Under the Bed was the first story I wrote when I was thinking about writing fiction again. Back in 2009, my sister Soozy challenged me to enter a local newspaper’s Halloween short story contest. She said write something that’s true, but nobody believes. Called Sniff, it was about a mainland boy who has something under his bed, a something with an overdeveloped sense of smell that likes sweet things and hates stinky things. It was for an adult audience, and the underlying theme was about how busy parents miss important things going on with their kids, and if they aren’t careful, Bad Things Happen.
Sniff won a nice steak dinner for me and my husband and reminded me that I like telling stories. It led to me reaching out to the local writing community and eventually writing and publishing fiction again.
Over the years, I’ve dusted this story off and rewritten it multiple times, changing the location to Hawaii and adding more story. I even submitted a version to Bamboo Ridge a couple of years ago, but no dice.
Last June, I found it again. I had the idea to write some island-style books for kids 9-14 or so, quick reads that had elements of Hawaiian-kine ghost stories and adventures similar to Goosebumps, but with more bite. I figured I’d call the series Lauele Chicken Skin Stories and set them in my imaginary area of ‘Oahu called Lauele. I had a bunch of scary stories that I’d written and published years ago and now had the publishing rights back. In my head, it wouldn’t be too hard to create new versions of these stories and roll them out pretty quickly.
The first one was going to be Under the Bed. It has a great cover. It should have gone to print in early September and been in readers’ hands by now, just in time for Halloween.
I have an editor I work with. He’s a genius who knows more about story structure than most editors twice his age. And he really hated Under the Bed. He wasn’t shy about telling me why. He said the ending sucked, that I broke the promises I made with the reader in the beginning and the payoff isn’t there. He said it also hit all his hot buttons—a kid neglected by his parents who dies in the end. The more I explained, the more he just rolled his eyes and said, “Who is your audience?”
To prove him wrong, I sent it out to a few beta readers. They really liked it. Then I gave it away in ebook form at different conventions and tracked follow-on sales and comments.
There were no sales that went from Under the Bed to any of my other works that I could track.
Bummahs to the max.
Stupid genius editor was right. The story doesn’t work. I took off my author’s hat and put on my own editor’s hat and started reworking the story, trying to figure out what was missing.
Halting publication of Under the Bed derailed my entire schedule for the rest of the year, but it had to be done. If your first impression sucks, no way a reader is going to pick up any other book in your series.
I was stewing about what to do when I attended Utah Valley University’s Book Academy last week. I’d given a presentation about establishing resonance with your audience through the story’s setting and then hung around for some of the other presentations. Lisa Mangum, a powerhouse of an editor and conference speaker, gave a presentation, Endings That Don’t Suck.
A light bulb went off.
The people who liked Under the Bed were all adults. They were also probably more excited about the Pidgin and other local aspects than the actual story.
But the new intended target was kids, and they were going to hate it. Kona needs to be the hero, not the victim. Kids already know that adults are clueless. They need to see a kid overcome adversity—and win. I needed to completely gut the story and start over. The only things that could stay were the monster under the bed and the desire Kona has to protect his family.
I don’t know when this work is going to be ready for publication. I have to leave Under the Bed for a while to write other works under contract.
But never fear, Constant Reader. New works are coming. In addition to the Lauele Chicken Skin Stories, I have three reimagined Western fairy tales that are almost ready to publish under Lauele Fractured Folktales. And audio books of the Niuhi Shark Saga are in the works, too.
It’s just taking a lot longer than I planned.
But I think you’ll find the wait was worth it.
A Song for the Stars by Ilima Todd is set in Hawai’i in 1779 at the time of Captain James Cook. It tells a fictional story of John Harbottle, an English officer serving as the Hawaiian translator for Cook, and Maile, the second daughter of Kalani, the ruling chief. When Cook and his ships return unexpectedly to Hawai’i, important navigational instruments and maps are stolen. There’s a battle on the beach, and lives are lost on both sides. Against her better judgement, Maile first nurses, then teaches John ancient Hawaiian wayfinding techniques to help the British sailors return home. Meanwhile, John’s men teach Kalani and his warriors how to fight with western guns to defend their village from an imminent attack from Wai’ole, an island to the south.
If your head is spinning, chillax. It’s historical romance, not a history book. Ilima takes several liberties with the historical timeline, geography, and Hawaiian cultural protocols to tell a story that appeals to both a Hawaiian and mainland audience. It’s a “what if” story with roots in Ilima’s own family history. The real John Harbottle was instrumental to Kamehameha I in 1795 during the Battle of Nu’uanu on ‘Oahu, an event more than 15 years in the future from Cook’s landing in 1779. In gratitude, Harbottle was gifted a high-ranking bride. A descendant of the real John Harbottle and his high chiefess wife Papapaunauapu, Ilima wanted to explore what it would be like to be “given” to a foreigner in marriage. While her original “what if” idea and family history are the genesis of her novel, the book’s themes and plot stretch well beyond those initial inspirations.
Ilima breaks with the historical record in ways only someone who has studied Hawaiian culture and history will catch. Foremost in her mind was her audience. A Song for the Stars is part of Shadow Mountain’s Proper Romance series and is marketed to regency romance readers who expect a specific kind of story–and Ilima delivers. Maile, her heroine is strong, independent, and capable. John is honest, forthright, and tender. It’s a story of equals from different cultures that deftly avoids the noble savage and white savior tropes so common in cross-culture stories. We see the main story from Maile’s point of view interspersed with John’s point of view from excepts from his journal, a technique that helps the reader appreciate the deeper cultural consequences of the characters’ actions.
Many reviewers compare A Song for the Stars with Moana, which I understand, but find extremely frustrating because the stories aren’t similar at all. The comparison points to the dearth of authentic stories about Polynesians in mainstream media. We need more books that challenge expectations, more island voices redefining Pacific Literature for modern audiences. Mahalo, Ilima, for blazing a new path. I mua! Can’t wait for the next one.
‘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.