started meeting a few weeks later.

So, it's been six-plus years of a friendship built on a love of words and a desire to create them. The friendship grew in large part because, as he puts it, we are black sheep of sorts who are often accused of not trying hard enough to conform, who don't know (or, in our approach to and journey through 30-dom, care much about having) just the right thing to say at just the right time. Somehow, we have always worked so well as friends, and many times I thought we'd be great colleagues or business partners. We have written together, recommended books and authors to each other (he rekindled my interest in Chaucer and introduced me to Jhumpa Lahiri), built a mental bookstore together, argued about books and authors over chai tea lattes, and at the height of a two-year interlude (for lack of a better word) of dating, we even read to each other weekly - most memorably, all but a chapter of Because of Winn-Dixie. (We never read the last chapter because he went and saw the movie before we finished the book, which pissed me off, and as punishment I refused to read the rest of the book with him. Don't laugh.)

In the NYT feature about dating (or dumping) according to literary tastes, Anna Fels calls scoping out another person's taste in books "a bit of a Rorschach test." While I cannot abide K's taste in movies - the first time he Kind Of Sort Of asked me out, he asked if I'd like to see "Brother Bear" - I loved the fact that he would read and could enjoy about anything, from a Kate DiCamillo Newbery Honor book to modern Indian American short stories. Sure, one could say this is like having no taste at all, no literary personality. You could also call it an adventurous spirit, a mind open to the telling of countless other lives, a willingness to take in and consider - before, while, or sometimes instead of putting one's own art - and life - out there for scrutiny and validation.

Someday, I'm going to read K's memoir for Richie (as well as his current project, a creative take on the medieval allegory Psychomachia). I forgot to mention that in that amalgam of characters at the institute, K definitely sat amongst the dreamers, and, were he to go back, would be included amongst the writers.

Life, not our literary tastes, keeps us apart, and I do already miss talking about books, amusement parks, and life in that funny way that only two black sheep that have found friendship in each other can.

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