“Diamond Head is an intricate meditation on what is in our control and what is fate—and on whether children must bear the costs of their parents’ mistakes.” —Celeste Ng, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Frank Leong, a fabulously wealthy shipping industrialist, moves his family from China to the island of Oahu. But something ancient follows the Leongs to Hawaii, haunting them. The parable of the red string of fate, the cord that binds one intended beloved to her perfect match, also punishes for mistakes in love, passing a destructive knot down the family line.
When Frank Leong is murdered, his family is thrown into a perilous downward spiral. Left to rebuild in their patriarch’s shadow, the surviving members of the Leong family try their hand at a new, ordinary life, vowing to bury their gilded past. Still, the island continues to whisper—fragmented pieces of truth and chatter, until a letter arrives two decades later, carrying a confession that shatters the family even further.
Now the Leongs’ survival rests with young Theresa, Frank Leong’s only grandchild, eighteen and pregnant, the heir apparent to her ancestors’ punishing knots.
Told through the eyes of the Leong’s secret-keeping daughters and wives and spanning the Boxer Rebellion to Pearl Harbor to 1960s Hawaii, Diamond Head is a breathtakingly powerful tale of tragic love, shocking lies, poignant compromise, aching loss, heroic acts of sacrifice and, miraculous hope.
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About the Author
Cecily Wong’s work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Review of Books, Self magazine, Bustle, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of Barnard College, and lives and writes in New York.
Place of Birth:Oahu, Hawaii
Try to Listen
By Cecily Wong
For most of my childhood, I couldn't tell a story. My timing was awkward, my delivery lumbering and painful. Over and over, I ruined punch lines I'd heard delivered dozens of times to great success, perpetually blindsided by my own ham-fisted renditions.
My brother, two years older, was a master by age nine, able to make a table of adults listen and laugh. My early failure as a storyteller was not from lack of trying. My enthusiasm was boundless; I was known to hijack my brother's stories only to hand them back again, defeated by silence. My mother, noticing this trend, began to stop me just as I tried to jump in. A sympathetic hand on my thigh. Let your brother tell this one, she'd say.
Growing up in Hawaii, on an island that boasts a proud oral tradition, my butchering of stories gave me great childhood anxiety. Adding to my panic was the phrase locals use when they gather, synonymous with socializing and yet laden with significance, especially alarming for a girl with no narrative chops. Talking Story is the island's favorite pastime, the official entertainment of dining room tables and park benches, patches of grass and stretches of sand. More thoughtful than chatting, deeper than gossip, more incisive than mere conversation talking story is exactly what it sounds like: storytelling, the relaying of anecdotes with purpose, with drama and flair.
Step back, was my mother's infuriating instruction, and try to listen. I was relegated to the narrative backseat, to the table of shy relatives with no jokes or stories to tell. So badly did I want my turn at the action that I convinced myself, eventually, to do as my mother told me. With no solution of my own, I began to pay attention, and it caught me by surprise how much I liked it the act of listening.
There was magic in the story of how my grandpa met my grandma, how he crashed the lu'au for her fifteenth birthday, how he supported them briefly by catching wild hogs in homemade traps. I was swept away by my great-grandma's tales of glittering Las Vegas, of the year she rolled craps for an hour straight, of the Golden Arm plaque that still hangs on the casino wall.
The more I listened, the more I was able to discern, soaking up the bated sentiments that undergirded each story: the lost connections, the bygone pride, the subtle insecurities of the speaker. I began to pick up on cadence, to see how a story could be told in a variety of ways. Then I saw how a story could distort, could be molded and remolded using a variety of truths. I banked this information; quietly, I began to connive my redemptive return to storytelling.
But with the passing of time, I found myself increasingly hesitant to jump back in. I had waited so long. If I was going to tell a story, I wanted to obsess over it, to construct it exactly the way I wanted, give it the time and attention and angst it deserved. I would take no chances with improvised timing or sloppy delivery because, as I decided in my junior year of college, writing would be my slow, methodical medium.
Writing Diamond Head was, in many ways, an attempt to vanquish my oldest failure a love letter to my childhood anxiety. The pull to write stories only deepened as I entered my twenties; transplanted to New York, searching for roots in a transient city, it was Hawaii that kept drawing me to the page. I hadn't lived on the island for fifteen years, but Hawaii was where my fascination lay, where my aspirations as a storyteller began. Perhaps more important, the talk story masters of my family were also tied to the island, to the lush backdrop and breezy lifestyle that inspired all those long afternoons of socialization. Two years later, with the first draft of my novel in hand, I took myself home to Oahu.
Back on the island I was desperate to talk story, but not in the same way I had been as a child. This time, I was hungry to listen from the start, cognizant of the gaps in my novel and armed with questions. I took meandering journeys through my grandparents' past lives, rapt as they relived the day the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor, then the years of martial law that followed. I learned about my great-grandmother and her eight sisters, named in alphabetical order, and with the help of my relatives, I sorted through my memories of her funeral: the burning of incense, the white clothing, the hard candy. Little by little, over the course of my stay, I began to offer stories of my own, and with each small victory a quiet laugh, the nod of a head I felt a thrill I'd been chasing for as long as I could remember.
I returned to New York at the end of that summer, entirely full heavy with emotion and new material yet reinvigorated. I dove immediately back into my novel, tasked with two missions that I hoped might pull me to the finish line: first I needed to pay respect to the storytellers that raised me, to the tradition that taught me everything I knew, and within that space, I needed to tell a story of my own, finally, something uniquely mine.
Telling a good story, I've come to realize, is a skill that is practiced and mastered, studied through listening, passed on like a trade to those who care to learn. Twenty years after my first attempt, I can finally deliver a story without my mother's loving censorship, an accomplishment we both feared might never happen. Try to listen, she told me, pay attention. My mother's advice follows me two stubborn decades later, reminding me that the path to finding a voice begins first by developing an ear.