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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Suzanne Case

 

An idyllic childhood spent outdoors in Hilo set the stage for Suzanne Case’s lifelong commitment to the preservation of Hawai‘i’s natural resources, first as a conservation lawyer, and then as the executive director of The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i for 14 years. Her deep love of nature has helped guide her current leadership role, as chairperson at the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Suzanne Case Audio

 

Suzanne Case Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park is my favorite national park.  We used to hide in the lava tube and scare the tourists. And at age four saw the Kīlauea Iki eruption, which was two thousand feet in the air.  And you know, I had that experience of hot lava and cold air on my back, and we were all lined up on a wall at the edge of the crater.  So, I mean, that kind of thing is just a powerful experience.

 

She grew up experiencing some of the natural wonders of Hawai‘i.  And now, her job is protecting them for future generations.  Suzanne Case, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox.  There’s a tremendous amount of legal and other office work that goes into protecting and preserving the lands and waters of Hawai‘i. But Hilo born Suzanne Case, who heads the State Department of Land and Natural Resources, is not only handy with paper trails, she’s handy on mountain trails too.  In fact, she needs nature in her life.  Case is a familiar name in Hawai‘i.  Suzanne’s brother is former U.S. Congress member Ed Case, and her cousin is entrepreneur Steve Case, who cofounded America Online or AOL.  Suzanne Case has spent most of her career looking out for natural resources, first as legal counsel, and later as Hawai‘i executive director of the Nature Conservancy.  In 2015, Governor David Ige appointed her to lead the department charged with managing the State of Hawai‘i’s natural resources.  Her deep connection to nature took root while she was growing up in rural Hilo, on Hawai‘i Island.  Her father, James Case, took a job at the Hilo office of the Carlsmith and Ball law firm in 1951.

 

So, I was born in Hilo, and grew up in Keaukaha until I was about ten.

 

Okay; I have to stop you there, because everyone I’ve met in Keaukaha is a Native Hawaiian homesteader.

 

Yeah; yeah.

 

Your family lived there.

 

So, there is the Native Hawaiian homestead, and a longer neighborhood going down to the end of the road.  We were in that neighborhood; we were down towards the end of the road.  We went to third and fourth grade at Keaukaha Elementary. So, it was a whole mixture there. But it is a very diverse community, and very outdoorsy.  The road goes right along the water.  We lived right across the street from the water.  And so, you know, every day, we were in the water.

 

It’s two steps into the water, practically.

 

 

Totally; yeah, yeah, yeah.  You cross the yard, go down the wall, cross the road, and you know, walk down, and you’re there.  And so, we were there every day, either in the water, or scrambling along the shoreline. You know, it’s all lava rock there, a lot of underground caverns and stuff.  We had ponds on our property, there were ponds in the neighbor’s property. We were right across the street from the Richardson’s, we’d call it, Fishpond, which was and is a beautiful fishpond.  You could scramble along the wall, there’s a mākāhāthere.  And it’s now a community center, which is perfect for it.

 

And why did your family pick that area? Because you have a choice of where to live in Hilo.

 

Yeah. I think my parents just wanted a place. We had a lot of kids in my family.

 

How many kids?

 

Six kids growing up.  And so, were just outdoors all the time.  And I think they just wanted us to be outdoors.  When we were little, my dad would come home from work for lunchtime and have a bite, and take us for a swim.  And then, come home after work, and we’d go for a swim.  And you know, so you learned to swim.  We swam underwater on his shoulders, you know, just right out in front of the house.  And so, that part was really neat.

 

Well, your father sounds like he was such an engaged father.  And your mom.

 

Very much.  They both were very engaged.  Yeah. So, my mom actually finished her college when we were in Hilo, when she had, you know, young kids.  And then later, her master’s when she had more young kids.  But you know, she was at home all the time, and cooking and sewing.  She made our clothes.

 

She had a set of twins among all the kids.

 

Yeah; yes.  They came a little bit later, so I grew up really with three brothers, and then later on, a brother and a sister.  So, lots of outdoor energy from that group.

 

Did your parents or your brothers make allowances because you were you a girl?

 

Not at all.  No; no. And I was pretty much of a tomboy growing up.

 

You weren’t gonna let them take the lead.

 

Right. I mean, there were a couple of things that, you know, I thought it was unfair that they got to do, that I didn’t.

 

For example?

 

I don’t know.  I mean, part of it was just I had older brothers.  But on the flip side, my dad used to take me out to lunch, starting in preschool, on the last day of school, because you know, there were so many boys, he wanted to do something special.  And so, that was a tradition that continued all through high school, and he does it with his grandchildren now.  And my brothers were very jealous of that.

 

Which of your siblings were you closest to?

 

Probably Ed.  Over our whole life, you know, he was really my oldest brother growing up, so I always looked up to him.  And you know, we’re still quite close.

 

Your elementary school was destroyed by a tsunami.

 

Yes; yeah.

 

The old Waiākea Kai.

 

Waiākea Kai Elementary School; right.  It wiped out a whole community.  And I was there from kindergarten through second grade, and then we went to Keaukaha Elementary School.

 

How much of an impression did that make on you?

 

Very bit impression.  Waiākea Kai was predominantly Japanese, mixed community, and Keaukaha was predominantly Hawaiian community.  So, it was a big part of kinda my grounding in Hawaiian language and music, and culture, and in fourth grade, played in the Merrie Monarch Festival.  So, I learned ukulele then, and you know, kala‘au sticks that my friend’s grandfather made.  And you know, so all my friends were Hawaiian, and they got to go to Kamehameha Schools, and I didn’t really understand why I couldn’t go there.  But it gave me a real love of Hawaiian language and music, and culture that I think, you know, lasted with me.

 

You’ve had a couple of aha moments.  I remember you speaking of one when you were a kid, spearfishing, which changed your behavior.

 

Yeah.

 

Tell us about that time.  That was probably in Keaukaha.

 

It was actually in Honomalino Bay in South Kona.  We used to go there for vacations.  A very remote place, very off the grid.  And we spent a week or two at a time, every single year, when I was growing up.  And a very, very special place.  I knew it underwater better than above water.

 

Where is it?

 

Honomalino; it’s south of Miloli‘i, South Kona.

 

Oh, that’s very south.

 

It’s very south.  You know, no roads to it, kind of thing.  So, my dad made our Hawaiian sling spear guns out of, you know, bamboo and surgical tubing, and electrician’s tape.  And so, you know, we always had the right size spear for our height.  And so, you know, we learned how to fish, but we had to, of course, clean and eat our fish.  And so, I finally, at age eleven or so, caught my first weke is what I caught. And then after that, after you got good enough, you had to go for the real eating fish.  And so, for me, that was uhu.  But they were much faster, and I never could spear one.  And so, one day, I just got so tired and so frustrated that I just turned, and I speared a butterfly fish, just because I wanted some success.  And the spear ripped through the fish, and the fish swam away with this gash it in. And I went: Oh, that was not pono. And so, I quit spearfishing.  I knew that I couldn’t do it if I was gonna not do it the right way.  So, I quit spearfishing.  I actually saved up my money, and I bought an underwater camera housing for an Instamatic.

 

Oh, you shot them in another way.

 

I turned into an underwater photographer at age twelve.  And so, it was just a powerful moment for me of realizing you have to do the right thing.

 

Suzanne Case faced a culture shock at age nine. Her family packed up and left the country life in Hawai‘i Island that they loved, and moved to the City of Honolulu, Oahu.

 

When I was almost ten, my dad’s firm asked him to move to Honolulu, to build up the Honolulu office.  And so, we were just between—just finished fourth grade, and so, none of us wanted to move.  First, we thought we were just gonna go for a little while, and so we thought that was fine. But when we found out that we were moving for permanent, we just said: N-O, we are not gonna go.  All of us kids, we just: We are not going.

 

And then, of course, we had to.  But it was rough; it was very rough.  I always felt like country bumpkin goes to the big city.  And you know, it was a rough transition.  I went from public school to private school; that was part of the transition.

 

So, from Keaukaha Elementary to Punahou.

 

To Punahou; yes, exactly.  They were just two worlds.  And you know, Punahou is a great school, but it took me a good maybe four years to really kind of find my place there.

 

You repeated sixth grade.

 

I did. That was probably the thing that was most influential in my getting settled at Punahou and turning out more successful.

 

It was for social reasons?

 

It was for social reasons.  And I was struggling a little bit academically.  I think I was borderline when we moved from Honolulu, and normally maybe they keep you back.  And so, they said: Well, you know, let’s go with it.  But after two years, my teachers and my parents recommended I do that. And you know, that was a hard social adjustment, but really, really good one.

 

I would think it’s hard, because you know your classmates go on without you.

 

Yeah. Yeah; yeah.  Yeah, and you know, and it’s awkward.  Right?  But it was good for me.  I had my first success in school.  We were up at Camp Timberline, and had to do a study project, and a study plot.  I happened to have a spider in my plot, and so, I ended up really studying that spider for a week and, you know, got an A-plus on my science paper.  And I’m like: Oh, that feels good.  You know. Feels good to understand what it takes to, like, really apply yourself, to be really good at something.  And that was neat.  So, you know, that kinda thing helps your transition.

 

You got so comfortable at Punahou, where you had once felt uncomfortable, that you became the first female student body president.

 

I did; I did.  And it was kind of one of those step-up things; right?  So, you know, I remember thinking about it for a while.  I had been on a student council, small advisory council, and I remember just feeling like, again, I should do this, I should step up and, you know, do this kind of service.  So, I did, and I ran, and I was elected.  And so, I was the first female student body president at Punahou.

 

Did you remain an outdoorsy person in Honolulu?

 

Yeah; totally.  So, we moved to Tantalus, and so that’s an outdoorsy place.

 

So, that’s the country in town.

 

That’s the country in town.  It’s a very, you know, special place to live in terms of, you know, it’s very close to town, but it’s in the forest.  So, again, we were just like—the neighbors were much more spread out, so a little more lonely place to have that period of your life.  But you know, we had kids about a mile up the road, and so, we would, you know, find paths through the forest.  And we had this system of neighbors picking up kids after school at the steps at the bottom of the hill.  And nobody does that anymore. but we were essentially hitchhiking, except with people that we knew.  And so, very, very independent.  You know, you could come home whenever you want.  And we had a great mudslide right near our house, so you know, we’d go out especially when it was pouring rain.  That would be the best, and just get covered in mud.  And you know, that was some dangerous stuff there, but you know, you were lucky that you don’t get in too much trouble.

 

In addition to enjoying forests on Mount Tantalus above Honolulu, Suzanne Case continued to be fascinated by the reefs and ocean, with the help of two popular television shows of the time.

 

I just dreamed about being a scuba diver, and used to watch the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and Sea Hunt, Lloyd Bridges’ Sea Hunt in black and white. We didn’t have television until we moved to Honolulu, and then it was very, very restricted.  So, I always wanted to learn to scuba dive, and you could get certified when you’re fourteen.  So, soon as I was fourteen, my dad and I signed up for a course, and we both took it.  And I was actually much more comfortable underwater than he was.  But we got certified, and then I started diving, and then I found people to go diving with as well.  And then, I saved up my babysitting money to buy a set of scuba gear—so tank, regulator, pack, vest.  And I used to go diving a lot, mostly on Oahu off of Waikiki, off of Hawai‘i Kai, off of Hanauma Bay, Cockroach Gulch, and also Sharks Cove, Makua. So, you know, I loved kinda the meditation of being underwater, and just blowing bubbles, and being still and—

 

Bringing your camera.

 

I did.

 

With the underwater housing.

 

I did; I did.

 

After graduating from Punahou School, Suzanne Case followed in the footsteps of her father and others in the Case ‘ohana, including her older brother, former Congressman Ed Case, by entering the world of law.

 

In our family, half of us went into law.  I would say on my cousins’ side, they were more on the business side.  But I think all of us had, you know, a sense of like, kind of social responsibility.  You know, a sense that we needed to contribute somehow to Hawai‘i, to society and stuff, and so, it just expressed itself in different ways. You know, Ed’s very much of a public servant in politics, and you know, Steve obviously is a really fine businessman. And you know, all just trying to do something good for the world.

 

Was that said to you explicitly by your parents? This is what you’ve got to do, this is what we believe in.

 

They had a strong sense that we had to contribute to society, I guess is the way we were kind of brought up.  I mean, I can’t point to a specific thing they said, but that was kind of a theme going on.  You know, you need to do something good for society with your life.

 

You chose to go to law school.  Was it a real choice?  Did you feel, you know, expected to?

 

By the time I went to law school, it was a real choice, because I didn’t think I was gonna go for a long time.  And honestly, I didn’t really understand what my dad did.  He did business legal transactions.  So, I was around it all the time; I just didn’t really understand what a lawyer did.  And I didn’t really understand it until I went to law school.  But I think by the time I went to law school, I realized that I needed to do something that was intellectually engaging.  And so, it turned out to be a really good path for me. And I ended up practicing law for eighteen years, mostly real estate transactions, mostly in conservation.  I worked at the Nature Conservancy for twenty-eight years.

 

A nonprofit; and in charge of conservation of lands.

 

It’s a conservation organization globally.  And so, I worked there as a lawyer from 1987 to 2001.  I worked all over the western United States.  I worked in Hawai‘i, I worked in the Asia Pacific region, places like Indonesian and Papua New Guinea, and China, and Pohnpei.

 

Were you negotiating tracts of land?

 

So, in the US, we were, very much.  We were basically doing conservation transactions.  So, real estate transactions to put important pieces of land into permanent protection.  And so, that was just another switch.  I practiced real estate law in a law firm in San Francisco for four years after I graduated from law school.  And that was just straight real estate transactions; one pension fund buys an office building from another pension fund, so I saw it as kind of morally neutral work.  Whereas when I made the switch to the Nature Conservancy, you know, I felt good about everything I was doing.  But it was still real estate transactions, it was still problem-solving in terms of like, what are all the things you need to do to get to this point on closing day. You know, always referred to it as closing instinct.  You need to get here by this date, so what are all the things you need to do.  But that was for conservation.  And then, in the middle of that in 2001, I was in Hawai‘i, still as lawyer, and was asked to be the acting director, ‘cause the previous state director was leaving.  And I said: Uh-uh.  I said: There’s plenty of people that could do a much better job than me, I’m perfectly happy being a lawyer.  And so, the regional director who had asked me just, you know, continued to talk to me about it, and then something just switched in my head, and I said: Yeah, I’d like to do that.  And it was a real switch.  It was a switch from implementing to like, figuring out where we need to go, what’s the path to get there.

 

Also, you began working with donors, too.

 

Very much; yeah.

 

Fundraising big deals.

 

Yeah; yeah.  And that’s obviously a big challenge for people to do and very much of a change from, you know, just doing the legal work.  But you know, my only kind of path in it was just to realize that, you know, what you’re doing is, you’re telling people this great work that needs to be done. And there are people who want to do this great work, so you’re, you know, offering them a path to implementing their own dreams as well.  So, you know, once you realize that you’re talking that language with a person about what they care about too, then it works.

 

Suzanne Case led the Hawai‘i program of the Nature Conservancy for fourteen years before being nominated by Governor Ige in 2015 to head the State Department of Land and Natural Resources.  Case said she had not envisioned herself in that position, but after legislative approval, she stepped up to a new set of challenges.

 

You were chosen after lawmakers didn’t like a previous selection by the governor, who was Carlton Ching.  But when you came onto the scene, many people were saying: She’s perfect for this job.  You live the job.

 

Yeah.

 

And in a sense, I can see exactly what they mean, because you are somebody who loves the outdoors.

 

Yes.

 

You live it.

 

Yeah.

 

And you want to protect it.  So, that’s who you’ve always been.

 

Yeah. I’ve always been very outdoorsy, very deep love of Hawai‘i, deep love of places, and this problem-solving; you know, the how you do it, and the why you do it.

 

Right.

 

In combination.

 

And you had legal skills, to boot.

 

Yeah. And so, that’s been really helpful to me.  So, all of that, you know, DLNR has a broader mandate.  In the Nature Conservancy, we were very focused on protecting our forests and reefs.  And that is true also in DLNR, but there’s also state parks and historic preservation, and enforcement, and conservation regulation, and small boating, and you know, a whole slew of things.  You have to come up with a decision a lot of times, and the decision is gonna affect somebody positively and somebody negatively.  So, how do you make sure that at least they all feel like they’ve been heard.  And then, you know, that you’re doing something that really has a good public policy base in it.

 

But you know that it’ll never be win-win for everyone.  Somebody will always be unhappy with your decision.

 

That’s a very hard thing about it; it’s a very hard thing.  Yeah; yeah.  But overall, our mission is to protect Hawai‘i’s public trust, natural and cultural resources. So, that’s just the underlying driver. And that helps a lot, because a lot of times, there is a greater good and, you know, it may hurt somebody who would like a bigger piece of that greater good, but you’re trying to come up with something that’s fair.

 

Do you sleep at night saying: Oh, no, you know, I’m working really hard in this area, but over here there’s coral bleaching going on.

 

All the time.

 

And what’s gonna go on.

 

All the time; yeah, yeah.  And it’s even much more specific.  It’s like: Oh, gosh, I need to get back to this person, or there’s an issue here. Something is bothering me here, so we haven’t worked this one out yet.  And so, yeah, there’s a lot of processing, you know.

 

Always feeling like you’re not doing enough, and in fact, you’re doing a lot.

 

Yeah; yeah.  But again, you know, you have to find that balance, too; right?  So, you know, I’m fortunate I live on Tantalus again, and around my family all the time, and I’m in the forest all the time.  So, I have that kind of, you know, ability to kinda step back and, you know, take a deep breath, and go: Okay, what’s important to do next.  And that’s been very special for me.

 

Does it ever take away from your feeling of enjoyment in these places that you have the obligation to protect them, and there’s a lot to do?  I mean, does that tarnish some of it for you?

 

Not at all.  It drives it. And a lot of the projects, you know, are also very much driven by the communities that we work in.  And so, they have that intimacy too, sometimes for many, many generations.  And so, it’s a motivator.  You understand how important it is, and so it’s very inspiring.

 

What’s next after this?  I mean, this could go on for a while or not, but what’s after this?

 

You know, I think the point is, you just have to be open to, you know, whatever life brings.  And once you make that leap to leave a whole career behind, and do this public service, you just have to hang with whatever the future brings.  So, I’m definitely in this general field for the long haul, and will just continue to try to do my best for Hawai‘i and the planet.

 

Suzanne Case says that outdoor activities are still her favorite pastime, and they help her to understand her conservation work from inside, out.  All of her career, she’s jumped into her work on site visits, such as on numerous trips to Palmyra Atoll, a thousand miles south of Hawai‘i, for the Nature Conservancy. She likes to get a firsthand look at what needs to be protected.  Mahalo nui to Suzanne Case of Honolulu.  And thank you for joining us for this edition of Long Story Short on PBS Hawai‘i.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.  To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

Palmyra is a place to me, you know, it’s both good and bad that more people can’t get there. But it’s the kind of place where, if you can see a place like that, it totally resets your baseline.  You understand what our world is supposed to look like underwater, and you know, what we’ve lost in Hawai‘i just from overuse.  But to me, it’s a great inspiration for what we can make it look like again, if we take care of it.

 

 

SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED
The Winter’s Tale with Simon Russell Beale

 

Shakespeare’s play is driven by the passion and obsession of the uncontrollable jealousy of King Leontes, who recklessly rejects his wife’s love and accuses her of an affair with his old friend. Acting like a man possessed, he orders his friend killed and his pregnant wife imprisoned.

 

 

A CHEF’S LIFE:
The Final Harvest

A CHEF'S LIFE: Harvest Special

 

After five momentous seasons of A CHEF’S LIFE, Vivian hosts Harvest Special, a farewell feast of epic proportions. This series finale begins as a tractor pushes through her family’s cornfield to carve out the open-air dining room of Vivian’s dreams. She gathers Summer’s last vegetables from Warren Brothers’ farm for a batch of chow-chow.

 
Preview

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Nora Okja Keller

 

Original air date: Tues., Sept. 9, 2008

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Oct. 21, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Finding a Voice Through Writing

 

Nora Okja Keller, born to an American father and a Korean mother, has written two critically-acclaimed and important novels, Comfort Woman and Fox Girl, based on the almost unspeakable experiences endured by Korean women during World War II, and the lives of Korean-Americans that came after them.

 

Nora Okja Keller Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

If you’re a reader of ethnic books, books about women, or books by local authors, you may be familiar with the writings of Nora Okja Keller. But even if you aren’t, you’ll be delighted to hear Nora’s stories about finding identity and a voice through writing. Aloha no; I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawai‘i. Welcome to another Long Story Short. Please join me as I sit down with author Nora Okja Keller next.

 

Nora Okja Keller, born to an American father and a Korean mother, has written two critically-acclaimed and important novels, Comfort Woman and Fox Girl, based on the almost unspeakable experiences endured by Korean women during World War II, and the lives of Korean-Americans that came after them. Although Nora’s stories are very dark, she herself is a personable, local hapa girl with a supportive husband and two little girls.

 

You know, if I had read your books without having ever seen you or heard much about you—

 

M-hm.

 

I would be expecting to come to this table today, and to see somebody very dark, with the mileage carved

 

[chuckle]

 

–in her face. Because you conjure up such brutal imagery, and some difficult themes, like abandonment. Where does that come from?

 

You know, I get that all the time. You know, people say, Oh, I thought you were gonna be like, so dour and, you know, like intense. And I think writing allows me to express—we all have that duality. You know, the light and the dark. And I think in part, writing is my outlet for that darkness. So that in the daytime when I’m with my kids, and I you know, go about my daily life, I can release that into the writing, and live you know, very lightheartedly.

 

So by day, in the sunlight—

 

Yes.

 

–you’re a happy—

 

My secret identity.

 

–mom with kids. [chuckle]

 

[Chuckle] I know; I get people say, Oh, I thought you would write like children’s books about you know, happy bunnies in a field or something.

 

[chuckle]

 

[chuckle]

 

And instead, it’s violence.

 

Yeah, so they pick up something like Fox Girl thinking, Oh, it’s gonna be a happy story about, you know, a fox and, you know, woodland animals. [chuckle] And instead, they’re, Oh; that is—it’s something that I do struggle with, and I think in part, that’s why I took a break after writing Fox Girl. The intensity of that. That was a—

 

Yeah, I—

 

–tough, tough one for me.

 

You are a nationally known author, but you’ve lived here, how long?

 

I’ve lived here since I was five. Well, I was born in Seoul. And then my family left Seoul when I was about three, and we traveled a little bit through the U.S. and arrived here when I was five. My dad’s from Ohio, so they went back there, and they went through the Midwest. And then my mom was so unhappy, you know, and especially this was in the 70s, so feeling very isolated. And she knew some of her friends had settled in Hawai‘i, and she just begged and begged, and they moved here. Basically —

 

So she could feel more comfortable?

 

M-hm. You know—

 

How did they get together? What’s the story of your dad and mom?

 

Let’s see. I’m not quite sure. I’ve heard several different versions. My mom’s a storyteller as well, and so I’ve heard one version that she was a famous singer in Korea, and was singing at a club, and my dad saw her and fell in love. So that’s one version. And then another version I got was that they had met in her village outside of Pusan while he was there for the war, during the war.

 

What does he say? Does he have a version?

 

He just says, Well, what does your mom say?

 

[chuckle]

 

Whatever she says, okay. And I go, well [chuckle]. He says, Ask her. [chuckle]

 

And she had never been here before, but had heard it was a nice place to live?

 

Yes. Well, she had friends, and then her friends would tell her, Oh, you have to come; come visit, come try it out, live here for a little bit. And so that’s what she did. She ended up staying, but my dad ended up go—they ended up divorcing, and he’s now living in New York.

 

I see.

 

Yeah. And she loved it, because she found like a community. And since then, she remarried and moved to Seattle. But she never found that community in Seattle, and since her husband passed away, two, three years ago, she’s moved back, and she’s, you know, reformed the friendships that she’s had for thirty years here. And so this has really been the place that she calls home.

 

And yet, we don’t really have a large Korean population. It wasn’t that, was it—

 

No, no. But my mom has a lot of friends. You know, she’s very gregarious, and so [chuckle]–

 

Are you that way too? Are you very social?

 

I am to a certain extent, but not as much as my mother. I definitely like to have my alone time. And I think most writers do. You know, you need that time to reflect and to think, and to kind of exist in this other world that you’re creating. And to do that, you need some isolation, moments of, moments of quiet.

 

Is anybody allowed to intrude? Can your husband—

 

Oh—

 

–interact with you then?

 

My kids can sometimes; but my husband, no. I’m like, I’m writing. [chuckle]

 

Did you have periods in your life where you felt like you had to choose between your ethnicities?

 

No, not—

 

Or did you have difficulty feeling accepted, or—

 

Well, in adolescence. And maybe that’s just a mark of adolescence, where we’re all struggling against something and rebelling against something. And for me, it was being Korean. And partly because I didn’t know very many other Koreans, except for my mother’s friends, who were first generation.

 

M-hm.

 

And I did go through a period as a teenager saying, Oh, I don’t want to be associated with anything Korean. You know, it’s like, oh, nothing that my mom is—you know, I don’t want to learn any—I don’t want to learn the language, I don’t want to eat the food, I don’t want to—

 

Was that a mom thing?

 

I think in part, that’s a big thing. And so that’s why I say, maybe all adolescents go through that. But I would say, like if people say, W hat ethnicity are you? And I’d say, Oh, I’m a little bit of everything.

 

Ah.

 

You know.

 

You didn’t have to choose sides?

 

I didn’t want to choose.

 

Or pick one.

 

I said, I’m everything. Yeah.

 

Nora Okja Keller has lived in different worlds – from Seoul to Honolulu. Struggling with identity, she found her voice as an author. She began writing during her early school days at Ala Wai Elementary, Hahaione and Punahou. Today, Nora’s works are translated into Korean and published internationally.

 

When did the writing bug hit you?

 

Oh, you know, I think I was always writing. I remember scribbling little poems—in elementary, I would start. And I would do little poems, and I would read something and think, Oh, that’s so wonderful. And I would try to mimic the language in the book, and think about how the writer, you know, put the words together to get that effect, to make it sound the way it did. So I was trying to do that, even in elementary.

 

And were you also looking for a time alone to think about things like that?

 

Oh, I had time alone, because I had to catch the bus home. And so that was my time alone, and I’d write, and then sometimes I’d get so involved I’d miss my stop and end up, you know, having to get—you know, call from the bus station for a ride home.

 

Do you remember what you wrote about in your early years?

 

Oh, I think I wrote—yeah. I do. I wrote about kids I might have, you know, met, and I would form little stories around people. Or I’d see something going on, like maybe somebody walking down the street, an older woman picking flowers or something. And I might write a story about that, or animals. You know, I had lots of pets growing up. We—I grew up partly in W aimanalo, so we had quite a few dogs and cats running around, so I’d have little animal stories.

 

M-hm.

 

Things like that. But you know, all that—when I look back, I think, well, of course I became a writer, because I was doing it since I was a kid. But all that time, I never thought, Oh, I’m gonna grow up to become a writer, I’m gonna do this for my career. I never thought of that.

 

And that was never featured on career day, right?

 

Oh, never. And talking with my mom and my parents, It was like, Well, no, try to you know, do something practical. You know, have something that’s gonna support you for your life. You know, nobody’s gonna listen to you tell stories. You know, that’s not gonna—you know—

 

Did they—

 

–anything like that.

 

–think you were kind of an absent-minded or dreamy girl?

 

Oh, of course. Yeah; definitely. I mean, I missed my bus stop several times [chuckle], you know, just daydreaming, and I’d be, you know, and my family would be having conversations, and I would be somewhere else, you know, thinking, oh, about the characters that I was gonna write about. So they say, Of course, you know, you did that all the time. But that was never—I never considered it an option, you know, that I would become a writer.

 

So when you—when you went to Punahou, what were you thinking in terms of what you were gonna do, and how you were gonna do it?

 

Oh, I don’t—when I was in high school, I don’t—if anything, you know, I was drawn to arts. But the visual arts, so painting, drawing. I loved biology, so I thought maybe I can—maybe I could become that doctor my mom had always—

 

[chuckle]

 

–you know, envisioned. That lasted until calculus. After calculus, I realized, no, I can’t—

 

Back to arts.

 

Yeah; back to the arts. [chuckle]

 

College?

 

UH. I got my undergraduate degree in English and psychology. And even there, I was not sure what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until much later, I would say really, my fourth year—I took five years for that double degree, that I said, Oh, I have enough credits for English, I might as well get a double major, you know, along with psychology, I might as well add English to it.

 

Well, were your teachers not telling you, You should—you’re a writer, you should go into this.

 

My English teachers would say that, but—and I was always encouraged. But it was more like maybe go into teaching, or go into—I mean, I was always encouraged with writing, like You’re a good writer, but—

 

How are you gonna use it? What’s the—

 

Yeah.

 

–paycheck gonna be?

 

It was like, well, what about law school, or you know, how will this translate in the practical world?

 

What writers have you loved along the way?

 

When I was in high school, we had the classics. You know, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck. And back then, I was drawn to Hemingway for his—you know, the very clean lines, the straightforward. Now, I’m thinking, oh, you know, I can’t bear those, you know, another war story and another—you know, another manly man point of view. When I was in college, I took an Asian American studies course, and one of the people that we read was Maxine Hong Kingston. And that was actually the first time I read something and I thought, Oh, you know, this is someone who has a background similar to mine, and we can write about this? You know, we can write about stories that talk about ethnicity, and we can write about stories that talk about girls? It was a really a moment that I thought, Oh, there’s room for a voice like mine. And so she was a strong influence at that time in my life. Cathy Song, who I read in that class as well, has been as a friend now, a big influence in my life.

 

So she influenced you as a writer—

 

Yeah.

 

–and you got to know her, and she’s a friend?

 

Yeah. It’s so funny, because in that class, I remembered asking—going up to my professor after class one day and saying, Well, you know, I’m thinking about writing, and do you—can you recommend any—are there any Korean Americans that we can read? Because we had read, like, Chinese American, Japanese American, and Filipino American. You know, those very—the big ethnicities at that time, I guess. And so I said, Is there any

 

Korean Americans that I could look to as role models? No.

 

[chuckle]

 

[chuckle] I went, Oh, oh. I was like in shock, and I didn’t know what—and I was like, Oh, there’s nobody for me to follow.

 

Did you find Cathy Song on your own?

 

No. And the next day, she said, Oh, I was thinking, and you know, Yes, yes, there are. You know. And in fact, Cathy Song is one, but she’s only half Korean. I said, That’s okay. You know.

 

[chuckle]

 

[chuckle]

 

So am I.

 

Yeah; exactly. So then I read her works, you know, Picture Bride, and I wrote part of my thesis on Cathy. And didn’t meet her until after that. And now, we’re—we ended up, she’s one of my best friends. And so it’s fun how things kinda circle around.

 

Nora Okja Keller has found a small group of writers, including poet Cathy Song, with whom she feels comfortable sharing her work. And, in Comfort Woman and Fox Girl, she was able to eloquently and vividly depict abandonment, abuse, survival, redemption. The term ‘comfort woman’ is a euphemism from World War II, referring to a woman forced into sexual slavery.

 

When you wrote Comfort Woman, what kind of research did you do to find out these just horrible scenarios that happened?

 

Yeah. W ell, when I first heard about it in ’93. There wasn’t a lot of information on it. You know, I had thought I knew a lot about Korean history and Korean culture because of my mom, and her stories about growing up, and just reading about it. But when I first heard about it—heard about it through a symposium at UH. Keum-Ju Hwang, a former ‘comfort woman,’ came to speak there. And as she spoke, I just remember thinking, Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe this. You know, this is such an important part of this history, and how come I didn’t hear about this? You know, kind of like—

 

How come you didn’t?

 

Well, I think in part—and I had asked this of my mom. You know, you told me so much about this history, you knew so much about culture, and I ask you for all these stories. Where are these stories about these women? And she said, W ell, you know, it’s such a painful thing to talk about, for Koreans in general, I think, and for her generation, that they just didn’t speak about it. And even my older sister, who didn’t leave Korea until she was a teenager; she said she remembers like there might be some reference. Like on the Korean soap operas, there’d be like this mysterious woman, veiled in black, going through the background. And the reference would be, Oh, you know, do you see that woman? Something bad happened to her during the war. And so it would be understood, but never talked about. And I think there was so much pain, and so much shame surrounding that event. And Keum-Ju Hwang said it herself, that so many of the women—well, the women who survived—you know, I’ve read statistics since then that maybe ninety percent of the women did not even survive the camps. But the women who did survive felt like they couldn’t even return to their family, and they carried so much of that shame within them, that they couldn’t even speak about it, and they didn’t talk about that part of their lives.

 

What was the reality? What were the lives like of the Korean women who were taken captive, and then forced to act as comfort women?

 

Oh; oh. Well, there was probably, you know, hundred, two hundred thousand women—Korean women, not to mention the Chinese women, the Indonesian women, Filipino women. These were women between the ages of eleven or twelve, and thirty-five, forty, who were taken forcibly by the Japanese army, taken into small camps. And they were, in some cases, taken out of the classroom, taken away from families, and forced into these, you know, camps where they were kept to service the Japanese soldiers.

 

And what kind of hardships did they go through; they were raped?

 

Right; repeatedly. You know, forced to service maybe thirty to forty men a day, abortions. And I think, to add insult to all of that, is that the women who survived these camps were not—were treated as like as invisible, you know, by the Japanese government afterwards. And you know, as nonexistent and that there were no camps. You know, that was the parting line right after the war; Oh, no, there was no such thing as these camps, and there was no such thing as these women. If these women were there, they wanted to be there, they volunteered. It was, you know, that they did it to support the army. You know. It was—that was the attitude. So I think maybe that was one of the most hurtful things for these women. And added to why it was so difficult for them to speak about their stories, you know, along with the shame and along with the trauma, is that they had to deal with you know—the official line was they did not exist. Yeah.

 

So either they didn’t exist, or they had to define themselves as what awful things happened to them.

 

Right; right. Yeah.

 

And you said most of them couldn’t go home?

 

Yes; so many of them, did not return to their families. Some—you know, in their families’ eyes, they were dead, they didn’t return from the war. And they—the families might not have known what happened to them.

 

Why didn’t they go home?

 

Keum-Ju Hwang said, because the girl that she was, was now dead, and that she could not bear to shame her family with what had happened to her.

 

Thats one of the themes in both books.

 

M-hm.

 

It’s what it takes to survive.

 

Right.

 

And how do you move on?

 

Right; how do you move on, how do you continue to form connections with other people, how do you continue to love? What do you pass on to the next generation?

 

How do you be open to other people, when you’ve seen this just dastardly horrible side.

 

Right. Exactly. Exactly. So that’s something that I circle back to again. And the strength and the fortitude that it takes to be able to do that, to not just give up and say, I’m—that’s it. [chuckle] You know.

 

Well, in both of your books, I think your characters just put their minds in another place. They just detach from their body. Which might work as a short term strategy, but how does that affect them later in life?

 

Right; right; you know. Well, I think there’s always gonna be a disconnect that you are in some ways present for your children or the people in your lives. But there’s always that part of you that is held back. And for something as horrific as those experiences and the prostitution in the comfort camps, it’s not something that they would share with their children. So there’s always something hidden, and something withheld, and that’s a type of pain as well. You know, not to be fully open.

 

And if you do share, as your children might want you to, you’ve just given them just—

 

Yes.

 

–terrible images

 

A burden.

 

–to live with.

 

Right. You’ve passed on your burden.

 

M-hm.

 

You know, some readers have come up to me and said, Oh, you know, after I read, you know, Comfort Woman or Fox Girl, now I feel like I have this burden, you know. And I said, Well, then I’ve done my job as a writer.

 

M-hm.

 

You know, I—

 

The burden of—

 

–felt like I was—

 

–history.

 

–carrying that. Yeah; I was carrying that burden writing it, so now you know, you’ve read it. It’s—you know, you share that burden—

 

What has your mom said about your taking up this burden of history?

 

Oh, you know, she’s proud. You know. And one of the most moving things for me after Comfort Woman was written and published in Korean, I got to take my mom and my kids to Korea. And she hadn’t been back for twenty-five years. And to be there with—when she was reuniting with some of her family that she hadn’t seen for that long, and to—at the same time that was my book was coming out; I mean, it was just really—it was so moving. And to be able to share that with her. So I told her, The book’s an apology for all the times that I said I wasn’t Korean—

 

[chuckle]

 

–and I didn’t want to, you know, participate in culture, and wear the hanbok—

 

[chuckle]

 

–dress, and so we laugh about it now. I was so blessed at that time, and—

 

And timing is good too, isn’t it?

 

I think—

 

There was a—there was a desire to see this material come out.

 

Yes. Because that was just about the same time that the first—that the comfort women first began speaking about it, and first breaking their stories, you know. Keum-Ju Hwang said she’s talking about it now, after all these years because she—before she dies, she wanted the story to be known, this history to be known. And so I think a lot of the comfort women were coming out—coming forward with their stories at that time. The struggles that I portray in the book are so intense and so—you know, most of us will never have to experience something, but we all go through our struggles, and we all strive for redemption. W e all strive to make connections, and to open ourselves up, and to find that grace in life. And so I feel like that’s just as important to write about.

 

You know, you said you showed chapters you’d written to fellow local writers, and of course, you had an editor in New York. What’s it like when you know, these words are you baby, and the crafting belongs to you. When somebody wants to change it, what’s that like?

 

Well, first I do a lot. I try to get my vision down as closely as I can on paper first, before I can even bear to show it to somebody in my writing group, even. But these are people I trust. And I know, like, they’re such good people that I feel like I can trust them with my work, and that they’re gonna look at the work and say, This is what it needs. This is what I think needs to be done. Or even if anybody says, I don’t like it, it’s for the good of the piece. And I know it’s always with the good intentions of how can we make this writing better. And in fact, when I teach classes, that’s the attitude that I go in with. And I say, You know, it might seem like I’m gonna write all over your paper, and I’m gonna say, This doesn’t work here. But my intention is always, How can I make this piece better, how can I make something become what it should be, or closest to the vision that you have in your head.

 

So it’s like artists who—or sculptors who start with a piece of stone or wood, and they say they’re freeing something from that material.

 

I think in some ways. I always you know, I started out thinking I was gonna be—if I was gonna be any artist, it would be in the visual arts, like drawing or painting. And so when I think of, you know, crafting a story or crafting a novel, that’s kind of the terms that I think of it as. Like, a rough sketch, you know. Doing the background wash, you know.

 

And what does it—

 

Adding the—

 

–want to be. Yeah.

 

Yeah. You know, what form is emerging from this, you know. So it is, that is somewhat. And trying to communicate that to my writing group first, and having another eye look at the piece, and saying, Well, this form is still a little bit hazy, you know, can you sketch it, you know, bring it forward a little bit. Or this character should not be a background character; you need to make this character—bring him into the foreground. You know, so it does help. And so you know, I’ve been so, so lucky to have people that I trust, you know, first reading it, being first editors for my work.

 

M-hm. I think I remember you saying this is gonna be a—

 

M-hm.

 

–trilogy. And there hasn’t been a third book yet.

 

I know.

 

Whats the third book going to be about?

 

It will take place in Hawai‘i more so than the other two books. But still follow the theme of—you know, Comfort Woman dealt with the comfort women during World War II. Fox Girl, Korean War, but took place mainly in Korea. This next book will kinda jump forward another twenty years or so, and reflect more on Korean Americans in Hawai‘i.

 

So there’s more to come from this talented writer, mining a rich, largely unexplored cultural vein – the Korean-American experience in Hawai‘i. Mahalo to Nora Okja Keller for sharing stories; and to you, for enjoying them with me. Please join me next week for another Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawai‘i. A hui hou kakou!

 

You’ve become a teacher part time—

 

Part-time.

 

–recently. What’s that like, creative writing?

 

Oh, it’s fun. And I’ve been teaching students younger than I’ve taught before. And it’s so fun. It’s something that I’ve found that I really enjoy. And I enjoy teaching the younger students, because you know, they take them— they don’t take themselves as seriously, I think. And they are more willing to take risks with their stories, and they’re more willing to explore different things. And I find that refreshing, and it reminds me a little bit about what writing, creative writing should be; you know, a little bit of risk taking, a little bit of exploration, a little bit of saying, I don’t know what this is gonna turn out to be, but I’m willing to go along with this story in the time being. So I just enjoy them. They’re so funny.

 

 

 

MY MOTHER AND OTHER STRANGERS ON MASTERPIECE
Part 5 of 5

 

Hattie Morahan stars as Englishwoman Rose Coyne, raising her daughter Emma and son Francis in Northern Ireland during World War II. Owen McDonnell is her loving husband Michael, a Northern Irishman who realizes he never lived up to her dreams. Aaron Staton is Captain Dreyfuss, the American officer who upends her life.

 

Part 5 of 5
An unwelcome note leads to a disastrous meeting. And can Tillie stop the captain and Rose from making a terrible mistake?

 

 

THE GREAT AMERICAN READ
What We Do for Love

 

Fall in love with some of literature’s most beautiful romances and explore the many forms of love, from family to passion to the unrequited type.

 

 

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