autobiography

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Wordsmiths

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Wordsmiths

 

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

 

Program

 

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

 

Wordsmiths Audio

 

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Transcript

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Because of the leisure suit?

 

Because of the way my mom had dressed me.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Did you write more after your mom passed away?

 

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

 

How did you find your voice in the first place?

 

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

 

And who were you imagining would see it?

 

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

 

What did she say after she read it?

 

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

 

And what’s the name of that book?

 

My Old Sweetheart.

 

Which is really the story of you and your mom.

 

Yes.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Creative writing is what you teach.

 

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

 

Do you regret not going to college?

 

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

 

Why?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It is really you.

 

Yes.

 

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

 

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

 

Really?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It’s required reading in many courses.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Is that right?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What other ways have you told stories in your life?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And you didn’t.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Paper book.

 

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

 

[END]

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Florence “Johnny” Frisbie: Islander at Heart

 

Florence “Johnny” Frisbie’s sense of curiosity and adventure took her far beyond her Pacific island home in Pukapuka, in the Cook Islands. She traveled to Hawai‘i, Japan and eventually New Zealand, where she raised her family. She eventually followed her desire to return home to Pukapuka, an island now gravely threatened by climate change and the rapid loss of its ancient culture and language.

 

To view the first part of guest Florence “Johnny” Frisbie’s show, click here.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Feb. 28, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Mar. 4, at 4:00 pm.

 

Florence “Johnny” Frisbie: : Islander at Heart Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Did you often feel a tug, a struggle between your Polynesian side and your European Western side?

 

Even though my brain, my thinking brain has been developed to be able to absorb the European, the Western world, but I go by my heart. My heart speaks, yeah, not my brain. My heart tells me.

 

Johnny Frisbie has lived a storied life as a writer, television personality, and nurturer across cultures throughout the South Pacific, New Zealand, Hawai‘i, and Japan. She grew up in a tiny place called Pukapuka. Florence “Johnny” Frisbie, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Florence “Johnny” Frisbie of Honolulu was born to a native Pukapukan mother and an American father in Tahiti. Her family moved from island to island frequently in the South Pacific. As a teenager, Johnny wrote and published Miss Ulysses from Pukapuka, an autobiography of her journeys across the South Pacific. Pukapuka is an atoll in the Cook Islands. After the death of her father, Johnny, aged sixteen, and three siblings were orphaned, separated, and raised in different families in New Zealand and Hawai‘i. Johnny was taken in by the Engle family of Kailua, Windward Oahu, and enrolled in high school. She hadn’t had much formal education.

 

Your life took you to … you went to Roosevelt High School.

 

M-hm.

 

Where you did so well that you—

 

M-hm.

 

Did you get a scholarship to Punahou?

 

Yes, uh-huh. Yeah, I got a scholarship to Punahou. Yes; yeah.

 

Which is amazing to do so well academically.

 

I know; it surprised me. Yeah. But then, I was thinking about it. I was very, very serious about each subject, say biology, English. I was serious, I was keen, and after each class, I would go to the teacher to please explain what I didn’t understand. You know, because it’s transforming a thinking in Polynesian to English understanding of the subject.

 

And different tools, everything was different.

 

Yeah. So, I would always go, and the teachers were always so good, so good, and they would explain to me. And so, go home, and then I was able to do my homework.

 

Your outdoor childhood, and all the curiosity and exploration, and resilience; how did that translate when you then started living more suburban lifestyle, you know, in more crowded places?

 

M-hm. Well, I don’t know that I have actually been in that kind of a lifestyle very much. But in order for me to survive and not totally give up who I am, my nature, you know, I found ways. I found ways to go maybe in a bush or to have plants that I can talk to or nurture, and never to be in concrete blocks like that. But I find it’s a survival instinct, and I’ve been very careful not to lose me, who I am.

 

Johnny Frisbie adapted quickly to life in Hawai‘i and the Western style of education. After graduating from Punahou School, Johnny set her sights on a career in nursing. However, an old family friend set her on a new journey.

 

I was accepted to Queen’s. I applied and I was going to start, and then James Michener, who was kinda looking after me at the time said, No, you’re going to go overseas, you need to expand your vision of the world. He said, You’re going to go either to the Far East, he said, or Europe. And he said, I’ll get you a job. So, immediately, I received a letter from the Army that I had a job in Tokyo. So, get ready, two weeks later, was off to Japan.

 

What did you do in Tokyo?

 

I worked for the Army, secretary to one of the … yeah. But … why did we go there?

 

Well, actually, I’m picturing you in Tokyo after a lifetime living on Pacific islands, and it doesn’t compute. Did you enjoy that?

 

Loved it. And there weren’t many Polynesians, and the Japanese were fascinated. You know, they just used to stare. You know, stare. And those who could speak to me said, Where you from? You know. And I would explain, but they didn’t know. You know, a lot of them didn’t know. Made lots of good friends. They’re wonderful people.

 

But only stayed two years?

 

Two years; yeah, m-hm. That was the contract; yeah.

 

And what was next?

 

Oh, and then, I came back to Hawaii, and my sister introduced me to Carl, who was in the Navy, was getting ready to go to Japan to film the club, the military nightclubs for his television program. And so, my sister said, Oh, my sister just come back from Japan, I’ll have you meet her and find out things. Well, there you go. So, that’s how it happened.

 

The man to whom Johnny Frisbie was introduced turned out to be Carl Hebenstreit, also known as Kini Popo, a popular Honolulu radio DJ, and the first on-air personality for KGMB-TV’s inaugural 1952 broadcast.

 

You married a man who was very well-known in Hawai‘i.

 

M-hm.

 

Kini Popo is what everyone called him. Carl Hebenstreit, a radio and TV personality.

 

M-hm.

 

And I think you mentioned that you could talk to him about writing the way you could your dad.

 

Oh, yes; absolutely. Yeah. I mean, he had an amazing command of the English language. And so, he was very helpful with my second book. M-hm, my second book, when I was still learning the English language, still reading and studying, you know, grammar and all that. But he also was a beautiful person.

 

And with him, you had four children.

 

Yes.

 

In New Zealand.

 

Uh-huh.

 

Yet another part of—

 

They grew up in New Zealand. Yeah; two were born here. Ropati and Carla were born here, and Haumea was born in the Cook Islands, and Stirling was born in New Zealand. Yes.

 

And then, you stayed for a bit.

 

I stayed on.

 

Years.

 

When Carl returned to Hawaii, I stayed on. Three years, I was there. When the last of my kids left, then I decided, Oh, well, time to move on.

 

And you were still close to him, even though you were no longer married.

 

Oh, we’re very close now. Yes, he and Haumea meet at least once a week, and I’m invited. If I’m not invited, I invite myself. No problem. And I love his wife, Christine. Yeah; beautiful, beautiful friend.

 

In 1948, Johnny Frisbie became the first Polynesian female published author with her autobiographical book, Miss Ulysses from Pukapuka. And while living in Hawai‘i during the 1950s, she was one of the first to turn heads and raise a few eyebrows with her choice of swimwear.

 

There was a time on Waikiki Beach when no one wore bikinis. And then, you came along. You’re credited with being the first.

 

Yeah. Yeah, there was a Tahitian girl, too, who wore the bikini, and gave me courage. Yeah, gave me courage. But the thing that I can claim fame for was that I wore a bathing suit when I was six months pregnant and onwards. Okay; that was in 1957, and it was unheard of. You know, it was unheard of. I was very proud of that.

 

And how did you come to be, I guess, one of the first two women to wear a bikini? How did that happen?

 

Well, I didn’t think it was an issue. You know, it was just natural. You know, we grew up half-naked and naked; you’d go swimming naked, the girls and the boys over there. The girls there, we quickly take off our dress. We didn’t have panties or bra. Take off and put it on the bush, and run down, you know, into lagoon. And I mean, it’s no big deal. So, I just grew up not thinking about shame or rules, or restrictions. To this day, I have to be very careful I don’t upset people because of my quickness to do what’s natural.

 

After the birth of her second child, Johnny Frisbie planted roots in New Zealand. She says there were a number of Pukapukans living there, and she wanted her children to experience their cultural heritage. In 1976, Johnny made her debut as a television personality and had a chance to share her perspectives on life with New Zealand viewers.

 

Television began in the city where we lived, Dunedin, which is south, on the south island of New Zealand. An Australian producer was there, and he’d come from Australia, and he had worked on a program called Beauty and the Beast in Australia. And he wanted to start one for New Zealand viewers. And so, he asked me; he wanted someone other than all European. There were four panelists. So, he asked me if I would, and I said, yes, sure. You know. So, the program was about a male presenter and two women on the side. And he would a letter from viewers from all over, from solo mothers, grandmothers, you know, teenagers needing answer, needing help. And so, he would read the letter, and would turn and say, Johnny, what do you think of that? You know, we were not to give our advice, to give advice, but to give our opinion. But my viewpoint was very different to the other three, so it always very different to every letter. There was never one that just.

 

For example; can you give an example?

 

A solo mother who is alone with her baby, and wanted to know what to do with the baby. She can’t cope, they had very little money, and the father is just ignoring her. What do you do? And so, my reply was, Do you have family? You know, can you go to your mother or father, or auntie, or distant relative? You know, this is kind of the village clan type reply. I said, you know, have courage; even though they might not be happy with you for having this baby without the father, you know, just seek their help, find out, you know, and make amends. Yeah.

 

What did the others say?

 

They said, Oh, well, you did what you did, you’re paying for it. Kind of that kind of thing.

 

Thanks for the advice or the opinion. That went on for quite—you did that …

 

Ten years; ten years.

 

Ten years.

 

Five days a week. Yeah.

 

And did you have fans writing you about how they really liked your advice?

 

Yeah; the Polynesian Pacific island community were very, very grateful. They were very proud of the fact that they had someone on television, you know, and speaking on all our behalf. Yeah.

 

Were you controversial, too?

 

A little bit, yeah.

 

And you don’t mind. Not at all, right?

 

Well, it’s the truth as I understand it. And also fairness, you know. You know, I mean, we all think differently. You know, different cultures, the thoughts and feelings are all different. And I’m not about to cow down to what is supposed to be the correct way to think and feel, and all that, you know

 

And then, there was Pacifica. What’s that?

 

Pacifica is an organization that uh, Patty Walker, a very dear friend, and four other women and I started. Patty and I were on the New Zealand Maori and South Pacific Arts Council, and while at one of the meetings, we thought, Why don’t we create a Pacific Island women’s organization to help the women who are lost, and those who would like to be a nurse but don’t know where to go and how to get it moving, and get Pacific Island children, kids, students who are doing well at school to further their education, get a scholarship for them, or guide them. But, yeah, it helped. It was such a successful program for Pacific Island, especially the women, you know, stand tall, you know, have confidence, you know, go back to school. You know, I mean, they come from the small islands, eighth grade, and then that’s it. And so many of them enter college now, and it’s moved on. Professors and doctors, nurses. Yeah.
In 2015, Johnny Frisbie returned to her home atoll of Pukapuka in the Cook Islands after being away for over fifty years. She was reunited with her eldest brother, Charley Frisbie, given away at birth to his grandaunt, and he’d become the oldest living Pukapukan.

 

After many, many years away, you went back to Pukapuka to see your brother.

 

M-hm. Yeah; and to film a documentary called Homecoming. And we flew from Honolulu. The producer director of the film, Gemma, we flew to New Zealand, and then to Rarotonga, and we waited there for a boat to sail to Pukapuka. And it doesn’t happen often. And we were lucky, because during that month of July, the Cook Islands was celebrating its fiftieth internal self-government from New Zealand. So, they are no longer a protectorate of New Zealand. So, all the island people from the different islands congregated on Rarotonga to celebrate this great event. Lots of beautiful music, drumming, singing, dancing; the whole thing was just mindboggling. And so, we asked to board the boat that was to take the Pukapukans back to Pukapuka. And they said, Yeah, come onboard. So, we did. Five days sailing, and every night, every day, there’s music and drumming. The Pukapukans would just, you know, stay up all night waiting to get home, playing the ‘ukulele on both sides of the deck, you know, singing. It was beautiful.

 

Five days of that?

 

Yes; five days, five days of that.

 

That is a very difficult atoll to get to.

 

Yeah, it is; yeah.

 

No regularly scheduled boat or air …

 

No, no.

 

We had to charter a plane, eight-seater. We had to, or we would be stuck there for goodness knows how long. That way, we were assured of getting back to Rarotonga.

 

What was it like after that great sailing prelude? What was it like going back?

 

Well, it was so amazing. I fell into it as if I’d never left. Just totally, totally into it. You know, and just walking on the reef, just on the beach collecting shells, and talking. You know, the language came back very quickly. And grating coconut, peeling taro, and scaling fish, and gutting fish. You know, just cooking it the way we used to in the old days. And it was just unbelievable. I just fell into it, and it made me wonder, gosh, have I been longing, homesick all these years, and I just kind of buried it somewhere? You know.

 

Did you want to stay?

 

No, I didn’t because I wanted to be with my family, with my kids, my grandchildren. In that sense, yeah, that’s utmost to me.

 

But you could go home again.

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

It was all the good that you remember.

 

Oh, yes. And church, you know, attending the church service with that beautiful singing. It’s like chanting, you know.

 

Oh, the harmony. I sat on the benches in the village where my mother comes from. I sat almost where she used to sit.

 

Wow.

 

Yeah; makes you wonder why I ever left.

 

After living in New Zealand for thirty years, Johnny Frisbie returned to Hawai‘i to live with her daughter, Haumea Ho, widow of the late Hawai‘i entertainment icon, Don Ho.

 

Seems like you’ve lived a larger-than-life life. Because I mean, for example, your daughter is Haumea, she was married to Don Ho.

 

That’s right. Yeah.

 

I mean, that’s a different kind of culture. You know, the show business culture.

 

Yeah, yes, yes. Yeah; that’s why I came to Hawai‘i. She asked me to come and be with her when Don passed away. And it was very wonderful; wonderful, wonderful to be with her. And also, my sister was married to Adam West, Batman.

 

Batman.

 

Mm; yes.

 

You were a performer. I mean, you danced, you sang.

 

Mm. Yeah.

 

So, that was just part of life.

 

Yeah; m-hm, m-hm. Yeah. It wasn’t a career.

 

You continue to write. And I think when you write, you know, it makes you think maybe better. I mean, just because you’re involved in the exercise of putting things down that have to be true and authentic.

 

M-hm.

 

What insights have you come to over your life as you look back?

 

I’ve been very lucky. Delved a lot in philosophy, and so, I want to make things honest, and develop that aspect of my soul, my nature. And I’m very, very much into writing about my philosophy about anything and everything that comes to mind. And I’m discovering that I haven’t really committed fully to what the majority of people think about some things, and how they do it.

 

When people remember you in years to come, how do you want them to remember you; as nurturer?

 

Well, that’s just me. I mean, I have no profession. I think what they see, what they’ve gotten out from me, if any, that’s probably, and I have no label to say, you know. It’s what they got from me, good or bad. I don’t know. Yeah; hopefully, some good things. Yeah.

 

You mentioned your birthdate, and it means that as we speak now in 2017, you’re approaching eighty-five?

 

M-hm.

 

I don’t know what eighty-five looks like anymore, because a people are so healthy longer. But you don’t seem like you’re anywhere near eighty-five. I’m sure you’ve been told that before.

 

I’ll tell you a story. About a week and a half ago, I flew to California to see a friend. And his daughter, I’ve never met before, came to the airport to meet me. And I was waiting, and she was looking around for me, looking around for me. And finally, she called me and she said, Johnny, you know, where are you? I said, I’m here. And she said, Okay, I’m gonna put my hand up, when you see me, you know, come forward. And so, I did. And she came over to me and she said, I expected a gray-haired woman, lots of wrinkles! And she was yelling. You don’t have any wrinkles!

 

How old do you feel?

 

I feel young. You know, I’m exhilarated by things, excited about things. And I feel love, I feel love all the time. But physically, as of last year when I was gardening at my son’s place in Punalu‘u, I felt the physical change, you know. I’m crouching and weeding, and I can’t quickly stand up, you know. I had to kinda—ooh, you know. You know, help myself stand up like that, and I thought, mm, now this is not good. But you know, accept it.

 

And that was only last year.

 

Yeah, yeah. Yeah; last year.

 

You know, people at age thirty are saying, My knee, it’s killing me.

 

At the time of this conversation in March of 2017, Florence “Johnny” Frisbie was about to embark on yet another journey; a multi-week trip across the Pacific. Even in her mid-80s, it seems the odyssey of Miss Ulysses from Pukapuka is not over yet. Mahalo to author Florence “Johnny” Frisbie of Honolulu for sharing your story with us. And thank you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

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

 

Have you ever regretted saying too much?

 

Saying too much; no. No.

 

Have you ever regretted saying too little?

 

Mmm, no. No.

 

Do you not have many regrets?

 

That would be, I mean, that would be the best place to be in life, no regrets.

 

Yeah, there’s a couple of things, but not much, no.

 

[END]

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Florence “Johnny” Frisbie: Life Lessons from Pukapuka Atoll

 

Florence “Johnny” Frisbie was only 15 years old when she published her first autobiography in 1948. Miss Ulysses from Puka-Puka is an account of her life on the little-known Pacific island of Pukapuka, part of the Cook Islands. The adventurous daughter of an American writer father and native Pukapukan mother, Johnny discusses the beauty and hardship of her remote island upbringing.

 

To view the second part of guest Florence “Johnny” Frisbie’s show, click here.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Feb. 21, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Feb. 25, at 4:00 pm.

 

Florence Johnny Frisbie Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Most of the time, it was a kind of challenge that was exciting. It was. I think it’s because, you know, we live on small islands, and we go out on the reef, and the big waves wash suddenly, and we’re down and struggling to get up again. And it was perhaps that background and upbringing that we had this great sense of excitement, you know. And yet, it’s partly survival.

 

Florence “Johnny” Frisbie grew up living far away from the comforts of a traditional population center, surviving on whatever food a small coral atoll and the ocean might provide. The odyssey of Johnny Frisbie, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Florence “Johnny” Frisbie of Honolulu has spent her entire life on an odyssey. Born in Tahiti, Johnny traveled the South Pacific, spending her childhood on small remote Cook Islands like Pukapuka, and the virtually uninhabited Suwarrow. At age twelve, she started documenting her adventures. At fifteen, she was a published author, the first Pacific Island woman to accomplish that. Her autobiography was Miss Ulysses of Pukapuka. Johnny was born to a native Pukapukan mother and an American father, Robert Dean Frisbie, who was a writer and South Seas trader.

 

I understand your dad was from Ohio.

 

Yeah.

 

And your mom was from Pukapuka.

 

Yeah. Yeah.

 

How did that happen?

 

Well, he left San Francisco and ended up in Tahiti. Yes, yes, yes. And so, he arrived in Tahiti and met James Hall, and they became very close friends. But then, he lived there for many years, many many years, and also could see where Tahiti is becoming a place where a lot of ships and sailors, and wanderers, explorers are ending up in big parties and drinking, and all that. And he was disillusioned, and wanted something even simpler and quieter, and a culture that suits him with you know, his dream. And he ended up on Pukapuka.

 

Can you tell us about Pukapuka? When we talk about Pacific Island neighbors, Pukapuka is far, far from Hawaii. Can you tell us about it, and your life there?

 

Pukapuka is a small atoll, north of all the Cook Islands. It’s the most northern island of the fifteen islands. My mother comes from Pukapuka, and her mother before her, before her.

 

She was much younger than he?

 

Yes, yes; she was sixteen. Yeah.

 

And how was that? So, there was an age difference, a cultural difference. How did that work out?

 

That really is not important, you know, the age. Women don’t sit around thinking about their age and worrying about growing old. That’s not in the picture, you know. It’s whether it works; something works. And my father being a White man, you know, Oh, hey, this is very nice, you know, and he wants our daughter. This is the family and the tribe talking about, you know, What are we gonna do, you know. We don’t know him. You know, they didn’t know anything about the White man, as they called him. And so, it was so foreign to them.

 

How many White men or White people—

 

Only one. Yeah.

 

On the island?

 

Only him. Yes.

 

I see.

 

Yeah. And they’d come and go. They’d come on a boat, and leave the next day. But he stayed. And so, they wonder, What do we do? You know, he wants to marry our daughter, and the sixteen age didn’t come into the conversation whatsoever. So, they all assessed his ability to fish, you know, and ability to paddle, and ability to husk coconut, and the way that he speaks softly. But they kinda wondered about him, because he didn’t go to church. He wouldn’t go to church, and they thought that might be a problem. But no, you know, the fact that he could do all these other things Pukapukan men do, is sufficient to give our daughter to him. That’s how it happened.

 

All right; so he passed the test.

 

And the marriage was a success?

 

Yes; very much so.

 

How many children followed?

 

Five; five. The eldest is Charles, and he was taken away from my mother when my father was away, when she gave birth to him.

 

Um, you want to hear that story?

 

Yes; I don’t know that story.

 

Oh, oh. Oh—

 

Charles was taken away from your mother?

 

Well, there’s a custom on Pukapuka. The first and second children of the couple is the father’s share. And then, he gives them away as a gift to his parents or grandparents, or a brother who, you know, can’t have children, his wife cannot have children. And then, the third and fourth children are the mother’s share, and naturally, this is a gift, the ultimate gift, to to her mother, to her parents, and sister or brother. And so, when my mother and father moved to Rarotonga, my father had a job offered on another island, copra making, making copra out of coconut, the coconut meat. So, my mother, she was then seventeen, eighteen years old, was left on Rarotonga in the care of a grandaunt who did not have any children. So when my mother gave birth, Pikipiki took the baby and said, This is our share; I’ll take this baby. And my mother coming from that culture, and my father not being there said, Yeah, okay; yeah, you take. And so, she took the baby, Charles, and disappeared into the valley. When my father came back, found he had no firstborn, he was devastated. So, he asked two policemen on the island to please go fetch this woman, and bring back his son. And those men, knowing the culture, understanding fully what this natural process was, just kinda walked in the valley, looked around, came back and said, Oh, can’t find her.

 

So, he never saw his son?

 

No.

 

Until how long—

 

Not until he was thirteen; he was thirteen.

 

Oh …

 

He came back thirteen years later.

 

Well, you’re number two. Were you given away?

 

No; because my father made sure that he was there.

 

No more culture like that; right? So, all the other children …

 

Yes.

 

Two, three, four stayed.

 

M-hm; yeah.

 

What was everyday life like when you and your dad, and our mom and siblings were there? What did you do during the day? What was family life like?

 

We were very busy kids. You know, the kids were busy. We played a lot; climbed trees, and hide-and-seek, and swim in the lagoon, swim out to the corals way out. But we had duties, too. You know, we had to help the women in the taro patch. Yeah.

 

Oh, that’s hard work.

 

Yeah, well, we played most of the time.

 

In 1937, Johnny Frisbie’s mother gave birth to her fifth child. Two weeks later, she fell ill, and her condition worsened. She passed away the following year.

 

Your mother was so young when she passed away of tuberculosis; twenty-six.

 

M-hm, m-hm.

 

What happened in your family at that time? What were some of the effects?

 

Well, my father took total control of the family. You know, he became the mother, father, because my mother had asked him before she died not to separate us. ‘Cause that is commonly what happens with families, and her parents were very eager to take two of us as their share. And my father said, No, no, you know, these are my children too, you know, and I don’t belong in that. And that was the reason why my father decided that we leave Pukapuka.

 

What was the thing you missed most about your mother after she was gone?

 

When I think about her, what I remember of her, I just … remember her looking at me, you know, just like looking at me. You know.

 

Like she loved you.

 

Yeah. And so, I’m happy when she looks up at me like that, and all this love and a faint smile. Oh; I take a breath, and I run away, then disappear for hours and play with my friends, you know. And then, I’ll think about it, and I’ll come back and just stand in front of her to get this …

 

M-hm.

 

I missed that.

 

Johnny Frisbie’s father moved the family around the South Pacific to places like Fiji, and even settled on Suwarrow Atoll in the Northern Cook Islands. They lived on tiny Anchorage Island, which had a landmass of less than one-tenth of a square mile. It was there, that the motherless family faced a terrible storm.

 

This was Suwarrow, uninhabited island.

 

And were you the only residents?

 

There were four others. And they were sent there by the New Zealand government to keep an eye on the war activities. You know, Japanese, maybe submarine, whatever it is.

 

I see.

 

And so, they were on that island, and on other islands as well. Yeah.

 

Your father ended up lashing you to trees.

 

Yeah, yeah.

 

All the kids; right?

 

Yeah, yeah. M-hm.

 

Tying you up there.

 

Well, before that, before preparing for the hurricane, he tied ropes around our waist, and there was plenty left here to put around the coconut tree. Okay; and then, when the seas rise, it takes us up, and when it comes down, brings us down. That was the plan. But before nighttime, before dark, the wind was just wild. He noticed that the coconut trees were being uprooted or broken in half. And so, he said, Ooh, that’s not gonna work.

 

You can laugh now.

 

So, that plan was thrown out. When a big wave hit the house, the thatched roof house we were in, it was nighttime, but it was light because of the lightning; it was just constant, so there was light. We left the house and crawled. You couldn’t stand up; you crawl and just cling to the gravel and the sand, whatever you can, towards the three trees that were still standing.

 

What kind of trees?

 

Tamanu trees. So, he just tied us to the branches. Yeah, to the branches.

 

How many kids did he tie?

 

Four.

 

And then tied himself?

 

No; no. He just hung on. Yeah; he just hung onto a branch when the wind was powerful.

 

But wasn’t the sea level up over the sand? I mean, basically, the island got covered, didn’t it?

 

We went way up. Yeah; we climbed up to the top. Yeah, the top where the branches snake off like this. And he had his hut right on top of those branches. But yeah, it worked.

 

And I know in your book you say that three-quarters of the landmass of the atoll was washed away.

 

Yeah; it was cut. Here’s the island here, and ended up with two channels. The island was just … split, you know, by the sea.

 

What happened to the other observers who were on the island?

 

Well, my father said they could, of course, come up to his house, to his hut up at the top, and it would save them too. Two of them were Europeans, New Zealanders, and this was kind of very different for them. Very, very different. And they just shook the whole time. It was cold, they were frightened, they were totally helpless. But the two boys from Manihiki were okay. You know, they were from another atoll which is called Manihiki.

 

How were you doing? You were a little kid.

 

Yeah. We were fine.

 

How crazy was it? You were being buffeted by winds, the water level was coming up.

 

Well, like I say, there was some excitement to it. Ooh, ooh, ooh; ooh, I hope it doesn’t reach us. You know, and hang on and pray. ‘Cause my grandmother always says, Always pray, always pray. You know, so pray. I don’t remember being totally overpowered by fear; I don’t remember. It was exciting, and it was a matter of survival. You know, thinking about, looking and, okay, this happens here, that branch, there’s another branch there. I do that to this day. When I drive to Punaluu, I’m looking at all the trees in case of tidal wave, you know. And with my grandchildren, I said, No, that’s not good, because they can’t climb up that one. You know, it’s gotta be where there are branches so we can get up. So, I do the same thing.

 

Plan B; right?

 

Yeah. And so, there, you have to keep an eye on what next. You know, what next. Yeah.

 

And at some point, the water subsided, the winds stopped.

 

Yeah.

 

And, what?

 

Yeah.

 

You’re on a decimated island.

 

Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, there was plenty of fish and turtles, and sharks in the middle of the island where the waves came from the ocean, from the lagoon. Meet in the middle, they bring all these beautiful fish, this lovely stuff. And we were able to live on that for two days only, and then they began to decompose. Yeah; and then the flies; millions of flies eating all these dead fish. Yeah.

 

What’d you do after that?

 

We ate birds. Yeah. The birds returned after the hurricane. The birds had disappeared somewhere else, and after the hurricane, you could hear them at night. We heard them one night all making their noise as they were coming back to Suwarrow. So, we ate lots of birds. And we made spears out of wood. Made spears, and we’d go on the reef and spear grouper, other fishes.

 

Amidst many personal hardships, Johnny Frisbie’s father, Robert Dean Frisbie, continued to write travel stories, news articles, and six published books about island life in Polynesia.

 

His first book was called The Book of Puka-Puka, and it’s a classic. And then, there’s Amaru. It’s the first novel, that’s the first novel he wrote. And I typed it; that’s how I learned to type. He gave it to me. He wrote at night, write by hand in the light of a lantern, and then he would give me the script in the morning. And I’d type it on his little Remington like this.

 

So, not surprising, you would turn out to be a writer.

 

Because you’d been doing diaries.

 

I know. Yeah. And then, his last book, Dawn Sails North, he did the same thing. We were on Rarotonga then. So, he decided, enough of this, so he sent for an instruction book on how to type with all the fingers. So, I taught myself how to do that, and typed Dawn Sails North. That was his last book. It was published after his death. Yeah.

 

Johnny Frisbie, encouraged by her father’s love of storytelling and literature, wrote Miss Ulysses from Puka-Puka. Audiences in the Western world started to read about her South Sea adventures in 1948.

 

You wrote this book between the ages of twelve and fourteen.

 

I started a diary at twelve. Yeah. No, I finished the book at fifteen. Yeah; it came out when I was sixteen, just before my father died.

 

So, it was a diary.

 

Yes.

 

In which language did you keep your diary?

 

Oh, I kept it in Pukapukan mainly, and then English. As I went along, I write in Pukapukan, and I would ask my father what that word is in English. And he would explain it to me, and then I would use the word. By the time I was fourteen, I was able to write in English. Might be not the best, you know, but I was able to use adjectives because my father said, You can’t just write like that, you have to put a colorful word there to make the next word happy.

 

And Miss Ulysses; where did Miss Ulysses come from?

 

Well, because there were no children’s books in that part of the world growing up, my father at nighttime, rather than read, and there’s no children’s stories, he would tell us the story of Ulysses in the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer. Every night, we would go through the whole series of adventures, Ulysses. And that was all I knew, you know. And so, when the book was finished, then my father said, Well, we gotta find a name for this book. Hm, hm; we thought about it, thought about it for days, and days. And then, I said, Oh, how about Miss Ulysses? Because I’m Ulysses, aren’t I, Papa? You know.

 

You identified with Ulysses. And it was an adventuring kind of life. I mean, you were facing the elements.

 

Yeah, that’s right. And we traveled a lot. You know, we did.

 

Johnny Frisbie’s father, Robert Dean Frisbie, contracted the same illness that took his wife. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1943. Despite his declining health, he continued to travel the South Pacific and write. In 1948, Robert Dean Frisbie died at age fifty-two, orphaning Johnny and her siblings.

 

Did your dad pass away in …

 

We were on Rarotonga.

 

Rarotonga.

 

The big island of Rarotonga; m-hm. And he’s buried there. M-hm.

 

And you became an orphan.

 

Yes; m-hm. Yes; the three of us. He had sent my two brothers to New Zealand just before he passed away.

 

Someone who’s lost their parents as a child would have devastating feelings of loss. But it sounds like …

 

Yes, with my father, because I relied so much on him for an extension of my Polynesian Pukapukans. You know, it was just natural, ‘cause he understood my Polynesian-ness, you know, and my eagerness to be like him. You know. And he understood that, and I missed that, I didn’t know where to turn.

 

And then, who decided what would happen to the children?

 

I did; yeah. Peter and Barbara Engle from Lanikai had read my father’s books. And so, they sailed on a yacht, The Loafer, through some of the Pacific island to find him, because they were told that he was in that part of the world. So, when they finally got to Tahiti, they looked up James Michener, who informed them that my father was on living on Rarotonga. So, they sailed to Rarotonga, and we met. And by that time, my father had an idea, he had an inkling he wasn’t going to live long, so he asked the Engles if they would take me with them and make sure that I get an education. Okay; and they promised. So, when he passed away, Barbara Engle wrote to me to say they were in New Zealand, as soon as they arrived in Hawaii, they will send for me. And that happened in April 1950. April 23, 1950, I landed at the old airport in Honolulu. Lived with them, and immediately, I started looking for families for my two sisters. The Engles happened to be very, very good friends with the Dawsons of Kailua, and they had three sons, and I used to play with them all the time. And I thought, Oh, uh-huh, no sister, hm, okay. So, I approached Sumai and Lee Dawson and asked if they would like a sister for their sons. And they said, Yes, absolutely. Boop, about six months later, my younger sister was here. And while I was at camp as a counselor at Kokokahi Camp a year later, the Fenders, Ma and Pa Fender, who managed the camp where the YWCA is now, that was Kokokahi Camp, that was in ’51, and we got to know each other. And I thought, Oh, okay, they’re very nice people. And so, I asked if they would take my sister Elaine. And they said, Yes, absolutely.

 

Just amazing.

 

And never having met them, but knowing you. So, you functioned as the oldest child.

 

Yeah, yeah.

 

Your brother had been given away.

 

Oh, yeah; m-hm, yeah. So, they arrived, and we lived happily ever after. And they were so nice, because every weekend, we would be together.

 

Johnny Frisbie and her two sisters were reunited on Oahu in 1952. The Frisbie daughters spent the remainder of their teenage years in Hawaii raised separately in different families. Much like her adventurous father, Johnny did not stay planted in Hawaii for very long, and after graduating from Punahou School in Honolulu, the travels of Miss Ulysses began again. At the time of our conversation in early 2017, she was nearly eighty-five years old, and getting ready for more Pacific travels. Mahalo to Florence “Johnny” Frisbie of Honolulu, who as a teen was credited as the first published female author from Polynesia, for sharing your story with us. And thank you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

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

 

Your first name is actually Florence.

 

Mm.

 

But everyone knows you as Johnny.

 

M-hm.

 

How did that happen?

 

It happened in Tahiti, and my mother was in labor. And my father and all his friends, Andy Thompson, James, all his friends, sailor friends were drinking Johnny Walker whiskey. One of the friends said, Girl or boy, it’s gonna be Johnny. You know.

 

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