It’s Disney’s Moana. That’s really what it comes down to.
A couple of years ago, when Disney announced that in the tradition of Aladdin, Mulan, Pocahontas, and Frozen, they were bringing to the screen Moana, a Polynesian princess tale, I was excited. When I learned that the story involved the demi-god Maui and ocean voyaging, I thought here was a movie I could take my kids to where we could talk about ancestral knowledge and what it means to be a literal descendant of the historical Maui and his sons.
And then I saw the trailers. Maui didn’t look anything like what I imagined the real Maui looked like—frankly, he didn’t even look human. And he was kind of an egotistical jerk. And a buffoon. And what was up with the nonsensical bits of crap around his neck and the random leaves for a malo? None of the sets and costumes seemed to belong to any particular island culture. I saw elements of Maori, Samoan, Tongan, and Fijian cultures—and precious little that was clearly Hawaiian. It was like someone had taken Pasifika and mashed it into a blender and—
Moana is no more an authentic reflection of Polynesian culture than Mulan reflects China, Aladdin reflects Arabia, Pocahontas reflects Powhatans, or Frozen reflects Scandinavia. All of these stories are set in an alternate world—let’s call it Disneyland—that borrows heavily from real-world cultures to tell very classically western stories in the archetypical hero’s journey or mono-myth form. These stories follow specific patterns that start with a call to adventure, followed by an ordeal, a transformation, and an eventual return.
Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Lion King, and Disney Princess movies like Moana and Frozen all follow the same basic hero’s journey storyline. Like most mono-myth stories, they are set in a world that is similar to, but slightly askew from the real world. Sometimes this new world has magic or talking animals or objects that are cursed. Most of the time the audience simply goes along with the fantastical elements because they are part of this kind of story tradition. Do we really know how the Force works or if House Elves exist? No. And when the goal is entertainment, it doesn’t really matter.
That’s another key: entertainment. As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, children and adults go to these kinds of movies to be entertained, not educated. Disney knows this.
The unfortunate disconnect was that so many people with deep Oceania roots wanted something different, something that was an authentic reflection of indigenous island culture and storytelling. What we got instead was a western pop-culture mono-myth story set in Disneyland’s Polynesia. It’s like going to a luau and being served rice and teriyaki chicken instead of kalua pork and poi—really disappointing, I know.
I still took my kids to see Moana.
I thought the story was amazing, even through it’s not Polynesian in form or content. I liked that Moana’s gender wasn’t a limiting factor when it came to being a leader, solving problems, or persevering when it was easier to quit. I liked the ideas about the importance of self-sacrifice for a greater good, the love and influence of family that stretches beyond this mortal plane, and the conflict between following your heart and fulfilling what you think is your destiny.
Above all, I liked the way the ocean was animated. The colors, shadows, currents—all beautifully articulated. And while the voyaging canoes didn’t look very much like the great wa‘a I knew, my heart did leap to see them soar across the ocean. I loved the brief moments about wayfinding by stars, currents, water temperature, and marine life.
Moana did start conversations with my kids.
We talked about the elements in the architecture, traditions, clothing, etc., and which island’s cultures probably sparked the designs. We talked about the great trade routes, ocean currents, social and political factors, and migration patterns that settled Polynesia from Asia and the Americas and back again, and how new genetic evidence is proving that ancient people traveled farther and more frequently than we realized.
Well, than western scholars realized. In Pasifika we have our own stories, genealogies, and histories. More on this in another article.
But the most important things my kids and I discussed were the concept of stories. It’s very simple.
Our stories define us. Moana is not my story; it’s Disney’s. It doesn’t define my Hawaiian heritage any more than Frozen defined my Scandinavian ancestors. Nothing Disney does defines me or changes one iota of who I am.
Despite all the uproar over cultural appropriation, I think the average person knows Moana is set in Disneyland—not living, breathing Oceania. Cultural appropriation is not a western thing; it’s a human thing. I’ve experienced it all over the world. Every culture in contact with another borrows what appeals. Like Tamatoa the crab says in Moana, it’s glam, it’s shiny, so I’m going to stick it on my shell and make it a part of me.
The big take away is this: If we do not write our own stories, we cannot be surprised when outsiders attempt to write them. With no other voices in popular culture, these stories become the truth for the majority, and we soon find ourselves living in a world enamored with Bobby Brady’s tiki curse, hip-hop hula, and coconut bras.
If we want to change the popular cultural narrative about what it means to be Hawaiian, Samoan, Maori—we need to tell our own stories in our own voices. It means supporting our Pasifika artists, musicians, dancers, and writers with more than our applause and appreciation.
Otherwise only those with Disneyland resources will fill the void—and the narrative—with what appeals to the masses.
So humbled and honored that One Truth, No Lie, book three in the Niuhi Shark Saga, is a 2016 Whitney Award Nominee. Mahalo nui loa to all the readers who nominated it.
When it comes to electing the President of The United States, your vote doesn’t matter.
Growing up in Hawaii, this point was hammered home every election year when the new president thanked his supporters hours before our polls closed.
Just think about that for a second. In Hawaii, you heard both the concession and victory speeches in your car on the way to the polls. It’s tough to get fired up about choosing a president when you know your candidate will win or lose regardless of your support.
Americans tend to think our federal government is a simple democracy; it’s not. It’s a constitutional republic with an electoral college. Not all votes have the same weight. Statistically, your single vote does nothing to elect a president. Maybe the reason American voter turnout is so low has less to do with apathy and more with a growing sense of futility.
But here’s how your vote does matter.
In a Presidential election, you fulfill your civic duty by voting. It’s a responsibility you accept as a US Citizen. When it comes to civic duty, for whom you vote isn’t nearly as important as the act itself.
For this reason, I believe voting in a presidential election is less about electing a president than it is a statement of character—our votes define what we value. Even the decision not to vote is an act that speaks to an individual’s character.
To vote (or not vote) is to act, and just like any other deed, we’re accountable for our actions. First, to ourselves, then to our families, our neighbors, and our country. In my faith tradition, I’m also accountable to God. Regardless of your personal beliefs, imagine a moment where you are asked to explain your vote others. Now imagine those future people are living with the consequences of your actions.
For me, that’s sobering.
In the 2016 US Presidential Election, I’m not advocating a particular party or candidate. That’s not the point of this article. I’m just trying to provide a little perspective.
If you set aside the idea that your vote actually elects the president and instead consider your vote as an conscious act of aligning yourself—your character—with the person you most believe is fit to lead our country, you’ll care more about issues and less about party lines. It becomes less about shouting down others—whose votes also matter just as little as yours—and more about defining what you stand for.
Can you imagine a country where every citizen ignored the fear mongers, spin doctors, salacious reports, and voter polls? What if people focused instead on truly understanding who they were choosing to align themselves with?
That was the intent of our nation’s founders, by the way. They believed in the power of the aggregate, that whatever a majority of good people believed to be best would really be the best.
Let’s validate the faith they had in us. Let’s think of the future. On Election Day, let’s make sure our votes matter.
The following is a true ghost story I wrote for Sick Pilgrim, a blog on Patheos.com. Happy October!
Alone in our girls’ dorm rooms in the 1980s, high school summer band camp at Kamehameha was nothing like a slasher-teen movie. Lights went out at 10:30 pm and stayed out until 6 am reveille. Worn out, and with the axe of immediate expulsion looming over our heads, in our practical cotton t-shirts and jogging shorts, we were more interested in sleep than high jinx.
I know that slays a lot of male sleep-away camp fantasies, but it’s the truth.
When I woke, the first thing I noticed was the light.
The moon was full or nearly so; it flooded my second story window and dripped down the walls. No wonder I couldn’t sleep.
As the upperclassman on duty, I’d gone to bed with my door cracked just enough to hear if a girl on my floor needed help in the middle of the night. The second night of camp was always the worst. The excitement of being away has worn off, and the real work of marching and music’s begun. It’s the night freshmen start counting the days and wonder if they can make it through the week.
Drenched in moonlight, I lay there for a moment, breathing in jasmine and hibiscus from the hedge outside. Hot and humid as only Hawaii can get, I kicked off the bed sheet, wishing for my ceiling fan at home. A glance at my watch told me it was 1:23 am.
I’m never going back to sleep.
But then I heard the unmistakable sounds of a door opening and the slap, slap, slap of rubber slippahs flip-flopping down the hall.
Wonderful. Sunburn, heat stroke, or homesick? My money was on a dehydration headache. Tylenol and Gatorade to the rescue.
I grabbed my glasses, rolled out of bed, and pulled my door wide.
Through windows set above each dorm room door, moonlight fell like water, cascading through the inky darkness to puddle on polished cement like God’s own spotlight. From the far end of the hall to my right, someone approached.
Slap, slap, slap.
The door on my left swung open; a senior rubbed her eyes and scowled. “Somebody sick?”
I shrugged. “Headed this way. Not fast. Probably not a puker.”
We glanced toward the communal bathroom door across the hall from us.
Slap, slap, slap.
The steps grew heavier, closer, and we could see a dark shadow breaking the beams of light as it traveled down the hallway.
Slap, slap, slap.
“Stupid freshmen. They never drink enough.” She craned around me. “Hey,” she hiss-whispered. “Are you sick or do you just have to pee?”
Slap, slap, slap.
It was only one doorway, one beam of light away.
All of the hair, fine and downy-soft, rose along my arms. My scalp prickled.
“Eh, who’s there?” I called.
Slap, slap, slap.
Right in front of us.
But no one was there.
Unwavering, the footsteps passed, stomping down the stairs to the main floor. We heard the crash bar on the main door collapse, the door swish open, and felt the night rush in, running like fingertips through our hair, caressing our bare legs as the building breathed. We didn’t hear the footsteps continue down the sidewalk, just the sound of the heavy metal door resettling in its frame. Once again, the building held its breath.
In the stillness, the taste of fresh coconut burned in the back of my throat.
She and I exchanged just one look, then turned back into our rooms. This time I shut my door tight and said a little prayer for those who walk the night.
Later, I heard stories from boarders who called that dorm home all school year long. It’s the ghost of a pregnant student who hung herself; it’s an ‘aumakua of a girl from Hilo, from Lihue, from Kahului; it’s a prank; it’s a dream; it’s the haunting of an ancient kahu priest bound to stones stolen from his heiau altar—everyone knows unscrupulous foreigners reused finished stones after the Hawaiian gods fell.
None of those stories feels right.
I once dared to ask our kahu, the resident campus chaplain. He smiled and fiddled with his rosary as he told me that over the years, many people had seen unusual things in that dorm. When called, he’d come to them in the middle of the night with prayers and ti leaves, saltwater and aloha. He believed whatever walks these halls is harmless, and like all souls deserves our kindness. E ho‘okikaha me ka maluhia, he said. Let it wander in peace.
Author J.F.R. Titchenell, Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know Of), asked what scares me. Here’s my response.
Picking up The Niuhi Shark Saga, you’d think I was afraid of sharks. It’s right there in the title of the series. In the books people get stalked by sharks, bit by sharks, and die because of sharks. As an island kid growing up in the ocean during the 1970s—the premier Jaws era—it would make a lot of sense.
But sharks don’t scare me.
Being alone and misunderstood does.
You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure out the sub-text of The Niuhi Shark Saga. I grew up a part-Hawaiian, but perpetually sunburned haole-looking girl in Kahului, Maui. From kindergarten through fourth grade, I was the only person with blond hair and blue-eyes in the entire school district, including the staff.
This didn’t change until my family moved to Kalama Valley on Oahu, where in 5th grade at Kamiloiki Elementary there were more kids who looked like me. But nobody spoke Pidgin, which I thought was the language of school. You can imagine my surprise when my teacher, nose in the air, told my mother I needed remedial English lessons and she was recommending me for Resource, which was code for special ed and not in her classroom. I didn’t need English lessons. I just needed to speak as I spoke at home at school.
The shock on Mrs. Goo’s face when I switched mid-sentence from Pidgin to perfect English was almost worth the hell of being in her class.
Almost. I won’t say more, except that when you’re a kid, being good at sports is crucial to overcoming prejudice. That, and a great right hook.
Consequently, a lot of my fiction involves a character that is isolated from others, usually for a reason he or she has no control over. In The Niuhi Shark Saga, Zader is isolated because he’s allergic to water. He’s the weird kid that others put up with because of his popular surfing star brother, Jay.
In One Boy, No Water, Zader fears being left behind if Jay and Char Siu get accepted into Ridgemont Academy for ninth grade. Without Jay around, there’s the real possibility that Zader will be the Blalah’s perpetual punching bag. But as the story progresses, Zader discovers that Jay needs him too, and that being different can be a source of strength.
In One Shark, No Swim and One Truth, No Lie, Zader and Jay learn that anything they love can be taken away. Because of love, Zader sacrifices himself and travels the world alone, wary that he will turn into the monster everyone thinks he is. Jay becomes consumed with revenge, loses his golden boy status, and has to humble himself and learn from others before he can find peace in the ocean again. Both Zader and Jay reject what others think are their destinies, and prove that family are people you choose and not necessarily related by blood.
The Niuhi Shark Saga takes place in modern Hawaii where all the Hawaiian myths, legends, and gods are real, but under the radar of most humans. It’s my hope that readers come away with a deeper understanding of island life than what’s reflected in Hollywood movies and shows like Hawaii 5-0.
And there are sharks. Did I mention the sharks? Monster-sized Niuhi sharks, with mouthfuls of teeth, all-consuming hunger, and extra-sensory perception. They are apex predators without a lick of human remorse or conscience.
Oh, and Niuhi sharks? They can appear in human form. Unlike Jaws, if a Niuhi shark is interested in you, even on land, you’re not safe. There is no bigger boat.
I saw you sitting outside the Olive Garden on a park bench. Your toddler was held across your lap, sleeping. Admiring his blond curls, I almost missed your cardboard sign with its homeless, please help plea. I looked a little closer.
It was hot, August-in-the-city hot. Next to you was a faded stroller and an empty baby bottle. My stomach started to hurt.
My teenage daughter, strong, tall, and privileged, leaned close. “Let’s feed her.”
Such a simple thing.
We headed up the stairs and into the restaurant.
A little while later we walked out with a bag full of hot, fresh food and a to-go cup of ice water. I caught your eye as I approached and handed you the bag. “It’s not much,” I said, “but at least you can have a good meal.”
You took it and whispered, “Thank you. He’s very hungry.”
Not wanting to intrude, my daughter and I walked quickly away. Standing at the corner waiting for the light, my daughter looked back. “Wow. She’s really drinking that water fast.”
Should I get the cup back and offer to fill it again? The restaurant would do it if I asked. Would they do it for you?
“Look, Mom. Look at the baby. He’s happy.”
I risked a glance. I remembered that bounce, that baby bounce of delight in a high chair when I fed my kids things they loved. Seated in the stroller, your baby was doing that dance, reaching for the spoon as you tried to blow on the soup to cool it.
But you were hungry, too. Far hungrier than I’d realized until I saw how you’d scoop a bite, blow, eat half, then force yourself to stop, and feed the rest to your baby bouncing in anticipation.
The light turned green.
I should’ve gone back and filled your water cup. I should’ve taken some time to see if you needed diapers—of course you needed diapers—or had a place to stay. But the light turned green, and I had places to go.
In truth, I was so overwhelmed with your need that I didn’t know what to do.
I’m sorry I didn’t do more.
Most creative types think of spring as a time of renewal. Stores burst with bunnies and chicks, nurseries fling open their doors to reveal shelves of fresh and tender garden starts, the sun warms up, and green things begin to grow.
Those with more left-brained leanings set their internal timepieces to a calendar. January 1st marks the beginning of a new year and resolutions about diet, exercise, and sleep. Back in the days before smart phones and apps, on the first day of the year I’d spend an hour or two setting up my new planner: establishing goals, lining up tabs, adding birthdays, and copying addresses from dogeared pages onto crisp new ones.
But now my planner’s electronic with no need to hand-write and transfer notes or to even check-off activities. Calendar events like birthdays auto-magically roll on year after year; addresses stay firmly in the database. There’s never a reason to rush to a stationary store (do they still exist?) to buy new inserts, much to Franklin-Covey’s dismay.
Unmoored from left- or right-brained conventions, I tried to go back to the rhythms of youth where the year always starts in September, ends in June, and the summer stretches forever in a lassitude of books, TV, and summer camp.
It didn’t work.
But now, deep in fall foliage with snow sweeping down mountain ridges, traveling across the valley to beat fluffy flakes against my office window, I sense the stirrings of renewal.
Maybe it was finally packing up some of the basement junk horded in precarious piles—the eighteen-year old baby swing, car seats, dusty luggage sets, boxes of books.
Oh, good grief, the books. I think my recent donations to the local library doubled its collection, all hardback, mostly bestsellers, and only read once. There are still seven more boxes to sort through downstairs and three in the garage ready to go to the library.
Nobody needs that many books.
Cleaning out the basement means shining a light in dark corners, sweeping away cobwebs, wondering why in the world I thought I would ever use a burned out crockpot again or needed five rolls of quilt batting or faded Valentine decorations well past their prime.
Once I started organizing, rearranging, examining what I thought so important, I began to realize that all these things kept for an uncertain someday are really chains weighing me down. Lighter, freer, there are so many more possibilities, like a new basement office and audio studio, cupboards and counters for mailing signed books. Space enough to dream new adventures, to think about the time when the house is further wrapped in snow and silence, to take that long winter’s nap.
There is something odd, but comforting in the notion that while most of the world thinks of late October as a time of gathering in, retreating, and hunkering down, I think of blooming possibilities.
Opportunities to be part of something this special are rare in life. Back in December Jonathan Diaz approached me and several other authors about participating in his quest to help pediatric cancer patients. He had the deceptively simple idea of taking photos of kids living lives far away from the realities of hospital corridors–dreams of being a mermaid, a bull rider, a dancer, a baker, more than twenty in all–and pairing each image with a short story.
I wrote The Mermaid‘s Tale for Caimbre, four years old at the time of her photo shoot and with a smile that makes you want to take her home in your pocket. It was without a doubt the hardest thing I have ever written. How could I possibly come up with words to do justice to her photo, to her smile, to her dreams? I couldn’t, not really. I’m just a writer.
She and other kids are the TRUE HEROES, a collection of modern-day fairy tales about real kids who are fighting cancer. The book is available now in major bookstores and online through Amazon. All proceeds go to support the Anything Can Be Foundation in its mission to help pediatric cancer patients see themselves as the TRUE HEROES they are.
If you’re in the Provo, UT, area on Saturday, Sept. 12, at 3 pm, stop by the Provo City Library to meet some of the authors and kids. Pick up a book and support something truly special. Let’s show cancer how strong dreams can be. #TrueHeroes #ShowYourGold #hope
I’ve been slacking on the blog, I know. Big life changing events have been going on and that’s caused me to really think about where I want to go on this journey, who I want hiking next to me, and the mountains I want to climb versus the quicksand I’m bypassing. Here are some of the highlights.
- Without health, you’ve got nothing. My mother’s recent brain surgery, my cardiac event, and my daughter’s bout with mono have made that crystal clear.
- I’m focusing more on writing and publishing new works. I’m taking charge of my author career again. No more listening to well-meaning, but inexperienced “experts” simply because they intern for one of my publishers. And I don’t care what your title is, if you’re not paid for your work, you’re an intern.
- I’m going back to business and training consulting to earn real money to put behind my author business. It’s easier to take writing seriously when I’m using my skills in other arenas to make a positive contribution to the family coffers instead of spend, spend, spending on everything from books to give away at libraries, schools, and bookstores, on posters and signage, or gas and meals at events. Remember, I’ll feel better. My family is awesomely supportive of anything I choose to do—as long as it doesn’t involve cooking with mushrooms.
- I’m launching a new SAAS business that has the potential to revolutionize how conferences and symposiums find speakers. More on that in another post.
- I’m leveraging the works I’ve published and releasing them as audio books.
- I’m working with a small group of trusted published authors, a tribe of people who understand how to play well with others and how to get things done. Lots of very cool things in the works. More on all those things in another blog post.
- No more throwing pearls before swine. Most people do not value or appreciate “free.” The Takers of this world simply expect others to give, give, give, and get annoyed when you set boundaries. I find it hilarious that big corporations pay for my expertise, but Joe Wannabee author still insists that his 320,000 word novel is already perfect. He knows it’s fantastic, you see, because his mother told him it was the greatest thing she ever read, so don’t bother him with developmental or even copy editing notes. When he asked me to beta-read it for free, it was just so I could tell the world how awesome he is. There are mind-numbing masses of Joes out there.
- I’m cutting ties with people too important in their own minds. Massive egos are exhausting. They’re emotional vampires who suck all the life and fun out of everything. We need more fun and joy in life. Kicking all the dementors to the curb and stocking up on chocolate and Diet Coke.
- I’m pushing myself waaaay out of my comfort zone and reconnecting with my Hawaiian roots. Next week I start Hawaiian language lessons. The better I speak Hawaiian, the closer I can get to understanding the real histories and cultural identities of a particular branch on my family tree. Right now everything I’ve learned has been through someone’s English filter. Time to cut out the middle man.
- I can write commercial works, and I will. But I think my real purpose is to write works that speak to a smaller audience, an audience that seldom has a voice in popular culture. I’m going to spend more time figuring out how to let those voices be heard.
That’s it. Thanks for sloughing through the mires with me. We’re on bedrock now and heading up the trail.
You’re wearing that? No. Go change. It’s too wrinkled. What do you mean there’s no iron? The rental has a coffee maker, a microwave, a washer and dryer, but no iron? Figure it out. You can’t go looking like that.
You, go shave again. Yes, I mean it. See all of this under your chin? That can’t be there. There’s a new razor and shaving cream in my bag in the bathroom. I don’t want to hear how you’re sunburned and itchy, just do it.
We need to buy a lei. No, I don’t want to go to Royal Lei Shoppe. She’ll think that’s too expensive. Safeway has leis. We’ll get one there. Something nice, but not too nice.Why? Because the best is too nice and that’s worse than not bringing anything at all.
No, not that one. See the brown edges? It’s past its prime. None of these look good. We need a fresh lei. I know if we had gone to an actual flower shop like you suggested I’d have better options, but we don’t have time to go somewhere else. On time is late. No, that’s cheap orchids. It’s a tourist lei. The ginger is nice, but it won’t last. Pikake is good, but look, see how the ribbon is crushed? That one is Micronesia-style; she’s Hawaiian. Yes, that matters. Carnation? Are you kidding me? Here. This one: tuberose and ilima. It smells good—and it’s not too cheap, not too expensive.
Yes, I took the Safeway sticker off the box.
Remember, no slouching. Is that gum in your mouth? Get rid of it. Leave your hat in the car. No cell phones. Stay engaged, but do not interrupt. Children are meant to be seen and not heard. If we eat, your fork is on your left; your water glass is on your right. Napkins on your lap first thing. When we’re done, fold your napkin; don’t wad it up. Cloth napkins, honey. I know because it’s always cloth.
Smile. Remember, everything is fine, everybody is good. We’re all good. Yes, everybody. Do not mention You Know Who or You Know What.
Okay, let’s go. Why are you kids freaking out? She’s your great-grandmother. Just be yourself.