‘Aumakua whisper in my ear.
I want to ride the lightning.
In the shower this morning, an entire story burst into my head. It’s a post-apocalyptic tale set in Hawaii and told from the perspective of a young local girl who learns to survive through traditional Hawaiian ways as taught by her grandfather. She’ll have to be very, very clever.
I think it’s partially Mauna Kea on my mind.
Before we can create the world we want to live in, we have to first imagine it, and then believe it’s possible. That’s the power of story. It seeps into subconscious cracks. Without saying it baldly, a story like this says, “Of course, Hawaiians thrive in the future, and their culture flourishes. Duh! A return to internalizing traditional values can help heal the world.”
There is always a but.
So much else to do today. Deadlines are looming on other projects. I just…can’t.
But I see you, little one, standing in the shadows, with your puka shirt and “Wot? I owe you money?” look in your eye. You have a lot to tell me.
I want to listen and talk story with you.
Soon, titah. Promise.
I’m so excited to add these books to my collection. They are the same book with two different covers in two different languages: Hawaiian and English.
Published by Awaiaulu Press, the English edition is The Epic Tale of Hi’iakaikapoliopele as told by Ho’oulumahienhie and translated by M. Puakea Nagelmeien. The Hawaiian edition is Ka Mo’olelo o Hi’iakaikapoliopele.
This ancient saga details the quest of Pele’s younger sister, Hi’iakaikapoliopele, to find the handsome Lohi’auipo and bring him back to their crater home. Graced with a magical skirt and wielding supernatural powers, Hi’iaka and her companions make their way through dangers and ordeals, facing spectral foes and worldly wiles. It is a very human account of love and lust, jealousy and justice, peopled with deities, demons, chiefs and commoners. It highlights Hi’iaka’s role as a healer, source of inspiration, and icon of the hula traditions that embody the chants and dances of Pele and Hi’iaka. At over 500 pages, this is the most extensive form of the story every documented, offering a wealth of detail and insights about the social and religious practices, poetry and hula, the healing arts, and many other Hawaiian customs.
Did I mention the illustrations? Fabulous.
One day I hope to be able to flip easily between the two, but that day is a looooong way off.
In my office are shelves full of books I cannot read yet. I buy them because I think it’s important to support native language books. If we believe that language and is life and that written words connect generations, then we need to support these kinds of efforts in ways beyond good thoughts and well-wishes.
You want more diverse books, characters, films, music, art? Then support the arts in all forms. Go to local plays, concerts, art shows, books signings, film festivals, and kokua as you can. Simply leaving a positive review or spreading the word does more good than people realize.
The world’s a better place with many voices telling their stories. Let’s amplify and pass the mic.
First published in Japan in 2000, Go reminded me a little of Cather in the Rye, Romeo and Juliet, and A Separate Peace. There’s that same earnest yearning in the protagonist for things to be different, for the world to change, and the same youthful expectation that he will be the one to change it. There’s also a fatalistic, melancholy undertone that no matter how hard the protagonist tries, he’s not going to win.
But that’s probably my interpretation as someone well past her teens. The youth are fearless. It’s a coming of age novel after all.
The Japanese to English translation by Takami Nieda is good. Go won a Naoki Literature Prize, high praise indeed. It’s a story about racial tensions, belonging, forbidden love, social class, nationality, and generational connections. Everything pointed to a story I’d love, except…
I liked it, but I wasn’t as thrilled as I thought I’d be.
Not all stories speak to all readers. I think I wanted more from this story–more deliberate action and growth in the protagonist and less angst. Maybe a more even tone–something that was consistently funny or serious. But what I wanted might not have been appropriate for this kind of Japanese literature. Given how beloved this book is in its native Japan, I’m sure the fault is in me.
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.