author

PBS HAWAII PRESENTS
Seeds of Aloha

 

Learn the life story of George Kahumoku Jr., award-winning slack key guitarist, songwriter, performer, teacher, artist, sculptor, author, farmer and entrepreneur. Through his everyday activities, we discover the roots of his extraordinary life, the meanings of aloha and ohana, and how these values have made him the man he is today.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Chris McKinney

 

Original air date: Tues., Aug. 16, 2011

 

Acclaimed Hawaii Author

 

Leslie Wilcox sits down with Chris McKinney, a Kahaluu-raised author who is best known for his novel, The Tattoo. As a teenager with a strict upbringing, Chris was initially content with honoring his mother’s wishes in pursuing a stable, lucrative law career. Instead, Chris discovered writing and now enjoys a successful career – The Tattoo is on student reading lists across the US. In this episode, he also opens up about the internal conflicts he experiences as he raises a daughter of his own.

 

Chris McKinney Audio

 

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Somebody once asked me, how do I know I’m finished with a book. And my answer has always been the same; when I’m so sick of it, I can’t stand looking at it again. So even when I do readings and stuff like that, people will ask me to, go here. And I’ll do it. But there’s this side of me that does it begrudgingly, ‘cause I just don’t want to look at the book again. And it’s been eleven, twelve years since I’ve written The Tattoo. Unless I’m doing a reading, I’ve never cracked open that book.

 

What does it take for a book to grab you, make you stay up at night until the book falls on your face? Interesting characters, a compelling storyline, maybe they connect with your own life. Next, on Long Story Short, we’ll meet the character and the story behind some of the most successful locally penned novels in Hawaii, author Chris McKinney.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

It’s been said that we all have a good book within us, we all have that unique story to tell. But so few of us do it. Writer Chris McKinney took pieces of his childhood, tossed in some severely damaged characters, mixed in with the socioeconomic system of Hawaii, and used his talent to tell stories that resonate with readers.

 

What was your childhood like?

 

My mother was born and raised in Korea. And she got to Hawaii probably when she was about sixteen or seventeen years old. And my father was mostly born and raised here. He spent some time in Guam, but he spent most of his childhood in Hawaii. So they divorced when I was about—I guess I was about one or two years old. I don’t remember anything about the divorce. But there are pictures. There are a few pictures here, and you can see sort of what my mother was trying to raise. There’s a picture of me when I was about two or three years old in a leisure suit. Now, who puts their two-year or three-year-old kid, probably at the time, in a very inexpensive leisure suit, except for a Korean woman? [CHUCKLE] I don’t know. And buying me—I remember owning, maybe at two or three, leather sandals. In Hawaii, who wears leather sandals?

 

So what does that say about your mom?

 

At least at the time, and to a certain extent now, she thinks physical appearance is very important. She values how you present yourself. Your attire, how you’re put together, and all of that kind of stuff. I mean, which is fine. I don’t have a problem with that. But what happened was, was that the man that she ended up marrying after, after her and my father got a divorce, was sort of the polar opposite when it came to the that kind of philosophy. My stepfather grew up in Kaneohe, a Vietnam War vet, a local, local, local guy. His father was a professional boxer. So how she ended up with him, I have no idea. But they ended up together.

 

And did it work?

 

Well, yeah, but there were volcanic moments, certainly. But they’re still together, and there still are rather volcanic moments. And a good example of how the relationship works is a story my mom once told me. They were dating at the time, and my stepdad was really into his cars. Nice car, hotrods, that kinda stuff. And they were out on a date, and she had to pee. And he started messing with her, which he does to this day, by sort of swerving, going over bumps, all of that kind of stuff. And she took it upon herself to pull her pants down and pee right in his car. [CHUCKLE] And I think that story pretty much covers the dynamics of that relationship; that’s sort of what it’s like. So anyway, I went from that sort of leisure suit, leather sandal, condominium, Korean condominium world to Kaneohe, then Kahaluu. And I’m not talking Ahuimanu Kahaluu, I’m talking past Hygienic Store towards Waiahole Kahaluu. And that’s where I spent most of my youth.

 

And what happened to your father and then your stepmother as well?

 

Yeah. So, my father was a mortgage banker here. And when I was about four, I think, he remarried, and they moved to Gaithersburg, Maryland. And they had this beautiful house on a hill, colonial two-story, bla-bla-bla. He’d drive around in his Corvette, and all of that. And I’d visit during summer vacations. So I’d go to Maryland, for the summer, and then eventually, they moved to California, first Orange County for a little while, and then they ended up in a little town called Soma, California, which has about twenty thousand people in it. It’s grape vineyards as far as the eye can see. And so he worked in Fresno, which was about thirty minutes north.

 

And how often did you see him?

 

I’d go there for summers. And there was this—well, one of the things that my mom, as I was growing up, what she saw was that it was sort of this, oh-oh moment. And I don’t think it’s regret, but it’s this, Should I have brought my son to Kahaluu moment. Because I think that, like I said about the suit, the putting yourself—yeah, that was out the window. And she started developing this thing about public school. No public school, it’s a mantra for her, and it scared her. So what she started doing was, she started pushing me to go live in California with my father. And so, she finally succeeded in the fourth grade. Up until then, I was just going for summer vacations. And then so, I finally moved there when I was about ten years old. And I stayed there for about three years. And finally, I had enough.

 

Had enough of what?

 

I mean, it was the same thing every year. I would be there, I would be miserable, and then the school year would go on, and I’d be fine. I had friends up there, everything normal. Normal childhood, all of that kinda stuff. I even played soccer, which was weird, because where I’m from, we didn’t even know what soccer was. But, so I played a year of soccer in California, played the trombone. These were things that I wasn’t even really aware of up until that point. And I’d be fine at the end of the year. But then I’d come back here, and I had my brother here, I had cousins here, and we’d do stuff like we’d camp at Kaena Point, we’d go diving, we’d go fishing, and we’d do all of that. And when it was time to leave to go back to California, I didn’t want to go back. And then so, finally what happened was the summer after my sixth grade year, I was at the airport, my family was at the airport, about to ship me back to California. And I said, No, I don’t want to back.

 

How old were you then?

 

Twelve.

 

Twelve.

 

And my stepfather took my side and said, ‘cause my mom was saying, You gotta get on the plane, you gotta get on the plane.

 

And I know that was a key moment for you.

 

That was huge.

 

It was your stepfather coming up and sticking up for you, right?

 

M-hm.

 

That was what was so important about it?

 

I felt like it wasn’t like that. But as a twelve-year-old kid, you’re thinking in more black and white terms, right? So it’s, you’re either with me, you’re against me. And it seemed like at that moment, that he was the only one on my side. Which is wrong, which is definitely wrong. Because my mother had … it was all for good intentions, obviously, my parents in California wanted me back. To them, I was their kid. Bring my kid back. But at the time, as a twelve-year-old, you’re thinking, Well, this guy is the only one who understands what I’m getting at.

 

So here we have conflict, having to decide between his family on the mainland and his family here in Hawaii. The catalyst that helps resolve the conflict? Chris’ stepfather, who backs up his decision and becomes the role model who has a huge influence on Chris McKinney’s life. For those who’ve read The Tattoo, this is all starting to sound familiar.

 

You know, especially in Tattoo, part of the story is about father seeking to toughen his son. I just make this wild, random guess and—

 

Yeah.

 

—figure it’s biographical. So … which father?

 

Oh, the 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 all.

 

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

 

And he must have—yeah, he just must have taken one look at me and thought, What in the world is this woman doing to this poor kid? So, think about it this way. When I first moved to Kaneohe, ‘cause we lived with his parents for about oh, I don’t know, about a year before he bought the house in Kahaluu. I was used to having professional haircuts. He cut mine and my stepbrother’s hair with a razorblade. When we had a little bit of a fever, he’d stick us in freezing cold water. Basically, it was sort of like it almost felt like, even though it was the 1970s, early 1980s, that we were living in some sort of time warp plantation sort of the way you were brought up thing. And even his stories often are about the stories that he seems to enjoy telling the most are stories that involve people doing spectacularly crazy things. And so, that’s part of, 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, The Tattoo, if it wasn’t for my stepfather, The Tattoo probably would not have been The Tattoo.

 

Being crazier than the next guy, willing to go further. Aren’t these the kind of characters to which we gravitate? The outcast, the anti-hero, the off the deep end villain. For Chris McKinney, it was haircuts with a razor, or defying his mainland family, a wealth of experience to dig into and expose. But even the best experiences need the right tools.

 

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

 

Absolutely not. I was thinking 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, 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, 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, because 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 being 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, seventeen, eighteen other people, yeah, there was definitely nobody else writing the kinda stuff that I was writing.

 

Would you talk about some 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 this thing, this power corrupt scheme and all of that. And, I’d seen that before. But, when you find out that it’s based on the Bolshevik Revolu, 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 ‘em 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. Later on, stuff like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was huge for me. Still love that novel. Native Son by Richard Wright. And then later, Richard Price’s Clockers was a book that did a lot for me. And the last thing that really blew me away, that I think had a sort of permanent impact on me is not even a book, it’s a television series by David Simon called The Wire. To me, more vast than ninety-nine percent of the novels I’ve ever read.

 

Why?

 

I really don’t know he did it, but usually in a novel, even a relatively long one, you might see three or four character arcs happening simultaneously. But man, in The Wire, you have over twenty over the series. So you sort of see these characters, tension and all of that sort of building for them, and their lives going in a direction, whether it be up or down. And you see this happening with, it seems like, over two dozen characters. And to keep that all straight and together into one coherent story, to me is amazing. And as a storyteller, I think that genre lends itself. There’s so much opportunity there.

 

Where most of us see chaotic times and troubled souls, writers see opportunity. But the opportunities that make for a good novel can sometimes hit too close to home.

 

How did you get your knowledge of some of the things you talk about? You know, the gambling and homeless camps, and addiction, and gangs.

 

So, some of it’s firsthand. Unfortunately, I know a lot of people, I’m related to some people who have had their bouts of legal trouble. So they’re sources. So over the years, I’ve collected different friends. And collected is probably a bad word to use. But because I think I get along, it doesn’t matter what your background is, I think that I can talk to you, because I had practice at that. So whenever I’m working on something set over here, finding a source or being able to find somebody to talk to and tell me how their world actually works has never been that difficult.

 

Do any of the people you write about, in a thinly or majorly not that that’s a word, or disguised way, do they come back at you and say, Hey, brah, why’d you do that to me? Or your family members. People know you’re talking about your dad, that your brother lives in Mililani Mauka. Any fallout that means something to you?

 

No. I mean, my stepfather always had a sense of humor about it. Whatever. He was aware of the storyline in The Tatttoo, and there are similarities there. And he seems fine. He’s fine with it. I think, though, the only time that it sort of had emotional impact for me was that there’s that character in The Tattoo who ends up running his wife off the road, killing her, and then killing himself. An incident like that happened while I was growing up in Kahaluu. The family friend who did it, he was close. Basically, my dad cosigned the loan for his truck, he taught my brother, my older brother, my stepbrother how to drive standard. I mean, coolest guy in the world, right? And then he did that years later, and nobody, they had a hard time understanding that. So anyway, there’s the incident. I mean, there’s that shared incident. I’m not saying that the character in the novel is supposed to be him. But that incident is portrayed in the novel. And years later, I was doing a writing presentation workshop thing or whatever, and this was just a couple years ago his daughter was there. And, I hadn’t seen her since she was a baby, so I didn’t even recognize her or anything like that. And she asked me if the character in the book is supposed to be her dad, if that’s what he was like, and no. I mean, the guy I knew was nothing but the coolest guy in the world to me. So he’s not supposed to be the character. And yeah, so that was the only time that I thought, okay, I should maybe be a little bit more careful about this. But other than that.

 

But artistic license—

 

Artistic license.

 

You pick and choose—

 

Yeah, in fact, to me, the fear, if you’re going to fear those things, don’t write. Because that’s some of the best stuff, some of the best ideas, some of the best things that you can plug into your story will be things that may be scary and things that there’s actual risk in sort of hurting somebody’s feelings, or making somebody mad. If you’re gonna refuse to do that kinda stuff, find another vocation.

 

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, 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.

 

For Chris McKinney, life experiences filled with leisure suits, a strict upbringing, and growing up with two families gave him material. So, how is Chris raising his own child?

 

How are you raising your daughter in Mililani?

 

It’s um …

 

And how old is she now?

 

My daughter is seven years old. And she’s great. But as I’m raising her, I’m doing so understanding that she will probably not know some stuff that I know. She’s being raised in a very different way than I was raised. And, just simple stuff, like, Don’t turn your back on the ocean. Being able to sort of navigate through the Kaneohe Bay reefs with a flat bottom boat. Even just being able to operate a outboard motor in general. These are things that … how to hunt, all of this kinda stuff, she won’t know how to do these things. And so, I guess I would be guilty of raising her like an American suburbanite would. Trying to teach her to be studious, trying to make sure that working with her when it comes to academic stuff, asking her what she wants to sign up for. She’s taking ballet, she’s taking musical theater now.   So I don’t know. I don’t know how I feel about that. I mean, on one hand you think that you’re giving your child, or hopefully you’re giving the child the tools to succeed, whatever that means, when they get older. But at the same time, it’s weird; you feel like you’re depriving them of something as well. So I don’t claim to know exactly what I’m doing.

 

Did you think of splitting the difference and taking her to Kaneohe Bay to fish, or—

 

Oh, I wish she’d be more into it. But that was the thing, though. I wasn’t really into it either. I just got dragged kicking; it didn’t matter if I was into it, I was gonna learn it. So I guess that might be the difference. If she were into it, I probably would do more of that stuff. But I mean, she likes going to the beach, but she’s more of, I want to play in the sand, not go out in a channel, and what about sharks, all of this kinda stuff. So, the idea would be, do I regret not forcing her, ‘cause I would have to force her to do more of that. And there might be, there probably is a little bit of regret that I’m not more firm. And I’m even more embarrassed to say that now, what if she were a boy, would that make a difference? I’m not sure.

 

Would you force her because you’re a tough guy?

 

Yeah, I’m not sure.

 

Or force him, I should say.

 

Force, yeah. I hope that’s not true, but it might be. And in fact, I had said when my wife and I first—we had our daughter, I told her once that I’m glad we had a daughter, because I don’t know what kind of father I’d be to a son. I’m not sure. I don’t know

 

We’re fortunate that we live in such a diverse place as Hawaii. Look around you. For every person you see, there is a story waiting to be told. Maybe there’s a writer who just needs a bit of passion, encouragement, and the right tools to become the next Chris McKinney. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.

 

Your daughter will have many books to read when she grows up, that her dad wrote. Any trepidation about her reading your books and seeing the real world life there?

 

No. I mean, actually, I’m relieved that that stuff is around, so I won’t be this sort of … hopefully, this blabbing, semi-senile old man who sort of repeats his stories. And, when I was kid this is what we did. And then, with her, we can hopefully talk about other things, and I can say, If you sort of want to know what I was thinking when I was younger, what sort of things I experienced when I was younger and all of that kinda stuff, here, you can read about it.

 

No problem.

 

No problem.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Maile Meyer

 

Original air date: Tues., Dec. 14, 2010

 

Building a Hawaiian Community of Artists and Storytellers

 

Growing up in Kailua, Maile Meyer was surrounded by a family that embraced anyone who walked through their door. Now, as the owner of Native Books, Maile has taken that tradtion of gathering and applied it to building a Hawaiian community of artists and storytellers.

 

Maile Meyer Audio

 

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Transcript

 

My sisters and I, we’re our self-entertaining unit. We—

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

—were our teammates, we were our confidants, we were our competitors, we were our friends, and our helpmates, and my parents made a beautiful lifestyle for us where we could all grow up together.

 

What determines who we are, the people we become? Is it our heritage? Is it our surroundings? In the story of native Hawaiian bookstore owner and retail entrepreneur, Maile Meyer, a strong, close-knit family provided the foundation for her life. But it wasn’t until she embraced her Hawaiian ancestry that Maile Meyer became the person she is today.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou; I’m Leslie Wilcox. When you hear the word, gathering, what comes to mind? Your family? Your community? Your culture? What Maile Meyer sees when she envisions a gathering is all that. For this strong-willed, multidimensional Hawaiian woman, who launched such groundbreaking businesses as Native Books, Na Mea Hawaii, and Bookends, the concept of gathering has been her lifelong companion.

 

So many people know at least one member of your family; one of the—

 

M-hm.

 

—M’s or the—

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

—L. How did that happen? Tell us about your siblings, and your family.

 

Oh; thank you. Malia, Mele, Maile, Moana, Manulani, Luana, and Maui are the seven children of Harry and Emma Meyer. And my mother is an Aluli.

 

Now, you have one sister who’s an L; the rest are all—

 

Yes.

 

—have names that start with M.

 

Yes; and we just learned the stories, whenever we learned them. But we learned the story that there was a kupuna who was a Chinese woman, who told my mother, just asked, Why do you want to have so many girls? Don’t you want a son? Because, obviously, in the Asian culture, sons are so important. And my mother said, Why do you say that? And this woman said, Well, it’s because you keep naming your daughters—your children M. Whatever the superstition. So this woman said, Name your next child with something else. So Luana was born, the sixth girl. And then, number seven was Maui. So all of us, we lived in a compound. My mother was much more, what’s a good word … it just worked better that we were all there in this little nest. And so we lived alongside the canal in Kailua, right next to all of my aunties and uncles on my Aluli side. Every time when we had dinner, someone was at the table that wasn’t related to us. And they were always part of the family, or cousins, or relatives. I mean, it was a Hawaiian style. My mother didn’t necessarily connect to her Hawaiianess by name, but she exhibited qualities that really were all about what we as a people feel. So the inclusiveness, family was a very loose definition; it was anyone that entered into your sphere. And so, we hanai’d all kinds of different people who lived with us when they needed a place to stay.

 

What was your dad like?

 

My father was from the Midwest, and really wanted to get away, and get to a place of warmth, and an island. He had a vision of going to a place warm and far away from where he was. And he was in a small town, and he lost both of his parents at an early age, so he was very independent, and jumped on a—he was drafted and went off to Hawaii, and got off that ship, and was able to stay home with some finagling, stay in Hawaii. And he just was a man who believed that his daughters could do anything. He was really, really supportive of us being our own people, and independent thinkers. And when he showed up we had a very long driveway from where the garage was. And the minute we heard his car door slam, my sisters and I would race to see who could get to our father first to get a big hug. ‘Cause he worked really hard, but he really supported travel. We saw slaughterhouses and orchards, and machine shops, and places where he could show us how things were made, constantly educating us through experiencing things. He really fostered creativity, as my mother did, in the way we played with each other, the way we lived in our neighborhood.

 

Now, didn’t your mother lose her parents early, too?

 

She did. Her mother died when she was three, and her father died when she was six. And she was raised by the Sacred Hearts nuns in Nuuanu, and by her older sister, Alai, and Aima, actually, Auntie Aima. So they had that in common. So they didn’t have a lot of—my kinda broke the mold for themselves. They didn’t have an idea of what parenting looked like. But that idea of—there was discipline, and there order, and structure, and lots of classes to learn to sing, and dance, and read, and elocution, and I mean, it was hysterical, the things—

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

—that my parents tried out on us. They wanted a big family.

 

Did they speak of arts?

 

Oh, all the time. My mother—ever since we were little, we were the full class, because there were six of us. We took all kinds of painting, and drawing. And my sister Mele had a kiln by the time she was ten. And my mother had the Young of Heart Workshop and Gallery, which was a not-for-profit in Kailua, attached to St. Anthony’s Church. And she had about thirty volunteers there, and all my sisters and I set up chairs, took them down, we helped to teach classes. We did anything and everything she wanted. And so we grew up around artists, and art. And my sister Mele is a practicing artist and art educator. Moana is an artist, Luana is a teacher, Malia was a nurse, my sister Manu was an educator, and creativity is kind of at the core. Creative thinking and problem solving is kind of embedded in our family. And we all tend to work for ourselves, because my father and my mother were very entrepreneurial and independent.

 

What’d your dad do?

 

My father ran a lot of little businesses until he landed in a collaboration with my Uncle Kepp, who built something—a hotel called the Hawaiiana. Uncle Kepp was a developer of small, fabulous projects all over the islands. He was amazing. And he built The Hawaiiana. And he was not a good hotel operator, and my father was. So my father ran The Hawaiiana for about eighteen years, with my mother at home with all of us in Kailua. And he did a phenomenal job. He hired all Hawaiians. I mean, George Naope was the first hula show at The Hawaiiana. Iolani Luahine used to go there. I mean, all the women and men who were part of the Hawaiian entertainment movement in the 50s all did shows around the pool.

 

Is this The Hawaiiana Hotel that was in—

 

On Beachwalk.

 

—existence until recently?

 

Yes.

 

A low—

 

Exactly.

 

—key, low stories.

 

On Beachwalk, by The Breakers.

 

And that retained its appeal, although lost some of its luster—

 

Yes, yes.

 

—even into the 2000s.

 

Exactly. In the 50s and everyone who was there, who was a guest, became part of our family. So they would come in the summertime. My father would take them by bus to our home, and we would—

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

—do hula for them, we cooked for them, we cleaned for them. We did all the—we just—they became beloved. And we would visit them. Those were the days when people came to Hawaii, could have access to Hawaiians and local families, and that’s the way they were treated, like family.

 

Despite instilling a strong sense of family in their children, Harry and Emma Meyer didn’t raise them to stay close to the nest. Soon, it was time for Maile Meyer to go away for college; and when she did, she had one overpowering criterion.

 

I just wanted to go where it was warm. So I didn’t really get that—you know, the Stanford energy was a Stanford energy. It was the warmest school that I got into. So I went. And I had a sister, Mele, who was there, so we both were at Stanford. And I had a fabulous, fabulous time there. I just am completely engrossed by whatever I’m doing, so I was so naïve, coming from Hawaii. Oh, my god. And people were blown away at how naïve I was. I would jump on my bike with my swimsuit, and go to the pool, and people would look at you like, Why are you wearing your swimsuit? You wear your swimsuit at a pool, you don’t go to the pool in it. Or I’d buy people ice cream, and they would be weirded out. I don’t know you, how come you’re buying me ice cream?

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

Why are you smiling so much? I mean, there was a real cultural process that I had to understand. That people from Hawaii, we want to include, it’s our nature. And in different places, people don’t necessarily want all that loving on. [CHUCKLE]

 

How did that affect what you did?

 

I was misunderstood a lot; believe me. But because I knew at my core that’s who I was, I just held steady, and did what I did. And people were always commenting about, That Hawaiian girl. And I didn’t really associate myself ethnically as a Hawaiian at that point in time.

 

Why not?

 

Because during that time period, in the 70s, I learned Hawaiian. I took a Hawaiian history class at Punahou. It was taught by the band teacher, from Michigan. And so, it was a totally throw-away focus at Punahou during that time.

 

What about your parents? Your mom was Hawaiian.

 

Well, of cour—but we were raised—my mother’s father—so many Hawaiians passed during the turn of the century, and there was so much pain with the overthrow. My grandfather decided that in order to survive, he needed to Westernize, but never left the core of who he was as a Hawaiian. He wanted to adapt. So he was the first Hawaiian that got a law degree, from Michigan and Yale. He went and got all the palapala that you needed, all the paperwork to say that you could come compete, and you could be part of the system, because he knew it was a system that was going to help his people; or so he thought. But he could never get on the bench, he could never get a judgeship, and he was very disillusioned by that. But he was raised my mother, went to the Royal Hawaiian to learn how to—or the Moana to learn how to eat artichokes properly, and hold her teacup right. So it was a very difficult time to be a Hawaiian, the turn of the century. But did my mother always pray and include others, and her generosity and her aloha spirit? Those were Hawaiian things that she didn’t necessarily identify as Hawaiian—she was Hawaiian-Chinese. But they clearly were; that was where they came from.

 

So here you are at Stanford University. What did you take up? Were you like so many people at that age who say, Well, we’ll see what happens after the first two years of the—

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

—core requirements?

 

When you’re in an environment where there’s so much learning that you can do, it was such a joy to just fill the days with all kinds of classes across all kinds of disciplines. And I ended up staying in the arts, because it was just an extension. I could be creative. In other words, I’m kind of web thinker, so there’s not one solution set for me, and the arts were a place where I could come up with lots of solutions to any one problem. So I did a lot of photography and design, and then went and studied over in Italy, and had an incredible time. I did a study on contemporary art in a medieval city, in renaissance city, and there wasn’t any. I mean, it was literally underground. And it was things like umbrellas stuck in fruit. You know, that was like the best that they could do in the 70s. But I loved the arts, and gravitated towards those things, and really enjoyed my time in that department.

 

Then you went over to the other side of your brain, and you got an MBA in arts management.

 

I did. Which was such an interesting experience, because the people I were with were ballet dancers, and museum painters and artists that weren’t good enough to do the thing.

 

Is that true? Do you mean that seriously?

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

Or are you being modest?

 

You know what? I didn’t choose that. You have to be really fearless to be an artist in today’s world, because creative people aren’t supported, whether you’re a musician or a dancer, an artist, or a writer. Those are paths that you feel compelled to do, because it’s soul work that you’re doing. So that character, I was always better in a support role.

 

And by now, you’re at UCLA for your—

 

I’m at UCLA.

 

—MBA.

 

Yes. And I met my husband, Michael, at Stanford. He was from the East. Very buttoned down and formal. And I was shorts and slippers, and the same tee-shirt kinda thing. And then he went to UCLA Law School, and then I went to UCLA Biz School. So we took the bus together with our brown bag lunches, and were graduate students together. But the business school, we had much better parties than the law school. So [CHUCKLE]—

 

Important distinction.

 

Absolutely. It was much more fun to be in business school. And everybody went off, migrated to Wall Street, and then the arts community, we all went into things that were much more creative. And so I got to work for the Olympic Arts Festival in the Olympics, which was fabulous.

 

What did you do for them?

 

I was a venue accountant at all of the Olympic Arts Festival started the LA Arts Festival that’s been around since1984. So it brought in incredibly creative acts from all over the world. So we handled all the box offices. So myself and six other arts management graduates, we had badges that let us in anywhere, to see anything. And then when the shows were done, we handled all the tickets and the accounting. And then I migrated over to the Olympics, and I was head of the payroll for the Olympics, while the Olympics were going on.

 

Sounds like a dream job.

 

It was hysterical. I was younger by—we had all these accountants in suits, sitting on long rows, trying to process payroll from all the venues. And they put me in charge of all of them. It was ridiculous. [CHUCKLE]

 

Why was it ridiculous?

 

Because I was really young, and I was a minority woman. And it was bizarre. And I had a great time. We ran out of money one day; I told them, Take your ATM cards, get it out of the machine. I mean, because you could come up with different ideas, if people trusted you. And Peter Roth was a man who went to whoever had the competency. So he let—

 

He came to you?

 

Well, he let all of the arts people, all of the venue accountants, we all ended up getting placed in different areas. And so ran payroll until I went to work for Chiat/Day. But it was like being in a war. I mean, we did whatever it took to pay these people, and it was very bizarre, but it was lots of fun.

 

The Olympics doesn’t last forever, unfortunately.

 

No, it didn’t.

 

So then, what did you do?

 

Then, I went to work for Chiat/Day.

 

And what is Chiat/Day?

 

Chiat/Day was an advertising agency that, I think, I was the seventy-fifth employee, and I think there’s ten, fifteen, twenty thousand of them now. But we worked out of the old Biltmore Hotel down in Waikiki—I mean, hello, down in Los Angeles. So I was an account executive for them.

 

And whose accounts did you handle?

 

I started with Nike, and then I worked on the Apple account, and Pizza Hut, and lots of different accounts; mostly Nike. In the 80s, at the Olympics, Lee Clow did all the creative, and so I got to work directly with an amazing man.

 

So he’s a certified genius, isn’t he?

 

He is. And if you saw him, you’d think he was a homeless man. When I first met him, I couldn’t believe that he was the creative genius. And he was a pure creative genius. And inside his jacket, whenever we went anywhere, were all the things that he had to remember. Because he couldn’t remember them; he was too busy getting a great idea out of that light bulb over there.

 

Working in the 1984 Olympics, being part of a successful advertising agency, with Nike and Apple as your clients; for most people, that’s a career. For Maile Meyer, there was a higher calling.

 

At that point, having that much fun, did you intend to stay in advertising in LA?

 

The advertising business in the 80s, when I left towards the end of the 80s, it was intense. People were doing all kinds of crazy things, and they were producing bad work. And so, my creative team—I couldn’t go up and sell bad work, ‘cause it wasn’t that creative, that one window of time. So I decided to leave. Because I would much rather have been creative, than someone selling someone’s work. Just because you worked at a creative place did not mean you were creative. So I started doing some game development with one of my brother-in-laws in LA, and I went and traveled. My husband was working really hard at a law firm, and so I left and went to Europe and dug ditches, and planted in orchards, and spent time with a really good friend of mine, who was a landscape architect, and traveled, just to kind of let go of that workaholic … ‘cause Chiat/Day, we worked twenty-four/seven. And then we came home, ‘cause it was time to kind of connect to a community. I loved LA. I love lots of choices, to be able to reorder the universe. But Michael, that’s not his idea of good time, so it was time to move back to community.

 

How did you know that Michael would love living in Hawaii? After all, he wasn’t of this place, and he—

 

Well, you know—

 

—was from the East Coast.

 

Yeah. Well, you can’t talk people to into living on islands. So it was his decision to come home.

 

Home.

 

Yeah. Because he’s a community person, so he wants to run into people you know on the streets. I love wherever I am, so I was so happy. But I couldn’t make the decision to come home. That was not my decision to make. And he was so happy. He tells a story about being at Aloha Stadium, at a game, a football game with my father. And the people behind were very concerned when it started to rain, and kind of reached over and covered him with an umbrella, and the announcer said, Make sure you don’t block anybody’s view. And it just seemed so kind and gentle, and he was really, really taken by that, and wanted to live in place where people at a stadium, filled with thousands of strangers, could still be kind.

 

When you moved back to Hawaii, did you think about advertising? You had some great experience, some nice cred in advertising.

 

[CHUCKLE] Well, I always laugh, because I went to Bishop Museum Press, thinking it was publicity press. I mean, what an idiot.

 

But it was a printing press.

 

Printing. So as I was talking to the production guy, he’s sitting there, and I’m noticing multiple titles of the same book, faded ad then more. And I thought, Oh, my god, they’re publishers, and those are different editions of books. But I was hired at Bishop Museum for half of what I was making in Los Angeles. We’re retro yuppies, Michael and I. We’ve always taken jobs where we get paid less every time. And so I went to the Bishop Museum Press, because it wasn’t about the money, it was about the experience and connecting to the Museum.

 

Did you realize you had changed substantially when you came back?

 

I did, through the eyes of others. And it was interesting, because I was hired from the mainland by Dr. Duckworth, who hired me because he didn’t know that I was Hawaiian. ‘Cause when I came back, I was one of the highest, whatever tiered, because that was not the time. When still, Hawaiian—the incredible Hawaiian leaders were—that was the day when Manu Boyd was on the switchboard, and Pat Bacon was using Correct-O-Tape and typing. These people were not being valued at all.

 

Are you saying that Dr. Duckworth did not know you were Hawaiian, and that was a good thing in his mind?

 

He didn’t know, and if he did, he may not have hired me. I don’t know. But it was the strangest thing, to come and see these incredible resource people not being valued for who they really were. And as Hawaiians, we’re waiting; we’re not trying to assert. And Koko Willis, the head of Molokai Clan, he was the janitor. He could have run the museum, for god’s sake. But because I had credentials. Probably the only time I ever tell people where I went to school is when I absolutely, positively have to. Because it doesn’t matter. But it mattered to him, and that’s how I got the job.

 

Stanford and UCLA.

 

Mm.

 

Done.

 

M-hm. [CHUCKLE]

 

And meanwhile, you’re going through this acculturation period again, where you’re getting back to your Hawaii roots. How did that change process go for you?

 

Like everything, you just start to laugh. It was funny. Because I just didn’t know what I was talking about, I didn’t fit in. And I had to learn humor, laugh about the mistakes that I made. And not knowing how to pronounce Hawaiian words properly, being in places, and especially when I started Native Books, because I took books out into community all the time. And one of the places that helped the most for me was going to the Hawaiian Leadership Development Program, which my sister Manulani, at the University of Hilo, that’s how Native Books started. And I went there for years beforehand, and then started Native Books, but learned to be in community again. To actually be with other Hawaiian people, and people who were serving the Hawaiian community. And so, learning through being, and doing, and gathering, was the right way to do it. From community.

 

So there you were now, this is your first your business, Native Books.

 

M-hm. My daughter Emma, who’s twenty now, she came with me, and she was six months old. We went to Manu’s. The Leadership Conference was in one big room. I had a table in the back where I had brought books in order to help pay for our airfare, and a little ordering sheet, and I passed Emma along to the Hawaiian to my right, and children are communal property, in the best sense of the word. So everybody loved on Emma. And I looked up, and I saw her being passed around the room. And I kept writing orders, and I came back with a hundred orders, and my first person to help me was my mother, sitting across a desk. And that’s how Native Books was started, with family. Family being there, family supporting, family just helping in every, and any way. That’s how I started.

 

And nobody trying to collect a paystub over it.

 

No. [CHUCKLE] That wasn’t the idea.

 

Your approach to business has never been conventional. What is your approach?

 

I think if I was told that I was in retail, I would be unnerved by that. Because I don’t want to be in the exchange of goods. That’s not what I do. What I do is, I create and hold space for relationships to develop between people, between knowledge and access to knowledge, and opportunity for people to share and be a resource to each other. So books are a form of that delivery of knowledge, but so are conversation and time spent in practice. So just being a resource for a community is really what I’ve wanted to be, and to do it with people who want to have that model, where money is a very low frequency kind of method of exchange. It’s for people who don’t know each other, and then you can barter, which is a wonderful thing that’s coming back. I mean, now, all kinds of things are being traded. We have fish, dried fish and poi on Friday that comes from Keoki Fukumitsu, and people will come, and we’ll trade them if they want a bag of poi, and they want to drop off something. There’s other ways, we can be an exchange.

 

But how does that translate into the dollars and cents of the IRS?

 

M-hm. Well, communities support us, so people come, and when they need to buy something, they buy something; but they don’t come to Native Books just to buy something. They come to learn something, they come to get advice on something, they come to hear Hawaiian, they come to watch and participate at a reading, or we recently had an event where I was giving away a very beloved book on The Duke. It was published by the only native Hawaiian publisher, Top Down Publishing. And the books had been remaindered, and I bought them so that they wouldn’t be destroyed, because they had value to me. And I gave them away based on people’s ability to write me a story about a Hawaiian that inspired them. So you couldn’t buy the book, or put a silly price, because it wasn’t about buying the book. It was about sharing a story, and sharing a resource to an inspiring Hawaiian, The Duke. So I can do that when it’s my own business. I can’t do that with every product, but I can do that with some things. I can give away things, I can make them have less monetary value, I can make them have more monetary value. You can buy a poi pounder at Na Mea Hawaii, but if you are a practitioner, you will pay half of what you would pay if you’re putting it on your shelf. So if we use the things that we value in the ways where they can be helpful to community and be of service, they have a different price on them, to me.

 

Yeah, there are times when one passes your store, where you can’t tell that it is a retail operation.

 

Yeah, yeah.

 

It’s a … kumu are teaching, and reading is being done. It just—

 

Yeah.

 

—seems like a place of free-flowing knowledge.

 

Those are happy days for me, ‘cause then I know it’s working, ‘cause people are in many forms of learning and growing. And the Hawaiian word for learning and teaching is ike or ao; you can do both. You can be a teacher, and a learner. And if we can be that way for each other, then there’s some real dynamic in relationship that happens. So that’s the kind of place I want to be, and I want to figure out what that form looks like as we move ahead in time, because twenty years from now, who knows if there will be bookstores, or what form the books will take. But I know the sharing of wealth and knowledge, that will still be a need. So how can Native Books and Na Mea Hawaii kind of address that need? Maybe kupuna are always gathered there, and people can talk directly, or there’ll be people learning from kupuna. There are so many forms that it can take. So I’m looking forward to what’s gonna be happening next.

 

For some, the concept of gathering a community that shares and trades ideas, services, and goods is not the ideal retail model. But that doesn’t matter to Maile Meyer; she wouldn’t have it any other way. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.

 

My sister Manu, my sister Mele, Moana, Luana, Maui; all of us in our own way, we reach out in the ways we were raised, and there’s a lot of pushback, because people don’t want to be kissed if they don’t know you. They don’t want you to buy them something and tell them, Oh, don’t worry, you can pay me back. ‘Cause they don’t want you to do that, they have a different construct. But we’re Hawaiians in our land, and we can celebrate generosity, and kindness, and respect for our people, and for others, without having to feel like if I want to give away something, I can, it’s my store. If I want to share something, I can.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Susanna Moore

 

Original air date: Tues., Jan. 8, 2013

 

Leslie Wilcox talks with Susanna Moore, Punahou graduate and author of the novels In the Cut and The Whiteness of Bones. Susanna talks about how her mother’s mysterious death affected her as a child and into her adult years.

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have had problems, or I wouldn’t have been … tormented, or I wouldn’t have been driven, or … neurotic. But … I don’t think the suffering, the great suffering that I and my brothers and sisters endured made me a better writer.

 

Scratching the surface with author, Susanna Moore, next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Susanna Moore is one of the most acclaimed novelists ever to come out of Hawaii. Critics call her work brilliant, sensual, and sly. For over three decades, Susanna has written novels like, My Old Sweetheart, The Whiteness of Bones, and In the Cut, which was made into a 2003 moving starring Meg Ryan. From afar, it would seem like Susanna had a comfortable childhood here. She grew up in the upscale Honolulu neighborhoods of Tantalus, Kahala, and Portlock, and graduated from Punahou School. Household servants tended to Susanna and her four younger siblings. Scratch the surface of this glossy image, though, and you’ll find that Susanna’s childhood wasn’t as easy as it may have looked.

 

My father was a doctor who came here after the war. He had been in Japan, sent to Japan as a captain in the Army, ‘cause he was a radiologist, and he was study the effects of radiation after the bomb was dropped. In many ways, I think he never went back, emotionally, I imagine, after his experiences in Japan. He never talked about it, and I may have romanticized that.

 

But he was closed off?

 

Well, he was like a lot of fathers in the 50s. Fathers did not change diapers, or take you to ice skating lessons or —

 

They just gave you —

 

— go to the movies.

 

— your allowance if you lucky enough to have that, and —

 

Yes. Fathers were quite distant and quite removed, and because of that, probably mysterious and probably not good for girls. Probably not good for boys either, to have a father that was so distant. ‘Cause there was not a lot of intimacy in households between fathers and children. And there were five children. My mother died when I was twelve.

 

I can’t imagine what that must be like for a twelve-year-old girl, or boy, to lose your mother. Was it unexpected?

 

It was unexpected, and she was very young. She was only thirty-five. She had been ill, and there was is some mystery about how she died. I will never know what happened. I suspect it was an accidental suicide. I suspect that maybe she took some pills and then forgot, and went back. I don’t know.

 

How did that change your life? And that’s a big question, but if I you could give us a sense of it.

 

Well, I adored her and was very close to her. I was the oldest child. Also, I was born when my father was still in Japan, so I didn’t meet my father like a lot of children until I was almost three. So, I think there was a very strong bond. I’ve always thought I must have minded it tremendously when this man turned up. It changed my life completely. It was awful for all of us. There were, as I said, five children, and the youngest was two. I had been a mother to the other children for a while, for a few years probably, because of her illness. And so that increased, of course, after she died.

 

Some parts of your upbringing, which you relate in a book, I have trouble identifying with, ‘cause you lived in a more privileged world, and you have parents and kids not eating together. And that was common with your friends, right? Everybody ate in different rooms.

 

I don’t know if it was …

 

And you had servants.

 

Yes. Yes, but I don’t know if the eating part was common. We ate different food. We ate children’s food. Creamed hamburger on toast and rice —

 

And what were the parents having?

 

I think they had something much better, but we would not have considered it interesting as children, of course. No, we did eat at different times, and then after my mother died, we would eat only with my stepmother and father, say, at Christmas or maybe Easter. And it was torture, it was agony.

 

Because?

 

Our stepmother was not very kind. It was awkward. We couldn’t wait to be finished, and it was not happy.

 

So you had more bonding with the servants than with, say, your stepmother?

 

I remember going to the old Queen Theater in Kaimuki that showed foreign movies to see something called Sundays In Seville. And I was taken by the housekeeper’s husband, and I was thrilled, of course. I still remember the movie very clearly. But yes, my relationship was with the housekeeper’s husband, not my own father.

 

Through her teenage years, Susanna Moore’s father and stepmother remained distant from the children. She says neighbors knew about the neglect taking place in the Moore home, but avoided confronting Susanna’s parents. However, the neighbors found ways to reach out to the Moore children. One of the adults who looked out for Susanna was Alice Chester Kaiser, wife of industrialist Henry Kaiser, who developed Hawaii Kai and the health insurance plan named after him.

 

Mrs. Kaiser was enormously generous, and played a very important part in my life as a young girl. And other neighbors; I would spend a lot of time at the neighbors’. I was dressed by one neighbor. I had two sets of clothes; I had the clothes that I would wear to school in the morning, which my stepmother had found for us at the Salvation Army, really awful misshapen, ill-fitting clothes, and another set that my neighbor would bring to school, supplied by her mother and by her, into which I would change in the morning for school, and then I would change back in the afternoon. So, things like that. People were very sweet. But never in any direct way. No one ever challenged, no one ever said to my parents, What are you doing to these children?

 

And that was true for all of the kids? There was always —

 

Well, my brother; my brother was a paperboy, the boy next to me, which is my next brother. And there was a woman at Portlock named Frieda Brown, who lived in a house on the seawall, lived on the sea with her aged mother, and she used to prepare food for him. So when he would deliver the paper, he would stop at her house last and rush in, ‘cause he had to get home, and eat the dinner she prepared, which always, I remember, included a can of warmed Le Sueur Peas, you know, in the silver can. He loved those little Le Sueur Peas. And then later, when he ran away from home when he was still at Punahou, he went to live with Frieda Brown, and she took him in. So, people were kind that way. And then, my sister also ran away and went to live with him at Frieda’s. Quite an eccentric arrangement, and I think rather crowded, but —

 

And your father said, That’s where they want to live, that’s okay with me?

 

I’ve asked my brother about that. Like, how did you get to school, how did you … did you have any money, what about your clothes, did our father ever call Frieda or come looking for you? He said, No, never did.

 

So, there was no arrangement between your father and —

 

Frieda; no, no. None. No discussion. No thank you, no … Send them home. Nothing.

 

I notice when you graduated from Punahou, you did what many Punahou grads do not do. And that is, you didn’t go to college at all.

 

No, it was made clear to me that I could go to UH, or I could work. I was not very much encouraged, and also, my grades at Punahou were very bad. After my mother died, I really lost interest in that, in school. I had loved school, did love school, but that disappeared, that discipline and I suppose, wish to please her. And so, the day after I graduated from Punahou, I left, was sent and I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be back for a while. It was quite heartbreaking. And especially to leave my brothers and sisters.

 

Did you feel sent away?

 

I did feel sent away. And I went to live with my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who was an old Irishwoman who lived in Philadelphia, very, very modestly. And then, for a long time, I lived with very, very little. If I wanted to eat the next day and was fortunate enough to be taken to dinner, I would have to take home the bread and whatever I could.

 

This was when you —

 

Packets of sugar.

 

— were living as a young adult on the mainland?

 

I went to New York when I was eighteen, nineteen, and again, through Mrs. Kaiser. And I was very poor, and often didn’t have food.

 

What did you do for a living?

 

Mrs. Kaiser was the largest customer of Bergdorf Goodman, and so, she called Andrew Goodman and said, I have a young friend who’s coming to New York and needs a job. And I worked as a salesgirl.

 

Susanna Moore always had the writing bug. As a child, she wrote plays, stories for Punahou’s student newspaper, and what she calls really bad poetry. Although she spent her childhood in Hawaii, life as an adult took her all over the place. From New York City, she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as an assistant to Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. It’s also where she met her future husband, Richard Sylbert, a Hollywood production designer, with whom she’d have her only child, Lulu. That marriage ended in divorce. Life then took Susanna to London, and back to New York, where she lived for over three decades. Despite her wanderlust, Hawaii was always with Susanna. Many of her books, including her memoir, I Myself Have Seen It, take place back home in the islands, and in nature.

 

In growing up on Tantalus, I think it’s in the foreword or the first chapter of your book, I Myself Have Seen It, you talk about being very aware of and believing in spirits about, when you go into the forest, you ask permission of the gods.

 

Yes, asking the moo, the lizard god who lives in waterfall pools whether it’s safe to go in, yes, and beseeching not his protection, but his indifference. Yes, one of my childhood friends was Tommy Holmes, who died in a canoe, but he grew up to write the great book about the Hawaiian canoe. He lived in Tantalus, and he and I spent our childhood exploring those woods. And the smell of Tantalus is still very vivid in my head. Its decaying leaves, mildew, eucalyptus, mud … lovely smell.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

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. That Hawaii was meaningful to me in a way that was profound. Still is.

 

And yet, once you moved to New York City, that’s where you stayed.

 

Yes.

 

Except for sojourns here and there.

 

Yes. I mean, I would come back almost every year, but no, I had been in New York, to my own astonishment, more than thirty years. I moved there because my daughter had not been school, I had been living abroad, I had been living in London. But no, I stayed away. I did stay away, it’s true.

 

Well, not really, because you came back every year.

 

Yes, but I never quite made the leap to … and friends of mine have said, Why aren’t you here? What are you doing? And my brothers; Why aren’t you here?

 

Why were you wandering?

 

Well, in some ways, I didn’t have a home. I had been really on my own since I was seventeen; much too young to be on my own. Made awful mistakes and took a long time to grow up. I was also really … avid, keen, greedy, desperate for the world, and for things that I knew that I couldn’t, wouldn’t find here. So, I had to find those things, ballet, and opera, and traveling, and different cultures, and different sorts of people. That period in which we grew up too, there was not ever any consciousness, even though it was privileged, of money. Women wore muumuu’s, women were not like I see them now in Chanel suits and high heels and stockings. You know, women were in muumuu’s, or men in aloha shirts always, not tucked in. No one had fancy cars, no one went to Paris, for Christmas. It was very modest. Houses were modest. I mean, I’m sure there was land, of course there was money in some families. But it wasn’t evident, it wasn’t talked about, it wasn’t …

 

Not much consciousness about wealth. What about race?

 

That was always interesting, too. Because when I grew up, I discovered that the places where we lived, like Kahala, had racial restrictions. I was quite shocked by that. I had no idea. And obviously, that changed.

 

As a matter of fact, I recall James Michener, who was married to a Japanese woman, couldn’t live in Kahala.

 

Yeah. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that growing up. And that’s quite shocking, that that happened. And there was also, the races were quite separate, especially Japanese. There was not a lot of mixing. I remember Japanese girls would now and then disappear, because they had become involved with a Haole boy or another Asian boy, but not Japanese, and were whisked back to Japan to live with their grandparents. There was much more of a separation. You didn’t see Asian girls at the beach.

 

Were there Hapa Haoles around at Punahou?

 

Hapa Haoles, yes, and I was always and still interested by the fact that Hawaiians had a certain prestige, always, always. To be certainly part-Hawaiian was privileged, but there were none of the prejudices against and of course, unspoken, maybe even unconscious prejudice. There wasn’t outward discrimination against Japanese or Chinese, or Filipinos. Although later, of course, I realized it was there.

 

And Hawaiians would tell you they felt discrimination, they felt …

 

And of course, they were discriminated against; of course. And they were certainly discriminated against in that their culture had no value. If we learned a hula at Punahou, it was … Little Grass Shack, or something equally insipid.

Hapa Haole.

 

Yes; Lovely Hula Hands, or something.

 

Susanna Moore’s first novel, My Old Sweetheart, takes place on Kauai. Its main characters are based on Susanna and her mother. Female relationships, particularly mothers and daughters, are a recurring theme in Susanna’s novels.

 

As the subject of, I think, almost all of your books, you’ve chosen mothers and daughters in stupefying variety. I mean, you even have a mother who murders her child.

 

Well, that book began because I realized I had written endlessly about what it is to be a daughter. And I thought, Well, I haven’t really written about what it’s like to be a mother.

 

And you are a mother.

 

And I am a mother. And of course, my daughter teases me that the character that I chose to write about is someone who murders her children.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

She thought that was a bit revelatory. But I thought, that extreme situations often serve a writer very well in that they cause a character to display qualities, or to summon aspects of their personality that might otherwise remain hidden. So, extreme situations are easy for a writer.

 

I’ve heard authors say before that their books are like children, they can’t choose among them. Is that true of you, as well?

 

No, I don’t think of them well, first of all, I think people do have favorite children, so that’s a bit disingenuous. No, I think that my books are so different, really, that I like them for different reasons. In part, I wrote In the Cut because I was so exasperated by hearing, after the 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 … is that how I’m seen? So, I very, very purposefully wrote In the Cut to dispel that notion. It was a bit …

 

I’ll show you. [CHUCKLE]

 

It was a bit adolescent in that, Oh, yeah? Well …

 

And then, you later said —

 

— look what I can do.

 

You later said, there was so much titillation —

 

Oh!

 

— by that book, that it —

 

Yes, I would never, ever —

 

— became a distraction for you.

 

And I would never want to do that again. It’s been very … I’ve very deliberately not written about sex again.

 

So many people think that when you are a successful, critically acclaimed author, you make bunches of money, you don’t have to worry.

 

I know.

 

And of course, the book business is changing, so that’s an additional dynamic now. How hard has it been to make a living, even though you have these books that are well reviewed?

 

Well, it’s impossible as a writer. I did not receive a royalty until In the Cut was published. And then, I would say maybe the royalties that I’ve received over the last twenty years amount to maybe five hundred dollars. So, very, very little.
So, you do it for love.

 

I do it in part because there’s really nothing else I can do. I’ve thought of it. What could I do, what could I be? It’s too late.

 

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 when 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 painful for her. She would start it, and then she’d have to stop.

 

What did she say after she read it?

 

Thank you.

 

In addition to writing, Susanna Moore has taught creative writing at Yale, New York University, and Princeton. It’s the quality of her books that has led to her hiring at such prestigious schools. Other universities turned her down, because of her lack of a college degree. But she does not regret taking the path that led her where she is today.

 

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 herself 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 would 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. I don’t believe 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.

 

But, I mean, how interesting are happy, open you know, no problem people? If there is such a thing.

 

Yes. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have had problems, or I wouldn’t have been tormented, or I wouldn’t have been driven, or neurotic. But I don’t think the suffering, the great suffering that I and my brothers and sisters endured made me a better writer.

 

Writer Susanna Moore, who draws from her Hawaii upbringing in many of her novels, is nationally known and well regarded for her powerful treatment of mother-daughter themes. Our conversation took place in 2012, when this longtime New York City resident returned to Hawaii for a visit. Quite unexpectedly, she fell in love with a man whom she’d known back in her days as a Punahou student, and she decided to move back to Hawaii. She also published a new book, The Life of Objects, a departure for her; it’s a coming of age novel set in wartime Germany. Mahalo to Susanna Moore for sharing her story with us; and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.

 

Worked for a while as … I was Miss Aluminum, which was not a great job.

 

What did you do as Miss Aluminum?

 

Oh; I had to wear a tin foil dress.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And go to trade shows, like for boats, and stand there with a tin foil trident. And I cried a lot. I was eighteen, standing in the New York Coliseum with eight thousand men … in a tin foil dress, holding a trident.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Nanette Napoleon

 

Original air date: Tues., Mar. 31, 2009

 

Hawaii’s History Detective

 

Nanette Napoleon is considered Hawaii’s leading expert on graveyards. A trustee of O’ahu Cemetery in Nu’uanu, she’s the author and photographer of a book on Hawaii’s oldest public graveyard. She gives walking tours of the site and she supervised documentation of more than 300 graveyards and 30,000 tombstone inscriptions throughout the state.

 

Nanette Napoleon Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

…it used to be more popular in my parents’ generation, where the whole family would, you know, pack up for the day, and go to one cemetery and spend the whole day, or go to several during the day. And there used to be a lot more families that you’d see in the graveyards. Um, but unfortunately, generations later, um, we don’t have as much connection to … the graves. And so we don’t see that as much.

 

“She has dedicated her life’s work to something mostly associated with death. But she doesn’t see it that way, because to her graveyards give us fascinated view into people’s lives. That’s Nanette Napoleon on Long Story Short.

 

Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of “Long Story Short,” You’ll meet a vivacious, athletic, upbeat person who—from the job she created for herself—may see obsessed with death. Nanette Napoleon is considered Hawaii’s leading expert on graveyards. A trustee of O‘ahu Cemetery in Nu‘uanu, she’s the author and photographer of a book on Hawaii’s oldest public graveyard. She gives walking tours of the site and she supervised documentation of more than 300 graveyards and 30,000 tombstone inscriptions throughout the state.

 

Because of her pre-occupation and profession, one might suspect that this Kailua High School graduate had grown up a gloomy isolated child. Absolutely not true-not true at all!

 

…you have a big family. How many relatives do you have?

 

Oh, my gosh. Yeah; I come from a big Hawaiian family. Both my mother and my father are part-Hawaiian, and they both come from big families. My father was one of eight, and my mother was one of fourteen. And I still have probably um … seventeen living aunts and uncles, and about sixty-something first cousins.

 

Your dad was Nappy Napoleon; but not the Nappy Napoleon people associate with canoe racing.

 

Right. Uh, but that’s the Nappy Napoleon who’s a paddler. But my father was also well known, and his name was Nappy. His real name was Nathan Nihi Napoleon, Sr.; but all his life, he went um, as Nappy, as did his father and uh, another one of his brothers.

 

It’s a—so—natural. Yeah; it’s a natural name for Napoleon. So um, people always ask that. But I always correct them and say, No, not the paddling Nappy, but the beach boy Nappy, um, who was a beach boy at the Halekulani Hotel for uh, over twenty years.

 

What was your childhood like? Where did you grow up, or—or did you actually grow up pretty much on the beach at the Halekulani?

 

Uh, in my uh, mid-years, I—we did. But my family um … I was born in Kailua. And then when I was two, my family moved to Al—Alameda, California. My father went to work for Matson. And we stayed there for eight years, and then came back to Kailua. And then my father and his uh, two brothers opened a beach boy stand in uh, Waikiki, next to the Moana Hotel. And then a few years after that, my dad started his own concession at the Halekulani Hotel.

 

And did—was that a family affair?

 

Uh, it really was. Um, my … all of us six kids, as we were growing up, as we got older, um, we all worked for my dad on the weekends; extra money. And when we weren’t working, we were there anyway, because we just wanted to go to the beach and surf, and sail, and play in—play around, and have a good time. When you uh, finished high school, you did give it a shot, working fulltime with your dad on the beach.

 

I did. I thought I wanted to um, be a beach girl for the rest of my life. ‘Cause I really loved the beach and surfing, and all that. Uh, and so right out of high school, I had no plans to go to college, and I went uh, to work for my dad fulltime. But after about six months, it started getting a little old for me. [chuckle] I wasn’t active enough. I—I was used to doing it on weekends and holiday, summers, like that, and it was always very much fun. But I found out that doing it every day was a little bit different. And so I wanted to do a little bit more than that. And so the—I decided—after a year I spent on the beach, I decided to go to college. And I was the first one in … in my whole Napoleon line, I think … uh … to go to college, and graduate from college.

 

And it wasn’t like a bolt of lightning that hit me, and so all of a sudden I’m gonna be this cemetery researcher person. Um … but it was in—started in my consciousness, and as I went around, I no—I started just noticing graveyards here, and graveyards there. And then the next thing I knew, I was … walking into them, and seeing what I could see. And the first thing that I—I realized after visiting several, was that they’re aesthetically very um, interesting places to look at. Because I’ve als—always been, since uh, high school, interested in photography. So um, I started going back to take pictures of the graveyards. And after a while, um, I started actually looking, and reading the tombstones, and I—I realized that, Wow, this is some interesting information here. And I saw some well known names that uh—from history, Hawaiian history. And I thought, Wow, these places are, you know, pretty interesting, and they’re kind of historical. So that piqued my interest, and then you know, I graduated from—went on, graduated from college. And I—but I always had that interest, and I would always visit graveyards wherever I was, whatever island if I traveled.

 

For years Nanette Napoleon kept her passion for cemeteries to herself. Then at a change meeting at a cocktail party, she discovered she was not alone in her interest.

 

And then I found that uh, one of the men in the group um, had lived on the East Coast, and that he had been interested in graveyard for many, many years. And so he and I kinda went off, and we sat on a couch and got into this long conversation about graveyards. And I thought, Wow, this is great.

 

M-m.

 

The first time I ever met somebody like me, who is interested in graveyards, right?

 

Because—Because—Because your friends and family had—

 

Yeah.

 

–said, what?

 

They said—everybody said, Oh, that’s weird, or Isn’t that kinda morbid that you have this interest, right?

 

And you didn’t consider it morbid?

 

Not at all; not at all. Um, so one—kind of not tell people sometimes, because I didn’t like the reaction that I got, right? But here was a guy who was just as much into it as I was. And then he turned me onto the fact that um—or told me about a group on the East Coast called the Association for Gravestone Studies, which is an international uh, group of cemetery researchers. Um, some academics and non-academics. And then uh, I immediately wrote them, and found out, wow, there’s a whole group of us out there. [chuckle] And so I joined up, and—and for twenty years now, I’ve been going to uh, annual conferences uh, throughout the United States. We have a journal, and we have a quarterly newsletter. So that’s—um, I’ve learned so much from that organization.

 

Nanette Napoleon had connected. She found her place in the world…and soon delved into one particular cemetery in Nu‘uanu as the centerpiece of her research.

 

…and you did a book about Oahu Ceme—tery.

 

M-hm.

 

Would that be your favorite cemetery?

 

It is. Because um, it’s visually the most stunning, and there’s so many different kinds of markers to look at, and to talk about. And plus, there are so many uh, famous people from Hawaiian history there; hundreds, hundreds of famous people.

 

For example?

 

James Campbell, who uh, came from Europe and he—as a carpenter. And he settled here and became fabulously rich as a sugar planter.

 

After buying land that everybody else thought was worthless.

 

That’s right.

 

But he found out you can get water to it.

 

That’s right; in the Ewa plain.

 

M-hm.

 

And he brought in a special drill team, because nobody had—had drill bits to drill through the hard coral uh, rock after the soil. And nobody could irrigate out there. Uh, but he had the—brought in some technology, new technology that could drill, and then hit water, and … the land that he had bought for pennies was all—all of a sudden worth, you know, many hundreds of dollars. So that’s how he made most of his money.

 

And the man they call the father of baseball is buried there.

 

The father of American baseball is right here in Hawaii. And don’t let anybody tell you it’s Abner Doubleday. It’s—Because—

 

–Alexander Cartwright.

 

It’s Alexander J. Cartwright. And he came out here from New York. Um, he had an interesting story. Um, he and his brother, in 1849, went west as—to go to California, as … in 1849.

 

Gold rush?

 

Gold rush. They rushed to California. They went broke, like all of their friends. And then um, the brother went back across country, but Alexander decided to take the sea route. And so he got on a ship that was going to eventually get back to Boston. But that particular ship uh, like many did in those days, came out to Hawaii first, and then went around the Horn. They picked up goods, dropped off goods. So his ship came to Hawaii. When he got here, he—he was feeling pretty sick, so he said, Okay, I’m gonna stay in the islands ‘til get we—better, and then get on another ship and go home. Uh, and he did. But he liked it here so much, that when he got back to his home, he picked up his whole family, and they uh, emigrated to the islands.

 

Wow. Who else?

 

Uh … oh, Sterling Mossman, musicians, uh … recently, one is uh, um … gla—uh, Gladys Brandt, from the University of—

M-hm.

 

–Hawaii, and other things.

 

And Kamehameha Schools.

 

Kamehameha Schools.

 

There’s one uh, statue; uh, it’s a tombstone at uh, Oahu Cemetery, where it’s so different from all the rest. But on the other hand, it feels like it’s in keeping. I—I believe it’s a life-sized statue of Duke Kahanamoku’s sister.

 

Right; right. Um, and I have that—a picture of it in my book. Um … her name was Maria, spelled like Maria, but pronounced Mariah. And she was uh, baby of the family. There were seven brothers, and then her, the baby. And unfortunately, she got a—uh, was ill, sickly as a young adult, and she died when she was only in her mid-twenties. But at the time of her death, she was uh, um … betrothed to an Italian baron. And the baron was heartbroken and he went back to Italy, he ordered—took a picture of her, and ordered uh, a life-sized statue of uh, to be carved in marble. And it was, and it was brought back and installed in the graveyard. That’s the only life-sized uh, full-body image of a person I’ve seen in all—in Hawaii. But when I tour uh, graveyards all around America, I see many, many more um, full-sized bodies.

 

It seems as though um … cemeteries are the place where you find out people’s histories. And in fact, uh, aren’t there some wonderful stories of how people died?

 

Yeah.

 

You know, I mean, uh, the tombstone actually explain; uh, sailors who went to the aid of their fallen friend—

 

That’s right.

 

–and died themselves, trying to rescue him.

 

That’s right. Um, some of them say, like, um … fallen from the mast, you know, and—they don’t say drowned, they say um … or they, drown—drowned whilst bathing. [chuckle] You know; taking a bath in the ocean water. And they—they—most of the sailors, people don’t realize, in that era, couldn’t swim. So they had to have a rope tied around them, and they would jump in the water. But sometimes they drowned doing that, or they—they fell of the mast, or—it was such a dangerous profession. Uh, in the storms, the big blocks, tackles and ropes and things, um, you know, would swing around and they’d hit somebody in the head, kill them. Um … so it was a very dangerous profession. And—and so many of the uh … well, in those days, in the 1800s, uh, you couldn’t … keep a body on a ship, because there was no refrigeration, and bring them home. So they all had to be buried at sea. But then the next port the ship landed at, the—the fellow sailors would go out and buy a tombstone for their falling sailor, shipmate, and erect it in the local cemetery, and say this—on such-and-such date, to commemorate their passing.

 

There—there’s one here that’s—I mean, there—there are a number that are so sad, in that a guy who was twenty-eight years old was in Hawaii only fifteen days, and apparently was sick the entire time, and then is laid to rest—

 

[INDISTINCT]

 

–in this place where he knew so few people, and had lived—

 

Yeah.

 

–so little.

 

Right. And um, you know, the parents, would never … have the opportunity to come and see the marker or anything, but they felt very strongly that they should be commemorated in a physical way, you know, even though the body wasn’t there.

 

Um …

 

There—there are a lot of different areas of Oahu Cemetery.

 

M-hm.

 

Some are ethnic.

 

Ethnic.

 

And uh … aren’t there—

 

Religious.

 

Aren’t—aren’t there some Civil War differentiations, too?

 

The … Oahu Cemetery is the only cemetery that has a Civil War plot. It’s called the … uh, listed as the Grand Army of the Republic Plot, or the GAR. And these were veterans of the Northern Army, Marines, and uh, uh, Navy veterans who survived the Civil War, and went about their lives, and ended up in Hawaii and settling in Hawaii, and—and died in Hawaii. And after the war, the veterans formed a uh, veterans’ organization called the GAR, which actually became a very uh, prominent political group in America, in general. Uh, so they started a branch of the GAR in Hawaii, and those guys that were veterans joined, and they had a thing going, and they—part of their dues went to buying a plot in Oahu Cemetery, so that when they died, they could be buried together.

 

What about Confederates?

 

No Confederates. Uh, it was only for um, the uh, Northern forces. The GA—this particular plot. But there are other um … um … Civil War Confederates buried in the cemetery; a few.

 

Among the many aesthetic riches found in cemeteries is a very specialized photographic process. As Nanette Napoleon points out in her book on O‘ahu Cemetery, “Tombstone photos bring the dead to life for the casual viewer.”

 

If I do another book, it’ll be about those porcelain portraits, ‘cause I love them. Um, and they’re very important, actually, for families. Because in those days, people—the regular person didn’t have cameras. Cameras weren’t even invented ‘til 1860s. Um, so the average person didn’t have them. So if you wanted a photo, you had to go to a studio and pay for a photograph. So families did that. And then when somebody died, and they went to the funeral parlor, and they wanted one of those, they had to bring a family photo in, give it to the mortician. They would send it off to um, the mainland. There was only a few places on the mainland who did it. They would take a picture of the picture, and with that negative, then expose that negative onto that uh, piece of porcelain which is chemically coated with photographic chemicals. So you expose it onto that, and it … goes on there as a picture. And because it’s on porcelain, uh, and you put it up there, it lasts ten—it lasts … sometimes I’ve seen them as old as a hundred years old.

 

We have Oahu Cemetery, which is—I mean, I—I love the—the wrought iron and the—and the … shape of the tombstones. But there are others that are tucked away in places where—

 

Yeah.

 

–today you wonder, Why would they put a cemetery—

 

Yeah.

 

–there? But of course, Hawaii has changed, and you wouldn’t put a cemetery next to an onramp of a freeway, but that’s—

 

[chuckle]

 

–what we have. Right?

 

Onramps of freeways, um … in the middle of a parking lot at Windward Mall, in the back side. There used to be St. Ann’s Church located in that spot. Uh, the church moved across the street, and that lot was abandoned for many, many years, and the—the church eventually was torn down, but the graveyard um, that—that … associated with the church remained at that location. Even though it was all grown over, and everything. But then in the 70s, was it, they were gonna build Windward Mall. And uh, they were going to first bulldoze it over, but um, some people in the community, including myself, um, petitioned that and said, No, save the cemetery. So they did. And they cleaned it up, and put a fence, white picket fence around it.

 

It’s the back lot of the—

 

Yeah.

 

The—the shopping center parking lot.

 

Yeah, and you park right next to it, and everything.

 

Isn’t that where um … Kau’i Zuttermeister is buried?

 

Yeah; Kau’i Zuttermeister is over there. Who else, uh … oh. One of the more interesting ones from that graveyard is uh, a couple of men who, on December 7, 1941,uh, were one of sixty-five civilians who died, uh, as the result of the attack on Oahu. A—a lot of people don’t realize that that attack not only happened at Pearl Harbor and Hickam, but um, throughout the i—our island, Oahu Island. And that there were actually civilians who had no connection with Pearl Harbor or any of the military bases, that were killed. And uh, there are two buried in that cemetery who were relatives, who worked at Pearl Harbor, both of them. And [CLEARS THROAT] when they heard on the radio uh, pearl—this is not a drill, and they called all the people who worked at Pearl Harbor to report to your stations. So it was four men who got in a car, and they were all related, and all from the windward side; they got into this black sedan. As they went—that’s how they went to work every day. They went over the Pali, came down the Pali, and then they were going over a—the hill in uh, Alewa Heights.

 

M-hm.

 

And right in the middle of the intersection, um, an American anti-aircraft shell came, and fell, and hit them directly on the top of the car. And you’ve probably seen the uh, photo from—it’s always uh, in … when they’re talking about Pearl Harbor things. Uh, so it hit the car, and all four men were killed.

 

Knowledge of the incident led Nanette Napoleon to uncover more stories of civilian deaths in the December 7th attack.

 

And there were two markers of two little girls, young girls. And … uh, with the same last name, and the same death date; December 7, 1941. And I said, Okay, wait a minute. I don’t think—unless they were killed on the same day in a car crash, or something, something’s going on here. So I called up um … the historian at uh, Pearl Harbor, and I asked him, You know where—anything about civilians who died on December 7th? He said, Yeah. You know, we have some information, and it’s—they’re in these boxes over here. Uh—

 

It wasn’t a readymade report.

 

Yeah.

 

Not at all.

 

No; no. So uh, I said, Oh, can I come and look at that? So he allowed me to do that. And I—I instantly got interested in the story. And … and uh, for a number of years, I’ve been collecting uh, data about them; who they were, exactly who they were, how old they were, where they were, how they died.

 

And nobody had done that before?

 

Nobody; no, nobody had done that. Ev—not even the Pearl Harbor guys. They had all this data, they—but they hadn’t put it together. So I was the first one to kinda do that, and um … and then …uh, comes the year of the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor. And … um … I wanted to do something to commemorate those civilians. ‘Cause every Pearl Harbor day comes along, and they always talk about the military casualties, right? And we have Arizona Memorial, and all kinds of things. But nothing for the civilians. So … I just happened to be going to Washington, DC to study—uh, do some cemetery research in the archives over there. And I—I made a trip to uh, Senator Akaka’s office. I wrote him ahead of time, and I said, You know, is there anything we can do about these civilians? And so um … as a result of that, um, he generated uh, a resolution to acknowledge uh, those civilians.

 

You know, you are known for having picnics at Oahu Cemetery—

 

Oh. [chuckle]

 

–just to enjoy the … the … the rural charm in—in the—the—

 

M-hm, m-hm.

 

–park-like setting.

 

M-hm.


And to—to honor folks, you know, to feel at—at home there. Um, and I thought of you when one Memorial Day, I went to Valley of the Temples, uh, where my grandmother is buried. And there was a … several large families with picnic uh, chairs—

 

Yeah, yeah.

 

–and they had hibachis,

 

and—

 

[chuckle]

 

–they had …

 

I love it.

 

–Subway sandwiches, and they were playing music.

 

Yeah; yeah.

 

And it was the most natural, warm, wonderful thing—

 

That’s right.

 

–I—I’d seen at a cemetery. It was just um … people were at home with their loved one, and—

 

M-hm.

 

–they were actually telling stories, and—

 

Yeah.

 

It was as if the person buried there, or … aro—whose spirit was still around, could hear.

 

Yeah. And I love that about Hawaii. It’s probably the only place in the United States where people do that. Because there’s a long history in doing that. Um, and it comes from the Hawaiian culture, where Hawaiians um, remember family gravesites, and they put uh, makana, um, gifts at the gravesites. And that has sort of been um, a—adopted by other cultures. An—and um, it used to be more popular in my parents’ generation, where the whole family would, you know, pack up for the day, and go to one cemetery and spend the whole day, or go to several during the day. And there used to be a lot more families that you’d see in the graveyards. Um, but unfortunately, generations later, um, we don’t have as much connection to … the graves. And so we don’t see that as much. But um … as part of my mission in … when uh … is the reason why I’ve developed walking tours and lectures. I—I want to see people get more connected back, the way they used to be connected to the graveyards and—and do those kind of family things. So that—so that our generations below us will remember and pay tribute to their ancestors.

 

You see the most interesting things left on gravestones. For example, can you give me some of the—the—the more unusual ones you’ve seen, besides the orange that—

 

Yeah.

 

–Asian families often leave.

 

Uh, well, the orange is actually … uh, for specific ethnic groups; that’s for either Chinese or Japanese. Not—Not everybody—

 

Not Koreans?

 

Uh … not so much Koreans. Japanese—yeah—or Chinese. More Chinese and Japanese. Okinawan. And—and that has to do with bon season and Buddhist ritual of uh, they call it feeding the ha—hungry ghosts. So you go to the family gravesite to pay homage to ancestor, you leave foods to feed the hungry ghost. Because if you don’t, then the ghost can turn to an angry ghost, and can do bad things to the living. So that’s why you must do that. And then uh, foodstuff uh, incense, you burn incense to awaken the spirits. And—and that’s sort of like a calling card saying, Okay, we’re here.

 

And they—they smell the incense, they know you’re there. And then you do your ceremonies, and then at the end, you burn firecrackers to chase away any angry spirits around the area, and keep the place uh, sacred.

 

You get a sense of what a person was like, sometimes. I—I—I know this one place where I always see a uh, a can of a certain kind of beer.

 

M-hm, m-hm.

 

And there’s cigarettes.

 

Cigarettes, uh … candy. If it’s a child, uh, toys, little toys if it’s children.

 

Or a pinwheel, sometimes.

 

A pinwheel; lots of pinwheels.

 

I—I read a book recently where um, uh, one of the smallest self-governing states in the world in the Pacific, uh, Niue—

 

M-hm.

 

–um … they have these family graveyards, and you always put something that reminded you of the person there, or their favorite possession. And so there—um, a number of the women have sewing machines—

 

Oh.

 

–on their graves.

 

Toy sewing machines? Or little—

 

No, real—

 

Real—sewing machines. Real sewing machines? I’ve not heard about that one. Oh, that’s cool.

 

…what are the rules? I mean, there are people who say, Oh, that’s … you know, you—don’t be stepping near—

 

Yeah.

 

–the gravestone—

 

Yeah.

 

–and what—what are you doing, being so curious.

 

Right.

 

I mean, i—is there—are you not supposed to step on the gravestone, are you—what—what—what’s … what’s not proper?

 

That’s a good question. And what I tell people when I go on tours, ‘cause they always ask me that, is that it’s dependent upon your culture. That every culture, be it Chinese, Japanese, um … Filipino … all have different beliefs on the afterlife, about death and dying rituals. So what I tell people is that whatever you come from, whatever tradition you come from, that’s what’s … right for you. If somebody else has something different, like y—your family may say, Oh, we don’t—don’t step on graveyards, ‘cause you’re interfering with the spirits, or something.

 

Or don’t eat lunch over there.

 

Yeah; don’t eat lunch, don’t wear something.

 

Don’t play your happy music.

 

Yeah; yeah. Um … so it just depends on what you learned from your culture. An—and nothing is uh … more right or wrong than anything else; everybody … is—to me, has um, is valid…

 

When I hear you talking about cemeteries, I hear you talking about the history of Hawaii, and what—

 

Yeah.

 

–what a cemetery can tell you about what people did in life.

 

Right.

 

And that’s the attraction for you?

 

That’s the attraction for me, and—and I like to pass that on. Because … a lot of people just think of cemeteries as just simple … repositories for their dead; okay, someplace to bury their dead. But they uh … but are they—who are they for more? Are they more for the dead, or are they more for the living? In my mind, they’re—they’re more for the living. Um, they’re—they’re a place that we can physically go to, to connect us with our ancestors. Um, some people don’t need that connection, that physical connection. But um, most people in our cu—Western culture need that, and—and most cultures around the world. That’s why almost every single culture has some kind of burial ground of some kind. Not all, but most.

 

If you had to describe to people, and make them really understand what your—what your um, joy in this is, what is it?

 

I get a lot of joy from um … the physical way that cemeteries look, and how they feel. They’re very peaceful, park-like settings. And some people have a hard time—they say, Oh, I’d never live next to a graveyard, or they don’t like just wandering around a graveyard. They’ll go there for a funeral or something, then they kinda dig out of there. But um … for me, it’s really relaxing and it takes me—transports me back in time. And when I’m in, particularly like Oahu Cemetery, I just go blank, and I’m like in this other world in—in the 1800s all the time. [chuckle] And it’s fascinating for me, you know.

 

So the next time you’re in a cemetery, pay attention to the little details—the doors into the past left slightly ajar, beckoning you to enter a different world. They’re not necessarily spooky of morbid places. It all depends on your perspective. I hope you’ve enjoyed this half hour of Nanette Napoleon’s refreshing perspective. For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

What else have you seen on uh, gravesites?

 

Um, you know, we talked about Alexander J. Cartwright, the baseball guy.

 

M-hm.

 

Um, for many years now, people uh, who know baseball um, they make special pil—pilgrimages to his grave, and they will put baseballs with—signed by them. Or uh, Little League teams will go, and it’ll say From the … Pearl City Little League Team, and dated and everything. And—and I fi—and all the balls are still there. And um, sometimes bats uh, baseball cards, baseball caps. Uh, I remember touring some graveyards uh … during a cemetery conference, and we went to the gravesite of Joe DiMaggio. And he had choke, all kind—

 

M-m.

 

–baseball …

 

M-hm.

 

–you know, memorabilia stuff.

 

 

 

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