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.
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. Tales From Pasifika is reviewing the Niuhi Shark Saga. The following is an excerpt from their review of One Truth, No Lie, book 3 in the trilogy. To see the whole review, click here.
Tales from Pasifika Review
Let me start by saying right off the bat that this third volume of the Niuhi Shark Saga is just as good as its two predecessors. It is the perfect conclusion to the whole story and one that will stay in your head for days, making you think about your own life, the choices you make, and the importance of having a loving ohana (family).
I have to admit that the events in this novel took me by surprise. The first few chapters literally hit you like a thunderbolt, and you quickly realize that you probably won’t be able to predict what happens next. And you indeed can’t. The twists and turns are infinite. When you think you know in which direction the story is heading, the plot makes a sudden 180-degree turnaround and you are being left baffled; yet again. There is only one way to find out how the story turns out – you have to keep reading until you reach the last sentence. Which is not a problem, because the narrative draws you in from the very beginning. You become curious and interested, you want to know more. And you simply enjoy spending time in the magical world Lehua Parker has created.
Another reason why the book is so engaging are the characters. Zader, as the protagonist in the trilogy, is the focus of the story. His transformation from a teenager to a responsible young man is perhaps a little too idealistic, but definitely nicely portrayed. You can notice how he has changed from an insecure boy to a brave grown-up; how he has learnt to make choices and decisions and rely only on himself. That’s a great lesson, for children and adults alike.
Other characters are also given moments to shine. Especially Jay, who shows us how to fight through adversity, find positive in life, and never ever give up; and Maka, who lets us understand what it means to finally have something you’ve always wanted to have – a real family. Of course, uncle Kahana, Char Siu, Kalei, Pua, ‘Ilima, and the rest of the group make appearances as well, however they are much less visible than in the two previous volumes.
With this book Lehua Parker once again showed us her enormous talent. Her writing style and the language she uses are beyond compare. Everything – from descriptions to dialogues to wit and sense of humour – is perfectly dosed. Personally, I would prefer to see a bit more Pidgin in each chapter, but that’s not really a reason to complain. I have to say that you read Lehua Parker’s novels with pure pleasure. Whenever you finish one of her books, you instantly want to reach for another.
In the review of the first volume of the Niuhi Shark Saga I confessed that I don’t like children or young adult literature. But this trilogy is an exception. It will make you laugh. It will make you cry. It will make you think. What can you want more?
Mahalo nui loa, Tales From Pasifika! You can find the entire Niuhi Shark Saga on Amazon: One Boy, No Water, book 1; One Shark, No Swim, book 2; One Truth, No Lie, book 3; and a companion story Birth: Zader’s Story. More books related to the series 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. Tales From Pasifika is reviewing the Niuhi Shark Saga. The following is an excerpt from their review of One Boy, No Water. To see the whole review, click here.
Tales From Pasifika Review
I’ll tell you something about myself: I don’t like children’s or Middle Grade/Young Adult books almost as much as I don’t like fantasy/magic realism genre. I decided to give the Niuhi Shark Saga a chance exclusively because it is Pacific Lit. I bought the three titles, but I was still quite (or rather very) sceptical. But then I read a few pages. And a few more. And suddenly I was officially hooked.
So yes, I admit, this is a fantastic book. Lehua Parker wrote a beautiful tale full of magic and authentic Hawaiian vibe. She managed to bring the local legends back to life, giving readers – young and adult alike – a chance to get to know the Aloha State and its fascinating culture. Actually, the references to Hawaiian lore are what makes this novel stand out! It doesn’t deal with werewolves, vampires, or wizards – so omnipresent in today’s popular literature – but draws from the ancient beliefs. So we have sharks, and ti leaves, and the mysterious Hawaiian martial art of Kapu Kuialua (which is considered sacred and taught underground since the mid-1800s). All this definitely makes the story feel fresh, unique, original. And isn’t that exactly what we expect from a good book?
Now, although the novel is somewhat focused on Hawaiian culture, it has several underlying themes that teach valuable lessons, as befits children’s and Young Adult literature. Together with Zader and Jay, readers learn how important it is to have family you can always count on, to do what is right, to overcome your fears, to respect the nature, and to never forget where you come from. You can’t run and hide from your problems; be bold and brave; whatever happens in your life – face it! This is such an inspiring message for young people, who often struggle to find their place. Zader’s and Jay’s experiences will surely give them courage, and uncle Kahana’s wise words the needed moral guidance.
Speaking of uncle Kahana, I have to praise the characters. They are unbelievably well created and defined. From Zader and Jay to Char Siu and the Blalahs to uncle Kahana (who is my favourite), every one of them is a distinct person with a distinct voice and personality. They are complex, plausible, and easy to identify with. They are like us: they make choices and decisions – sometimes good, sometimes bad; they have their dilemmas; they learn from their mistakes. They are ordinary people; ordinary in their extraordinariness.
Of course, it’s one thing to build strong characters, but it’s another to show the relationships between them. Lehua Parker succeeded in doing both. The interactions between Zader and his brother or uncle Kahana, the interactions between the teenagers, and finally the interactions between the adults are incredibly well thought over. They influence the story, making it much more convincing and compelling.
Do you know what else makes this novel so believable? The language – Hawaiian Pidgin, to be precise. You’ll find it in every single chapter and, quite possibly, on every single page. To people who don’t speak Pidgin (or Hawaiian), it may cause some problems, but there is a dictionary at the end of the book, so you can always use it. I think the addition of local creole was a genius idea. Well, you can’t really write a story set in Hawaii and have your characters say ‘Thank you’ instead of ‘Mahalo’, can you?
‘One Boy, No Water’ is a must read. If you have a youngster at home or are looking for a great gift, this should be your number one choice. Because this colorful island tale is engaging and appealing, thought-provoking and amusing, uplifting and wonderfully hopeful. It is like a breath of fresh Hawaiian air taken on a sunny day. Unforgettable and not to be missed. But, let me give you a piece of advice here, buy all three books at once – after the first volume you’ll be hooked; just like me.
Mahalo nui nui, Tales From Pasifika! You can find One Boy, No Water and the rest of the Niuhi Shark Saga One Shark, No Swim and One Truth, No Lie and its companion story Birth: Zader’s Story on Amazon. More books related to the series coming soon.
When a young location scout from Hollywood dashes into a local Hawaiian bar, she bites off a little more than she can chew. Set in Hawaii with a hint of ancient mythology, Tourists is a companion story to the Niuhi Shark Saga and is intended for adults. Like the woman in the story, there’s no long-term commitment here. Tourists is a quick coffee break and dessert read.
Available in eBook from Amazon.
(how-oh-lee mah-kah-he-key ho)
Hawaiian phrase. In Hawaii people say Hau‘oli Makahiki Hou when they wish someone a Happy New Year. It’s a direct translation from the English: hau‘oli means “happy” or “glad,” hou means “new” or “fresh,” and makahiki is easily translated into “year, age; annual.” Like most English adoptions into Hawaiian it works in a Spanglish sort of way.
But anciently makahiki referred to a season that began around mid-October and lasted four lunar months. During this time there was feasting, religious observances and ceremonies, games, sports, dancing, a respite from work, and a kapu on war. It was a time of peace and prosperity in honor of the god Lono.
May you and your ‘ohana enjoy the aloha of the makahaki season all year long.
Hau‘oli Makahiki Hou!
English: Happy New Year!
Pidgin: Hau‘oli Makahiki Hou!
Note: ‘Ōlelo is a Hawaiian word meaning language, speech, word, etc. To see the current list of Hawaiian and Pidgin words, definitions, and usage please click on
Rounding out my Samoan fiction summer reads is The Bone Bearer by Lani Wendt Young, book three in her Telesa series. With book 2, When Water Burns ending with a literal bang of epic proportions, the story landscape was wide open for book 3 and Lani didn’t disappoint.
In the hospital Leia doesn’t remember much of anything after the time she first arrived in Samoa. Daniel, Simone, and Keahi are strangers to her and you can imagine all the tip-toeing around her fire gifts. Meanwhile Telesa from all over the Pacific gather in Samoa to discuss an ancient doomsday prophecy about to be fulfilled, the return of Pele the terrible herself. Besides the looming threat that all male Telesa should be killed as soon as their gifts are discovered, there’s an ancient bone broken into three pieces and hidden that has to be recovered and united by our gang before Pele gets control and absorbs all the Telesa power forever.
Did I mention Leia’s acting weird?
We meet some new characters, see alliances formed and double-crossed, delve deeper into Pacific mythology flavored with Lani’s unique spin, see cultural biases in conflict as male Telesas are revealed, and finally learn who is Leia’s true soul mate.
It’s an entertaining and satisfying read full of smoky, smoldering heat, adventure, and shhhnap! comic relief from my favorite fa’afafine in literature, Simone. (I swear I went to school with the real Simone, but I digress.) Readers of the first books in the series will not be disappointed. The epilogue even jumps 10 years into the future to show us a sneak peek of how it all turns out. While this book was supposed to end the series, rumor has it that Lani isn’t quite finished with at least some of the characters. Can’t wait.
The Bone Bearer by Lani Wendt Young is self-published and available from Amazon as an eBook and trade paperback. Don’t miss the other works in the series: Telesa: The Covenant Keeper, I am Daniel Tahi (companion novella), and When Water Burns.
Telesa Series Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Telesa-Trilogy/146318935466086?fref=ts
When Water Burns is the second book in the Telesa series by Lani Wendt Young. Loosely based on Polynesian legends, the series is about Leila and Daniel’s discovery of their telesa powers and the complicated alliances and challenges that come from having gifts of fire and water.
One of the great storylines in this book is the will they/won’t they molten fire dance of desire between Leila and Daniel. It’s a great example of a mature and realistic approach to acknowledging and dealing with those overwhelming feelings of new love. Too often fiction assumes that teens have no control or boundaries when it comes to intimacy. It’s also refreshing that it’s Daniel who has the strong moral code based on his grandparents’ traditional Samoan family values.
But When Water Burns is much more than a my-true-love’s-a-fire-goddess-which-threatens-my-own-masculinity tale. The Big Bads in book 1 haven’t been entirely defeated and a few new ones are introduced. Themes about the need to care for the earth and nature being out of balanced are further explored in a race to recover a lost nuclear device, and while readers hope that Leila and Daniel are destined to be together forever, it’s not smooth sailing. As much as she loves Daniel, Leila’s gifts might have something else in mind when Keahi paddles his canoe along Samoa’s shores, voyaging far from his Hawaiian home.
Lani takes us swimming in the deep end with her explorations of belonging, violence against women, gender inequality, and taking charge of one’s own life, but it’s all handled with a deftly light touch that doesn’t feel forced or preachy. Simone’s back and fiercer than ever with a wit and wisdom that keeps the story humming.
Although it’s a complete story, readers are going to want to read Telesa: The Covenant Keeper and I am Daniel Tahi, a companion novella before When Water Burns. Good thing the third book, The Bone Bearer is now available. You won’t believe what happens next!
When Water Burns by Lani Wendt Young is self-published and available from Amazon as an eBook and trade paperback. Don’t miss the other works in the series:Telesa: The Covenant Keeper, I am Daniel Tahi, and The Bone Bearer.
Telesa Series Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Telesa-Trilogy/146318935466086?fref=ts
As a writer and reader, I find it a fascinating experiment to retell a story from another character’s viewpoint in a way that is fresh and exciting. In her companion novella to the Telesa series, I am Daniel Tahi, Lani Wendt Young takes us back through the events in Telesa: The Covenant Keeper through the eyes of Daniel Tahi, the Samoan hunk and moral heart of the Telesa series.
Telesa, book 1, is told from Leila Folger’s outsider point of view. Raised in America by a Caucasian father, Leila doesn’t know her Samoan family or heritage and the reader is introduced to Samoan culture, values, and traditions through Leila’s eyes.
In this novella, a basic understand of Samoan culture is assumed and the viewpoint and voice are convincingly masculine and testosterone driven. I gotta admit it was a lot of fun to revisit scenes already knowing Leila’s motivations and feelings and discovering Daniel’s. There’s also some new material in the novella that fills some narration gaps I felt were in Telesa. While you could skip this side story in the series and continue straight to book 2, When Water Burns, fans will enjoy getting to know Daniel better.
I am Daniel Tahi by Lani Wendt Young is self-published and available from Amazon as an eBook and trade paperback. Don’t miss the other works in the series: Telesa: The Covenant Keeper, When Water Burns, and The Bone Bearer.
Connect with Lani Wendt Young
Telesa Series Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Telesa-Trilogy/146318935466086?fref=ts