In Search Of
An author, a mother and a complete bystander intersect on Fort Street Mall.
Walking to work every day, I pass by a stringy little park just above Beretania. It’s a strange park, with zigzagging concrete and more red dirt than grass. The dirt leaches up the sides of the concrete, staining it and adding to the already depressing vibe. I once saw a man there being revived by two police officers wearing rubber gloves. Usually, though, there are just people sprawled onto the thin grass. You don’t look too closely at their faces; they blur into that invisible category of people who make you mildly uncomfortable.
Tara Bray Smith’s memoir, West of Then, changed that for me. The book, her first, was published last fall by Simon & Schuster. Smith grew up in Hawaii, and much of her book is set amid the landmarks familiar to Island readers—Fort Street Mall, the Pali, Indigo, Jackass Ginger. In fact, the book starts off in the same park I walk by every day, Kamalii Mini Park. “My mother called me in New York and told me she was sleeping in a park,” Smith writes. “Three weeks after that she disappeared. I came to Hawaii to find her.”
Smith’s mother, Karen, is a fifth-generation Islander from a once wealthy family who can’t quite get herself together. Karen struggles with homelessness and drug addiction. She has four daughters by four different men.
Smith was successful in locating her mother. Although her book about the quest necessarily focuses on addiction and its effects on a family, Smith manages a clearheaded, matter-of-fact perspective. West of Then conveys the exasperation of extending yourself toward the unreachable, the one who keeps just slipping through your grasp. Smith says she was reading Moby Dick when working on her book; it’s not hard to detect similar themes of pursuit and obsession.
While reading about Tara’s quest to find—save?—her mother, a funny thing happened: I started looking for her, too. I’d walk by the park and scrutinize faces, looking for someone fitting her description. I began to see homeless people, to search their eyes, wondering whose son or daughter or mom or dad they might be.
When Smith came to Hawaii recently to do a few readings, I asked to meet her. She slid into the chair at Starbucks with a Macy’s bag, and I asked her if it was Christmas shopping. “Yes, actually, for my mother. I think she’s coming to the reading. I’m really nervous about it.”
I asked her about the cover of West of Then, which features a photograph of her mother in the ocean. There’s something unsettling about her expression—something captured there on film that is uneasy and haunted.
“I chose that photo because no other one seemed as expressive,” Smith says. “She’s like that. She’s a very intense lady. It’s painful for me to look at the photo. And now it’s here on a book cover. It’s very strange. Of course the whole experience with the book has been strange. People see the emotional nakedness in the photo, and that is how they have responded to the book in general. I didn’t intend it to be raw when I wrote it.”
Nevertheless, writing this book, she says, “was like opening up my ribcage. I wanted to get over it. I wanted to stop returning to the subject. Now it’s a little scary; I don’t have that built-in subject to write about. But my imagination feels a lot freer. People said, You’re so brave.’ I didn’t feel brave; I felt compulsive. I had to write this. I was going to crinkle up.”
Smith attended Dartmouth College and Columbia University, and says that, “education was the way I took control of a frantic situation.” Her book has gotten a fair share of attention, including mentions in People and The New Yorker. The Mainland reaction was surprising to her. “I didn’t expect people to get so viscerally involved,” she explains. “They ask questions about my mom and dad. Homelessness and drug addiction are treated very casually and openly in Hawaii. I think for an East Coast audience that is a little harder to understand.”
“I often talk at readings about how this book is, in ways, a reflection of the time, of our current taste for reality. Reality TV, for example—there’s a cultural desire for the stories of actual people. If I had written this book 30 years ago or 30 years from now, it would have taken on a different form. On the other hand, Hawaii has had so much written about it. A lot of people here seem happy that I wrote about something real.”
Having done the book and been back to Hawaii, Smith sees the place differently. “I can have a wider range of feelings about it. I think that’s part of growing up.” Her mother was, at first, angry about the book. “Now, she’s more proud of me. She is very self-protective, but there’s a motherly instinct for your children to succeed.”
And I finally saw Karen. At least, I’m almost sure, as she looks just like the photos. This woman looks good—healthy and wearing a blazer, jeans, pumps—but she is hanging out on Fort Street Mall. My reporter instincts told me to walk up to her, ask her name, buy her a coffee and interview her about the book. But, when it came right down to it, I don’t want to interfere. It felt weird enough that I was looking for her to begin with. She’s not mine to look for, yet that’s precisely what one gets out of the book: the sense that people are all ours, all interconnected.
And that, says Smith, “is like a gift my mother gave me. I keep wanting to give her something back. I am still trying to figure that part out.”