Talking Story

AAPI Books

On December 14, 2021, I participated in the Utah Library Advocates Press Conference as a representative of PIK2AR and PEAU Lit. The conference was called in response to the nation-wide organized efforts to censor books in school libraries, often without books going through an established book challenge or review process. Basically, someone complains–who may not even live in the school district–and books get quietly removed from school library shelves. Sometimes these books are simply tucked out of the way in someone’s office; sometimes they are permanently “checked-out” or weeded from the the library’s collection. Regardless, books are being removed from circulation without a proper review.

This is wrong and worrisome on so many levels, particularly since all of the current “problem” books in Utah are centered around BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ themes. At this press conference, representatives from the NAACP, Utah Pride, Equality Utah, ULA, UELMA, UEA, SchoollibraryPALs, and I spoke about first amendment rights, the need for all kids to see themselves as the center of the story, and how parents can have difficult conversations with their children. Not all books are for all children, but libraries need to have books that represent the entirety of their communities.

The following is the mana’o I shared. It’s written to be spoken, not read, so e kala mai, there are a lot of run on sentences.

____________________

Aloha awakea kakou.

My name is Lehua Parker, and I’m here on behalf of PIK2AR—Pacific Knowledge To Action Resources—and PEAU Lit—the literary arm of Pasifika Enriching Arts of Utah. I’m an author of stories for kids and adults that are deeply embedded in Native Hawaiian and Hawaiian island culture.

Do not let the blond hair and blue eyes fool you. I am kanaka maoli, Native Hawaiian and a graduate of The Kamehameha Schools.

Today, you’ve heard my esteemed colleagues talk about the importance of school libraries and authentic representation. I’d like to take a moment and talk a little bit about this from the perspective of an author who writes stories for an underserved readership.

As a child growing up in Hawai‘i, I never saw my family, friends, or neighbors represented in a book. And I know these books didn’t exist, because I was constantly on the prowl for them in both public and school libraries. I was the kid with their nose perpetually in a book—on a bus, at the beach, soccer practice—it didn’t matter, I had a book with me.

But my family and friends weren’t just invisible in books—it was all media. In the rare movie or television show, islanders were always the exotic hula dancer, the bartender, or the crook—never the center or the hero of the story, never seen nor validated, and never without a cultural narrative created and imposed by Hollywood.

Would it surprise you to learn that pineapple, coconut bras, and tiki curses that Bobby Brady faced are not Hawaiian?

Don’t get me started on pizza.

I remember so vividly the first time I saw my community authentically represented in media. It left such a lasting impact on my life, that when I decided to write my first novel, I knew it had to be about—and for—kids in Hawai‘i—that their authentic lives, experiences, and worldviews had to be firmly set as the center of the story.

I wish I could take you all to Hawai‘i to see the impact these books have had on kids. I’ve stood in crowded auditoriums with kids on the edge of their seats—they were that engaged with the idea that someone wrote a story about them that’s in a book.

“Aunty,” they say, “when you had a character say and do this—did you really mean…?!”

And yes, I tell them, I did.

More importantly—with a book in hand as proof, kids are thrilled by the possibility that they too can write their own stories and someone will read them. They matter that much.

I’ve talked with teachers, librarians, and parents—some with tears in their eyes—because for the first time their haumana, their keiki—their students and children—feel seen. For some kids, these books are the first ones they’ve read voluntarily in their entirety.

Think about that for a moment. Reading is critical to success in school, in work, in a child’s future, in our nation’s future. Kids hunger to read books that speak to their lived experiences. Why would we do anything to discourage that?

I want you to know that I recognize that not all books are for all kids. However, we have public processes that help us determine which books are appropriate for which grades in our communities, and it is imperative that these processes are followed. It is chilling to think that people believe we can circumvent proper review processes by bullying others into removing books from circulation, simply because a book is not right for their child.

All school libraries must have books that represent the entirety of their communities.

It truly is a matter of life and death. It is a matter of being seen.

Mahalo nui loa a me aloha no. Thank you for your time and consideration.

____________________

If bullying is not okay on the playground, why are we allowing it in the library? What are we really teaching our children? I invite you to get involved, to educate yourself and others on the critical services libraries provide for everyone in their communities. Rather than worrying about what another kid has in their backpack, send your child to the library with lists of good books you’d like them to explore.

#RealRep #challengebooks #Hawaiibooks #justreadconfunit

 

 

It was maybe eight years ago that I noticed a lot more awareness, more buzz, about the startling lack of diversity in middle grade and young adult literature. In the USA, it started with recognizing we were a multicultural nation that woefully underrepresented the crazy quilt reality of our society. The lack of diverse representation was being talked about in ways and in circles that I hadn’t heard before.

It was the very existence of the conversations that was new, not the concepts. Growing up, I was surrounded by misrepresentation, appropriation, and outright fabrication of my Native Hawaiian—kanaka maoli—culture in media. All islanders were hula dancers, bartenders, or crooks, with the occasional beach bum thrown in. Books, television, and films never reflected my reality of doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, teachers, musicians, comedians, philanthropists, homemakers, and yeah, houseless people struggling in makeshift camps.

With awareness and conversation came movements like #weneeddiversebooks and #ownvoices. Traditional publishers created new imprints and solicited manuscripts from writers of all backgrounds, experiences, and frames of reference. There was a lot of hope.

Then reality set in and things started to get weird.

One of the biggest challenges is that with new perspectives, the stake holders and kingmakers—the acquisition editors and marketing teams—generally do not have the background to accurately assess whether or not a manuscript authentically represents what it purports to. In today’s cancel culture, few are willing to risk being wrong.

Authors are also eyeing the swing of public opinion’s guillotine. Over the last few years, I’ve talked with many established authors who want to write stories about characters who aren’t like themselves—ethnically, neurotypically, sexually orientated, physically abled, faith-believing or disbelieving, from different socioeconomic communities—the whole spectrum of humanity. These authors’ genres and target audiences range widely, from picture books to adult high fantasy, romance, and horror. These are exactly the kinds of stories that will reach under severed readers and bring more threads to our literary tapestry. But they’re scared. They’re convinced writing outside of their perceived and approved wheelhouse is career suicide.

And these stories aren’t being written.

Some authors have pivoted to writing about animals instead of children. Some write fantasy, where it’s easier to blend cultures into something familiar, but new. Others have doubled down and do not describe the physical characteristics of their characters at all. I was part of a panel of authors at an event where a White college student called out a well-known (and really wonderful) White male author of middle grade books. She publicly chastised him for only writing White characters in his series. He gently asked her where that was in the text—and of course, it wasn’t. He had been very careful to only use generic physical descriptions like tall, athletic, old, young, or wearing a blue shirt. The college student had brought her own biases with her.

We all do.

The pendulum’s backlash is twice as harsh as its front swing.

I believe it’s important to recognize that not all stories are ours to tell. But rather than #ownvoices, I think we should be focusing on authentic representation, what I’ve coined as #RealRep (because ain’t nobody got time to spell #AuthenticRepresentation).

#RealRep allows authors the freedom to write all kinds of stories. Writers can easily imagine how it feels to be different or alone or special or even ordinary. Most stories have underlying themes like love, family, courage, perseverance, or adventure and are told through emotions and experiences that are universal to the human condition. Where we are vary is in the specifics, constraints, opportunities, and pressures.

My advice to authors who want to tell stories about people, places, and experiences out of their own wheelhouse is to pause for a second to consider what’s sparking the story. What draws to you this story; why do you want to tell it; what are you hoping your audience will take away from it; how will you do your best to avoid harmful stereotypes, characterizations, and tokenisms; and how would you feel if you were portrayed this way?

If you’re comfortable with your answers, then research, research, research. Google, YouTube, and the library are your friends. Most importantly, connect with this community. Find people who have first-hand knowledge and experience with the cultures, issues, locations, and worldviews you want to explore. Get the nuances and details right before publication, but don’t let fear of getting them wrong stop you from starting. Refinement often comes after the first drafts when you engage beta and sensitivity readers. And it is readers. There is no “authority” that blesses any one point of view or lived experience. You’ll need a variety of responses to see the middle.

Remember, the goal is authenticity, not wide-eyed Pollyanna optimism. It’s okay if some readers are uncomfortable. Just make sure the discomfort is calculated and coming from the things you intend.

To publishers, remember that none of us are fully aware of our biases. We always think we know more than we do. Recognize you don’t always have the staff or experience to identify authenticity in manuscripts, particularly ones that defy expectations. If the story is compelling, engage your own experts to assess if it rings true–and it will take experts because no human experience is a monolith.

If we want to create a more inclusive world, we must teach compassion to children. One of the best ways to do this is to provide them books that allow them to walk in others’ shoes. To teachers and librarians, you are the frontline. Use your budgets to curate collections that serve your entire community.

To those in the corps calling for diversity in literature, keep beating those drums and encouraging people to write their own stories in their own voices.

Writing is an art, but publishing is a business, and like all businesses, it’s profit driven.  Buy books you like and want to see more of and leave positive reviews. Create grassroots buzz. It’s that simple.

Authentic representation. #RealRep. Spread the word.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the United States (AAPI Month). Through out May, I’m going to be posting about books written by Pacific Islanders that celebrate island culture front and center.  Up first:

MIDDLE GRADE

There’s a wide range of what’s considered middle grade, with the sweet spot as a story that’s on at least a 5th grade reading level with a complex story structure centered around themes and characters  that reflect the interests and lived experiences of 5th through about 9th graders. Crushes are perfect. Anger, loss, or awareness of a bigger world and the challenges it brings are also appropriate, as are wonder, joy, fear, and humor. Like kids developmentally this age, characters are often exploring away from adult safety nets, but there’s an underlying sense that while things may be different in the end, it’s going to be okay. Stories that deal with more mature themes–things that go beyond first kisses or delve into abuse–are generally considered Young Adult rather than Middle Grade.

And yes, those things happen to middle graders, too. However, most booksellers and librarians try to keep these imaginary boundaries drawn on their bookshelves, which is why Middle Grade is usually in the Children’s section and Young Adult is in the nomad-land of Teen Fiction, more commonly shelved by genre.

Without further ado, here are Pacific Islander Middle Grade titles you need to read. Click on the image to see it on Amazon.


In the story, 12 year old Kino and her mother move to Hawaii to live with her maternal grandparents in Kalihi, Oahu. With her grandfather ill and her family facing eviction from their home, Kino discovers that she has an ancient destiny to save both Hawaii and her grandfather by going back in time to 1825. There she meets the young Kamehameha III just prior to his ascension to the throne. After meeting with a kahuna at a heiau, it becomes clear that in order to return to her own time,  Kino must go on a quest for four objects gathered from various parts of Oahu—and of course the young prince is going to come along.

As the adventure quest plot unfolds, Jen deftly weaves in aspects of Hawaiian culture and history. Islanders will recognize kapu customs, protocol, and Hawaiian legends such as night marchers, Pele, Kamapua‘a, sacred waterfalls, ‘aumakua, choking ghosts, and magic gourds and calabashes.

Find it on Amazon.

 

 


‘Ewa Which Way by Tyler Miranda peels back the bandage of what adults think adolescence is like to expose the raw, oozing strawberry of reality. I loved this book for its ability to show all the complicated rules, expectations, and entanglements of being a 12-year-old boy trying to make sense out of adult behavior. Set in ‘Ewa Beach, Hawaii in 1982, Landon DeSilva and his brother Luke know that lickins can fall from the sky like lightning, that a certain side-eye from a parent means a storm’s coming, and that sometimes no matter how long you hold your breath you can’t escape, but have to endure the wave to the end.

For Landon, things are bad at home, but not bad enough. Not enough for child protective services to swoop in and spirit Landon and Luke to a new home, not enough for the cops to do more than show up when his parents’ fights wake the neighbors, and not enough for his mother to realize her marriage is over. Throughout the novel Landon tries to figure out what he’s supposed to do when there’s really nothing he can. His parents’ troubles are deep—there’s guilt, prejudices of class and race, loss, alcohol abuse and valium popping coping mechanisms, unfulfilled expectations, and sheer dysfunction. Landon sees it all with the clarity of a twelve-year-old and his reactions and understandings are heartbreaking and true. Adult readers will read not only the story, but all the words and character motivations between the lines. It’s powerful, immediate, and like a bloody scrapped knee, painfully evocative of the transition between childhood and adulthood.

Find it on Amazon.

 


Other books to consider:

The Calvin Coconut series by Graham Salisbury

The Niuhi Shark Saga trilogy by Lehua Parker
ONE BOY, NO WATER
ONE SHARK, NO SWIM
ONE TRUTH, NO LIE

and upcoming Lauele Chicken Skin Story
UNDER KONA’S BED

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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.