Children live in unseen spaces created by contradiction. Freckled is a raw, compelling, and ultimately hopeful memoir of growing up haole on Kauai where the idyllic freedom to surf, climb trees, and play Barbies runs counterpoint to a reality of homelessness, food insecurity, prejudice, violence, and the need be the adult when parents can’t. At times a celebration of the best within each of us as well as a witness of both human frailty and resilience, T.W. Neal’s memoir is a must-read for those Hawaiian and Hawaiian at heart.
As outrageous as of some of the events may seem to outsiders, I know firsthand of the truth she speaks. Hawaii in the sixties, seventies, and eighties was undergoing profound cultural change. A lot of anger and pain was being released against the real abuses of power and theft of land in previous generations. Unfortunately, a lot of that anger got poured onto the heads of haole kids, kids with fair skin, light eyes, and blonde or red hair.
Too frequently the very adults charged with protecting all kids—teachers, coaches, school officials—turned a blind eye to systemic bullying. In my case, adults were often complicit and encouraged the abuse. Kill Haole Day at Kahului Elementary was every Friday. Teachers taped 18 inch squares on the floor of the classroom and required me to stay in them all day. I didn’t even have a desk like the other kids. At recess, I escaped to the library until the librarian made me go to the playground. No other kids, just me. It’s not an exaggeration to say people would go to jail now for what happened to me in elementary school.
Neal’s experiences only differed from mine in that her parents never assumed she would fit in. Like Neal, salvation for me came in the form of private schools that encouraged me to grow academically. Ironically, I fit in better at The Kamehameha Schools—a private school for native Hawaiians—than any public school I went to.
There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance in knowing your family farmed taro for generations on land that was stolen by missionary descendants and tended by immigrants from Asia, while the descendants of those immigrants are kicking your ‘okole daily and calling you haole crap—basically, foreign trash. People who claim racial prejudice and elitism are only white issues have a very narrow and limited view of the world.
But that’s another blog post.
People tell me how lucky I was to have grown up in Hawaii. And they’re not wrong. In her memoir, Neal weaves a lei of a typical island childhood complete with surfing, exploring rain forests, hula lessons, and walking the reef. It’s those wonderful moments of adventure that serve as counterpoint to the grimmer challenges of her parents’ mental illnesses and chemical dependency that as a child she had to recognize, mitigate, and manage.
At its core, Freckled by T.W. Neal is a story of hope and a narrative of the triumphant nature of a beautiful, intelligent young girl who didn’t listen to the voices and circumstances that told her she was anything less than all she could be. It’s a universal journey, a coming of age story wrapped in ti leaves. Readers may never look at Hawaii the same way again. It’s an important work that I predict will be a touchstone in Pacific literature for generations to come.
The Science of Breakable Things is a debut middle grade novel by Hawaii-born Tae Keller. It’s a great read for tweens and those young at heart. Told through Natalie’s eyes and her science journal, we see how her mother’s depression affects Natalie from her friendships and family relationships to her own self-image to how she explains the world around her.
Tae nails the transition from childhood to teenager. The friendships and conflicts ring true. One of the best parts was the magical thinking of how a rare blue orchid would cure her mother; if Natalie could just get one, everything would go back to normal. It’s a touching, endearing, and completely captivating examination of how a child centers the world on herself and how she grows to understand that not only are things not her fault, they’re also not in her power to fix.
With a very light touch, Tae also explores mixed racial heritage challenges and conflicts. Natalie is part-Korean. Generational biases are brought to the forefront as her father tries to nullify his Korean-ness as Natalie tries to embrace it through connecting with her Korean grandmother. It’s one of the smallest and most powerful ways Natalie asserts her own identity.
The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller is available in hardback, paperback, and eBook. Can’t wait to read her next work.
Hot off the presses and ready for young readers and those young at heart is R. Keao Nesmith’s Hawaiian translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Full confession: my Hawaiian is nowhere fluent enough to understand the text. But I love speaking the words aloud and picking out the things I do know.
This translation is important because it demonstrates that Hawaiian is a living, breathing language. When kids read modern stories they relate to, doors open in their minds that develop compassion, a wider understanding of the world around them, and a love of learning. More than just the story of a kid with magical powers, the Harry Potter series delves into deeper themes of social activism, class struggles, and group think. Kids see others like them rising up and making a difference and think, “Hey! Maybe me, too!” Pretty powerful stuff.
For those and other reasons, I’m excited to see this new translation. If you’re lucky enough to live near Hilo, Hawaii, you can get a copy at Basically Books. Otherwise, you’ll have to order it from Amazon. While it ships for free with Prime, it can take a few weeks for delivery since it ships from England.
Now if we could just get a few modern stories by Hawaiian authors translated into Hawaiian…
It’s finally ready for pre-order! Pua’s Kiss tells a significant part of the backstory to the Niuhi Shark Saga. In it you’ll learn why Justin came to Hawaii, how Pua and Justin met, hooked up, and how all of the events in One Boy, No Water; One Shark, No Swim; and One Truth, No Lie; came to pass–and who was really pulling all the strings.
This was a tough book to write. The characters fought me every step of the way. It wasn’t until I let them speak the story they wanted to tell that I made any progress.
A word of warning–this one is not middle grade. It deals with some mature themes. Two adults fall in lust–off camera, closed door lust, but it’s clear that’s what’s going on.
“Maverick” is a short story that was originally published by Griffin Press in Apocalypse Utah, an anthology of horror stories by Utah authors. I’ve had a request to use it in a class at Utah State University, so Makena Press has reprinted it as a Kindle eBook. It’s a quick read–and has nothing to do with Hawaii.
But the main character is certainly badass.
Here’s the blurb:
In post-apocalyptic Heber City, Utah, an 11 year-old girl searches for ChapStick and magazines in an abandoned Mavericks convenience store and runs into two drifters who get more than they bargained for.
You can pick it up on Amazon for 99 cents.
I’ve been working a new novella that’s set in imaginary Lauele, Hawaii. It’s going into a boxed set of novellas by the Fairy Tale Ink authors, this one called Fractured Sea, that retells the classic Little Mermaid fairy tale. It seems like a perfect fit for my stories of Niuhi, sharks that can appear as people, right?
Wrong. So wrong.
This has been the most difficult piece I’ve ever written. The story has fought me at every turn, refusing to fit into the mold of a Western fairy tale. I’ve struggled, writing and rewriting, and eventually throwing out 90% of what was in my original manuscript. I’ve wanted to quit and then feared I’d have to because for the first time in my life I COULDN’T DELIVER.
But then, finally, at 2 am Monday morning, it clicked. I stopped trying to write the story I thought I needed to tell and started listening to the story that wanted to be spoken. I’m behind, desperately behind, but I think I see the way through and that’s more than half the battle.
While there are elements that can be mapped to the Little Mermaid, it’s much more a story about ocean ecology, colonialism, tourism, personal sacrifice, and how a wise ocean god plans for his people’s future. There are analogies and metaphors that I hope will lead readers to think more deeply about the relationships they have with both the mundane and the supernatural.
I know it’s a little ambitious and probably ridiculous to cram all of this in a story that readers are expecting to be a fluffy romance about unrequited love, but apparently these are the kinds of mo’olelo–of stories–that resonate with me.
And I can only write the words I’m given. The stories are always a gift.
Today I ran across a TedxManoa talk given by Brandy McDougall back in 2012. (Click to view her talk.) I wish I’d seen it sooner. It speaks to the need of writing stories, our stories, as a political and cultural narrative.
The stories are always a gift.
It happens to all of us. You have a great idea for a story. You sharpen pencils. You plot. You get excited. And then…
I think in my case it’s a trifecta of summer, life changes, and I just don’t wanna.
But I gotta.
So for all of us in the same boat who really need to paddle, but would just rather drift, here’s a clip from the musical Starkid Firebringer. Sing it, sister.
And now back to the grind.
I got a deadline and this story won’t write itself.
Okay, MoviePass. I really liked your original offer—for $10 a month I could see up to a movie a day in a theater. It was a great opening line, and it made me want to get to know you better. Over the last seven months, you and I have been on 49 dates to the movies. We’ve seen blockbusters, small art house flicks, and quite a few flops that would’ve made me really annoyed if I’d paid full price. But because I wasn’t, I took a chance. We’ve patronized big theater chains and also small-town Mom and Pop theaters and independents.
And I always bought popcorn and drinks.
Milk Duds, too.
In the beginning, you were great. If I loved a movie, I could see it again with another friend. But then you got jealous and said I could only see a movie once.
That wasn’t what we originally agreed to. Going into this relationship, you said a movie a day. You know and I know it’s impossible to see 30 new movies a month—there simply aren’t that many released. But when I pointed that out, you whined about the cost and then accused me of being ungrateful. If I wanted to continue our relationship, you said, you had to rein me in.
Fine. I stopped seeing a movie with my son and then again later with my daughter or husband. Fewer movies meant less money spent on over-priced concession snacks for theaters. I also stopped dragging my friends who don’t have MoviePass to movies I’d already seen, even though I knew they’d love them and wouldn’t go on their own.
See what you did there, MoviePass? You’re such a wet blanket.
We won’t even talk about the nightmare it was when I broke my phone and had to get MoviePass set-up on a new device. Due to your minimum of a month on a device rule, I’m still dragging an iPad around to the movies even though my phone’s fixed now.
But back then our relationship was still new and full of promise. It was easy to ignore a few hiccups.
Next you insisted I send you a photo of my ticket. If I didn’t, I’d be in trouble. Your app hijacks my phone’s camera like an overzealous bouncer confronting a teenybopper at a night club.
Controlling much? Just what did that inconvenience prove? That I had a ticket in my hand to a movie I could only see once? Do you have any clue how small-town theaters work? Most of the time they don’t give you a ticket. You pay at the door and simply walk into the theater to see the one movie playing that night.
Now when I go to my local theaters, I’m the pain-in-the-butt who holds up the line while the cashier asks her dad, the owner, how to provide me with an actual ticket and not a credit card receipt. He has to stop filling bags of popcorn to figure it out himself.
That’s two lines of people inconvenienced.
Thanks for that.
And now, now you’ve shown your true colors.
Today you rolled out Peak Pricing.
Basically, Peak Pricing is a way for you to charge me more for showings and movies you think are in high demand. You get to decide which showing of which movies are flagged as Peak. You can’t or won’t explain how that algorithm works. But if a movie is Peaked, you’re going to charge me an additional amount to see it, somewhere in the $2-6 range. I won’t know for sure if a movie is Peaked until I’m standing outside the theater, ready to purchase my ticket. But I’m not supposed to worry. You’ll just automatically charge the additional fees to my credit card which you have on file. You also say this program is rolling out nationally and will affect EVERY theater you serve.
And this is where you prove that you’re really not the hero on a shiny white horse, but an abusive, really bad boyfriend, couching your atrocious behavior as being for my own good.
Out of the 49 times I’ve been to theaters in the last seven months, only twice was the theater sold to near capacity. Twice. In my neck of the woods, blockbusters on opening night, prime ticket times, fill a theater maybe one third to half full. There is no reserved seating at any of the six theaters in a 30 mile radius of my home. Movies are offered no more than twice a day during the week and maybe three times a day on weekends and holidays as a matinee and two prime time. We’re not talking multi-show multiplexes here. So, because you decide the demand is Peak in New York or California, I’m forced to pay a surcharge to sit in an empty theater.
And, yes, I’m aware that matinee movie tickets are cheaper than evening showings. But you knew this going into our original agreement. If you wanted to restrict when I could see a movie, you should’ve told me upfront and before we got involved and you led me on. And unlike your business model which now charges a surcharge for seeing a high demand movie at a convenient hour, theaters DISCOUNT matinee showings from their regular ticket prices. They also don’t charge you—or anyone else—more for seeing a movie opening night than on the last day of its run.
So really, Peak Pricing only costs me more money. It doesn’t give the theaters more money or even save you per ticket; the only way you save money is if I don’t buy a ticket.
How crazy is it that you’re incented to save money by making your service impossible and inconvenient to use?
You think you’re in control because you think I’m hooked.
I’m not going to pay for a service that’s inconvenient to use. I already pay for Netflix, cable, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. The attraction, MoviePass, was to see first run movies in a THEATER once a day. If I have to wait to see a movie until you decide Peak Pricing is over, I might as well wait another week and stream it.
You’re driving me to cancel because of the hassle.
How’s that going to work for you?
Besides, there are other fish in the sea.
In no week did I ever see more than three movies. Cost aside, there’s just not that many movies I want to see or have time to spend in a theater. At $20 a month, AMC’s version of a subscription movie pass is a better deal. It allows up to three movies a week, you can see them all in one day if you choose, you can see the same movie more than once, it includes 3D and IMAX movies, there’s no “peak” surcharge, AND you get a discount on concessions and tickets for friends. For me it only takes one “peak” surcharge movie a month and a large popcorn under MoviePass to come out ahead on AMC’s deal.
And that’s too bad. Because the only ones who are going to suffer are the Mom and Pop independents and the indy/art house theaters and movies.
And the makers of Milk Duds.
Oh, MoviePass. It was fun while it lasted, but you’re all talk. Too bad you couldn’t walk the walk, too. The first time I pay Peak prices to sit in an empty small-town theater, it’s over.
Hasta la vista, baby.
Mark Panek’s Big Happiness tells the true story of Hawaiian sumo wrestler Percy Kipapa and his tragic murder on May 16, 2005. On the surface, the investigative journalism narrative reads as a mystery, a meditation on what it means to be a modern Hawaiian, and a commentary on the ice epidemic and the tangled Yakuza-Hawaii webs of commerce, money, and prestige. It’s compelling and raw. Knowing one of the key participants personally, I found it both hard to read and tough to put down.
You see, it’s also the story of one of my childhood calabash cousins, Tyler Hopkins.
After I left Hawaii for the mainland, Tyler went to Japan and became best friends with Percy. According to the Mark Panek, who knew the adult Tyler in ways I didn’t, Tyler’s life paralleled Percy’s in every significant way. Big Happiness details how they rose to become professional Hawaiian sumo wrestlers in Japan and what happened after they retired and returned to Hawaii.
I remember when Tyler was first going to Japan. He told me about it at my wedding reception at Mid-Pac Country Club thirty-one years ago, the last time I saw him in person. He was happy, and the extended ‘ohana was excited. Sumo was something my big-hearted and athletic cousin was sure to succeed at. His future was assured. Good for him!
Tyler’s sumo name was Sunahama. Living far from Japan and Hawaii before the age of internet video, it was hard for me to follow his career. Over the years, whenever I met up with my calabash Hawaiian ‘ohana, I asked aunties, uncles, and cousins for updates. Each time I was told he was doing well—first climbing the sumo ranks and then retired and working in Hawaii. Tyler was always on the verge of doing something—tourism with Japanese groups, teaching Japanese, finding his groove as a school counselor, or starting a new business venture.
In Big Happiness, Mark Panek paints a different picture.
I knew to be a foreign sumo wrestler in Japan would be rough. I knew the pressures local kids face to “make good.” I knew how the ideals of sacrifice of self for a greater good—however that’s defined—were ingrained in Tyler. Suck it up was something our uncles told us all the time, and it applied to everything from wiping out on a wave and spitting sand to breaking a bone playing baseball to studying hard in school when playing seemed more fun to never, ever failing to be loyal to ‘ohana no matter what the personal cost.
I even suspected how the Yakuza would be involved.
But what I didn’t understand was ice. Or how much that changed Hawaii in the years after I left. I also didn’t think too deeply about how few opportunities Tyler would have had once he returned to Hawaii. Unlike Japan, there aren’t cushy jobs in corporate America waiting for retired sumo wrestlers.
I’m old enough to know that there really wasn’t anything I could’ve done to help Tyler. But my heart hurts when I remember the kid I had to swim out and rescue when his raft went out too far at Waimanalo Beach or the time we made homemade pizza and Tyler complained I added too much cheese. “No such thing,” I said. “Yeah,” he said, rubbing his opu and the scar he got when he fell through a glass shower door and almost died, “there is.”
But mostly, I can see all too clearly a moment Mark Panek describes during the trial where Tyler almost snaps. I thank God that Mark intervened.
Big Happiness by Mark Panek is available as a paperback and eBook from Amazon. For anyone wanting an insider’s view of sumo wrestling or the life of local boys in Hawaii, this book is a must read. Compelling, real, and full of heart and tragedy, it’s a story of sacrifice, privileges of race and class, and the devastating effects of ice and all the vested interests in keeping the status quo.
Matthew Kaopio’s Written in the Sky is one of those rare books told from a kid’s perspective that’s not for kids. It’s raw and real, and certainly true to the experiences of many homeless kids in Hawaii, but it’s not one I’d give to a kid the age of ‘Ikauikalani, the abandoned Hawaiian kid at the center of the story. The language is coarse, the action violent, and the circumstances bleak. But for anyone high school or older, it’s a must read in the cannon of Pacific Literature.
Written in the Sky tells the story of ‘Ikauikalani, a middle grader who is adrift after the death of his grandmother. Through ‘Ikaui’s daily experiences, we see firsthand the effects of mental illness, drug abuse, bullying, and dispossession faced by the homeless living in Ala Moana Park. We see how ‘Ikaui struggles to eat, keep clean, and fill his days. There’s real physical danger of death as well as a fear of spiritual death if ‘Ikaui’s swept up by social services. But in the middle of a survive or die situation, there are remarkable moments of grace that allow ‘Ikaui to thrive, to choose to be someone who helps instead of hordes, and to ultimately create a family—an ‘ohana in the truest sense—where there were once only strangers in Ala Moana Park. The kindness of college students, fast food workers, guardian angels, and others allow ‘Ikaui to discover who he is, connect his amazing gifts with his ancestral past, and heal generational wounds.
It’s a book that can be read on many levels. To say it’s about kindness triumphing over evil dilutes what I think is the real message at the heart of the story. I loved the way traditional Hawaiian culture and values were woven into the narrative.
For me, the one jarring element was the Indian guest lecturer who gives ‘Ikaui insight into his gifts. While I appreciate the pan-world, indigenous peoples, we-are-all-one perspective, I would’ve have liked to have seen this insight come from a kupuna. It’s a small rub in a beautifully paced novel and doesn’t really distract from the overall story. However, it’s an odd choice that rings true, and I wonder if the author based some of this novel on his own experiences or on people he knows.
Written in the Sky by Matthew Kaopio is available in paperback and eBook from Amazon. If you love Hawaii and Hawaiian literature, this is an exceptional book.