Peau Book Club, Day-Riverside Branch Library — June 25th, 7 pm
Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Salt Lake City — Aug. 2nd, 6 pm
FanX Fall 2019, Salt Lake City — Sept. 5-7th
Book Academy, UVU Wasatch — Oct. 11th
Presentation: Creating Resonance
20BooksVegas, Las Vegas — Nov. 11-15th
There’s an image cropping up in diversity in literature presentations that describes culture as an iceberg.
People love this graphic. It’s of a massive chunk of ice floating in a deep blue sea with labels stuck to places above and below the waterline. On the surface, there’s the readily seen ten percent experienced by foreigners, things like food, dress, language, music, art, and festivals. A little below the waterline are layers labeled body language, personal space, etiquette, and gender roles. Deeper still are sections labeled attitudes toward elders, authority, religion, and work. Down in the depths you’ll find spaces reserved for things like approaches to marriage, death, child raising, and problem solving. It’s a slick visual that’s often used to segue into the dangers of cultural appropriation.
Too bad it’s wrong.
By their very nature, icebergs are frozen and adrift, traveling only by the whims of ocean currents and breezes. They’re constantly eroding, shrinking, melting into a sea of conformity until one day they just disappear.
It’s hard to imagine a less inspiring metaphor for cultural sensitivity.
That’s why I like the metaphor of culture as a lotus growing in a pond.
Think about it. A lotus is integral to an entire ecosystem. On the surface are beautiful flowers. Out of sight, hidden but known, is a long stem tethering the lotus to the bottom of the pond where it grows, nourished by the bones of lotuses gone before. A lotus isn’t simply acted on by currents or eroded by waves and heat. Lotuses have both roots and branches; seed pods slip from the mother plant, drift a little, settle, and eventually form their own flowers—similar, but not the same. There is an interconnectedness to lotuses in a pond, a dependence on shared resources, a history and lineage.
From a boat, it’s easy to observe lotuses in relationship to the other—the landings of frogs and dragonflies, the effects of light and wind, how fish shelter in the lotus’s shade. Grounded on shore, observers intuitively know that no matter how they try, they are not lotuses, no more than a bear or a sparrow or a pine tree is a lotus.
Basking in the beauty of a lotus pond is cultural appreciation. Writing as a dragonfly or frog about your lotus experiences is cultural appreciation. Plucking lotuses, regardless of good intentions of bringing blossoms to the pondless masses, is cultural appropriation. Unmoored from all that nourished and supported it, separated from its purpose in life, a lotus in a vase is just a dying flower.
Now that’s an image I can get behind.
He’s not wrong.
In this short treatise derived from his real world experiences in mastering and teaching English in Hawaii, Lee Tonouchi—Da Pidgin Guerrilla—demonstrates that not only Pidgin speakers CAN, they CAN with eloquence, intellectual rigor, and knuckles bruised in schoolyard scraps, call out the biases endemic in anti-Pidgin rhetoric and the cultural erasure politics of the myth of Standard English.
But da buggah wen tell ‘em more bettah in Pidgin, yeah? More easy for unnastand without all da haolified words and phrases.
Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture by Lee A. Tonouchi and published by Tinfish Press is a scholarly dive into what makes a language, who are its guardians and keepers, and how language is identity. Don’t let the size of this book fool you—the thoughts and ideas run wide and deep in this collection of talks and concrete poems.
Like Lee, I learned early on that Pidgin speakers were more defined by perceptions of what they couldn’t do than the realities of what was possible. I’m passionate about islanders telling their own stories in their own words. And as any Hawaiian islander will tell you, when it comes from the heart, it’s in Pidgin.
Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture by Lee A. Tonouchi is available in paperback from Amazon.
When I was a kid, my mom used to work for Longs Drug, a store with a pharmacy and a little bit of everything from snacks and groceries to cosmetics and fishing lures. Mom was an accountant, usually in her office upstairs and behind the one-way mirrors that ringed the back of the store and looked out at the shoppers below. My sister and I waved at ourselves in the mirrors like idiots every time we walked in.
Occasionally, when they were having a big sale or short-handed, Mom used to cashier. Back in the ’70s, people worried less about titles and job descriptions and more about keeping a job. On big sales weeks when she knew she was going to cashier on Saturday, she’d make us quiz her on the items and prices as we cleaned house, folded laundry, did the dishes. She had to know the ads cold because back then there were no scanners or bar codes.
And planny people get huhu if the haole lady cashier no can remembah if Spam was 32 cents or 43.
I loved it when Mom brought home foreign coins mistakenly spent by tourists and accepted by cashiers. (Really? This one has a hole in it, five sides, and is bigger than a quarter. How did someone not see this?) I kept them in an old mason jar on a shelf in my room. But my fondest memories of the years she worked at Longs are about Easter. Every Easter Sunday, the whole store had a potluck picnic at the beach. The store managers–half-baked from too many Primos and not enough pupus–had all the kids run relay races, and the winners got baskets with chocolate Easter bunnies bigger than their heads. I never won the big baskets, but I can still taste melty, waxy chocolate and the hard yellow sugar eye from the Palmer’s runner-ups.
So I feel like I know a little bit about the kinds of folks who shop and work at Longs.
But not as well as Lee Cataluna.
In the pages of Lee’s collection of flash fiction stories, you’ll find neighbors, friends, aunties, uncles, and even local, ahem, collection workers and former disco queens. They’re all there, shopping for unmentionables, looking for love, and just trying to get through one more day. Lee’s gift is the complete picture she draws with minimalist brush strokes. We fill in the details, the backstories, the motivations, and the ultimate consequences and conclusions to her stories because these people are us. Lee has a fine ear for Pidgin and she uses it to bring to life people that we immediately recognize as prep school kids, tutus, popos, thugs, cops, and everything in between.
And the stories are bus’ laugh hilarious, poignant, and true. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
Folks You Meet in Longs and Other Stories by Lee Cataluna is published by Bamboo Ridge Press and is available as a paperback and eBook from Amazon. Click on Lee Cataluna to find out more about her and her amazing stories on her website.
I was talking with students at Ka ‘Umeke Ka’eo School, in Hilo, Hawaii. The kids were asking really good questions about language, sub-text, themes, metaphor, and symbolism. The kids were excited to discover that what they suspected in The Niuhi Shark Saga was true: everything was intentional and had meaning. The series was full of kaona to the max.
We were in a groove.
And then it happened.
“Aunty, what is the significance of the turtle?” a boy asked, pointing to the books in my hand.
My jaw hit the floor.
“You mean the turtle on the cover of book two, One Shark, No Swim?” I said.
He nodded, earnest and perplexed. He’d read the books a couple of times, but couldn’t figure out why in the world a turtle was featured on the cover. In a series where even the names and occupations carry deep meaning, he knew he must be missing something—something important.
I closed my mouth, thinking.
I opened it to tell him the truth.
“I wanted to use sea creatures on the covers to give readers hints about what was important in each book. A shark made sense for book 1, One Boy, No Water. An octopus made sense for book 3, One Truth, No Lie. But I didn’t want to use a shark again on book 2—I thought two sharks and an octopus would make book 3 seem out of place. We were under a tight deadline to publish the editions with the black tattoo covers. Manta rays, seahorse, eels—nothing I could get the rights to really resonated or matched the other art. And then someone found research that said Asian markets liked books with turtles on them. It was easy to get the rights to a turtle image. So that’s what we did.”
You could cut the disappointment with a knife.
I said, “So the turtle means nothing to the story. What do you think should be on the cover?”
I looked around the room. Lots of heads were nodding.
“You guys agree? What do you want to see on the cover?”
‘Ilima, they roared.
Back in the car, my husband gave me side-eye. “The kids don’t like the turtle,” he said.
“Nope. But that’s the first time someone’s mentioned it. ‘Ilima’s not a sea creature, though,” I said.
“Hmmmm,” he said.
And then it happened again that night in Kailua-Kona at Kahakai Elementary.
A teacher walked up with the books in her hands. “Lehua, I’ve read the books over and over looking for it. What is the significance of the turtle?”
My husband bit his lip and didn’t dare make eye contact with me.
Again, I told the truth.
I hate that.
So I asked, “What do you think should be on the cover?”
“‘Ilima!” she said.
“Yeah!” others said.
“But she’s not a sea creature,” I said.
It was like I was talking Greek.
“What does that have to do with it?” people asked.
And that’s when I realized that the covers should really be about what people loved—and they loved ‘Ilima.
So, back in my office in the snowy, cold Rocky Mountains, I began researching ideas for ‘Ilima and considering changing the cover of book 2. ‘Ilima doing what? Sleeping? Scratching? Walking on the reef? Sniffing?
No. ‘Ilima to the rescue!
And like starting to clean a closet or eating an artichoke, one small change exploded into many more changes that just wouldn’t fit back in the box.
Swapping an insignificant turtle for ‘Ilima has now become new covers and branding for the entire series.
I’m excited about these new covers. We’re getting ready to release new editions of the all three books with the new covers in eBook, paperback, and HARDBACK. Production is also beginning on audiobooks for the series.
But in the meantime, here’s ‘Ilima as she’ll appear on the cover of One Shark, No Swim.
Sorry, turtle. Time for you to go.
Here’s a preview of the cover of a new work in progress called Birth/Hanau. Ever wonder what really happened the day Uncle Kahana and ‘Ilima found Zader on the reef at Piko Point? How did Zader become part of the Westin ‘Ohana? This novella answers those questions and more. In this book, the same story is told twice–once in Standard American English and once with a lot of Hawaiian and Pidgin mixed in with the English. It’s an experiment and story that I hope you’ll enjoy. It’s coming soon–more details when I know ’em.
I’m fleeing the snowy Utah winter to talk story, teach workshops, and work with some incredible keiki on the Big Island of Hawai’i. So excited! I’ll post some of the students’ work when I get back. (If I come back!)
Feb. 22: Kahakai Elementary, Kailua-Kona
Feb. 25 – Mar. 1: The Kamehameha Schools, Kea’au
Feb. 27: Ke Kula ‘o Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu, Kea’au
Feb. 27: ‘Ohana Story Night, The Kamehameha Schools, Kea’au, 5 pm
Mar. 1: Ka ʻUmeke Kāʻeo PCS, Hilo
Mar. 2: Basically Books, Hilo, 1 pm Book Signing
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.