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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Mahealani Wendt

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Mahealani Wendt

 

Growing up in the crowded, rundown tenements of downtown Honolulu, Mahealani Wendt witnessed the poverty of the Native Hawaiian people around her. That ignited a passion to help, and she spent more than three decades fighting for Hawaiian rights, with a long run as the Executive Director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation in Honolulu. Today she lives in Hāna, Maui, and is a poet and author.

 

Program

 

More from Mahealani Wendt:

 

“Righteous Cause”

 

Hawaiian Homeland

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, March 24, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Mahealani Wendt Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

When I went to Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, I’m not sure that the most effective thing I could do there was as an attorney.  I worked as a volunteer, I worked as a grants writer.  I knew nothing about writing grants.  You know, a lot of times, you’re fueled just by passion, and you have so much … I don’t know how else to put it.  You know, you just feel so, so intensely about something, and it drives you, and you do everything you have to do to make it happen.  And that’s how I became a grants writer.

 

Her success as a volunteer grant writer led to a thirty-two-year career fighting for Native Hawaiian rights.  Mahealani Wendt of Maui, 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.  Mahealani Wendt is the retired executive director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, a community activist, accomplished writer, and poet.  She’s the eldest of seven children, grew up on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu, and now lives on farmland on Maui in Wailua Nui along Hāna Highway.  She knew from the time she was nine years old, living in the rundown tenements of Downtown Honolulu, that she wanted to help others.  She was deeply affected by the poverty of Native Hawaiian people she saw around her, and despite being poor herself, she says she was raised in a loving, nurturing environment, and never went hungry.  In childhood, she developed a love of writing and reading.

 

My father is Spanish; he’s second generation.  My grandparents emigrated from Spain in 1906.  They were plantation workers, the first sugar plantation in Hawai‘i, Kōloa Sugar. And so, they settled on Kaua‘i. And eventually, he met my mother, who’s from Hilo; she’s Hawaiian.  And we grew up on Kaua‘i there.  It was very beautiful, very country.  We had horses, cows, pigs, chickens, raised every kind of, you know, fruit tree, we had a garden. We were cray fishing, climbing trees; all this stuff we did, it was beautiful.  My parents separated.  You know, we were pretty innocent; we never understood what happened.  We just knew that one day, my mother decided that we were going to move, and she brought us to Honolulu.  It was a really different lifestyle.  You know, it was kind of an idyllic life, country life, and we moved to the heart of Honolulu, to the tenements.  And I still remember our address; it was 1278 Fort Street.

 

Fort Street.

 

Yeah; Fort Street, and there were twenty-seven steps going up to the second floor where we lived.

 

This was an old, beat-up building.

 

Yeah; it was the heart of the slums, the tenements in Honolulu.  This was in the 50s, mid-50s, and these tenement buildings, the closest thing that would kind of resemble it would be the buildings in Chinatown.  Those are far more well-maintained than the ones we lived in.  The buildings we lived, I’m now understanding, they were at least fifty years old.  They were wooden, they were termite-eaten.  They were firetraps, basically, you know, not fit for people to live in, but we lived there.  My mother, when she left, you know, didn’t have really the means to support all of us, and so … that’s where we lived.  Some slept on the bed, some slept on the floor.  We had, I think, three showers, cold water.

 

On that floor?

 

In the building.

 

In the whole building?

 

Everybody shared.

 

And how many people were in the building?

 

There were fifty-two rooms. There were three areas where we could do our cooking.  There were kerosene stoves.

 

Was it dangerous?  I mean, I know from a fire standpoint, it was dangerous.  What about from a human standpoint in a rough part of town.

 

It was a rough part of town. From my standpoint, I never saw any danger, I never experienced any danger.  It was a new world; I thought it was really kind of cool and exciting. New kids to play with, new people to meet, new aunties and uncles.  All Hawaiians in that building.  You know, in the same way they do now, the aunties take care.  So, we felt very protected and free, and I never felt any danger.  If you were entering from the sidewalk, you know, there were these narrow steps that went to the second floor.  And the pool hall was downstairs, next to a Chinese restaurant, next to a grocery store, next to, you know, all these different kinds of—

 

So, it felt like a neighborhood to you.

 

It did; totally.

 

No creepy people hanging around.

 

I never remembered any creepy people.

 

You know.  And I mean, when I think back on it, I think: Wow, it would be like, you would think there would be creepy people, but in my child’s eyes, I never saw creepy people.  To me, they were really nice; nice people.

 

And you felt adults were looking out for you, too.

 

Yes, we did; we felt very protected.

 

I wonder how your mom felt with seven kids to take care of.

 

We owned our own home on Kaua‘i. My grandparents homesteaded twenty-five acres there, and you know, the lands are still there.  So, you know, what caused her to feel so compelled to move, we never understood.  I never even understood it as an adult.  But there we were.  It must have been very stressful; we were really poor.  I sold newspapers.  I thought that was really cool, ‘cause I could have spending money, you know, and stuff. I was selling newspapers.  My corner was Fort and Kukui, and I sold the Honolulu Advertiser.  I sold forty papers, made a dollar.  And then, that was my lunch money.  I made most of my money from tips, ‘cause I was so young.  You know, I was like, nine years old, standing on the corner with newspapers.  Oh, poor thing, you know.  So, they’d give me a dollar.  Wow, that’s a lot of money.  That’s what I would make for the whole, you know, selling forty papers.  So … I thought it was great.

 

M-hm.

Again, the perspective.  You know, as a child, I was innocent.  I saw all of it as a great excitement.  It was just a different thing, you know.  I mean, one thing, for example, when we lived in Kauai, the store was really far.  You know. When we moved to Honolulu, the store was downstairs.

 

It was amazing.  I was just like, enthralled, you know.  When I lived on Kaua‘i, we’d go to the movies once, you know, every six months or something.  When we went to Honolulu, we lived next to the theater.  You know.  So, that’s how I saw it from a child’s sort of sense of wonder.  It wasn’t until I was, you know, older, maybe intermediate school, I sort of kinda understood that we were really poor.  And then, as I got older, I realized that, you know, the auntie that, you know, was so sick, and da-da-da, this is why.  And then, I realized that, you know, so-and-so, that you know, we really thought was really a cool guy, he’s in jail because he did this.  You know, so I had a sense of perspective, but it was afterwards.

 

After the fact.

 

Yes.

 

Did you ever connect with your father again?

 

Yes.  We saw him as we could afford to.  I think he would send money and, you know, we’d go.  But it wasn’t very often.  And he came to visit us once.  You know, he was not a Honolulu man; he was a hunter, a fisherman.  He would come back from the mountains with, you know, these burlap bags full of ‘o‘opu to feed our family.  You know, very subsistence lifestyle.  When he worked, he worked as a heavy equipment operator, kind of a laborer.  I loved my dad.  Both of my parents read to us.  My father would put us on his lap and read.  You know, those experiences.  I came to really love literature and reading from both parents.  My parents were very good parents, in spite of the separation. And my mother was very strict; she taught us very fundamental values, and we were expected to, you know, adhere to them.  And if we did not, the punishment was swift and sure.  All of the kids turned out good.  I went to Royal School.

 

Royal School.

 

Yeah.

 

Okay; elementary.  And then?

 

I went to Royal Elementary, and then I went to Central Intermediate.

 

And then?

 

And then, I went to Kamehameha in my sophomore year.  I liked public school.  Public school was awesome; I learned a lot.  You know, again, the common theme of, you know, this love of literature, that was more than reinforced in the public school.  In fact, at Kalaheo Elementary, where I went to, you know, from first to third grade, my second grade teacher, Mrs. Robello, encouraged me when I wrote a little poem for my mother.  You know how teachers do.  It’s so important.  She took my little poem, she put it on the wall.  You know how teachers, you can encourage by telling everybody, you know. And when her students would make a little picture, she’d put that on the wall.  So, she had ways of encouraging and making you feel: Ho, this is something I can do.

 

How long were you in the tenements?

 

Well, we lived in Honolulu for three years.  There was a terrible fire in the tenement next door.

 

Another wooden building?

 

It was a wooden building; it was right next to ours on the next block, and it burned down.  And four people died in that fire.  One of the ones who passed was a three-year-old who was my brother’s playmate.  And so, it really affected everybody, the family.  It really had an impact on me.  And it was just … I don’t know; I’ll never forget it.  We stood out there and watched this whole thing happen.

 

And watched it burn down.

 

Yes.  We lived there until my mother could find someplace else she could afford.  So, we moved close to Queen’s Hospital; same sort of building, but not as big.  We lived there for another, like, three or four years, and then we moved, and we actually moved to a much nicer place. Things were getting better; you know, Mom could find work, and so, we moved to a much better place.

 

How formative was the experience of living in places like that, those two different buildings and the fire that took your acquaintances and friends?

 

I know that it has everything to do with my community advocacy work, especially on behalf of Hawaiians.  The people who made a difference in our lives when we were growing up were the social workers who reached out to us. They were so kind.  They were so kind to my mother.  And I grew up feeling that I wanted to be a social worker.  I changed my mind when I realized I didn’t have the fortitude.  I saw what they had to deal with.  And I’m a little bit emotional; I have a really hard time focusing, you know, when I see that.  I got older, I guess I gained a perspective.  As a child, I didn’t really understand what that environment was all about.

 

Yeah; you thought they were nice people.

 

I thought everybody was nice.

 

But they were carrying all this pain, I suppose—

 

Yes.

 

–that they saw.

 

M-hm.  And as I got much older, and we learned our history and, you know, the displacement, I started focusing on Hawaiians.  It happened kind of gradually.  I was, you know, someone who was intent on a social work profession, but I also had competing things that I was really interested in.  The literature thing was always an interest.

 

After graduating from Kamehameha Schools, Mahealani Wendt went to work for big corporations, first on the continent, and then back home in Hawai‘i.  She was good at what she did, but her heart was not in the corporate world.

 

Right out of high school, I lived in Texas.  And while I was in Texas, I worked for a very large insurance company, a national insurance company, and I learned a lot about corporate business.  And so, I worked there for five years, I worked my way up.  Then I came home to Hawaiʻi.  I worked for a local corporation called Crown Corporation.  They had a bunch of industrial loan banks, they had securities firm, they had insurance. You know, I mean, some of the companies are still around; a lot of them are no longer.  But you know, they were real estate developers; all of that.  I was into that.  And I was like an admin assistant to vice president.  So, I did that.  And then, I went to college.

 

That was good preparation.

 

Yeah, it was good preparation. But interestingly, I started doing the community activism, you know, the demonstrations and stuff when I was still working for this corporation.  And my boss, who was a vice president, said: Just don’t let me see you arrested, or on TV. You know, something like that.  I said: I’ll be fine.

 

You know, so I always like, had these two like, sort of identities there.  I would be this corporate thing at work, and then, you know, uh, the rest of the time, I’d be … and then, I decided I needed to go to school, because I needed skills to do the thing I wanted, which is [SIGH] effectuate social reform.  Working for business was really a survival thing for me.  I had good skills, I had good typing, accounting; those sort of things. I had skills that I could market very readily in the business environment, so that’s where I went.  But that’s not where my heart was.

 

So, you’re taking political science now at the UH.

 

M-hm.  I’m taking political science, and I have an opportunity to do an internship with Legal Aid Society, along with thirty other interns, students at UH Mānoa, political science majors.  And we’re placed at the Legal Aid Society of Hawai‘i at a time when, you know, we were coming into a growth of social programs, social economic programs in our community.  So, there was this quantum leap in legal services available to the community through Legal Aid.

 

Because there was more funding.

 

There was more funding.

 

More value placed on that.

 

Yes.  I chose to go with the so-called land unit at the time.  And in the course of my internship, I was assigned to work with community organizations in the Hawaiian community. And that sort of was a catalyst for my future work.  I attended law school, I left law school.  I was very active in the community.  I mean, actually coming into this kind of work, the genesis of it was community activism.  So, the early so-called land struggles—Kalama Valley, Kokua Kalama, He‘eia Kea, Waiāhole-Waikāne, Niumalu-Nāwiliwili on Kaua‘i, Mokauea Island—all of those struggles, I was there.  I was there. I was not there as a leader; I was there as someone who felt compelled to be there.  I really related to what the people were suffering, and I felt I had to be there.  It’s a combination of that activism and my experience at the Legal Aid Society leading me to Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation.  You know, it’s kinda like all boiled into the picture.

 

Why did you leave law school after college?

 

Well, I had children.  At that time, I was a single parent.  That was part of it; it was the economics of it. You know, when I went to Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, I’m not sure that the most effective thing I could do there was as an attorney.  I found my niche was really talking to the staff about community; how community felt, you know, what was important.  Because sometimes the rigor of legal linear thinking separates you from community. And I think you need both.  So, I think it would have been fine to go through law school, but at that point in my life, I felt I would be more useful in bringing that perspective to the firm.  And I think that it worked really well.

 

And you worked your way up to heading the office; you ran the office.

 

Yeah.  So, the first position was an interim attorney who agreed to come over from private practice to sort of get us started.  The second was Melody MacKenzie.  Then after, I think, a year or two, the first gentleman moved on back to private practice after kinda mentoring us.  I became the third staff person.  And Melody MacKinzie was my boss for, I don’t know, maybe six, seven years. And she taught me so much.  I just owe her a great debt of gratitude.  She’s the kindest, the most brilliant mentor a person could have.  I mean, I just love her; I love her to this day.  She was the executive director, but I guess she was kind of, you know, having to do a lot of this admin stuff.  And it just seemed more efficient to have me do the administrative part, you know, deal with personnel hiring, firing, that sort of thing.  ‘Cause I had a background in it.  Melody has those skills, but she’s also brilliant; a brilliant jurist, a brilliant scholar.  You know, I mean, talking story as a staff, and it just seemed like, you know, a more sensible way to go.  And so, I guess in name, you know, I became the head of the organization, and then she could focus on cases and clients, you know, and I could just deal with the other stuff.

 

You did that for a long time.

 

M-hm.  Well, I retired after thirty-two years.  So, yes, I did it a long time.  It was fun.  I loved it.

 

What kinds of cases did your firm handle?

 

Well, our cases were all Native rights cases.  So, you know, they’re kind of characterized as the things that we require in order to be Hawaiian.  Hawaiians were being affected with respect to land tenure, their ability to hold onto their lands, ability to hold onto their natural resources, have access to it, ability to engage in traditional and customary practices that they require to be Hawaiian.  If their access to the ocean is cut off, then they can’t go fish, they cannot gather limu; these kinds of things.  The ability to exercise practices relating to their traditional religion, things that would impede it, ability to access their trusts, the Hawaiian Homelands trusts or the public lands trusts.  All of those things became our areas of focus.  We had genealogists on staff, we had title people on staff.  We had Hawaiian translators on staff, because we’re dealing a lot with archival documents, many of which are only in Hawaiian. So, we had people on staff who specialized in translating legal documents.  So, the shop is a specialty shop, you know, asserting the rights of native people.  And we did well.  There were many cases that we did, that I’m very proud of.

 

That was a very … just vibrant time, and also, it was a time of people coming into age and being very proud, and also running into a lot of walls, too.

 

Yes; yes.  And I think with knowledge comes power.  You know, and the more we’re able to understand our history—and of course, language is a window into culture, the more we understand our language the more we understand better who we are.  Part of that is having, you know, connection to land, connection to water, connection to ocean, continuing to keep traditional practice vibrant and alive. All of those things are important. And you know, ultimately, it’s about values.  And as many other peoples, including indigenous peoples, those values are really important, not only for us here as a people in Hawaii, and not only for all of Hawai‘i, but even globally.  You know, you join with other peoples.  There are certain values that are universally exalted as being life-affirming and necessary in order for, you know, humankind to thrive.  We can make a contribution, and it’s really, really important that we be allowed to be a people.

 

Why do we do this?  We do this because we love Hawai‘i.

 

A&B doesn’t own the water, the taro farmers do not own the water.  Our people own the water.  Ke Akua owns the water.

 

Ae!

 

Ae!

 

Ke Akua owns the water.

 

Ae!

 

For all of us.

 

So, let our people live, and let the ‘aina live, forever. [INDISTINCT]  Stand up so that we can make that happen.

 

Mahealani Wendt met her husband, Ed Wendt, through her work in native water rights.  He’s a taro farmer with kuleana land.  Where they live in Wailua Nui, in Maui’s Hana District, is beautiful, but as always, farming kalo is hard work.  Besides her passion for justice, Mahealani Wendt has always had a love for poetry and writing.  Even as head of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, she found time to write, and has received numerous literary awards, both nationally and internationally. We’re going to close now with a reading from one of her poems that reflects back on her childhood.  Mahalo to Mahealani Wendt of Wailua Nui, Maui, for sharing her life story with us, and mahalo to you for joining us.  For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, 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.

 

At statehood, we trundled kerosene tankards over rutted Honolulu sidewalks, past beer halls, pool halls, taxi dancehalls, past honky-tonk dives, juke joints, and shoeshine stands, to rooming house kitchens where we lit our communal fires and kept vigil for the one day our nation would be restored.  The torches burned bright as we stood watch.  Our children, listless on tenement floors, their coverings prickling with insect filth, and the grit of ambient sounds, incessant scuttlings and winged scurryings inside squalid floors and walls, we sensed a slow collapse under the terrific weight of a people whose gods kept watch with them there. The minions of forest, river, and ocean gods, companions in these root places whispering their encouragements as generations of children turn to hear, like flowers brightening to sun.

 

[END]

 

 

FINDING YOUR ROOTS
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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Wordsmiths

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Wordsmiths

 

On this special episode of Long Story Short, we look back at conversations with three of Hawai‘i’s contemporary authors. We revisit our 2011 interview with Chris McKinney, whose gritty, semi-autobiographical novels, like local best seller The Tattoo, depict the dark underbelly of paradise. Acclaimed novelist Susanna Moore, whom we interviewed in 2012, draws inspiration from her Hawai‘i upbringing, calling forth both beauty and danger in her writing. Our 2008 guest, storyteller and historian Gavan Daws, has made a lasting impact on Hawai‘i’s literary scene with his book Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands, which remains the bestselling history of Hawai‘i. These “wordsmiths” have built careers weaving stories of Hawai‘i in distinctive, personal ways and have proven exceptional at bringing these stories to the page. Hear how they approach their craft and get a glimpse into their literary lives.

 

Program

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, March 17, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Wordsmiths Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

I did a calculation a couple years back. Someone, somewhere in the world has bought a book of mine every forty minutes since 1968.  And you used the word academic about me.  I am a recovering academic.  Put it that way.  I never wanted to write like an academic.

 

In part, I wroteIn the Cutbecause was so exasperated by hearing, after three Hawaiian books, that I was a woman’s writer, which meant that I wrote poetically about children, and flowers, and mothers.  I remember thinking: Oh, is that all I can do?  Oh, is that how I’m seen?  So, I very, very purposefully wrote In the Cut to dispel that notion.

 

Some of the best stuff, some of the best ideas, some of the best things that you can plug into your story will be thing that may be scary, and things that there’s actual risk in sort of hurting somebody’s feelings or making somebody mad.  I mean, if you’re gonna refuse to do that kinda stuff, find another vocation.

 

Those are three of Hawaiʻi’s successful contemporary authors sharing thoughts about how they approach their craft.  These writers have built careers weaving stories of Hawaiʻi in distinctive, honest, and personal ways.  On this episode of Long Story Short, we’ll hear some of the fascinating backstories behind their books.  Island Wordsmiths, coming up next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Despite the technology that dominates our lives these days, a good book continues to inspire our imagination and transport us to new places, far away and even within ourselves.  Here in Hawaiʻi, we have fascinating stories to share, and writers who’ve proven exceptional in bringing these experiences to the printed page or screen.  On this edition of Long Story Short, we feature some of the wordsmiths with whom we’ve talked story over the past decade: Chris McKinney, Susanna Moore, and Gavan Daws.  Perhaps not surprisingly, all three have been teachers, as well as writers.

 

We start with our youngest author.  Chris McKinney of Honolulu was thirty-eight, with four books under his belt, when I interviewed him in 2011.  A writing career seemed unlikely when Chris McKinney was growing up in rural Kahaluu in the 1970s and 80s.  School-assigned books sparked his interest starting in middle school, and little could Chris McKinney guess then that his very first novel, The Tattoo, would one day become assigned reading in many Hawaiʻi schools.

 

You know, especially in Tattoo, part of the story is about a father seeking to toughen his son.  I just make this wild, random guess and figure it’s autobiographical.  So, which father?

 

Oh, stepfather.  And I can’t remember it, but I can just imagine what must have been the look on his face the first time he saw me, when I was about two or three years old.

 

Because of the leisure suit?

 

Because of the way my mom had dressed me.

 

And he said: I’m gonna do something with this kid.

 

Yeah; he just must have taken one look at me and thought: What in the world is this woman doing to this poor kid?  It almost felt like, you know, even though it was the 1970, early 1980s, that we were living in some sort of time warp plantation, sort of the way you were brought up thing.  And even the stories that he seems to enjoy telling the most are stories that involve people doing spectacularly crazy things.  And so, I think for him at least at the time, is part of what being a man is about.  To not show the next guy that you’re not just tougher than him, but you’re crazier than him, that you’re willing to go further than he is willing to go, and he better recognize that before he messes with you, basically.  So, if it wasn’t for my stepfather, The Tattooprobably would not have been The Tattoo.

 

So, you obviously had material to be a writer, but were you thinking about being a writer?

 

Absolutely not.  Again, remember, in some ways, I am my mother’s son.  And it is that cliché immigrant Asian story, or that philosophy, in that they want their children to succeed financially.  I mean, that is the most important thing you can do in life, is you get a good job and you make a lot of money.  And I think that hearing my mother and my grandparents and stuff talk like that all of my life, that I bought into that more than anything else. Art; you know, art, that’s not what I’m gonna do.  I’m going to make money.  So, for a long time, the plan, at least from about high school and for most of my undergrad, I was going to become a lawyer, an attorney.  And then, what had happened was that I spent probably too much time playing ukulele and drinking beer, and playing Nintendo during my undergrad that I needed to go to grad school in order to get into a good law school.  So, yeah, you know.  And at the same time, I had my bachelor’s degree in English. During my bachelor’s degree in English, I was parking cars for a living.  After I completed my bachelor’s in English, I was still parking cars for a living.  So, either way, I thought that grad school, whether it would be an avenue to law school or anything, was probably a good idea, ‘cause I didn’t want to park cars for the rest of my life.  Which was what it felt like.  So, it wasn’t until I went to grad school as an unclassified graduate student.  And again, I was very lucky because the professors who would take me, one being Joy Marcella, and the other one being Phil Damon, and another one—all three of them in the same semester, Ian MacMillan, when I wrote for them, they were all very encouraging.  And I thought: Maybe I can do this.

 

Did you have a sense that your writing was fresh, and that you knew a world that most people hadn’t written about?  If they knew it, they didn’t write about it.

 

Yeah.  Quite honestly, it’s because if you were to look into the sort of educational background of, let’s say, all of the kids my age within that square two miles of where I grew up, I would put money down on the fact that I may be one of three that actually graduated from college.  If that. So, in the sense that I was sitting there and I was writing stories among whatever, you know, seventeen, eighteen other people, yeah, there was definitely nobody else writing the kinda stuff that I was writing.

 

Would you talk about more of the influences on your writing?  What, and who have influenced your writing?

 

There’s a list of teachers that I’m thankful that I had. The first great teacher I had was a guy named Mr. Guerrero.  And this was when I was living in California.  He was fantastic.  He assigned the class a book, Animal Farm, that was the first novel that I had read that just totally resonated with me. And at the time, I wasn’t thinking that I wanted to be a writer, but it was the first time that I saw, and I was in awe of what you could do with a book.  At first, we read it, and then of course, it was thig thing, this power corrupt scheme and all of that.  And you know, I’d seen that before.  But when you find out that it’s based on the Bolshevik Revolution, that just blew my mind. Wait a minute; so this guy took history, he put it on some generic farm, and in that last moment, of course, when the animals are looking through the window and they can’t tell the difference between the pigs and the farmers, the human farmers, I mean, talk about an ending that I will never forget.  So, that was the first book that blew me away.  And then, in high school, I had a couple of good English teachers.  I think one of them still teaches at Mid Pac. Mrs. Takeshita, Mrs. Takabayashi; they were really good, and they were always encouraging.  So, I had teachers, and then there were books that influenced me. Shakespeare, Mac Beth particularly resonated with me when I read it in eleventh grade in high school.  So, that was the second story that just sort of blew me away.

 

How do you feel about high school students getting The Tattoo as required or recommended reading in many schools?

 

Thankful.  I mean, at first, it was weird.  So, when the book first came out, and people would come up to me and say: I don’t read, but my teacher assigned this book and I had to read it, and it was The Tattoo.  At first, I didn’t really know what to say to that, ‘cause I just thought it was strange. But at this point, ten years later, eleven years later, I’m grateful.  Something like that would never have occurred when I was in high school. I mean, high school, you were taught The Canon, you know, Dead White Males.  So, I think that it’s interesting to see that there’s more of a progressive thing going on in high schools, where teachers are allowed, and some of the language in that book is kind of foul.  So, it’s gratifying to see that they have the courage not only to buck the idea that everything has to come from the Western canon, but also that they can take a little bit of risk with what they include in the curriculum.

 

Since this interview first aired in 2011, Chris McKinney has published more books, bringing his total to eight.  He continues to teach writing courses at Honolulu Community College.

 

I spoke with our next critically acclaimed author in 2012.  At the time, she was living in New York City.  Susanna Moore’s tenth book is expected out this year, 2019.  Her repertoire includes two memoirs, one history book, and seven novels, including one called In the Cut, which was made into a 2003 movie starting Meg Ryan.  Susanna Moore grew up on Oahu, attended Punahou School, and lived what appeared to be a privileged life in Tantalus, Kahala, and Portlock in the 1950s. However, her mother’s untimely death led to an unhappy upbringing.  That experience would later compel Susanna Moore to explore family dynamics in her writing.

 

When did the writing bug come?  Or had you always had it?

 

I’d always had it, and wrote as a child, and wrote plays, and really bad poetry.  You know, I was a reporter for Ka Punahou, the newspaper.

 

Did you write more after your mom passed away?

 

No, I don’t think so.  I think about the same.  And also, really a bookworm.  You know, reading early, and reading insatiably and incessantly.  And then I stopped, because I had to work, I had to support myself.  And writing certainly was not going to be a way to do it.  And still isn’t, you know.  Like a lot of writers, I had to teach in order to write.

 

How did you find your voice in the first place?

 

With the first book, I’d had a baby, a girl child.  So, I’m sure there was some identification there with myself and my mother, and my mother with her mother.  And I was approaching the age, the same age as my mother when she died.  And I felt a bit shaky, and I wanted very much to just get down in writing what had happened to me, and to my daughter’s grandmother.  And that’s really how it began, just to record it.

 

And who were you imagining would see it?

 

She; I was imagining my daughter, when she grew up, would find this helpful in understanding who I was, and who her grandmother had been. And then, of course, it took her years, and years, and years to read it, interestingly.  She could not read it for the longest time, not until she was maybe seventeen or eighteen, because it was too pain for her.  She would start it, and then she’d have to stop.

 

What did she say after she read it?

 

Thank you.  She understood.  I think certain things were made clearer to her.  Some, perhaps more mysterious.

 

And what’s the name of that book?

 

My Old Sweetheart.

 

Which is really the story of you and your mom.

 

Yes.

 

As you say.  The Whiteness of Bones; I mean, I didn’t have this background as far as you talked about a little girls growing up on Kauai with a land-rich family, but very much a creature of the ocean and the forest, and you know, hanging out with the cook. How did you get that?  That was such beautiful imagery.

 

Well, of that came from spending summers on Kauai, particularly in Waimea.  And there were bits of that from my own childhood, although those weren’t my parents. The relationship with the gardener was our gardener at Tantalus; that was real.  The mongoose; my sister did have a pet mongoose.  There were things that I took, and then things that, of course, I made up.  I always thought that in a way, nature took the place of my mother.  So, I was very, very grateful and conscious of it, even I think, as an adolescent that it was playing a part in my life that was significant. But Hawaiʻi was meaningful to me in a way that was profound.  Still is.

 

I find it just really wonderful and refreshing that you have taught at Yale, at New York University, at Princeton, and you haven’t attended college. But you’ve been hired by Ivy League universities to teach.

 

It’s because of the books.  You know, if I hadn’t written these books, I would not be hired.  No; and I don’t think I could teach in the English department.

 

Creative writing is what you teach.

 

Creative writing is such a made-up thing, and ill-defined.  I mean, yes, I can get away with that, teaching creative writing without a degree, but even if I knew everything there was to know about Emily Dickinson, I would not be hired for that.

 

Do you regret not going to college?

 

It would not be unlike the way my life would have gone if my mother had lived.  I think if I had gone to college, it might have been harder for me to get started on the path that became my life.  My path to becoming a writer, or to becoming independent and free, the way I did become, would have been much, much harder, if not impossible, had she lived.

 

Why?

 

Well, she would have wished for me a more conventional life, I’m sure.  To marry, to have children, to be near her, station wagon, house in Kahala; all of those things to which she aspired.  And a bohemian life would have seemed to her probably frightening and impractical.

 

Are you saying the wandering, the bohemian lifestyle is really you, and if your mom had been alive longer, you wo7uld have taken longer to find that?

 

If ever.  Yes, I think it is really me.

 

It is really you.

 

Yes.

 

So, that raises an interesting question.  Would you rather have had your mom with you longer, or …

 

Yes; always.  Always.  I would much rather have had my mother.  And I am one of those people who, I don’t believe that suffering makes you an artist. In a way, I’m saying the reverse of what I just said, that I don’t think the things that happened to me as a child, or as an adolescent, or a young woman, made me a writer.  I think that was there.  I don’t think suffering is ever an advantage.

 

Really?

 

No; I don’t think so.  I might have written different kinds of books, my interests might have been different, I might have been less interested in mothers. Clearly, I would have been less interested in mothers.

 

Since this interview took place in 2012, Susanna Moore has moved back to Hawaiʻi from New York and married a former Punahou Schoolmate.  She also has published a history of Hawaiʻi called Paradise of the Pacific.  Susanna Moore lives in Kapaau in North Kohala on Hawaiʻi Island, but returns every fall to Princeton University on the East Coast, where she’s been teaching for the past ten years.

 

While Moore is an author who became a university instructor, our next guest was an academic who became an author.  Gavan Daws of Manoa, Oahu says he never planned to move to Hawaiʻi, let alone become an authority on Hawaiʻi history.  He left his native Australia, and just happened to get off the ship here.  He was teaching history at the University of Hawaiʻi in the 1960s when he wrote and published his first book, Shoal of Time, which has remained the best-selling history of Hawaiʻi, ever since. This acclaimed author and historian has written shelf full of meticulously researched and sometimes controversial books, including Land and Power in Hawaii.

 

So, you accidentally came here, in a sense.  And then, you accidentally got a PhD in Pacific history?

 

It was like breaking the balls on a pool table. You know, things just went everywhere, and one of ‘em went into a pocket.  And that was the academic life.  It could have been anything else.  It just kinda grew from there.  I got offered a job, I kept the job, I got tenure, I wrote a book, and so on, and so on. But I’ve also done other things outside Hawaiʻi, and other things other than academic work, you know.

 

Within just, what, a decade or so of coming here, you’re writing a history of the Hawaiian Islands, Shoal of Time.  Is it still a local bestseller after all these years?

 

Yeah, it is; it’s forty years in print.  Which is amazing.  Eighty percent of books disappear after a year.  They’re like restaurants, you know; they fold.  And I had no idea, doing that, what kind of life it would have, or even if it would get published.  Which you never know.  And just a little bit of the history of that; Honolulu Book Shops, which was the only bookshop in town in those days, they ordered twenty-four copies.  And when they sold them, they didn’t reorder; they thought that was about the demand.  But here it is, forty years later.

 

It’s required reading in many courses.

 

Which I don’t want; I don’t want to be required reading.  I want to be read by, my phrase, consent adults.  I want them to choose to read it.

 

Have you heard that in the intervening decades after the book came out, there has been some perception on the part of Native Hawaiians that there’s a colonial tone here in the book?

 

Oh, sure.  Yeah.  I think every writer writes as someone of his or her own time.  I certainly had no great ability beyond anybody else’s to look backward or forward, or sideways.  I breathed the air that was here to breathe at that time, and wrote that. Now, in the forty years since then, and almost fifty years since the research, there’s two generations. That’s half the people living here now; A, weren’t born then, and B, weren’t born here.  So, the change in everything here is huge, since I started doing that.  Any general history written now will be written by somebody now, looking back at then through the eyes of now.  Totally different.  There wouldn’t be a sentence in this book that would be the same, if I were doing it now.

 

Is that right?

 

Oh, yeah.  Or if anybody were doing it now.  Now, I that forty to fifty years, we’ve now got more than thirty years of the Hawaiian renaissance.  Now, think what a difference that’s made in the air that everybody breathes. Okay.  The next book that’ll be done, and I wish done soon, will breathe that air.  Fine. Thomas Jefferson says: History needs to be rewritten every generation.

 

When you were researching Shoal of Time, how did you put yourself in mind of what, say, Native Hawaiians were doing at that time, and how’d you learn to characterize certain things?

 

With difficulty.  What I try to do with writing, and it’s not just for Shoal of Time, but anything at all, I try to keep people interested in turning the page.  If you’re not readable, then what?  If I put you to sleep by page ten, even if I’ve got something interesting to say on page fifty, and you don’t get there, what have I done?  So, first thing; be readable.  And then, you’ve gotta dance with nonfiction.  With fiction, you can say anything to be readable; you can have sex every three pages or a mighty explosion every five, or whatever.  But with nonfiction, you can’t really take those liberties.  So, what you’ve gotta be able to do is, do that dance between readability and reliability.  And that’s a dance.  And it’s a solo dance; only one person’s name is on the book.  And everybody’s dance with readability and reliability will be different.  And that’s why they’re my books; that is to say, that’s my name on the title page.  But they’re only my books.  There’s always room for another book and for a better book, always.

 

What other ways have you told stories in your life?

 

Well, if it comes down to twenty-four words or less, I suppose that all my life has really been about words and audiences. Words is all I have.  I have no other skills of any kind, either creative or financial.  So, it’s words; words are my currency.  And I kinda grew up on the edge of the Outback in Australia, where when I was a kid there was no radio, and where for a long time there was no TV.  And storytelling was what everybody did.  And when you got old enough, which was around sixteen, you’d go into the pub two or three years below drinking age, and that was storytelling territory as well.  And on top of that, I’m about five-eighths Irish in books and in stage plays, and in song lyrics.  And I’ve done the libretto for an opera, and I’ve made documentary films which are not my talking, but other people’s talking.  And I’m a huge admirer of standup comedy; I just love standup comedy. So, words are the way that things come to me, and on a good day, they’re the way that things come out of me.

 

You’ve been on bestseller lists, and you’re an academic whose books have been reviewed by the New York Times, which doesn’t happen to most academics, because they like to point that out.  Would you talk about that a bit?  You’ve drawn the attention of major reviewers and major audiences and readerships.

 

I did a calculation a couple years back. Someone, somewhere in the world has bought a book of mine every forty minutes since 1968.  And you used the word academic about me.  I am a recovering academic.  Put it that way.  I never wanted to write like an academic.

 

And you didn’t.

 

No; and for cause.  Because bless them; for all their virtues, most academics do not write to be read.  They write to demonstrate that they know something.  That’s a very different thing.  And they write for other academics.

 

Does that mean other academics might consider your work lighter than others, because it is, quote, commercial?

 

They’re welcome to; perfectly welcome to.  But I don’t see any necessary contradiction between writing responsibly and readably.

 

This multi-talented wordsmith has also written for film, television, stage, and has even written songs.  In 2018, his most famous book, Shoal of Time, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.  The e-book version has now outsold the many hardcover and paperback editions.

 

Mahalo to all of these accomplished wordsmiths—Chris McKinney, Susanna Moore, and Gavan Daws—for giving us a peek into their literary lives.  And thank you for watching.  For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaiʻi, 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.

 

I said to my editor this time, who’s Sonny Mehta, who was also the publisher of Knopf, that I’ve always felt my books were covers that would only induce a woman to pick up the book in a bookstore, you know, that I know that women are the primary buyers of fiction, but it would be awfully nice to have a book that a man might want to read from the cover.  And I think covers do make a difference.  And he said: Yes, yes, I agree that would be good, especially as it might be your last cover.  And I thought: [GASP] What does he mean?  He saw my face, and he said: No, no, I will always publish you; I don’t mean that, I mean that it might be the last …

 

Paper book.

 

–book in which you’ll be able to hold it in your hands. So, it’s changing.

 

[END]

 

 

 

Just One More Chapter, I Promise…
Cover Story by Emily Bodfish

 

Just One More Chapter, I Promise...

By Emily Bodfish, PBS Hawai‘i

 

Just One More Chapter, I Promise...

GET CAUGHT READING, PBS HAWAI‘I | New Local Multimedia Initiative Launching This Month
It’s always a rough landing, getting pulled back to reality when you were just immersed in a great book. One minute, you’re saving the known universe with a plucky band of misfits riding mechanical, intergalactic sheep-dragons, and the next, you’re late for your dentist appointment. You got caught reading, and we think it’s a great thing. We want everyone to GET CAUGHT READING!

 

We want everyone to find those books that make you wonder where the hours went, because it’s those stories that we just can’t put down that turn “have to read” into “want to read.” The written word opens doors to adventure, relaxation and knowledge about ourselves, our world and more. Reading brings the world to your fingertips.

 

HPD Police Chief Susan Ballard reading from Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!

 

GET CAUGHT READING is a new multimedia initiative at PBS Hawai‘i, made up of video stories for on-air and online, and in-person events. Beginning March 3, you’ll see GET CAUGHT READING videos in the intervals between our regular programs. In these short videos, we highlight the power of words, and the many ways people get caught reading every day. You’ll hear community members read passages that hold deep meaning to them; watch keiki exude excitement talking about their favorite stories; witness parents and their grown children revisit books they read together years ago. These videos will also be available to watch at pbshawaii.org.

 

In the following months, PBS Hawai‘i will be partnering with Hawai‘i public libraries to host keiki events. We’ll host story time, give away books, and give the children a platform to talk about the books they love. Part of the goal of GET CAUGHT READING is to engage with rural communities, especially on neighbor islands. We plan to host events on O‘ahu, Kaua‘i, Hawai‘i Island, Maui, Moloka‘i and Lāna‘i.

 

State Librarian Stacey Aldrich, who grew up watching PBS programs, said that GET CAUGHT READING is “a perfect partnership” between PBS Hawai‘i and the Hawai‘i State Public Library System. “We know that just the simple act of reading a book creates strong new connections in our minds and with each other,” Aldrich said. We hope to see your budding reader at an event near you. Until then – GET CAUGHT READING!

 

Retired Hawai‘i Sportscaster Jim Leahey reading from Ron Chernow’s Grant

 

 

 

GET CAUGHT READING
Sharing Book Bliss

 

CEO Message

 

GET CAUGHT READING, Sharing Book Bliss

Leslie Wilcox, PBS Hawai‘i President and CEORemember when reading meant more than checking one’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts?

 

Thankfully, many people still make time to read whole books, knowing the truth of what Katie M wrote on @betterbybooks: “Books let you fight dragons, meet the love of your life, travel to faraway lands and laugh alongside friends, all within their pages. They’re an escape that brings you home.”

 

As part of PBS Hawai‘i’s GET CAUGHT READING multimedia initiative, which is launching this month, we’re asking adults and children to read a favorite passage to fellow Island residents.

 

“How do I pick?” is a typical response. “I have a lot of favorite books.” These are words we love to hear at this educational media organization!

 

Here’s a sampling of the excerpts that Hawai‘i citizens chose to GET CAUGHT READING:

Susan Ballard, Honolulu Police ChiefHonolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard spoke up for the little guy in picking Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss, with Horton musing that there just may be a tiny person atop a speck of dust:

“Some sort of a creature of a very small size, too small to be seen by an elephant’s eyes…some poor person who’s shaking with fear that he’ll blow in the pool! He has no way to steer! I’ll just have to save him, because, after all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Mahealani Wendt, Activist and poetActivist and poet Mahealani Wendt of Hāna, Maui read from her own poem, “Voyage,” inspired by the Polynesian voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a:

“We are brothers in a vast blue heaven, windswept kindred souls at sea. We are the sons of vast night, planets brilliant and obscure, illimitable stars and somnolent moon. We have loved lash and sail, shrill winds and calm, heavy winds driven in squalls over turbulent seas. We have lashed our hearts to souls of islands, joined spirits with birds rising to splendor in a gold acquiescence of sun. We are voyagers and sons of voyagers, our hands working the cordage of peace.”

Eran Ganot, UH Basketball CoachUniversity of Hawai‘i Men’s Basketball Head Coach Eran Ganot read The Stonecutter’s Credo by Jacob Riis:

“When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. But at the hundred-and-first blow, it will split in two. And I know it was not the blow that did it…but all that had gone before.”

We invite you to listen to words of life and imagination and power on PBS Hawai‘i and pbshawaii.org. Join us at read-aloud events at public libraries. And find joy as you GET CAUGHT READING!

 

Aloha Nui,

Leslie signature


 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Daniel James Brown

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Daniel James Brown

 

New York Times bestselling author Daniel James Brown has a knack for taking intriguing, but often overlooked, stories in history and crafting them into compelling non-fiction narratives that grip readers around the world. The Boys in the Boat author reflects on his unconventional journey to becoming a writer, and the satisfying rewards of looking to the past for inspiration.

 

Program

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Feb. 17, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

More from Daniel James Brown:

 

Rowing

 

Writing

 

Olympics

 

Daniel James Brown Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

I didn’t realize that just rowing in a competitive race is extremely painful.

 

It’s extremely painful; it hurts from the moment you start.  But it especially hurts; the end of every crew race comes down to a sprint at the end, where you’re rowing all-out.  Whether it’s a two-thousand-meter race or a four-mile race, at the end, you’re going all-out.  You’re using every muscle in your body, from the muscles in your fingertips to your biggest muscles in your back and legs.  And they are all screaming at you.  With every pull of the oar, they’re telling you not to take another pull of the oar; and yet, you have to.

 

He’s learned about life struggles and overcoming hardships by sharing little-known true stories in his books.  This best-selling author next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kakou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Daniel James Brown, visiting Hawaii from his home in Redmond, Washington, is a New York Times best-selling author of the book “The Boys In the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics”.  This American rowing crew was made up of mostly working-class students from the University of Washington who had beaten Ivy League teams to reach Germany and triumph over a favored Nazi team in Berlin.  Brown was inspired to retell this nearly forgotten story when he was introduced to an elderly, ailing, and immensely likeable Joe Rantz, once a powerful member of that 1936 Olympic Team.

 

I love the book, because it works on so many levels.  There’s are so many inspiring things about it.  And you know, as I first read it, I thought: Is this for real?

 

Yeah.

 

Because you know, you don’t see this kind of valor often.

 

Yeah.  As I say, the story inspired me when Joe Rantz first told it to me.  And Joe was in the last few weeks of his life at that time.  But when he first told me the story, I was inspired by it.  It was one of those stories that just got better, and more inspiring, as I learned about the other guys who had rowed with Joe.

 

You also brought to that story of The Boys In the Boat, Hitler’s regime.

 

Yeah.

 

And how the Olympics of 1936 were really a propaganda game to show what a great, peaceful, civilized government Germany had.

 

Yeah.  The Nazi party very deliberately, when they decided to host the Olympics in 1936, they saw it from the very beginning as a propaganda opportunity.  And so, they turned Berlin into almost a movie set.  They literally got down on hands and knees and scrubbed the streets.  They rounded up homeless people in Berlin and shipped them off to what turned into Dachau, the concentration camp.

 

Because behind all of that, Hitler wanted to exterminate Jews, and he didn’t believe in Blacks at all.  And when I think about it, he was there watching all of these tournaments and meets.

 

Yeah.

 

He saw Jesse Owens win four Gold Medals.  A Black guy beating his German team.

 

Right; right.

 

And then, what happened to the boys in the boat?

 

So, the boy in the boat were, you know, kind of another slap in the face to Hitler.

 

And these were rural kids, generally.  Right?

 

Yeah.

 

Representing the U.S.

 

These were not elite athletes.  These were kids that had grown up on, you know, mill towns and fishing camps in the Northwest.  They were not elite athletes by any means.  The day of the rowing events in 1936, Hitler and Goebbels, and Goring, all the top Nazis were there watching the events.  They were on the balcony of a boathouse they had built for the occasion.  And Germany promptly won Gold Medals in the first five rowing of the day.  So, by the time these Americans rowed out to the starting line for the start of the—the big prestige event is the eight-oared event at the end.  By the time these Americans from Washington State rowed out to the starting line, the crowd is just roaring: Deutschland, Deutschland, Deutschland.  Hitler and the other Nazis are up on the balcony watching.  And I mean, that’s the context in which the race starts.  And they’re racing against the German and the Italian crews, two Fascist powers, which were assigned Lanes 1 and 2, the most sheltered lanes from the wind.  So, when the race starts, it’s not at all even odds, and it very much looks as if Germany and Italy will again win a Gold Medal.  Of course, that’s not what happens.

 

And what did happen?

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

How did it play out?

 

So, because the Americans were assigned to Lane 6 out in the windiest part of course, they had a terrible first half of the race.  Halfway through the race, a thousand meters down the race course, Bobby Moch, the coxswain, was the small person in the back with a megaphone.  He’s the only person looking forward; everybody else is rowing with their backs to the finish line.  But Bobby Moch, the American coxswain, is looking down the race course.  Germany and Italy on Lanes 1 and 2 are many lengths ahead, and just sailing down towards what appear to be Gold and Silver Medal finishes.  And waves are breaking over his bow, because he’s in the windiest part of the course; so he’s in a terrible state.  Don Hume, the stroke oar, the guy that sets the rhythm for the whole boat, is sick and not responding.  About eight hundred meters left to go, Don Hume suddenly snaps up, gets his focus back.  The boat starts falling into sync, what they call swing in rowing, and the boat just accelerates, almost as if it had been lifted up out of the water.  And they come back, and they catch the German and Italian boats in the last twenty-five meters or so of the course.  And as they go across the line, they’re just jogging back and forth for first place, second place, third place.  And the American boat finishes sixth-tenths of a second ahead of the Italian boat, which is a second ahead of the German boat.  So, it’s an extraordinary comeback.

 

In fact, did they even know who won as they passed the finish line?

 

No; for a long time, nobody knew who had won.  And when the announcement finally came, it was in German, so the guys in the American boat are just looking around.  They didn’t know that they had won; they weren’t at all sure what was happening.

 

I’m glad to know there was officiating that was fair, because otherwise, I could see going another way.

 

There actually was a photo-finish.  But the fact that the Germans and the Italians were assigned Lanes 1 and 2, which were sheltered the whole length was very odd and suspicious in the first place.

 

But Hitler was watching this race.

 

Hitler was watching the race.

 

Any word from him?

 

They just disappeared from that balcony.

 

And what happened to those nine men?

 

Nine young men.  They all went on to happy, prosperous middleclass lives.  Most of them lived into their nineties.

 

Author Daniel James Brown says that not only was he inspired to write “The Boys In the Boat” when he heard the story of crewmember Joe Rantz, he also felt an immediate personal connection to Rantz.

 

I’m a huge admirer of that generation of Americans from all walks of life.  And when you think about what they had to confront as a generation, first the devastation of the Depression, and then immediately on the heels of that, the trauma of World War II, which I think most of us still have a hard time really understanding, there was a period of ten, twelve years there where the world was upside down, and lives were being torn apart.

 

M-hm.

 

And that generation found a way to get through it, and they emerged on the other side, called The Greatest Generation for a reason, I think.  I think that those experiences tempered them and taught them a kind of toughness, but also a kind of humility that served them very well.  When I first met Joe Rantz, the principle character I follow in the book, he was in the last couple months of his life.  Joe was this incredibly humble, gentle-speaking, polite gentleman who had been through the Depression.  And when he started talking about his personal experiences growing up, I immediately thought about my dad’s experiences.  My dad had lost his father in 1929, right at the beginning of the Depression, when my dad was just fourteen at the time.  And so, my dad’s mom had been left to raise him and his brother and sister with real no means of doing that.  I think she took in laundry and things to get through the Depression.  So, when I met Joe, I thought immediately of my dad.  They were the same kind of man at the end of day.  And in some ways, I think they were sort of typical and emblematic of that generation who were tempered by the Depression, and learned these virtues of humility, coupled with toughness and civility.  So, in some ways, I wrote the book for my dad, without ever mentioning him in the book.

 

Daniel James Brown’s father and mother struggled through The Great Depression of the 1930s.  Their experiences during those lean, difficult times helped them shape better lives for themselves and fort their children.

 

I had a really nice family.  I grew up in the Bay Area.  My father worked in the flower business in San Francisco.  And so, actually from a very early age, he would take me around to florists in the Bay Area as he called on his customers, to visit them.  He was a very gentle, very kind man.  He was very much a product of The Depression.  He was humble, he was civil, and he was a great role model.

 

Was he frugal, because he came from The Depression?

 

He was very frugal.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

He would go around the house, turning off the lights.  You know, we would walk out of a room, leave the lights on, and he’d go and switch the lights off when we walked out of the room.  But you know, he was just an extraordinarily kind man; everybody loved him.  My mom was a stay-at-home mom, homemaker; sweet as can be, just a lovely person.  It’s interesting; she had had to drop out of college because of The Depression, at UCLA.  And later, when I was going to UC Berkeley, my mom was about fifty at that time, she decided she wanted to finish her college degree.  So, she went to Berkeley at the same time I was going to Berkeley.  In fact, I used to see her walking.  Sometimes we’d meet for lunch.  And that was in the middle of all the turmoil at Berkeley, and I remember seeing her once talk her way past a line of National Guardsmen as one of these riots was going on, on the Berkeley campus and tear gas was flying.  So, you know, she finally did get her college degree.

 

“The Boys In the Boat” author, Daniel James Brown, faced his own set of challenges growing up.

 

I’m actually a high school dropout.  I suffered a lot from anxiety as an adolescent, and I was bullied a lot as an adolescent.  So, I would get panic attacks, and I got to the point where I just absolutely dreaded going to school.

 

I was small, not very well-developed.  Didn’t you know, develop as quickly as some of the other guys, so I was small.

 

They called you names?

 

They called me Cupcake.  To this day, that word sends a chill down my spine.  So typical, you know, adolescent bullying.  But it got to the point between the bullying and I just was predisposed to … you know, those days, people had anxiety disorders.  They didn’t even have names for them or medications, or anything.  So, I was sick to my stomach every morning before I had to go to school.

 

Did it arise from the bullying, or did it preexist?

 

I think I preexisted, to some extent, but the bullying made it much worse.

 

Did the school do anything about it?

 

Not really; no.  You know, this was in the 50s and early 60s, and no, you’re just—

 

You’re supposed to suck it up.

 

You suck it up, you’re on your own, kid.  And it got to the point, finally, I was in my junior year in high school, in the middle of a biology lab one day.  And I don’t know; something just clicked in me, and I said: I’m gonna deal with this in an unconventional way.  I got up, and I walked out of the school.  I walked across the street, got in my car and drove home, and told my mom and dad that I wasn’t going back, that I wasn’t ever going back.  And that, of course, caused them a lot of distress.  My mom cried, my dad was sort of very silent for a while.  But as I say, they were very kind and understanding people.  And my mom, bless her heart, set out to come up with a plan by which I could move forward.  And so, she arranged with the school; I could get my high school degree by completing a series of correspondence courses.  The deal was, I had to go to the university library in Berkeley and spend eight hours a day working on these correspondence courses until I had completed all the work.  So, I did that.  I’d drive in to Berkeley every day and walk across the campus, and go into the Dole Memorial Library, big beautiful graduate library there.

 

Heavy stuff for high school.

 

High school.

 

For a non-high school student.

 

Yes; absolutely.  And you know, I felt like a college student.  And I would do my correspondence courses in a few hours, and then that left me usually several hours every afternoon to just browse the library.  And that’s really, I think, where I became a bookish person.  And so, I would just go pull books out of the stacks and sit and read them, whatever interested me.  And I think it took me about a year of doing that, and then I got the high school degree, and I enrolled in my local community college, Diablo Valley College.  And I had a wonderful English teacher, freshman English teacher there.  And he sort of took me under his arm.  And now, I couldn’t wait to get to school every day.  I mean, I just loved my community college.

 

You’re in school with adults now.

 

I’m in school with adults, I’m there because I want to be, and some of my teachers were great.  So, I really thrived there in the community college.  I’m a huge fan of community colleges.  I think they’re wonderful institutions.  And then, I transferred to Berkeley for two years, and then, I went to graduate school at UCLA for a couple of years.  Got a master’s degree in English, and then wound up teaching college English.

 

And did you think that would be your career?  I’m a college teacher.

 

Yeah; yeah.

 

English.

 

So, as I say, I had so loved my community college experience, I really wanted to be a community college English instructor.  But there was essentially no job market for that; there were way too many of us.  And I finally did find one in Prescott, Arizona.  But at that point, I was about to get married to the woman who’s now my wife, and she did not want to go live in Prescott, Arizona.  [CHUCKLE]  So, I had to turn that down.  And so, I never did get that fulltime community college job that I wanted.

 

Then, what did you do?

 

So, I married Sharon, and she was also teaching English at San Jose State.  And we were going to have a baby, and we wanted to buy some kind of a house.  We’d been living in apartments.  And San Jose at that point was turning into Silicon Valley, and housing was just not affordable for two people teaching, you know, college English.  So, I saw an ad in the San Jose Mercury, a little one-line ad for something called Microsoft, which I had never heard of.

 

Really?  Oh, the beginning days of Microsoft.

 

It was Microsoft.  They wanted editors.  So, I sent them a resume, and they flew me up to Seattle.  And actually, one of the first things they did is, they put me in a car with a Realtor, and they drove me all over the Redmond, Washington area, showing me houses.  Which were about half what they were in California, and just barely manageable for us on what would be my salary.  So, I took the job at Microsoft, and I was there for the next twelve years or so.

 

What did you edit?

 

We edited users’ manuals and help systems.  And in the early days, we edited these, you know, paper users’ manuals, which were pretty deadly stuff.

 

Were you one of the first people to describe how to use Microsoft products?

 

Yeah; actually, Microsoft Windows.  The first product I worked on at Microsoft was Windows, before it was a thing in the world.

 

Was it hard to explain?

 

[CHUCKLE]  It was.  It took a lot of back and forth between us and the engineers.  ‘Cause the engineers wanted very engineer-y sounding instructions.  And we knew that most people, if this was gonna be a mass product, were not in fact engineers.  So, a lot of it was just translating things into understandable—

 

That sounds like a challenging job.

 

It was, and it was fun.  The people I was working with were all very, very smart.  I’ve never worked anyplace that I was surrounded by so many smart people as at Microsoft.  And that was exhilarating.

 

Daniel James Brown wrote and edited manuals and the first interactive tutorials for software giant Microsoft for a dozen years.  And then, he decided it was time for a change, and turned his focus toward a different kind of writing.

 

You know, at the end of the twelve years, as I say, it was fun, and exciting, and exhilarating, but I’d had enough of it.  I was still remembering how excited I was by all those English classes I’d had.  And I don’t think I had ever really sat down and thought I want to be a writer.  But, I got to the point where I wanted to do something new.  So, I quit Microsoft, and I decided I’m gonna take a little time to figure out what I’m gonna do next.  And that first winter, a dark rainy winter in Seattle, I discovered that sitting around not knowing what you want to do gets boring pretty fast.  So, I started writing.  And I wrote what turned into my first book over the course of the next year, not really expecting that it would even get published, let alone turn into a career.  But that is in fact what happened, to my great surprise.

 

That seems like a luxury of time, where you could devote time to something, and not earn a living.

 

Yeah; yeah.  I mean, it was the result of having worked at Microsoft.  You know, the company did very well.  But I couldn’t have done nothing forever.  [CHUCKLE]  But I had a window there, where I could sit back, as a lot of people were doing at that point.  Most of the people who started at Microsoft when I did were starting to leave the company to go figure out what they wanted to do.

 

Was it a burnout situation?  You’d been working really long hours.

 

I’m not sure burnout is exactly the term.  Well, yeah, that actually probably is the correct term.  [CHUCKLE]  Long hours in a industry that was growing and exciting, but not something I had ever intended to devote my life to.

 

Well, what did you decide to write about?  I mean, think about that; if you could write about anything you wanted, that’s a tall bill.

 

Yeah; it is.

 

What do you choose?

 

So, what happened was, that Christmas, my brother and his family were staying with us at our house in uh, Washington.  And we started talking about this forest fire in the 1890s.  We had grown up; my mom had talked about this forest fire in Minnesota in which her grandfather had died, and her father had escaped on a burning train.  And that was about all I knew about it.  But when we moved my mom from California up to Washington, I found a box of stuff that she had kept.  And my brother and I dove into that over Christmas, and I started pulling out letters and diaries, and news clippings, and old photographs about this forest fire in Hinckley, Minnesota in 1894.  And it turned out to be this spectacular event.  It was actually two fires that converged on this little town, trapped most of the people in the town.  They tried to evacuate the town with a couple of trains that were there.  One of the trains caught fire as it was backing out of town.  That’s the one my great-grandmother and my grandfather were on.  And there all these heroic things that people did, trying to save people that day.  And I thought, well, nobody knows this, and that’s a pretty interesting story.  So, I just sat down and started.  I went to Minnesota, spent several days in the archives at the Minnesota Historical Society there, and started researching it, and came back to Washington and just started writing.  And that turned into a book.  I didn’t have a publisher, I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t have any idea how you got a book published, but I just started sending it out to agents.  And it took months, and I got a big stack of rejection letters, but eventually, an agent agreed to take it on.  And she sold it for a very small amount of money to a quite small publisher.  But it was published.

 

And it was your entry.

 

It was my entry.  And it did well.  What happened was, actually, Barnes and Noble, the bookstore chain, they have a thing called Discover Great New Writers, where every three months they pick a dozen writers that are unknown, and they put their books out in the front of the store on a special rack called Discover Great New Writers.  They chose my book for one of those.  And that got some sales going.  And then, HarperCollins, big New York publishers, saw that, and they bought the paperback rights to it.  And then, it really took off and started doing well.  And so, then I had a contract to write another book.

 

Would this be narrative nonfiction, or historical?  What would you call it?

 

I call it narrative nonfiction.  I mean, narrative is a story, and nonfiction is a true story.  So, people call it all kinds of things.  Some people call it dramatic nonfiction, some people call it creative nonfiction.  But I don’t like that one.  I don’t like the term creative nonfiction because it implies you’re making stuff up.

 

So many people want to write books, and want to write.  And this is a time when, you know, people want to read books less because of the length.

 

Yes.

 

What’s that like as a writer?  How do you navigate that?  I mean, if that’s your passion, I mean, do you have enough of an audience?

 

Oh, yeah.  I mean, you know, I think the way you navigate that is by telling the story as well as you can, crafting the story as well as you can so that it engages the reader from the first page.  And people will read a book if when they open it, they get to the end of the first page, they want to read the second page.  As long as you keep doing that through four hundred pages, you’re good.  [CHUCKLE]

 

How old were you when you started writing a book?

 

I was probably fifty.  I mean, that’s another thing I tell young writers all the time is: Don’t wait ‘til you’re fifty.  ‘Cause I really wish I had time for, you know, five more books.  That’s not gonna happen.  [CHUCKLE]  So, on the one hand, I tell young writers, you know: Get going.  On the other hand, I’m not sure that when I was twenty-five I would have been able to write any of these books.

 

Daniel James Brown’s debut book of narrative nonfiction in 2006 was titled “Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894”.  It was followed by “The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party”.  “The Boys In the Boat” was published in 2013.  It remained on the New York Times Best Seller List for two and a half years, and inspired a PBS American Experience documentary, “The Boys of ‘36”.  The TV program is available for viewing in PBS Hawaii’s Passport web portal.  Brown continues to look to the past to find stories that will enlighten readers in the present.  At the time of this conversation in the fall of 2018, he was in Hawaii, research the forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

 

Mahalo to author Daniel James Brown of Redmond, Washington, for sharing his personal story.  And thank you for joining us for this edition of Long Story Short, on PBS Hawaii.  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.

 

What do you think the future is for online-only books?

 

You know, as an author, I don’t really care, in one sense, how people read the story.  I think we probably sell more e book copies of “Boys In the Boat” than paperback copies.  I’m not sure, but we sell a lot of e book copies of that book.  And I’m absolutely fine with that.  I actually read mostly on an iPad or a Kindle myself.

 

[END]

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

THE GREAT AMERICAN READ
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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.

 

 

“Comfort Women” – A Twisted Euphemism

 

CEO Message

“Comfort Women” – A Twisted Euphemism
LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Nora Okja Keller

Honolulu’s Nora Okja Keller, author of the acclaimed novel Comfort Woman

 

Leslie Wilcox, PBS Hawai‘i President and CEOI remember exactly what I said some three decades ago to a Honolulu news colleague, when we first heard the expression “comfort women” and learned what it meant.

 

“How twisted is that?” I said. “A truly deceptive term to hide horrendous brutality against the powerless.”

 

Of course, that’s what euphemisms do. They mask unpleasantness; they blunt the horror.

 

This euphemism refers to young women of little means, mostly teenagers, forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Sino-Japanese War and World War II. In filthy conditions, they were required to sexually service 20, 30, sometimes 50 Japanese soldiers a day.

 

They endured beatings, infection, disease and abortions. Most died.

 

At the end of World War II, survivors felt so much shame that many didn’t go home. They sought new lives and didn’t speak of their ordeal. One former captive was Keum-Ju Hwang, of South Korea, who finally resolved to tell her story before she died. She spoke in 1993 at a University of Hawai‘i symposium – and Honolulu resident Nora Okja Keller was in that audience.

 

Keller, born in Seoul and of half Korean ancestry, felt a “burden of history” and embarked on a journey of research and writing. The result was a critically acclaimed first novel, Comfort Woman. She recalled that before she heard Ms. Hwang’s account, she was only aware of scenes in Korean soap operas: “There’d be this mysterious woman, veiled in black, going through the background. And the reference would be, ‘Oh…do you see that woman? Something bad happened to her during the war.’”

 

PBS Hawai‘i will air an encore of my 2008 Long Story Short conversation with Nora Okja Keller on Tuesday, October 16, the week before our October 22 premiere of a POV film, The Apology, which follows three survivors – from China, the Philippines and South Korea. (See interview with the filmmaker on pages 4-5 of our October Program Guide.)

 

Keller’s inspiration, Ms. Hwang, died in 2013, knowing she had done her part to let the world understand her soul-scarring but freeing truth.

Aloha nui,

Leslie signature


 

 

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