Talking Story

Am Writing

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.

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!)

  • 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.

Bbbbbbpppphtttt!

It was the sound of a trombone slide, a sound that wasn’t music, not quite, but always came just before something bad happened.

POP!

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?”

“Behind you.”

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!

I’ve spent too much time today watching Bollywood dance sequences for a sangeet ceremony that’s a two second scene in my Hawaiians (and Hindus) in space story. It’s probably a good thing YouTube wasn’t around when my friends were popping and locking in high school. And Bhangra? Not much like hula, but… 🤣

Writing is like deep-sea diving. You spend a lot of time preparing and planning. There’s specialized gear and uncommon knowledge to acquire, some kiddie pool practice before venturing out into the open ocean, and a lot of effort to travel to new and unexplored dive sites.

Immersed in an alien macrocosm, time’s suddenly up, and you have to leave long before you’re ready. Before transitioning to surface world, you must decompress–otherwise Very Bad Things can happen.

On even the most routine dives, there’s always something unexpected, be it creature, human, weather, or something technically challenging. When you’re not diving, you’re dreaming about it and planning the next trip.

Yeah, writing is like diving to me. Which writing analogies resonate with you?

#amwriting #divingdeep #hawaiiansinspace #timeforadivetrip

While I try to trick myself into outlining, at my core I’m really a discovery writer flying by the seat of my pants. I’ve been working on what I call my “Hawaiians in Space” story for a few years now.

An early version was published in a fractured fairy tales collection, but honestly, that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell and not surprisingly, it wiffed on hitting the publisher’s target audience of Hallmark-loving romance readers. I tend to take traditional tales too far out of expectations for readers who love the predictability of those kinds of stories. I don’t like to color in the lines.

In rewrites I’ve untethered the story from it’s fairy tale roots, but it’s still not working.

Today I’ve rolled up my editing sleeves and am doing a full breakdown–character analysis, story beats, conflicts–the whole space enchilada that I never thought I had to do because–hello–it’s my story and I have it all in my head.

Yeah. Problem. That’s not what’s on the page. 🙄 Finding holes, plugging leaks, and hoping the third time’s the charm.

#amWriting #HawaiiansinSpace #ItsGoingToBeAThing

 

Sign up for

Talking Story Newsletter

and receive free Lauele Universe bonus material and tips from the Lehua Writing Academy.

Click here to go to
The Niuhi Shark Website.

Get the Books

Amazon
Barnes & Noble

When you’re allergic to water,
growing up in Hawaii
isn’t always paradise.

With Niuhi sharks,
even out of the water,
you’re not safe.

Everything you thought you knew
about Zader is a  lie.