Talking Story

Pacific Literature

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In mid-June, I gave a three day workshop at University of Hawaii, Manoa, via Zoom about how to take traditional stories—Western fairy tales, Hawaiian mo’oleleo, Asian folktales, whatever—and turn them into something new.

We spent some time talking about simple vs. complex story structures, inner and outer character arcs, and how so many traditional stories are missing key story beats that western audiences expect because traditional stories were created for entirely different purposes.

One of my examples was Snow White, for the selfish reason that I was getting ready to write another novella for Tork Media as part of their Fractured Fairy Tales serials. It was due in completed form by mid-July. By mid-May, I’d done the research and had already pitched a couple ideas to my editor. I had a rough outline for my novella—as much of an outline as a pantster ever does—but I thought hearing a story pitch might be helpful for participants and lead into discussions about how publishers’, editors’, and agents’ ideas can shape a book, and how important it was to meet the audience’s expectations.

I also wanted participants to be fearless in giving and  getting critique, so I set myself up as the first victim, pitching two different Snow White stories.

I knew the first example I gave wasn’t an appropriate Snow White story for Tork Media’s target audience. It featured drugs, mental illness, dysfunctional family dynamics, and a main character that wasn’t Disney warm and fuzzy. Once the gang realized I was serious about critique, they had no trouble telling me that.

Whew, I thought. They got it.

The second story I pitched was much closer to Snow White. It involved a young hula dancer named Hua (Snow White), a jealous older dancer, Nini (Wicked Witch), a phony hula ratings app (Mirror), Menehune that helped the young dancer (Dwarfs), a toady male dancer named Renten (the Huntsman), and diabolical sabotages at a high school hula competition where Hua could be crowned with a majorly made-up hula title as the greatest and youngest ever—and the reason Nini was jealous.

This one wasn’t as deep as the drug story, but it better fit the target audience. I was about to turn the pitching session to their stories when somebody said, “I don’t like Hua. I think this should be Lilinoe’s story. We don’t hear much about her in the Niuhi Shark Saga. She disappears, and that’s too bad.”

Mic drop.

Lilinoe’s story.

What they didn’t know was book three of the Niuhi Shark Saga was supposed to be One Dance, No Drum. It was supposed to be Lilinoe’s story, and in many ways, it was supposed to parallel Zader’s. It was a hula story, too, fame vs. love of the dance, and it was how Lili reconnected with her biological mother’s family—they’d come to see her while she was preparing and competing for Miss Aloha Hula at Merrie Monarch. The seeds for this story are all through the Niuhi Shark Saga, particularly early editions before the books got cut from five to three.

Okay. If this is now Lilinoe as Snow White, that makes this Snow White story much higher stakes and a lot more interesting for me to write. But it can’t be Merrie Monarch; Lili’s too young.

Loooong story short, I fell into a deep hole full of research about hula lore and protocols. I started thinking about where this story fit into the Lauele timeline and realized dance, poetry, and music would be the way Lili would deal with her grief and anger over Zader’s death and Jay’s loss of his leg.

Lili’d be torn between wanting to be the dutiful daughter and listening to her newly discovered mother (who’d keep butting in because to her it’s all about winning), listening to Liz (her adopted mother/bio-aunt) and others with more traditional hula views, and Lili’s own heart’s desire to dance as catharsis. Liz would also have a few choice things to say (and do!) about Nancy suddenly wanting to be the mother.

And what would Lilinoe dance? Not something typical. Of course! She and her kumu hula would create new hula—‘auana and kahiko—plus mele and oli centered in Lauele that expressed herself.

Wait. NEW hula, mele, and oli?!!! All about Lauele, Zader, Jay, and ‘ohana? That worked on at least two kaona levels? I think I’m giving myself a heart attack.

We are now so far from Snow White, there’s no going back.

There’s also no time. If I have to write poetry and beg someone to translate at least part of it into proper Hawaiian, there’s no way I’m hitting a mid-July completion for publication date.

This isn’t novella length, either. It feels novel-ish.

Sigh.

But sometimes the muse rides hell for leather. Like an ocean wave, you have to go with the flow. This story is not going to be Snow White. It’s not going to be One Dance, No Drum, either. Guess I need to sit my pants in my chair and let the words flow.

I’m going to be as surprised as anyone to see Lilinoe’s story unfold.

But, really, telling your own story beats reworking a traditional story any day.

Ho’omakaukau.

Pā!

Published in 2011, Up Among the Stars is a continuation of Matthew Kaopio, Jr.’s novel Written in the Sky. I was excited to read it. I’ve loved Matthew’s books, and I wanted to know what happened to ‘Ikauikalani, the young homeless boy living in Ala Moana Park.

Up Among the Stars starts strong. ‘Ikaui is growing up and finding his place in the world. He’s got an ‘ohana that he looks out for, from Mom and Pops to Gladness for whom he does yard work. But being on your own is dangerous. There’s a skeebie guy who stalks ‘Ikaui, offering drugs and demanding unsavory favors. When Ala Moana Park is closed, the homeless scatter, and ‘Ikaui spends the night in a graveyard that morphs into wandering old O’ahu with a man who only speaks Hawaiian and calls himself ‘Ikauikalani.

There are tantalizing glimpses of the story’s amazing potential throughout the novel, but much of what is teased doesn’t come to fruition. The ending is rushed and confusing and would have benefited by good editing to help Matthew draw out story elements that were in Matthew’s head, but not yet on paper. Unfortunately, the latter third of the novel reads more like an author’s draft than a polished story.

My guess is that Matthew intended to write at least another ‘Ikauikalani novel, one that explored ‘Ikaui getting to know his blood ‘ohana, connecting more fully to his spiritual gifts, finding his voice as an advocate for Hawaiian culture, furthering his formal education at a place like Kamehameha, and continuing his spiritual classroom lessons with beings from all over the universe. ‘Ikaui was an extraordinary young man with an amazing destiny to fulfill.

Sadly, Matthew Kaopio Jr. died on December 25, 2018, having been in a care facility for several years. He carries ‘Ikauikalani and others with him into the land of dreams. Rest in peace, Matthew. A hui hou.

Up Among the Stars is published by Mutual Publishing and is available from Amazon in paperback.

 

 

I don’t know how I missed these books, but I am so glad I found them. Thanhha Lai’s writing is charming, funny, and oh, so real.

In Inside Out and Back Again, Thanhha pulls her readers into a fictional world based on her experiences as a child in Viet Nam, fleeting at the fall of Saigon, and emigrating to America.

In Listen, Slowly, Thanhha explores living in two worlds as a teen who has cultural and family roots in Viet Nam, but feels very American growing up in California.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Inside Out and Back Again went through many versions over many years as Thanhha experimented with different voices and styles. After starting with long, flowy passages that just didn’t seem like a 10 year old’s voice, and then moving to Hemmingway-ish close third-person, one day she started jotting down just how Ha, the 10 year old female protagonist, was feeling.

And that was powerful.

Told in free verse poetry, Inside Out and Back Again, shows the reader snapshots into the mind and heart of Ha during a single year, 1975-1976, a year where she and her family escape Viet Nam during the fall of Saigon, survive as boat people, and eventually settle in rural American. Through Ha’s eyes, we experience random acts of kindness, prejudice, fear, hope, longing, acceptance, and despair.  While told in English, the free verse poetry feels like lyrical, poetical forms of Vietnamese, blended with sucker punches of raw emotion. With Thanhha’s prose stripped down to the bare essentials, readers find space to fill in the gaps with their own experiences. The good, the bad, and the ugly are pitch-perfect of that time and of fourth grade politics. It’s a book that invites lots of discussion and deep thinking and, I hope, will inspire others to write their own tales. In the edition I read there was a lot of supplemental materials perfect for reading groups and the classroom.


 

Listen, Slowly, is about a second generation twelve year old Vietnamese girl growing up in California and reluctantly accompanying her grandmother back to Viet Nam one summer to learn more about what happened to her grandfather. It’s a classic insider/outsider story. Mai starts her journey with the goal of returning to Cali as soon as she can, but learns to love and appreciate her Vietanmese-ness and finds space within herself to bridge both worlds. Materialism, family obligations, roles in society, and worldviews are big themes. I think upper MG and YA readers will relate to Mai, and that can spark a lot of conversations about privilege, race, and what is owed.

Both books are available on Amazon and other fine bookstores. Go read ‘em, go read ‘em, go.

Lauele Fractured Folktales are here!

These newly imagined stories are loosely inspired by classic western fairy tales and told with a Hawaiian twist. First up are Pua’s Kiss and Rell’s Kiss. These stories will be available in eBook from Amazon and KU on January 8, 2020 and are published by Makena Press. Paperbacks will be available in February. Nani’s Kiss will be available in eBook in February, with paperback soon to follow.

In the future, I’m planning to write more Lauele Fractured Folktales based on the world’s oldest stories and told with a Hawaiian twist. What are some stories you’d like to see?

 


Pua’s Kiss is inspired by The Little Mermaid and tells the story of how Zader’s parents met. When you’re dating a Niuhi Shark in human form, there’s no such thing as a casual Hawaiian fling. It’s a prequel to the Niuhi Shark Saga trilogy, but it’s NOT for middle graders or elementary students. It’s a hard PG 13+ with a fade to black sex scene.

 

 

 

 


Rell’s Kiss. is inspired by Cinderella and tells the story of Rell Watanabe who is summoned to Lauele by her stepmonster and finds herself dealing with Menehune day laborers, Poliahu’s vacation rental, a desecrated ‘aumakua stone, and ‘Ilima as a not-so-fairy godmother. Rell never imagined her 18th birthday like this. The story takes place after the events in the Niuhi Shark Saga trilogy and is a sweet PG romance appropriate for all ages.

 

 

 

 


Nani’s Kiss is inspired by Sleeping Beauty and Beauty & the Beast. After discussing this story further with my editor, I decided to rework it significantly before publication. I’m hoping to release it in early February. The story takes place in the far future on the planet Hawaiki in the space port of Lauele Iki. It’s PG-13 for its mature themes of politics and violence, but PG in language and sex.

 

 

 

 


Lauele Fractured Folktales eBooks are currently only available on Amazon. More stores and formats coming soon.

Big Bad Chief Lino by L. Michelle Tago-Tu’itupou and illustrated by Ash Grover is an English language chapter book written to help kids connect with Samoan culture. Born and raised in American Samoa, Michelle first created this narrative as a bedtime story for her mainland-raised kids.

It’s a charming tale about four sisters with sick parents who have travel past scary Chief Lino to gather food. With echos of the classic Three Billy Goats Gruff, the sisters figure out how to face their fears to take care of their family and community. As in Samoan culture, ‘aiga is the heart of the story, and it solidly deliverers a message of compassion, interdependence, and inclusion.

Just like its original form, Big Bad Chief Lino is a perfect bedtime story. The illustrations by Ash Grover are fun and playful and help bring the characters and action to life. In her afterward, L. Michelle Tago-Tu’itupou says she plans to write more stories like this one so that island kids can see themselves in literature.

Can’t wait.

Big Bad Chief Lino by L. Michelle Tago-Tu’itupou and illustrated by Ash Grover is available in paperback from Amazon.

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 Moanawhich 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.

A Song for the Stars by Ilima Todd is published by Shadow Mountain and is available in eBook, paperback, hardback, library binding, and audiobook from Amazon and other purveyors of fine books.

‘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.”

But.

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.

Here’s da ting: according to Lee A. Tonouchi, “People BORN Pidgin, gotta be free for LIVE Pidgin.”

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.

Fo’real.

Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture by Lee A. Tonouchi is available in paperback from Amazon.

From the first page, I felt like I was back on Maui.

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.

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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.