UH Hilo English student’s short story published in the prestigious literary journal Bamboo Ridge

The importance to a young emerging writer in Hawai‘i of being selected for inclusion in the journal cannot be overemphasized—it means Asia Au-Helfrich has “arrived.” This level of accomplishment does not come easy—it takes skill, determination, and inspiration.

By Susan Enright

Asia Au-Helfrich standing in front of a town landscape.
Asia Au-Helfrich

The creative work of an English major at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo has been published in the current issue of a prestigious Hawai‘i literary journal.

Cover of Bamboo Ridge Journal aof Hawaii Literature and Artsournal
Cover of issue #115 of the literary journal Bamboo Ridge.

Asia Au-Helfrich‘s short story, “Free Home,” started as a class assignment and is now published in Bamboo Ridge Journal of Hawai‘i Literature and Arts (Issue #115). Bamboo Ridge is a Hawai‘i-based literary journal and nonprofit press. The annual journal of poetry and fiction features work by both emerging and established writers with diverse backgrounds.

The importance to a young emerging writer in Hawai‘i of being selected for inclusion in the journal cannot be overemphasized—it means Au-Helfrich has “arrived.” This level of accomplishment does not come easy—it takes skill, determination, and inspiration.

“This story would not have been possible if it weren’t for the creative writing program at UH Hilo,” says Au-Helfrich. “I originally wrote the piece as an assignment for [Prof. of English] Mark Paneks fiction writing course. Panek’s teaching style inspired me and my peers to write to the best of our ability, learn how to take and give critique to and from our peers, and improve our work through multiple drafts.”

Mark Panek smiling for the camera
Mark Panek

Panek recognized Au-Helfrich’s talent early on.

“Great writing, it has been said, results from painstakingly relentless editing—a truism that far too many aspiring writers, more interested in affirmation than improvement, never really take to heart,” says Panek. “From the first day I met her, Asia separated herself from the pack by committing herself to the writing process taught in all of our classes. If an early draft frustrated her or bored her, she’d always see the process through, sometimes performing major overhauls along the way to a fine final product. More remarkably, when an early draft came out pretty close to what she’d had in mind, she’d still rewrite it again and again, taking to heart, with gratitude, feedback from any fellow writer or interested reader willing to provide an honest response.”

“I am very happy for her accomplishment,” adds Panek. “Bamboo Ridge is, of course, the pinnacle of local writing, but given Asia’s approach, I’m not at all surprised.”

As instructed by the professor, the rough draft of “Home Free” was written in pen.

“We were told to write continuously, without fear of error and without editing,” explains Au-Helfrich. “The story was inspired, loosely, by events that friends of mine had been through, and the main character is based off of a real person. I often get inspired to write around characters that I want to create, and I worry about the story after. I think interesting characters can turn a seemingly mundane plot into a page-turner.”

The budding writer credits her inclusion in Bamboo Ridge to the encouragement she received from her mentors at UH Hilo.

“At the end of our fiction writing course, Panek made it mandatory to submit our work to a publication,” she says. “I would not have submitted my work to Bamboo Ridge otherwise; I didn’t think it was good enough to be published. Other English professors at UH have also been constant supporters of my work, namely [poet and educator] Muriel Mililani Hughes and [Assistant Professor of Performing Arts] Justina Mattos. They have provided me with many opportunities to showcase my work to the community, and I thank them for it.”

Kirsten Møllegaard wearing glasses and smiling at the camera
Kirsten Møllegaard

Kirsten Møllegaard, professor and chair of the English department at UH Hilo, says the mission of the Creative Writing Certificate program is to give students a solid foundation in creative writing forms, techniques, and professional opportunities.

“Students learn the craft of revising and polishing their work as well as methods of writing with publication in mind,” explains Møllegaard. “Asia’s fine accomplishment bears testimony to her mastery of these skills, and also to the support and guidance she has received over the years by Creative Writing Certificate Coordinator Susan Wackerbarth and Professor Mark Panek, who both teach our courses in creative writing.”

Issue #15 of Bamboo Ridge is edited by Cathy Song, an award-winning poet, and Donald Carreira Ching, a writer and teacher at Leeward Community College. The issue is described as a memorable anthology of poetry and prose by 33 authors from diverse backgrounds. A third of the writers included this year are new to Bamboo Ridge; established authors in the anthology include Sue Cowing, Cate Gable, Jim Harstad, Lanning C. Lee, Darrell H. Y. Lum, Wing Tek Lum, Christy Passion, and many more—prestigious company for an aspiring writer finishing up her undergraduate degree.

“It is such an honor to see my name alongside amazing local authors like Christy Passion and Darrell H. Y. Lum,” says Au-Helfrich. “Hawai‘i literature is such a cool niche in the writing world, with some of the most relatable themes for me as someone who was born and raised here. I have been a long-time reader and fan of Bamboo Ridge [Press] publications and it is a dream of mine to one day publish a book or collection of poetry with them.”

Here is an excerpt from “Home Free.” The author says the story is set in downtown Hilo and is about a young boy who has run away from home and is living on the streets.

Twenty or so minutes down the line, and the ominous gray from earlier is straight over us. Rain starts to fall, and with it, my spirits dampen. I find myself wishing for a total downpour, to wash away the dirt, the pain, the feeling that maybe she isn’t going to message me back. 

“Yo, Greg!” A voice from somewhere. In an instant, a gaggle of wastrels skate out from around the corner, like some bizarre procession of lords and ladies. I think that makes me the king. I nod my head subtly, the most nonchalant greeting I can produce. 

“Who the fuck is this guy?” The voice belongs to Jesse, wastrel extraordinaire, my lady-in-waiting. He’s looking Dennis up and down, a mixture of disgust and confusion on his face. 

“Dennis. Met him outside of KTA.” I glance over at Dennis as I say this; he’s breached the skin on his neck now. A little trickle of blood inches down it, and Jesse furrows his brow.

“Gross.” Jesse shakes his head dismissively and turns to me; you can only stand to look at Dennis for so long before your stomach starts to turn. I’ve gotten used to it since this morning.

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Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.