November 10, 1933 – April 16, 2009
Jim Houston in 1987
Photo: Jana Marcus
Novelist, essayist, biographer, memoirist, journalist, screenwriter, teacher, lecturer, bassist, guitarist
SANTA CRUZ — From mournful Scottish bagpipes to a moving Hawaiian chant, the spirit of writer James D. Houston was celebrated Saturday in a remembrance that attracted an estimated 500 people.
Houston, who died at the age of 75 on April 16, was one of Santa Cruz’s most celebrated literary figures and his memorial service reflected the essence of a man who was of Scottish ancestry, with Texas roots and an abiding love for Hawaii, but who was above all a man of California.
Writer and filmmaker Geoffrey Dunn, a close family friend, hosted the memorial that also featured such leading literary lights as novelist Maxine Hong Kingston, Hawaiian musical legend Eddie Kamae and former California poet laureate Al Young.
“We’re here to honor the life of a radiant spirit,” said Dunn in his opening, stressing that the gathering was a “celebration.” In that spirit, many of the attendees came dressed in aloha shirts and other festive flower prints.
Houston’s influence encompassed his work as an author of eight novels and numerous essays and non-fiction books, many of them reflections on California history and culture. He was also a teacher and workshop leader at UC Santa Cruz and several other universities and was a long-time board member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He and his wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, lived in the East Cliff Drive house that once belonged to Donner Party survivor Patty Reed.
Santa Cruz arts patron and Houston friend
George Ow Jr. reflected in wonder on Houston’s many blessings, including his three children, his career and his house. “He had it all,” said Ow. Guest speaker Jeannette Paulson is the director of the Hawaiian Film Festival, which was the direct inspiration for the Pacific Rim Film Festival in Santa Cruz, founded by the Houstons and Ow. She remembered her first meeting with the Houstons. “My life was never quite the same after meeting Jim and Jeannie Houston.”
Kamae, the Hawaiian ukulele legend turned documentary filmmaker, collaborated on seven films about Hawaiian life and culture with Jim Houston. He and his wife Myrna flew in from Hawaii; Eddie, his voice croaking with emotion, sang a song called “We’ll See You at Home.”
Music was a central facet of Houston’s life — he earned a living as a guitar teacher and played in a jug band in Santa Cruz in the 1960s. Kamae’s song and the haunting bagpipes of Santa Cruz piper Jay Salter were the only scheduled musical events, but there were impromptu moments as well, as when poet and friend Al Young began singing Hank Williams’s “Hey, Good Lookin’,” adding later of his relationship with Houston, “We loved each other and that doesn’t end.”
Hawaiian chanter Kalae Miles closed the service with a chant titled “A Love Chant for James,” which capped an afternoon of friends, family and admirers trying to express the legacy of a man of wide-ranging passions and interests. Novelist Kingston, who shared the stage with her husband actor Earll Kingston, left the audience with the reminder that Houston’s influence continues.
“Right now, Jim is hearing us,” she said, “and if we listen carefully, we can hear him, too”
Â© 2009 Santa Cruz Sentinel
for Jim & Jeanie Houston
Take time as lubricant or
time as deterrent, it can
either oil my gears or stop
me right here in my tracks for
snow or grass to cover up.
Green leaves, red leaves, fallen leaves
â€”a matter of time, distance,
room for change to happen in.
Death’s as much a happening
as birth, a process, a move,
a moving forth always, the
end never in sight except
perhaps to the gifted blind.
How much distance does the heart
cover in one lifetime of
beating? How much love is killed
in its final wising up
to the sad ways of the world?
If I’ve ignored time for months
in order to concentrate
on getting by & basics,
it’s because a light within
me that once flashed red or green
is gradually yellowing,
casually mellowing me
for lifetimes of vigilance.
— Al Young
Â©1975 and 1992 by Al Young
Composed for good luck in seven-syllable lines for Jim and Jeanne Houston, this poem appears in The Song Turning Back Into Itself, the poet-novelist’s second poetry collection (Holt Rinehart Winston, 1975).
Photo: Susan Gilbert
James and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, 1984
Novelist James D. Houston Dies at 75; Explored California in His Works
Known for writing fiction and nonfiction, Houston was considered a leading author in the literature ofÂ the West. “Few writers have more consistently addressed the enduring issues arising out of the California experience than James D. Houston,” said Kevin Starr, historian and author of the seven-volume California Dream series. “He set standards by which the rest of us judged our own efforts.”
“Jim epitomizes what we think of as a California writer,” Alan Soldofsky, head of the creative writing program at San Jose State, where Houston, an alumnus, was recently writer-in-residence. “He had a consummate awareness of place and of the effect of both the natural and human communities on the writer’s psyche living on the edge of the continent.”
Born in San Francisco, Houston attended the city’s high-achieving, ethnically diverse Lowell High School. He went to San Jose State in 1952, where he met Jeanne Wakatsuki; they married in 1957. They moved to England where he served as an information officer with the Air Force. After three years and travels through Europe, they returned to Northern California, where Houston earned a master’s in American literature at Stanford, studying with Wallace Stegner.
His first book was “Between Battles” (1968), a humorous novel about Americans on an Air Force base during the Cold War. His second novel, “Gig” (1969), set in a piano bar on the California coast, established his literary reputation.
He and his wife had been married 15 years before he learned that she had been interned with her family during World War II. “He was my shrink. He helped me get it out,” Wakatsuki Houston said Friday, about the genesis of “Farewell to Manzanar.” “He’d write a draft, I’d write a draft. It was a true collaboration.”
With Jack Hicks, Maxine Hong Kingston and Al Young, Houston edited the omnibus “The Literature of California,” helping to give shape to the idea of a writing tradition unique to the Golden State. He also wrote books about surfing and Hawaiin ukulele legend Eddie Kamae. He was a longtime and well-regarded writing teacher.
His family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.
Â© 2009 L.A. Times