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.
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.
Mark Panek’s Big Happiness tells the true story of Hawaiian sumo wrestler Percy Kipapa and his tragic murder on May 16, 2005. On the surface, the investigative journalism narrative reads as a mystery, a meditation on what it means to be a modern Hawaiian, and a commentary on the ice epidemic and the tangled Yakuza-Hawaii webs of commerce, money, and prestige. It’s compelling and raw. Knowing one of the key participants personally, I found it both hard to read and tough to put down.
You see, it’s also the story of one of my childhood calabash cousins, Tyler Hopkins.
After I left Hawaii for the mainland, Tyler went to Japan and became best friends with Percy. According to the Mark Panek, who knew the adult Tyler in ways I didn’t, Tyler’s life paralleled Percy’s in every significant way. Big Happiness details how they rose to become professional Hawaiian sumo wrestlers in Japan and what happened after they retired and returned to Hawaii.
I remember when Tyler was first going to Japan. He told me about it at my wedding reception at Mid-Pac Country Club thirty-one years ago, the last time I saw him in person. He was happy, and the extended ‘ohana was excited. Sumo was something my big-hearted and athletic cousin was sure to succeed at. His future was assured. Good for him!
Tyler’s sumo name was Sunahama. Living far from Japan and Hawaii before the age of internet video, it was hard for me to follow his career. Over the years, whenever I met up with my calabash Hawaiian ‘ohana, I asked aunties, uncles, and cousins for updates. Each time I was told he was doing well—first climbing the sumo ranks and then retired and working in Hawaii. Tyler was always on the verge of doing something—tourism with Japanese groups, teaching Japanese, finding his groove as a school counselor, or starting a new business venture.
In Big Happiness, Mark Panek paints a different picture.
I knew to be a foreign sumo wrestler in Japan would be rough. I knew the pressures local kids face to “make good.” I knew how the ideals of sacrifice of self for a greater good—however that’s defined—were ingrained in Tyler. Suck it up was something our uncles told us all the time, and it applied to everything from wiping out on a wave and spitting sand to breaking a bone playing baseball to studying hard in school when playing seemed more fun to never, ever failing to be loyal to ‘ohana no matter what the personal cost.
I even suspected how the Yakuza would be involved.
But what I didn’t understand was ice. Or how much that changed Hawaii in the years after I left. I also didn’t think too deeply about how few opportunities Tyler would have had once he returned to Hawaii. Unlike Japan, there aren’t cushy jobs in corporate America waiting for retired sumo wrestlers.
I’m old enough to know that there really wasn’t anything I could’ve done to help Tyler. But my heart hurts when I remember the kid I had to swim out and rescue when his raft went out too far at Waimanalo Beach or the time we made homemade pizza and Tyler complained I added too much cheese. “No such thing,” I said. “Yeah,” he said, rubbing his opu and the scar he got when he fell through a glass shower door and almost died, “there is.”
But mostly, I can see all too clearly a moment Mark Panek describes during the trial where Tyler almost snaps. I thank God that Mark intervened.
Big Happiness by Mark Panek is available as a paperback and eBook from Amazon. For anyone wanting an insider’s view of sumo wrestling or the life of local boys in Hawaii, this book is a must read. Compelling, real, and full of heart and tragedy, it’s a story of sacrifice, privileges of race and class, and the devastating effects of ice and all the vested interests in keeping the status quo.
Matthew Kaopio’s Written in the Sky is one of those rare books told from a kid’s perspective that’s not for kids. It’s raw and real, and certainly true to the experiences of many homeless kids in Hawaii, but it’s not one I’d give to a kid the age of ‘Ikauikalani, the abandoned Hawaiian kid at the center of the story. The language is coarse, the action violent, and the circumstances bleak. But for anyone high school or older, it’s a must read in the cannon of Pacific Literature.
Written in the Sky tells the story of ‘Ikauikalani, a middle grader who is adrift after the death of his grandmother. Through ‘Ikaui’s daily experiences, we see firsthand the effects of mental illness, drug abuse, bullying, and dispossession faced by the homeless living in Ala Moana Park. We see how ‘Ikaui struggles to eat, keep clean, and fill his days. There’s real physical danger of death as well as a fear of spiritual death if ‘Ikaui’s swept up by social services. But in the middle of a survive or die situation, there are remarkable moments of grace that allow ‘Ikaui to thrive, to choose to be someone who helps instead of hordes, and to ultimately create a family—an ‘ohana in the truest sense—where there were once only strangers in Ala Moana Park. The kindness of college students, fast food workers, guardian angels, and others allow ‘Ikaui to discover who he is, connect his amazing gifts with his ancestral past, and heal generational wounds.
It’s a book that can be read on many levels. To say it’s about kindness triumphing over evil dilutes what I think is the real message at the heart of the story. I loved the way traditional Hawaiian culture and values were woven into the narrative.
For me, the one jarring element was the Indian guest lecturer who gives ‘Ikaui insight into his gifts. While I appreciate the pan-world, indigenous peoples, we-are-all-one perspective, I would’ve have liked to have seen this insight come from a kupuna. It’s a small rub in a beautifully paced novel and doesn’t really distract from the overall story. However, it’s an odd choice that rings true, and I wonder if the author based some of this novel on his own experiences or on people he knows.
Written in the Sky by Matthew Kaopio is available in paperback and eBook from Amazon. If you love Hawaii and Hawaiian literature, this is an exceptional book.
The 19th Biennial Conference on Literature and Hawai’i’s Children takes place June 7-9 at Chaminade University in Honolulu, Hawaii. I’ll be hosting two workshops–one specifically for teens–all about writing fiction in authentic Pacifica voices and answering questions about traditional and self publishing.
On Thursday, June 7 at 7 pm, the Honolulu Theater for Youth will be performing excerpts from works by Lee Cataluna, Patrick Ching, and Lehua Parker. The performances are also FREE, but you need tickets. (Link below)
The conference is FREE for all attendees, but you have to register. Teens will need parental/guardian permission to participate. (Link below)
Hope to see you there! Be sure to come by and talk story with me!
I’m five years old, laying on the carpet in our living room in Kahului, Maui. Evening trade winds tiptoe through the lanai door, bathing the house with the scent of Mom’s gardenia and naupaka bushes. On top the tv, an animated Santa Claus dances with a big red sack, singing about ashes and soot. My eyes dart to the flimsy cardboard cutout of a fireplace and chimney taped to the wall next to the Christmas tree. Panic bubbles. I can’t breathe.
He doesn’t even look up from the Honolulu Star Bulletin. “What?”
“How does Santa Claus come into the house?”
“Down da chimney, lolo. You deaf or wot? Jes’ listen to da song.” He turns a page.
I bite my lip. I have to know. “But Dad, Mom bought our chimney at Long’s. It doesn’t connect to the roof. Plus we no more snow! How da reindeer gonna land da sleigh on top da roof if no get snow?”
He flicks the edge of the newspaper down and peers at me. He shakes his head. “Moemoe time, Lehua. You need your rest.”
Tears well. No Santa. No presents. So unfair. Mainland kids get all the good stuffs. I try again. “Dad, fo’reals. Is Santa going skip us?”
Dad presses his lips tight and gives me small kine stink eye. He clears his throat and looks around the room. When he spocks the lanai door, his eyes light up. “You ever seen a house in Hawaii with no more sliding door?”
He nods. “Maika‘i. Every house get sliding doors. Das because in Hawai‘i, Santa comes through the lani door instead of down the chimney. In Hawai‘i we invite our guests into our homes like civilized people. We no make dem sneak in like one thief.”
I tip my head to the side, thinking. “But what about da reindeer?”
Dad clicks his tongue. “Da buggahs magic, yeah? They no need land. They just hover in the backyard and wait for Santa fo’ come back. Mebbe snack on da banana trees. Now go to bed!”
It’s not the first time I have to perform mental gymnastics to bridge what I see in movies, tv, and books with my oh, so different reality, but it’s one of the most memorable. At school the teachers try to prep us for mandatory standardized testing, tests we island kids consistently score lower on than our mainland peers.
“Class, what does it mean if the trees have no leaves?” Ms. Yamaguchi asks. “Lehua?”
“Uh, da trees stay make die dead?” I say. “Dey nevah get enough water?”
“No! It means it’s winter! The correct answer is winter! Coodesh! Pay attention. You kids trying fo’ fail?”
It would be many years later, when I am in college in Utah and walking through a virgin snowfall along a wooded path that I finally understand the imagery and symbolism in Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” in ways more profound than no leaves equals cold equals winter.
Which brings me, finally, to my point.
We need diversity in literature. Kids need access to stories that resonate with their experiences, that are full of people they know and love, that show themselves—their fully authentic selves—as powerful, valued, and real. We need Pacific voices raised in song, dance, print, film, tv—all forms of media, some not even invented yet.
I remember the profound impact of hearing Andy Bumatai, Frank Delima, and Rap Reiplinger on the radio. Hawaiian music, for sure, all the time, but spoken words, Pidgin words, so fast and funny, just like Steve Martin and Bill Cosby! To this day, my old fut classmates and I can still recite all the words to “Room Service” and “Fate Yanagi.”
And finally, I find them. Words on paper, in libraries, in books. Stories by Graham Salisbury, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Darrell H. Y. Lum, Kiana Davenport, and Lee Tonouchi open my eyes to the possibility of using my history and experiences, my voice, to tell stories to an audience that didn’t need long explanations about why whistling in the dark is not a good thing, that a honi from Tutu was a given, or that wearing shoes in the house is the ultimate outsider insult.
I could write stories where the burden to bridge is on the mainland, not the islands. I could write stories for kids in Waimanalo, Kona, Hana, Lihue.
But there’s a catch. The reality is that there are many more readers outside of Hawai‘i nei than in it. Books for niche audiences are a tough sell for traditional publishers who are driven by the bottom line. And while self-publishing or small press publishing is viable for genres like romance, thrillers, and sci-fi, it’s next to impossible for middle grade and young adult books who need the vast marketing channels of a traditional publisher to reach schools and libraries.
I try not to let that matter.
On the mainland, I tell people my books are not for everyone. If you don’t know the difference between mauka and makai, you’re probably going to struggle a bit with the language. You’ll miss a lot of the in-jokes and clues as to what’s really going on with the characters and plot. You’ll have to work a lot harder.
But it will be worth it.
Note: Tales From Pasifika is a website dedicated to reviewing stories that explore Polynesian and Oceanic cultures and themes. If you’re looking for a good book that fits into the Pacific-Lit category, this is the place. The following is an excerpt from their review of Rell Goes Hawaiian, one of the five novellas in the Fractured Beauty boxed set. To see the full review, click here.
Tales From Pasifika Review
When Rell comes to Hawaii with her stepmother, Regina, and two bratty and more-than-annoying stepsisters, she realizes it isn’t to celebrate her 18thbirthday. Instead of having fun, she needs to sign papers, take care of her stepsiblings, and do whatever Regina tells her to do.
The girl’s life changes immeasurably when her stepsisters push the sacred aumakua stone into the saltwater pool at Piko Point. Suddenly, with a little help from a special wagging friend, Rell gets more that she has ever wished for.
A contemporary ‘Cinderella’ story set in tropical Hawaii? Why not! You would think that this clichéd theme couldn’t result in anything interesting. After all, we all know how the tale goes. But in this case, you may get slightly surprised.
First and foremost, this novella takes readers back to Lauele Town, so well-known from Lehua Parker’s Niuhi Shark Saga. You get the chance to catch up with the old characters – uncle Kahana, Ilima, Jerry Santos, Tuna to name a few – and get to know them better or see them in a different light. Bringing back individuals from previous novels is always a treat for loyal fans. Especially if the author makes sure to further develop their storylines or add some extra layers to their personalities. What has Jerry, the surfer who witnessed Jay’s accident in the ocean, been doing? Is uncle Kahana still the guiding spirit of local community? And what about Ilima? Could she act as a fairy godmother? Obviously, she could (in Lauele Town, anything is possible), but don’t expect her to be that I-am-here-to-make-your-dreams-come-true type of a godparent. She has her own hidden agenda. Plus, with four legs and a tail she just couldn’t be your ordinary fairy, could she?
Along with the old characters, a few new ones make an appearance. Typically for a fairy tale, there are heroes and villains – and in this case it is not hard to guess who is who. Rell and Regina, the two new introductions and main characters in this story, are plausible and decently crafted, but perhaps too obvious as ‘symbols’; they lack a little bit of substance. But let’s bear in mind this is a novella, so not everything can be achieved.
Now, while the overall plot is somewhat predictable, the specific scenes are not. There are quite a few surprises thrown in, and I have to say they really keep things interesting. Even though you can foresee the ending, you are not able to guess the sequence of events that lead to it. Add to this a tropical island setting, traditional Hawaiian folklore, and a Polynesian vibe, and you get the best Cinderella tale possible.
Reading this story is a pure pleasure. It is a very engaging and even more enjoyable piece of literature, chock-full of Aloha spirit and effortless wisdom, which make it perfect for children and adults alike. So visit Lauele Town; I promise, you won’t regret doing so.
Mahalo, Tales From Pasifika! You can find Rell Goes Hawaiian in Fractured Slipper on Amazon. More in the Fractured Series by Fairy Tale Ink coming soon.
Note: Tales From Pasifika is a website dedicated to reviewing stories that explore Polynesian and Oceanic cultures and themes. If you’re looking for a good book that fits into the Pacific-Lit category, this is the place. The following is an excerpt from their review of Nani’s Kiss, one of the five novellas in the Fractured Beauty boxed set. To see the full review, click here.
Tales From Pasifika Review
Nani has always known that one day she will marry Arjun. Even though she doesn’t know him very well, even though she is not sure she really loves him, she understands this is her destiny. Their parents arranged it a long time ago and Nani must fulfill their wishes. If only it was so simple. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
Arjun is dying. Since he collapsed, he has been locked in stasis in a medi-mod. What if he doesn’t survive? What will happen to their future? Risking everything, Nani is desperate to bring her fiancé back to life.
Is it possible to write a futuristic story anchored in traditional cultures? You have to admit, it is no mean feat. Lehua Parker dared try to do just that. And I think it’s safe to say she has succeeded.
‘Nani’s Kiss’ is a sci-fiction version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (only the beast is not who you expect it is), which takes from Hawaiian and Indian cultures. It’s a rather unusual mix and one that can be easily ruined. But Lehua Parker managed to keep the right proportions of all the elements, thanks to which the novella makes an interesting read.
The storyline engages the reader right from the beginning, and as it evolves you become more and more curious as to what will happen next. The unforeseen twists and turns keep you riveted and don’t let you get bored even for a short while. However, they also require your undivided attention.
I have to warn you that this novella is not the easiest to read. If you want to follow the plot, you really have to concentrate on the words. There are a lot of fictional names of characters and places you may simply have trouble keeping in mind. They make the story slightly confusing, which for some readers may be a minor put off.
The characters themselves are incredibly well-built for such a short tale. They are believable, and we must remember that the novella takes place in the future, and easy to relate to. With their hopes, dreams, and fears, they are like ordinary human beings. And despite the fact that their backgrounds are not as clearly shown as we would all want, you get the feeling that you know their past quite well.
Now, although the story isn’t set in Hawaii, the local customs and practices are very noticeable. Especially the tradition of tattooing. But forget about permanent drawings here. In the world the author has created, nano-bot tattoos appear and then dissolve, only to reappear on a different part of a person’s body. The images they form reveal the intimate secrets of one’s heart and soul, and for a novice are impossible to hide.
The idea – a brilliant idea – of giving a futuristic twist to one of the oldest Polynesian traditions shows how the past can connect with the future. It also reminds us that some things in life should never be forgotten.
‘Nani’s Kiss’ is without a doubt a very interesting novella. The concept is truly fascinating, so I am positive you won’t feel let down when you give it a try. I definitely recommend it!
Mahalo nui nui, Tales From Pasifika! You can find Nani’s Kiss in Fractured Beauty on Amazon. More in the Fractured Series by Fairy Tale Ink coming soon.
Ilima, everyone’s favorite dog who isn’t a dog, is back in a new adventure!
In Rell Goes Hawaiian, you’ll catch up with Ilima, Uncle Kahana, Jerry Santos, and other characters from The Niuhi Shark Saga in a newly imagined version of Cinderella.
When Rell Watanabe is summoned from the mainland by her stepmonster Regina to Poliahu’s estate in upcountry Lauele, Hawaii, she should’ve known it wasn’t to celebrate her birthday. Despite Jerry Santo’s aloha hospitality, being in paradise isn’t all fun in the sun. Rell spends her birthday signing papers, taking care of her bratty stepsisters, and preparing for a big auction to benefit the International Abilities Surf Camp sponsored by Jay Westin and Nili-boy.
After Rell’s wicked stepsisters push the sacred aumakua stone Pohaku into the big saltwater pool at Piko Point, things rapidly fall apart. Banned from attending the auction, Rell wishes on a star and gets waaaaay more than she bargained for when Ilima shows up to settle a score.
Things take a sinister turn when Rell discovers the real reason Regina is sponsoring the auction and her plans for Rell’s family land in Lauele. It’s going to take more than Ilima’s bibbitty-bobbity-boo to make things right—but don’t call ever call Ilima a fairy godmother.
Rell Goes Hawaiian is a magical realism story where the supernatural and the ordinary live side-by-side. Menehune and other Hawaiian legends of gods and goddess walk Lauele Town. Don’t blink or you’ll miss them.
Rell Goes Hawaiian is a novella included in Fractured Slipper, a boxed set of 5 Cinderella novellas by award-winning and best-selling authors. Fractured Slipper is Book 2 in the Fairy Talk Ink series.
Until January 18, 2018, you can pre-order the eBook of Fractured Slipper for only 99 cents!
Fairy Tale Ink Series
Includes Nani’s Kiss, a tale of Polynesians in space.
Includes: Rell Goes Hawaiian, a Lauele Town Novella