“How did you dare?”
After talking with students at Kealakehe Intermediate over the internet for a bit, I read chapter one from ONE BOY, NO WATER, and looked up. Most of the kids seemed stunned. “I’ve never heard anyone read a story that had Pidgin in it before,” one student said.
Another raised his hand. “How did you dare? How did you know you could do that?” Lots of kids nodded. They wanted to know this, too.
I blinked hard. “I just did,” I said. “And if I did, you can too. Don’t be scared. Just do it.”
I’ve been thinking about this exchange a lot this afternoon. It’s why real representation in literature is so important. All kids deserve–need–to see themselves as the center of stories that affirm their lived experiences. Sometimes all it takes is someone telling them it’s okay; they can do this; permission granted.
It was maybe eight years ago that I noticed a lot more awareness, more buzz, about the startling lack of diversity in middle grade and young adult literature. In the USA, it started with recognizing we were a multicultural nation that woefully underrepresented the crazy quilt reality of our society. The lack of diverse representation was being talked about in ways and in circles that I hadn’t heard before.
It was the very existence of the conversations that was new, not the concepts. Growing up, I was surrounded by misrepresentation, appropriation, and outright fabrication of my Native Hawaiian—kanaka maoli—culture in media. All islanders were hula dancers, bartenders, or crook, with the occasional beach bum thrown in. Books, television, and films never reflected my reality of doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, teachers, musicians, comedians, philanthropists, homemakers, and yeah, houseless people struggling in makeshift camps.
With awareness and conversation came movements like #weneeddiversebooks and #ownvoices. Traditional publishers created new imprints and solicited manuscripts from writers of all backgrounds, experiences, and frames of reference. There was a lot of hope.
Then reality set in and things started to get weird.
One of the biggest challenges is that with new perspectives, the stake holders and kingmakers—the acquisition editors and marketing teams—generally do not have the background to accurately assess whether or not a manuscript authentically represents what it purports to. In today’s cancel culture, few are willing to risk being wrong.
Authors are also eyeing the swing of public opinion’s guillotine. Over the last few years, I’ve talked with many established authors who want to write stories about characters who aren’t like themselves—ethnically, neurotypically, sexually orientated, physically abled, faith-believing or disbelieving, from different socioeconomic communities—the whole spectrum of humanity. These authors’ genres and target audiences range widely, from picture books to adult high fantasy, romance, and horror. These are exactly the kinds of stories that will reach under severed readers and bring more threads to our literary tapestry. But they’re scared. They’re convinced writing outside of their perceived and approved wheelhouse is career suicide.
And these stories aren’t being written.
Some authors have pivoted to writing about animals instead of children. Some write fantasy, where it’s easier to blend cultures into something familiar, but new. Others have doubled down and do not describe the physical characteristics of their characters at all. I was part of a panel of authors at an event where a White college student called out a well-known (and really wonderful) White male author of middle grade books. She publicly chastised him for only writing White characters in his series. He gently asked her where that was in the text—and of course, it wasn’t. He had been very careful to only use generic physical descriptions like tall, athletic, old, young, or wearing a blue shirt. The college student had brought her own biases with her.
We all do.
The pendulum’s backlash is twice as hard as its front swing.
I believe it’s important to recognize that not all stories are ours to tell. But rather than #ownvoices, I think we should be focusing on authentic representation, what I’ve coined as #RealRep (because ain’t nobody got time to spell #AuthenticRepresentation).
#RealRep allows authors the freedom to write all kinds of stories. Writers can easily imagine how it feels to be different or alone or special or even ordinary. Most stories have underlying themes like love, family, courage, perseverance, or adventure and are told through emotions and experiences that are universal to the human condition. Where we are vary is in the specifics, constraints, opportunities, and pressures.
My advice to authors who want to tell stories about people, places, and experiences out of their own wheelhouse is to pause for a second to consider what’s sparking the story. What draws to you this story; why do you want to tell it; what are you hoping your audience will take away from it; how will you do your best to avoid harmful stereotypes, characterizations, and tokenisms; and how would you feel if you were portrayed this way?
If you’re comfortable with your answers, then research, research, research. Google, YouTube, and the library are your friends. Most importantly, connect with this community. Find people who have first-hand knowledge and experience with the cultures, issues, locations, and worldviews you want to explore. Get the nuances and details right before publication, but don’t let fear of getting them wrong stop you from starting. Refinement often comes after the first drafts when you engage beta and sensitivity readers. And it is readers. There is no “authority” that blesses any one point of view or lived experience. You’ll need a variety of responses to see the middle.
Remember, the goal is authenticity, not wide-eyed Pollyanna optimism. It’s okay if some readers are uncomfortable. Just make sure the discomfort is calculated and coming from the things you intend.
To publishers, remember that none of us are fully aware of our biases. We always think we know more than we do. Recognize you don’t always have the staff or experience to identify authenticity in manuscripts, particularly ones that defy expectations. If the story is compelling, engage your own experts to assess if it rings true–and it will take experts because no human experience is a monolith.
If we want to create a more inclusive world, we must teach compassion to children. One of the best ways to do this is to provide them books that allow them to walk in others’ shoes. To teachers and librarians, you are the frontline. Use your budgets to curate collections that serve your entire community.
To those in the corps calling for diversity in literature, keep beating those drums and encouraging people to write their own stories in their own voices.
Writing is an art, but publishing is a business, and like all businesses, it’s profit driven. Buy books you like and want to see more of and leave positive reviews. Create grassroots buzz. It’s that simple.
Authentic representation. #RealRep. Spread the word.
Last year, at the start of the pandemic, we took an unused corner of our property and built a huge garden–14 raised beds, each 30′ long and either 18″ or 3′ wide, with a drip irrigation system, climbing trellises, weed barriers, and gavel between the beds. Over four of the beds, we built a greenhouse to extend our growing season. Everything was designed by Kevin. We harvested enough potatoes, carrots, onions, corn, tomatoes, squash, and other veggies and herbs to feed a neighborhood. I say we, but in reality it was College Son and Kevin who did 90% of the work.
I’m working on an introduction to short story I wrote that’s going to be in an anthology of retold fairy and other traditional tales published by University of Hawaii. My into is waaaaaay overdue. I’m working on the fourth completely new version–I didn’t like my previous attempts. Hoping fourth time’s the charm.
But as I’ve been thinking about fairy tales and what makes a story Hawaiian vs Islander vs Malihini vs Outsider, I remembered the first time I heard a western fairy tale told through an islander lens. It was a record called Pidgin English Children’s Stories. I heard it in the “listening center” at Kahului or maybe Kihei elementary school, a corner of a large classroom that had a record player and a couple of big can headphones that connected into the player with giant phone jacks. The headphones were so big–or our heads were so small–we had to hold them onto our heads with both hands. When I close my eyes, I can still smell the dusty wood smell of the cabinet where the records were kept and even feel the wobbly cardboard cover. We had two records in our listening center–this one and “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones. Not kidding. Life really is weirder than fiction.
It’s also true that everything is on the internet. Originally recorded in 1961, I found one of the stories from the album–Cinderella–on YouTube. Listening to it again, here’s a lot I didn’t understand as a kid. But maybe the best stories are that way–they grow with us. If you’re interested, here’s the link. And now to get back to that intro I’m writing! (Sorry! It’s coming today, promise!)
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the United States (AAPI Month). Through out May, I’m going to be posting about books written by Pacific Islanders that celebrate island culture front and center. Up first:
There’s a wide range of what’s considered middle grade, with the sweet spot as a story that’s on at least a 5th grade reading level with a complex story structure centered around themes and characters that reflect the interests and lived experiences of 5th through about 9th graders. Crushes are perfect. Anger, loss, or awareness of a bigger world and the challenges it brings are also appropriate, as are wonder, joy, fear, and humor. Like kids developmentally this age, characters are often exploring away from adult safety nets, but there’s an underlying sense that while things may be different in the end, it’s going to be okay. Stories that deal with more mature themes–things that go beyond first kisses or delve into abuse–are generally considered Young Adult rather than Middle Grade.
And yes, those things happen to middle graders, too. However, most booksellers and librarians try to keep these imaginary boundaries drawn on their bookshelves, which is why Middle Grade is usually in the Children’s section and Young Adult is in the nomad-land of Teen Fiction, more commonly shelved by genre.
Without further ado, here are Pacific Islander Middle Grade titles you need to read. Click on the image to see it on Amazon.
In the story, 12 year old Kino and her mother move to Hawaii to live with her maternal grandparents in Kalihi, Oahu. With her grandfather ill and her family facing eviction from their home, Kino discovers that she has an ancient destiny to save both Hawaii and her grandfather by going back in time to 1825. There she meets the young Kamehameha III just prior to his ascension to the throne. After meeting with a kahuna at a heiau, it becomes clear that in order to return to her own time, Kino must go on a quest for four objects gathered from various parts of Oahu—and of course the young prince is going to come along.
As the adventure quest plot unfolds, Jen deftly weaves in aspects of Hawaiian culture and history. Islanders will recognize kapu customs, protocol, and Hawaiian legends such as night marchers, Pele, Kamapua‘a, sacred waterfalls, ‘aumakua, choking ghosts, and magic gourds and calabashes.
‘Ewa Which Way by Tyler Miranda peels back the bandage of what adults think adolescence is like to expose the raw, oozing strawberry of reality. I loved this book for its ability to show all the complicated rules, expectations, and entanglements of being a 12-year-old boy trying to make sense out of adult behavior. Set in ‘Ewa Beach, Hawaii in 1982, Landon DeSilva and his brother Luke know that lickins can fall from the sky like lightning, that a certain side-eye from a parent means a storm’s coming, and that sometimes no matter how long you hold your breath you can’t escape, but have to endure the wave to the end.
For Landon, things are bad at home, but not bad enough. Not enough for child protective services to swoop in and spirit Landon and Luke to a new home, not enough for the cops to do more than show up when his parents’ fights wake the neighbors, and not enough for his mother to realize her marriage is over. Throughout the novel Landon tries to figure out what he’s supposed to do when there’s really nothing he can. His parents’ troubles are deep—there’s guilt, prejudices of class and race, loss, alcohol abuse and valium popping coping mechanisms, unfulfilled expectations, and sheer dysfunction. Landon sees it all with the clarity of a twelve-year-old and his reactions and understandings are heartbreaking and true. Adult readers will read not only the story, but all the words and character motivations between the lines. It’s powerful, immediate, and like a bloody scrapped knee, painfully evocative of the transition between childhood and adulthood.
Find it on Amazon.
Other books to consider:
The Niuhi Shark Saga trilogy by Lehua Parker
ONE BOY, NO WATER
ONE SHARK, NO SWIM
ONE TRUTH, NO LIE
and upcoming Lauele Chicken Skin Story
UNDER KONA’S BED
- The caress of humidity and the weight of bushy, bushy hair.
- The way the elderly security guard’s curt aloha changes when you catch his eye and say, “Oh, ovah dere? Eh, mahalo, Uncle. I get ‘em now.”
- How his smile now reaches his eyes.
- Breathing after saltwater goes up your nose and finally clears decades of desert from your sinuses.
- The newly sharp scent of everything—plumeria, red dirt, garbage, gecko dust, keawe smoke, laundry soap, and coconut sunscreen slathered on pink skin carrying big Matsumoto’s rainbow shave ice.
- When driving along Kamehameha highway, wave as you slow just enough to let cars merge or turn in front of you because giving them two of your seconds now can literally save hours for others later.
- Quick car beeps are for howzit; long honks are from the mainland.
- Modesty and respect are mindsets and not measured in inches.
- “Where are you from?” and “Where did you go to school?” are the first steps in an intricate how-are-we-related dance.
- ‘Ohana means EVERY TIME you walk past a certain bakery, the owner chases you through the parking lot and gives you loaves of his amazing bread because you are friends with his cousin’s cousin’s friend.
- Nervous tourists constantly approach you with questions because you seem to know things like how to get places, what to order, and where bathrooms are. You have to remind yourself to switch off the Pidgin when you respond.
- It’s “locals,” not Hawaiians, unless they are kanaka maoli.
- Don’t ask cashiers and security guards where’s a good place to eat. Ask them where THEY like to eat. Kalua pork wrapped in luau leaves and cooked in an imu is a thousand times better than in an Instant Pot, crockpot, or oven. Real plate lunches have poi as a side option. Real haupia tastes like coconut, not cornstarch.
- Kids and teachers give you side eye when you first walk through the door. You can almost see the WTF thought balloons over their heads. But five minutes later they are calling you Aunty and laughing. They never ask how to pronounce Lehua or Niuhi. Their burning questions are all about ‘Ilima, the dog who obviously isn’t just a dog.
#homeagain #amwriting #HawaiiStories #OneBoyNoWater
Ten year-old Jon Nainoa walked along the edge of the sea, his slippahs flip, flip, flipping sand up the backs of his legs and sticking to the ‘okole of his swim trunks.
Jon didn’t care.
The sun was shining. His belly was full, stuffed with a bamboocha spam musubi given to him by Aunty Nora, the kind lady who lived near Hari’s convenience store. She often kept treats and snacks in the pockets of her big work apron and made like it was no big deal to hand them out to Jon whenever she saw him.
But it was a big deal.
It was the first meal Jon had eaten in two days.
The twins were younger and came first. Everyone knew that.
Walking along, Jon bopped to the song playing in his head. He often listened to music playing in ways only he could hear. He didn’t think about it much. Head-music was better than a radio whose batteries could die or some uncle or cousin’s off-key singing.
Plus head-music helped drown out all the voices he heard, voices no one else did.
It was the sound of a trombone slide, a sound that wasn’t music, not quite, but always came just before something bad happened.
His slippah broke.
Jon stopped and fished it out of the water. He inspected the damage: the post had pulled through. “Ah, man!” he said, “Now how I going walk home? Hot, you know, on the asphalt! I cannot hop all that way!”
“Grab the bread tie,” said a gravelly voice.
“What?” Jon looked around.
“The bread tie! The red one! It’s almost buried in the sand right next your other foot. Hurry!”
Jon snatched the u-shaped tie just before the white seafoam hid it forever. “Got ‘em!” he said.
“Great. Now push the post through the puka in the bottom of the shoe and slide the bread tie so it secures the post to the bottom.”
Jon fiddled a moment, then said, “Like this?” He gave the strap a tug. “Oh, I get it! It works! Wow! Mahalo…” he trailed off. “Eh, where you stay?”
Jon whirled around. “Where?”
“Down here,” said the voice.
Jon tilted his head down and stood there, mouth open and blinking hard. “Are you for real?”
“Of course. At least as real as you are.”
“But you’re a turtle,” Jon said.
“Yeah. The best folks are.”
Writing prompts: a turtle, a plastic bread tie, a trombone
This short was created on Jan. 14, 2021 for PEAU Women’s Writing Crew. More Lauele stories staring Jon to come!
Aloha, Gang! I’m heading home to Oahu for an extended stay, April through May 2021. While I’m planning on research, writing, and relaxing, I’d love to talk story with students, writing groups, bookstores, libraries, or community organizations.
Contact me at AuntyLehua@LehuaParker.com and we’ll find a time we can meet. A hui hou!
College Daughter: Mom! My anthropology professor wants to know the provenance of our poi pounder. What’s the story?
Me: (takes deep breath) Circa 2003, Waimea, Big Island, local craft fair. Composed of ceramic red clay with fake stone flocking.
Me: It’s not real. If it was, it would be 20 times heavier and in a museum. And the koa poi pounding board underneath?
Me: Acacia serving tray from Target. I bought it two years ago.
Me: Yeah. Sorry to pop that inheritance bubble.
#Didn’tyoueverpickitup? #holeinthebottom #fauxHawaiiana #Istilllikeit
When the college kids first moved back home, device chargers and cables started disappearing. I stomped around the house, ticked that I suddenly couldn’t plug in my phone or tablet while on the couch or in the kitchen or at any place I was used to.
There was much grumbling and stink-eye flying on my part and some non-committal shrugging from the rest of the adults in the house.
After a couple weeks of this, I didn’t have to look anymore. Great, I thought, people are leaving my stuff alone.
Nope. I found out this weekend that my husband has a hidden stash of chargers and cables. He’s been secretly replacing the ones that go missing before I realize they’re gone. For a YEAR. 🤣
#truelove #don’ttouchmystuff #HomeU #keepMomhappy