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Remembering James D. Houston

You, Death, you watch for these things.
These explosions of life: they are your food.
They make your feasts.

—Robinson Jeffers

Where does a writer begin a story?

My friend James D. (“Jim”) Houston, a mentor and colleague, a literary father figure and cultural signpost—for Santa Cruz and California, for the entire Pacific Rim—is no longer here to answer that question, a circumstance that at this moment remains difficult to grasp. He has seemingly always been here, steady and true, a quiet, dignified presence on the local literary landscape, and always with a helping hand for young writers, for his friends, for anyone clenched in struggle with the muse.

The news of Jim’s death this past Thursday hits hard, and I find myself pulling down his various books from my shelves—his early novel Gig, a tiny chapbook Three Songs for My Father, a first edition of Farewell to Manzanar, his masterful Snow Mountain Passage—and suddenly there is a pile, a substantial heap of novels and nonfiction histories and travelogues and biographies and remembrances, and it strikes me that therein lies the answer to my question of where to begin, that Jim is still here to guide and mentor, to lead the way.

Several months ago, when I was sitting with Jim as he underwent chemotherapy treatments in the offices of the oncologist we both shared, I looked down at the plastic PICC-line going into his forearm and was reminded of a passage that Jim had written about the journey toward death of his own father, Dudley Houston, a house painter for most of his life.

It was a passage in the prologue to his book, Californians: Searching for the Golden State, and it was a piece of Jim’s writing I had always loved. Jim had linked his World War II memory of his father’s tattoo on his forearm—a purple anchor with a rope wrapped around its stem and an eagle atop the crosspiece—to a moment a quarter-century later, in which his father was battling intestinal cancer at the UC Medical Center in San Francisco. A nurse was administering a PICC-line into his father’s forearm for a blood transfusion, from son to father.

These were precisely the kind of links that mattered to Jim, the flow of generations, the passing of the mantle, the strong sense of place, the profound love that often goes unstated between men. Jim’s father had been born in East Texas, was stationed as a Navy sailor in Honolulu during the 1920s and had later migrated west to San Francisco. Jim began his celebrated book about California with his father’s tattoo.

“He saw me staring at his arm,” Jim wrote. “I looked away, out the window, toward the vista to the north. ... The view was easier to watch, and it started me thinking about his life and mine. The spires [of the Golden Gate Bridge] had not been there when he had first sailed into San Francisco Bay, on his way home to Texas, when his tattoo was new. ... A few years later he was back, with his bride. Something glittered for him here. I’m still not sure what it was. I can only guess. We never talked about it.”

Jim made sure that his own children understood his love affair with the Golden State and the Pacific Rim. Californians is dedicated

To my children, Corinne, Joshua, Gabrielle, and to all the travelers who brought them to this crossroads—from Hawaii, Honshu and Niigata, from Cumberland Mountain, County Antrim and Glasgow.

Blood and place and fatherhood are what mattered to Jim Houston. It was upon those cornerstones that he built not only his life but also his professional career. Indeed, as I now survey his biography and literary oeuvre, they are nearly impossible to separate.

Obituaries from across the country—from Honolulu to New York—have covered the requisite details: Born in San Francisco on November 10, 1933, he grew up on the western edge of the city, in the Sunset District, overlooking his beloved Pacific Ocean. It provided a childhood purview facing West that would shape and define his sensibilities for the remainder of his life.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Houston clan moved 45 miles south to the then-rural Santa Clara Valley, near Saratoga, where Jim came of age and first discovered the joys of traveling over the mountains to Santa Cruz. He quickly fell in love with the southward facing coastline and the lazy summertime beaches and pounding surf.

During the early 1950s he attended San Jose State College, pursuing a degree in dramatic arts. It was there that he met his future bride—Jeanne Wakatsuki—the wildly popular daughter of a Japanese-American fisherman cum strawberry farmer, and she was to serve as Jim’s life partner for nearly six decades. They orbited each other’s lives.

As Jim would mention at various times in his writing, his father’s military stint in Hawaii, where he had learned to play the Hawaiian slack key guitar, had a near mystical impact on his son’s imagination. As soon as he was able, Jim made what was to be the first of several sojourns to the islands; he and Jeanne were married on the beach at Waikiki in 1957.

After Jim served in the U.S. Air Force in England, the couple toured Europe before returning to Northern California, where Jim received an MA in American literature at Stanford University. In 1959, his first published story appeared in a London literary journal. The writing bug had taken hold.

In 1962, he and Jeanne relocated to Santa Cruz and moved into the 19th-century Frazier Lewis mansion with its fabled cupola overlooking Schwann Lagoon and Twin Lakes beach. Jim loved old homes, and this one had a hidden history—Lewis’ mother, Patty Reed Lewis of Donner Party fame, had lived in the home—and it was dark and intricately constructed of redwood and cherry wood. Jim was to live and write there for the rest of his life.

As his first daughter, Corinne, came along, and then the twins, Joshua and Gabrielle, Jim subsidized his writing endeavors as a musician, teaching classical and folk guitar and playing standup bass in local bars and nightclubs. He also taught creative writing at Stanford and later at UC–Santa Cruz and several other institutions and workshops (most notably at Squaw Valley) around the world. His students were many and remain fiercely loyal. Jim cared as much about them as he did about writing.

It was in 1973 that Jim and Jeanne collaborated on Farewell to Manzanar, which chronicled Jeanne’s childhood experiences in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. It was a book that would change forever the American consciousness toward this ugly and previously buried piece of the nation’s history. Now in its 63rd printing, it remains one of the most important works in the American canon.

From that point on, the books seemed to cascade out of Jim’s writing room. The awards and recognition also followed—two American Book Awards, a Joseph Henry Jackson Award for Fiction and the Humanitas Prize, among them—but he was happiest when he was surrounded by family and friends and good music. A beach party with the Houstons was an absolutely magical experience.

During the 1980s, Jim began an extensive film collaboration with master Hawaiian ukulele player and ethnographer Eddie Kamae, resulting in eight documentary films on the legacy of indigenous Hawaiian music and a beautiful biography by Jim of Kamae titled Hawaiian Son. Jim and Jeanne, along with their daughter Corinne, also brought the Pacific Rim Film Festival to Santa Cruz during this period, and Jim continued to serve as an adviser to the festival through its 20th anniversary this past year.

As he celebrated his 75th birthday last fall, Jim had completed nine novels, most recently Snow Mountain Passage and Bird of Another Heaven, and more than a dozen works of nonfiction, including In the Ring of Fire and Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea.

Jim’s great gift to American arts and letters was his unique perspective on the Pacific Rim and the confluence of Eastern and Western history in the region. As his wife, Jeanne, noted in a casual discussion this past week, in many ways Jim served as a bridge between these two traditions, as a translator, of sorts, and he gave voice to those who had been dispossessed in the region—early day Californios, Japanese-American internees and forgotten figures in Hawaiian history. Jim caught the wave of Pacific Rim consciousness right as it formed and rode it all the way into shore.

After rummaging through my library, I finally find a favorite book by Jim, The Men in My Life, which closes with a short piece titled “Elegy.” “At the county dump,” it begins, “I am throwing away my father. His old paint rags, and stumps of brushes. Color catalogues. The caked leather suitcase he used for so many years carrying small tools and tiny jars of his trade.”

The tools of Jim’s trade were decidedly different, but Jim, like his father, was a master craftsman, someone who paid close attention to the details, who took his work to heart. Jim was a writer’s writer, the most dedicated and determined and disciplined I have ever encountered.

Jim’s friend Alan Cheuse wrote in the introduction to Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea, that Jim’s “literary father is John Steinbeck, his favorite uncles are Wallace Stegner and Oakley Hall, his sibling is Joan Didion,” and so on. Cheuse got the lineage right. Now, in the aftermath of Jim’s death, during this both beautiful and mournful time, I realize that we in Santa Cruz are all his literary children, living on the edge of the Pacific Rim, the region that captured Jim’s imagination for an entire lifetime.

At the time of his death, Jim was working on a new novel, based on the life of Hawaii’s deposed Queen Liliuokalani, the last in the long line of Hawaiian royalty. These days I think of the lyrics
to the famous farewell song she wrote, Aloha ‘Oe:

Aloha ‘oe, aloha ‘oe ...
Farewell to thee, farewell to thee ...
Until we meet again.•
Memorial services for James D. (‘Jim’) Houston will be held at Chaminade Saturday, April 25, 12:30pm. Contributions in Jim’s honor can be sent to: Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, P.O. Box 1416, Nevada City, CA 95959 (