The Making of a Lady


This is the story of the educated but penniless Emily (Lydia Wilson). During her duties as a lady’s companion for Lady Maria (Joanna Lumley), she meets her employer’s wealthy widower nephew, Lord James Walderhurst (Linus Roache). Accepting his practical if unromantic marriage proposal, Emily finds solace in the company of Walderhurst’s nephew Alec Osborn (James D’Arcy) and his glamorous wife, Hester (Hasina Haque), after Lord James leaves to rejoin his regiment. Emily, alone with the Osborns, increasingly comes under their control and begins to fear for her life. Based on the 1901 novel The Making of a Marchioness by celebrated writer Frances Hodgson Burnett.


Part 1 of 3


Martin Clunes stars as world-famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in this three-part adaptation of Julian Barnes’ acclaimed novel, which follows the separate but intersecting lives of two men: a half-Indian son of a vicar who is framed for a crime he may not have committed; and Doyle, who investigates the case.


Part 1 of 3
Asked to clear a man convicted of animal mutilation, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle finds there’s more to the case than meets the eye.


Part 2 of 3


Martin Clunes stars as world-famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in this three-part adaptation of Julian Barnes’ acclaimed novel, which follows the separate but intersecting lives of two men: a half-Indian son of a vicar who is framed for a crime he may not have committed; and Doyle, who investigates the case.


Part 2 of 3
Sir Arthur and Woodie get a shock after they order their driver to “follow that carriage!” Matters reach a crisis with Jean.


Part 3 of 3


Martin Clunes stars as world-famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in this three -part adaptation of Julian Barnes’ acclaimed novel, which follows the separate but intersecting lives of two men: a half-Indian son of a vicar who is framed for a crime he may not have committed; and Doyle, who investigates the case.


Part 3 of 3
Sir Arthur and Woodie close in on the Wyrley Ripper. But have they found their man?


Anne of Green Gables


A new adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novel tells the story of Anne Shirley (Ella Ballentine), a precocious orphan placed in the care of uptight Marilla Cuthbert (Sara Botsford) and her brother Matthew (Martin Sheen). Neither the adventurous Anne nor the conservative Marilla could anticipate the profound effect they’d have on each other’s lives.


Victoria Kneubuhl


Playwright and novelist Victoria Kneubuhl has used her writing as a way to share the history of Hawaii and to give a voice to powerful women of the past. And while writing is her passion, she also sees it as a way to give something back. “One of the things that I really want people to know…who are from the islands or the Pacific, is that our stories are so worth telling. If you write something that is heartfelt and genuine, you are leaving a gift for your community,” says Kneubuhl.


Victoria Kneubuhl Audio


Download the Transcript




I think that when we understand what happened in the past to our country and our people, that we will be able to make better decisions about what we create in the future. Because I feel like if you don’t understand your personal past, your collective past, you can get into a lot of trouble.


Bringing together the past and the present is a trademark of Victoria Kneubuhl’s work. Respected Honolulu playwright Victoria Kneubuhl, 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. Writing is Victoria Kneubuhl’s passion. She’s driven by a desire to share her Hawaiian and Samoan heritage, and give a voice to powerful women of the past. Kneubuhl has written more than two dozen plays. Her writing credits also include novels and television documentaries. She’s the recipient of the State’s highest literary honor, the Hawaii Award for Literature. However, as a child growing up in Manoa, Kneubuhl never dreamed of becoming a successful playwright.


Well, I was born in Kapiolani Hospital in 1949, in the Territory of Hawaii. And I grew up in Manoa Valley, right up the street here. So, that’s where my formative years were. My mother was pretty much a housewife, and my dad worked for American Factors; he was an auditor.


Now, at the time you were born, was Samoan-Hawaiian as an interracial marriage, was that considered unusual, or was that common?


You know, I don’t really know. I don’t think it was that unusual. But I do think it’s unusual that my father, you know, came here at such an early age from Samoa to go to school. He was seven years old, and he came with his brother, who was nine. They came on a ship, and they both went to Punahou School when they were little.


Could they speak English?




Raised bilingually.


Yes; they were both bilingual. And my father tells these wonderful stories about being at the boarding school, the Punahou boarding school, which was a farm school, he said. And it was out in Kaimuki, you know, near the graveyard, near Diamond Head Cemetery. That was where the boys boarded.


Now, that sounds like your family was well-to-do, to be able to go from Samoa and afford Punahou.


Well, I think my grandfather was. To afford, to be able to do that, they must have been. And I think it was important to them that their children had a really good education. My grandfather was from Iowa; Burlington, Iowa. His parents were immigrants from Switzerland, I think. And he ran away from home when he was … seventeen, or something. And he lied about his age, and he joined the Navy. And he ended up in Samoa, and he met my grandmother who was, from what we call an afakasi family, just half-caste, afakasi. It’s not a bad word. And I think she was about three-quarter Samoan. Because her father was half-Samoan, and half palagi. He was a descendant of a missionary [CHUCKLE] from the London Missionary Society.


So, from an early time, your family was mixed generationally.


Oh, yeah.


And going through different times.


And our family, you know, has these roots in the Pacific that include Hawaii, but you know, also include Tahiti and Samoa, and now we have relatives in New Zealand and Australia. So … yeah. This is our home.


So, you’re growing up in Manoa. What was life like at the Kneubuhl house?


Well, you know, my earliest memory is playing outside. And when I was a little girl, there were still farms. There were farms in the back of Manoa Valley, you know. There were a lot of Japanese farmers back there. I guess they were leasing land from the Bishop Estate. That’s what I understand. Manoa lettuce was really grown in Manoa. [CHUCKLE] And behind the school was mostly farms. And there were gardenia farms back there too. So, I kind of think of my childhood as pretty idyllic.


And rural, in Manoa.


Yeah. I thought I grew up in the country. But I guess I didn’t.  And we had a lot of freedom as children to roam around. It was safe then, and we could swim in the stream, and hike around in the mountains. It was great. I feel lucky.


Victoria Kneubuhl explored her Samoan roots on a trip with her father when she was a teenager. The trip had barely begun, when her dad did something that really surprised her.


I didn’t really know anything about being Samoan. Sometimes, my dad’s brother John, who was a screenwriter in Hollywood, would come over and charm us all with stories about what was going on in Hollywood. But I didn’t have much contact with that part of my family until my father decided that he might want to move back to Samoa and work for my grandfather. So, when I was, I think like thirteen, my father decided he was gonna go back and have a look at what it would be like to live there, to kind of test the waters. And he took me with him. Just me. So, it was in the early 60s, and Pan American was the plane that flew in there, and we got off the airplane, and the airport was kind of like this wooden shack with rat wire on it.  And there was a big line of our family there, you know, waiting to meet us. And I was holding my dad’s hand, and all of a sudden, he started speaking Samoan. And I didn’t know he spoke Samoan. You know, I used to ask him when I was kid, Oh, Dad, how do you say milk in Samoan? He’d go, I don’t know, I don’t know. He wouldn’t tell me.  So, I got off the plane, and he started speaking Samoan to all of these people, and I … I felt extremely unsure of the world for a moment. But that was a really interesting summer for me, because he and I kind of drove all around. And you know, Samoa was really different, what was that, fifty years ago, fifty-plus years ago, than it is today. So, … only part of the island had paved roads, and not every place had electricity, and most of the outlying villages, people still lived in … fales, you know, in grass houses and had that kind of cultural village life, and the material culture that went along with it. And so, it was really enlightening for me to see a Polynesian culture at that time in my life, and to see how people lived.


You were hearing your father determining whether to possibly uproot you, your life would change radically. Were you concerned, or was it travel log time?


No, it was pretty much a travel log time for me, and I was really excited to be there. And I had all of these great cousins that I met that I ran around with. And my father came back after two weeks, but I stayed for the whole summer with my aunt. And I loved it there at that time. It’s a different place now, but then, it was really fun.


And yet, your father did move, and you did not.


Yeah. Well, you know, my parents, it was important for my father that … my brother and I go to Punahou. So, we stayed here, and my parents and my younger brother moved down there.


And you stayed with your grandmother?


Yes; in Manoa.


And did you graduate from Punahou?


No. Actually, I dropped out of high school and I had a child when I was seventeen years old. So, it wasn’t a great situation for me. And I think I felt kind of lost and alone, and so I was looking for some, you know, place that I felt safe. And … you know, life is funny, though, you know. I had a child when I was seventeen; but by the time I was twenty-four, I couldn’t have children anymore. And of course, now my daughter is like my best friend in the world.


Something you thought was gonna hurt your life, needed to happen then. Is that how you look at it?


Well, part of it, yeah. Not all of it, but part of it. And yeah, it was hard to have a child when I was, you know, so young. But … that’s what happened.


Did you remain in Hawaii, or did you go to Samoa?


You know, when I left my first husband, I went back to Samoa and I stayed there for about seven years and worked there. And … I came back to Hawaii, I think, in the late 70s. Eventually, as wonderful as the island was then, it just seemed too small to me. My horizon started to shrink. You know, and so when I came back to Honolulu, I started going to school. I went to the Academy of Arts for a while. They used to have a studio program there, where I went every day to a drawing class or a painting class.


By now, Victoria Kneubuhl was in her late twenties, with a new husband and a second child. After earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, Kneubuhl was considering a career in psychology, when she stumbled on a class that would change her life.


I was thinking about getting a degree in psychology. I was kind of in love with Carl Jung, with Jungian psychology, and I was fascinated by it. And we were having a break. You know, I was having a break from school, and I thought, before I apply to this program, that I would do something different. So, you know, they used to register in Klum Gym.


I remember that. Long lines in Klum Gym.


Yeah. That’s right. So, I went to sign up for a creative writing class in the English department, but they were full. So, I’m looking through the program, and I see this class that says, playwriting. And I thought, Oh, yeah, you know, you know, my uncle does that; yeah, I think I’ll try that.  So, I wandered into this playwriting class. It was really fascinating; the class was fascinating. It was really hard, and the teacher was extremely tough and scary, and I almost dropped out of the class, because I was feeling humiliated. And so, I went home, and I had this little talk with myself, and I said, You know, that man, he’s really smart, and he really knows a lot, and I paid for this class, and I’m gonna ignore all of this stuff that I don’t think has anything really to do with playwriting. And I’m just gonna take what he knows, because I paid for it. So, I changed my attitude, and I walked back in the class the next time, and … it was fine. You know, I think it was just that attitude change on my part that kind of changed the whole class. And I was so happy with where I ended up, compared to where I started from, that I enrolled in the same class again with a different teacher, Dennis Carroll. When I got into Dennis’ class … he was a wonderful teacher. He has all of this love and passion for the theater. You know, he started Kumu Kahua Theater. And he really took me under his wing and nurtured me as a writer. And he had confidence in me and my work. You know, when you’re a young writer, you just don’t know if you’re any good. And then, when someone who you admire and you think is really smart tells you, Yeah, you know, this is good, it really helps you to continue and to grow in your craft. And that’s what Dennis did for me. And not just me. You know, he did it for a lot of other writers, too. So, I think if it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be a writer. And because Kumu Kahua Theater was there, you know, they were interested in my work, right away. So, my very first play was produced, which you know, for a playwright is …


This was college, it got produced?




And what did you choose to write about? What was your first play about?


My first play was called Emmalehua. And it was about a young woman. It was set right after the war.


Which war?


World War II.  It was set right after World War II. And it concerned a young woman who had been made a hula kapu when she was a girl, and who had drifted away from that calling or that honor. And you know, at that time, everybody in Hawaii was interested in being American. And so, it was about how she came back to … her craft and art. And I really wanted to write about, you know, who I was and where I came from, and … so, that was my first play, and that got produced.


Was that you? Was that girl you?


No; it wasn’t me. I’m kind of a clumsy dancer. I know; it’s terrible. I’m Polynesian, and I don’t sing very well, and I can’t dance either.


You can write; you’re like a dream.


What was your second play about? Still in college?


Well, actually, the second produced play I worked on was in collaboration with Dennis Carroll, Robert Nelson who was a musician, who just recently passed away, and Ryan Page. Dennis wanted to do a play about Kaiulani. so, that was the second play that I worked on. Although that play is not really mine, because there were so many people contributing to it. And the next play I wrote was The Conversion of Kaahumanu, which has been produced in a lot of different places.


That’s a great theme that you chose. Conversion meaning to Christianity of this alii of the Hawaiian government.


Well, at that time, I had three part-time jobs when I was going to school. And you know, I had to work so hard to get an education. I had these two kids, and you know, I was going to graduate school fulltime, and you know, I just don’t know how I did it. And my husband doesn’t know how we did it either, but we managed to do it. And one of my part-time jobs was working at the Mission Houses Museum; I started there as a guide. And they had a living history program that interpreted the interaction between Hawaiians and missionaries. And I loved working there; I loved the people I was working with. I was working with Deborah Pope, who is now the director of Shangri La, and Glen Grant. He was working there, too. And so, we were actually the principal role players in this program, and so, we had to do a lot of research about that time period. And that play, you know, it just kind of came to the surface.


She was often blamed by many Hawaiians for going away from Hawaiian spiritual values to Christianity.


I think that one of the reasons she chose to ally herself with the missionaries is that, you know, there was a lot of gunboat diplomacy then, and a lot of Westerners considered Polynesians, not just Hawaiians, but all people with dark skin, less than human. And becoming Christian was one way of showing the outside world that, No, we’re human.


One perspective that comes out in your play is that, you know, for those who think that the Hawaiians at the time in leadership were just being squashed and put down by White people, that’s not true, you believe.


I don’t believe that. I mean, I believe that our alii were doing the best that they could for the people, and that it was a really, really hard time. And I hate these histories that make it seem like, you know, Hawaiians were being kind of led around by the nose by all of these people and weren’t savvy and smart enough to see what was happening, and try to make the best decision that they could.


Political and racial conflict in Hawaii are common themes in Victoria Kneubuhl’s plays. Her topics include modern controversies over iwi, or bones, and the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy. The latter was a five-act, fifteen-hour play staged on the steps of Iolani Palace. Kneubuhl says she often hears the voices of her protagonists in her head.


I’d love to hear you talk about structuring a play. Because I wouldn’t know how to go about condensing all those years, and continents, and time.


Yeah. You know, structure in playwriting is probably the hardest element. You know, when you first start learning about playwriting, dialog, character, those things come pretty easily, because we know them all. You know, we just have to listen, and we can hear what people talk like. And we know characters. You know, we know what other people are like. So, those things come pretty fast. But structuring a play is, I think, a constant challenge to a playwright.


You’ve got one stage. You can determine the number of acts, I presume.


Yeah; you can determine the number of acts. You can figure out how many characters you want. Although these days, for the commercial stage, you know, they don’t want a lot of characters in a play anymore, because they don’t want to pay. So, writing for the community theater has its advantages. You can have as many characters as you want, and nobody’s gonna care. But you basically have the stage, and you have dialog. That’s it. I mean, you have some lighting, and you have some props, and you know, you can have some sound effects. But pretty much, you’re telling your story through dialog.


What is that like, when you sit back on opening night? I’m sure you’re not sitting back; you’re probably sitting forward. What is it like seeing it unfold?


You know, opening night isn’t really the night when I’m the most shocked. There’s a point in rehearsals where the actors are off book, where they’re not holding their scripts anymore, and you first see your play being acted out by people. Something that was just inside your head is now out there. And I always feel like, oh, my god, my underwear is hanging on the line, and everybody’s looking at it.


Because it comes from deep inside you.


Yeah. And it’s kind of the first time it’s exposed out there. And that’s when I feel the most strange.


What are you like when you’re writing a play? Are you locked in a room with beverages? I mean, do you shut the windows and hunker down? How do you do it?


Well, you know, when I first started writing, I was going to school, I had three part-time jobs, I had two children and a husband, and a house to keep clean. So, I just learned to block everything out, you know. And while dinner was like, on the stove, I was at the dining table writing away. And I just learned to, like, close things out and you know, kind of focus on what I was doing. Because I didn’t have the luxury of anything else.


Do you think in retrospect, that helped you? That you could work it into your life.


Yeah; I think it did a lot. And when I hear people say, Oh, if only I had some time, I could go away; I just laugh, you know. Because if you really want to write, you just sit down and write.


And Victoria Kneubuhl has added novels to her writing portfolio. At the time of our conversation in the summer of 2015, she was working on her third book in a murder mystery fiction series set in 1930s Honolulu.


Did you leave playwriting behind, or did you decided to take a break and write novels, mystery novels?


Well, I could never leave playwriting behind, because that’s where I started writing. But at some point, I realized, gosh, my plays are pretty serious, you know, and I really need to have some fun with my writing, so I think I’ll write a mystery. Because you know, when I want to relax, my escape literature is, you know, old-fashioned cozy mysteries. And so, I decided to try and write a mystery. And actually, I’d started another novel too, and I couldn’t finish either of them, and I had to pick one to finish. So, I decided to finish the mystery. I was finishing the mystery, and you know, I had no idea how to find a publisher. And UH Press had published my book of plays, so one day, I was in Safeway and was looking for mayonnaise, and I saw my editor, the editor of my playwriting books there. And I was talking to her, and I said, Oh, you know, I’m writing a mystery; do you have any suggestions about where I could send it for a publisher? She looked at me kinda suspiciously and she said, Did you know we’ve been kind of thinking about doing a mystery series? I said, No. And I don’t know if she believed me or not. But she said, Well, we are, so send it to me. And so, then I really, you know, finished it. Because I had that incentive.


And you put many places, places that you know well into their settings. You actually have the curator of Bishop Museum killed in the museum.


Well, you know, because I worked in the museum field for so long, I knew that that field pretty well. So, I made use of it. You know. And I really feel that novel writing, you know, even when it’s fiction that’s kind of a genre fiction, mysteries … those kinds of stories preserve history in their own way. You know, they tell us a little bit about the past in a really different way.


You put the Haleiwa Hotel in your in your novel.




Which really existed.


Yeah. Yes, and just the way people related to each other. You know, I mean, I feel so fortunate to have known the kind of kupuna that aren’t with us anymore. So, I think fiction is a wonderful place for preservation, too.


We’re coming to the end of a really wonderful conversation. I don’t know if there’s anything you wish you could have a chance to say to people, or that hasn’t been brought out, or just any thought that you’d like to share.


One of the things that I really want people to know, who would like to be writers, and who would like to write, and who are from the islands or the Pacific, is that our stories are so worth telling. And that, you know, it doesn’t matter if you don’t make the best-seller list in New York. If you write something that is heartfelt and genuine, you are leaving a gift for your community.


It’s tough to make a living as a playwright in Hawaii, and Kneubuhl has always had a day job. She’s been the Curator of Education at the Mission Houses Museum, and she taught playwriting at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Since 1993, Kneubuhl also has written and produced episodes of the television series Biography Hawaii. Mahalo to Victoria Kneubuhl of Maunalani Heights, Honolulu for sharing your story with us. And thank you, for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, hui hou.


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


Let’s move to something that occupies a lot of your time today, and it’s a passion and a hobby involving dogs.


Yes, I’m a crazy dog person. You know, my husband and I really got interested in dog training a few years ago. There’s a new sport, it’s really popular on the continent; it’s called nose work. And it’s the same training that those, you know, real working dogs at the airport do. But you train the dogs to sniff out legal substances, and they’re oil essences. And there are different levels of competency that your dog can aspire to.




Lee Cataluna


Original air date: Tues., Nov. 29, 2011


In “A Writer’s Journey” Leslie Wilcox talks story with Lee Cataluna, best known for her witty stage plays and newspaper columns about island life. In this episode, Lee recalls her self-proclaimed “dorky” childhood on the neighbor islands, mainly on Maui. Once an aspiring dancer, Lee reveals how she entered the worlds of journalism and playwriting.


Lee Cataluna, A Writer’s Journey Audio


Download: Lee Cataluna, A Writer’s Journey Transcript



Original air date: Tues., Dec. 13, 2011


In “Creation and Change” Leslie Wilcox continues her conversation with Lee Cataluna, columnist and writer of local plays like Da Mayah and Folks You Meet in Longs. In this episode, she talks about her recently published first novel, Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa, written from a troubled Maui man’s point of view. And for the first time publicly, Lee opens up about her brush with death.


Lee Cataluna, Creation and Change Audio


Download: Lee Cataluna, Creation and Change Transcript




Part 1: A Writer’s Journey


I always feel like a distance from what I write. I mean, what I write is not necessarily who I am. I own it, I wrote it, yes, I said that. But do I, like, live with it every second of the day? No. There’s a little bit of detachment. I mean, I think that’s part of the professionalism, right? I can’t live or die, ‘cause I got something else to write tomorrow.


Newspaper columnist, award winning playwright, and novelist, Lee Cataluna, 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. Lee Cataluna has earned a reputation for a keen understanding of local people and local culture, and yet, she’ll tell you she’s always been an outsider. And indeed, her newspaper columns have made her a lightning rod, attracting a lot of attention, and prompting heated debates at water coolers around the state. She has many fans who believe she’s able to go to the heart of a matter and say what no one else dares to say. Her work is hailed for its character studies and the humorous insights into the idiosyncrasies of our island community. Lee Cataluna’s career has taken her from television reporter and anchor to playwright, newspaper columnist, and novelist. She’s been awarded the Elliot Cades Award for Literature and the Pookela Award for Playwriting. Her roots are in the neighbor islands, and in the bygone days of Hawaii’s sugar industry. Her father, Donald Cataluna, was a third generation plantation worker and a manager with C. Brewer. About every three years, he relocated the family and they lived on various plantations on Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii Island. That means Lee was changing friends and changing schools along the way.


I think I lost count. It was something like nine. My Facebook is all messed up, because you get connected by people you went to school with, right? And so, like, I went to so many different elementary schools. [CHUCKLE] But only one high school; only Baldwin High School. Yeah, so after Kauai, we moved back to Wailuku, and my dad was then manager at Wailuku Sugar, and we lived in the manager’s house, which was just amazing.


And when you’re the manager of the plantation, you’re the mayor, right?


Kind of.


I mean, you control what happens in a very large area of town.


Kind of. I mean, there was that responsibility. But sugar was already struggling, right? I mean, that brings us up into the 80s. So it wasn’t quite as huge as generations past. But, yeah, my dad had two company cars, and [CHUCKLE], the big house that is now—


Did you feel rich?


Did I feel rich? Well, no, because, the reality was that my mom was sewing my clothes. [CHUCKLE] I didn’t get to go to Liberty House and buy whatever I wanted, kinda thing.


What were your parents like as parents?


They never spoke Pidgin at home. I don’t know if that was a choice, that was just they never did.


Did you speak Pidgin? Were you allowed to speak Pidgin at home?


Yeah, I was allowed to, but I didn’t. I mean, I’m sure there’s the inflection, right? But in terms of like, the heavy duty Pidgin, that was saved for school.


So when the boyfriends did arrive, what was your dad like?


The boyfriends did not arrive.


Oh, they met you outside. [CHUCKLE]


They did not arrive. No, I’d meet them at the wherever. [CHUCKLE]


‘Cause you didn’t want them to go through the gauntlet of your dad?


Yeah; my dad was the full-on, like, shotgun father. I think I was out of high school already when I brought a boy home. And my dad actually, like, showed him his collection of bullwhips. So, yeah.


In a meaningful way.


Yeah. Cracked ‘em, and everything. Pack! I mean, not the guy, although maybe I’m just remember it wrong. But yeah, it was a protected childhood.


And what about your mom; she was also strict?


No, my mom is the Kool Aid mom that, \ all the kids show up at her house. She just loves to feed kids, and she still does that. Like, she’ll buy Popsicles, like those big Costco Popsicle. Not for anybody that actually lives with her, but anybody who might drive by on a motorcycle, or a bicycle. So, yeah, my mom’s kinda nuts in a sweet way. She’s the kind of person who would make stew for the cat, ‘cause he likes it. [CHUCKLE]


What parts of your parents’ personalities did you find yourself picking up?


The bad parts. [CHUCKLE] Yeah, my dad’s sort of obsessive nature. He doesn’t forget a slight. Oh, but the good side of that is, he tends to be focused. And my dad is a good storyteller, so I hope I’m like that. And my mom is very fanciful. I mean, she kinda sees the silly in life. Like my parents joined the Koloa um, Visayan Club, and they’re not Filipino. But, my mom’s like, It’s okay, that’s all my friends. And I’m like, But it’s like you’re trying to pass. She goes, Nobody cares. [CHUCKLE].


So she didn’t care what anybody thought. She just wanted to do what she wanted to do.


Because the parties were fun, and there was all her friends, so she was gonna join the Visayan Club. And there I am, worried about, procedure and that kinda stuff. She’s like, Nah, it’s totally … it’s cool. [CHUCKLE]


Did you know you were gonna be a writer, a storyteller, from early on?


No. But I had the experience recently of going to Zippy’s with a bunch of people I went to high school with, and we were all talking about what we’re doing now.


Which Zippy’s did you go to?






There on Maui. So we’re all there, and we’re talking about, like, one of my friends is a high school teacher. She was like, Could you ever picture me as a high school teacher? And one is a mail carrier; Could you ever picture me working for the post office? And it came to me, and I’m like, Could you ever picture me doing this? And they were like, Yes.






Why did they say that?


I don’t know. I guess ‘cause I was getting in trouble for writing stuff when I should have been doing Math. Those kinda things.


It’s interesting; I’ve heard you describe yourself as bookish, earnest, kind of a dork.


Oh, yeah.


But I mean, I think the perception was, here’s this very pretty social girl, and—










No. And dork, not in a, like, hyper-intelligent way, but dork in a, like, clumsy oddball way. Like that.


Were you perceived that way, too?


I think so. No, I was never on the homecoming court. And Baldwin had this great rule, where once you served as a princess, like, homecoming, basketball rally week, May Day court, even if you were like Miss Princess Kahoolawe, that was it, that was like your one shot for all of high school. So by the time you get to senior year, like, most of the girls had had their time with the tiara. Nothing.


Did you have to run for it? Was it an election, or did you have to be picked for it? How did you get to be that?


Election; popular vote.


Did you run?


I think I self-nominated, yes. [CHUCKLE] Sad, yeah?


But that helps writers, for them to consider themselves outsiders, because you become a better observer, right?


Yes. I think writers tend to be that outsider-ish kinda … character.


And do you feel like an outsider?




Even though you’re clearly plugged into local culture.


No, I’m always the outsider. Yeah. [CHUCKLE] I’m much more comfortable sort of being in the back of the room, watching everybody, than being the one on stage.


And your mom gave you advice about that too, once, didn’t she? About listening.


Oh, yeah. Her thing was always—and she told me from when I was a little, little girl; Keep your eyes and ears wide open, and your mouth shut. [CHUCKLE]


Lee Cataluna chose psychology and dance as her major fields of study at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, graduating with honors in 1988. She was planning to go on to graduate school, until she was bitten by the broadcasting bug, hosting a talk show at a Kauai public access station. In 1991, she became a news director for a radio station, and two years later started a ten-year chapter in local television as a news reporter and anchor. While still in broadcasting, Lee Cataluna’s writing took on a new form when she wrote her first play, Da Mayah, which broke box office records for Kumu Kahua Theatre. She went on to write other productions for Kumu Kahua as well as Diamond Head Theatre and the Honolulu Theatre for Youth. Audience favorites included Folks You Meet in Longs, Musubi Man, You Somebody, and Ulua the Musical. She started this turn in her life while on a trip for the local NBC TV affiliate station.


The How I Got Into Playwriting story was, I was working at KHNL, and they sent me to New York to do the promos, like sitting next to Matt Lauer and Katie Couric, and Hi, watch me, Hi, watch me, kinda thing. And it was my first trip to New York City, and it was my first time traveling alone, other than going back and forth to college. And I was scared, and felt lonely, and sad. And the promos at NBC lasted like twenty minutes, like it took twenty minutes. They had me in, Howzit, we did our thing. Out. And then I had two more days in New York City by myself. So after I stopped crying in the hotel lobby [CHUCKLE], I got my act together and said, Okay, I’m here, I might as well see stuff. And I had to really force myself to see a Broadway play, because I thought, you know, as a frustrated dancer … I’m gonna be sitting there going, I hate them, I hate them all. They’re fabulous, I’m not fabulous. They’re tall, I’m not tall. They’re skinny. I mean, all that stuff. They’re great, I suck. And I was kinda bracing for that, internal monologue. [CHUCKLE] And instead, much to my shock, the voice in my head was saying, You could write that.




Which was weird.


I’m sure most people don’t go to plays and say that.


I don’t know. I mean it was fun. I went to see How to Succeed in Business Not Really Trying.


So this was when you were a television anchor. Were you doing the morning, or evening news then?




And so this was a totally new experience, and the first time you really came up with the idea?


Yeah. I had been in like, two plays in my life, and I had certainly seen, you know, like community theater kind of plays. I’d never been to Kumu Kahua.


And you hadn’t thought of writing a play?


No. I had done sketches for radio. But like minute thirty, three-minute. And then, when I came home from that trip, in my mailbox was a flyer from Kumu Kahua announcing their summer playwriting classes. And I’d never been to that theater before, and I thought, Oh, this is the sign.




So, I had to talk myself into going to class, ‘cause I’m thinking, Well, everybody’s gonna be like these smart UH grad students who can quote Shakespeare, and then there’s me. And I was right. That was the class, and they could all quote Shakespeare, and then there was me. But I loved that class. It was Vicki Kneubuhl’s class. And I took it like four summers in a row, something like that, five summers. Yeah.


It wasn’t the same class, right?


Oh, yeah.


It was?


Totally; yeah. I could not get enough of her class, and I just kept taking it over, and over. I just loved it, just loved being near her.


At what point did you have a play that was actually performed?


Actually, after the first summer.




I wrote my first play that summer, and I wrote it from the assignment. The whole, like, germ of the play was from the assignment from Vicki. And I wrote the first scene, and I liked it. And then the next week, I wrote another scene, and that went over pretty good, and just kept going. So at the end of six or eight weeks, I had a first draft. And I was fortunate that one of my classmates, John Wythe White, was on the board at Kumu Kahua. And so, he took my play …


And what was it? Which play was it?


Da Mayah. Which, I regret naming it that, ‘cause it’s a weird spelling. It’s, The Mayor, so …




Yeah. That was it. I was hooked. Totally hooked.


And how had you been perceiving your journalism career? Was that gonna be your career, or was that an interim? What was that to you?


I think I was kind of in the moment. I was working morning news, which I loved, but I found the hours just brutal.




I got frustrated. And I regret the way I left. But as it turned out, I probably needed to do something different pretty soon.


When you say the way you left, I don’t know the way you left.


Abruptly. [CHUCKLE]


Oh, you just said, I’m done?


Yeah. Yeah. Sort of.


And did you know what you were gonna do?


No. No. Yeah, that was—


Well, that’s a step of faith, or frustration, or something.


Stupidity. Yeah.


You were unemployed for a while?


I went to LA, I was taking some classes, I was working on an indie movie that fell apart. Then I came home, and I applied at the Advertiser. They were advertising for a reporter, a Maui-based reporter. And I’m like, I could totally live on Maui, I could totally be a reporter there. And I sent in my application letter, and almost immediately got back, Sorry, but we’re looking for a real journalist, not like a TV … I mean, between the lines I read, a TV Twinkie, right? And I’m like, r-r-r. So, I employed a technique that a dear friend of mine once told me about, and it was a brilliant move. I said, Let me prove myself to you. Give me a try out. I will work for two weeks.


For free.


For free, and let me show you what I can do. Well, because it was a union shop, they couldn’t let me work for free, but I did get a two-week tryout. And I just [CHUCKLE] I did cartwheels. I turned in every assignment they gave me, plus something else, every single day of those two weeks.


And you were a straight reporter?


Straight reporter.


Covering daily news.


On Maui; yeah. Just, the County Council on Maui. And after those two weeks, I met with the managing editor, and he said, Well, you’re, eh, as a reporter, but you can kinda write. Have you ever thought of being a columnist? And here I am, like, I need me a job. So I said, Columnist? I’ve totally always wanted to be a columnist.


Why would he suggest that?


You know what it was? There was a story I wrote about the Paia Sugar Mill. And I went and I talked to some people, and there was, just some writerly things that happened there, because that was a story I could totally relate to. Like standing there in the shower of ash coming out of the mill, and just the way that felt. Like, this is today, and it’s not going to be tomorrow, and that kinda thing. Yeah. So, he said, Have you ever thought of being a columnist? And I’m like, Oh, I would totally love to be a columnist. So then, I had a tryout period with that. And first thing was to go home and figure out, What’s a columnist? So I’m rarely slick in my life, but I had a moment of slickness. I’m like, Oh, a columnist. Well, who are your favorites? So I’m like, try remember their name, try remember their names [CHUCKLE] so that I could go home and do some homework before I gave it a try.


And you started off being a columnist for the Maui Beat only?


No. Metro.


Metro, oh.


So, yeah, I came back to Honolulu. And that was that.


So, in the beginning, there was no thought that you would sort of be a translator and a voice for local culture?


Actually, my job offer from Jim Gatti, who was the editor at the time, is really like boldly written, worded. He says, We want you to be provocative. And he describes, We want you to provoke reaction, we want you to have people spit out their coffee at the breakfast table.


Now, did that appeal to you?


No. [CHUCKLE] I needed the job. We want people to take the paper, and throw it on the ground, we want people to cut out what you wrote and keep it in their wallets. And I thought … Wow. Like, how many times is a Portuguese-Hawaiian woman asked to do something like that, you know? And it doesn’t suit my nature. I’m just sort of not like that. I really do want to be the one in the back of the class, watching everything, taking copious notes, but not saying anything, and certainly not provoking.


Yeah, but making comments to yourself, right?


To myself, maybe, or to the person sitting next to me, or just kinda rolling my eyes so nobody can see, like in the back. But that was a challenge, and I thought, Wow, this is an opportunity, and I’m super lucky that it came to me. And I’ll give it a shot.


After the Honolulu Advertiser folded, Lee Cataluna’s husband, Jim Kelly, lost his editorial post at the newspaper, and the family relocated to California so that her husband could accept a newspaper position in Palm Springs. At the time of this conversation in 2011, Lee’s column for the Honolulu Star Advertiser is written an ocean away. It continues to spark public debate and discussion.


I try to make sure that the person I take on is bigger than I am. Like that’s the rule, right? You don’t pick on anybody littler than you. So I would never take on an individual. I would never take on anybody who doesn’t have the same, or more access to the media. That’s only fair. And, I try not to make it personal. I mean, I don’t know that I always do a good job of that, but I really try.


In fact, there are some people you like, but you’ve criticized them.


Oh, yeah. Yeah. And turnabout is fair play. Yeah?


So you get criticized back?


Yeah. It’s the job. [CHUCKLE]


I would guess—I mean, you’ve written a lot of controversial columns that have provoked lots of blog commentary. I would just hazard a guess that the most controversial ones or the most reaction you had was the one where you wrote, when June Jones after having taken his team to the Sugar Bowl, quit the UH. And you said, June, don’t let the door hit you on the pocketbook on the way out.






Yeah. I always feel like a distance from what I write. I mean, what I write is not necessarily who I am. I own it, I wrote it, yes, I said that. But do I, like, live with it every second of the day? No. There’s a little bit of detachment. I mean, I think that’s part of the professionalism, right? I can’t live or die, ‘cause I got something else to write tomorrow. Do I feel that way about the man personally? No. But I think in the moment, like, it was a good thing to write. It was a good column for that particular point in time.


It made people think.


Yeah; and it made people react. I think a columnist has to be like the wall that people react off of, they bounce off of. And there were things to be said about, this very highly paid, high profile, almost like idol in community who was making this—


The UH football coach.


Yeah. So let’s talk about it. And if I can play a role in the discussion, saying that she’s right, she’s wrong, this, that, whatever, then I’ve done my job.


Well, just recently, as we speak in 2011, the Governor and his wife, Nancie, decided to take their thirtieth year anniversary in Paris, something they had dreamed of. And here comes Lee, saying, Hey, come on, look at the economy, you should be having your anniversary at … where did you say, Maui Seaside Hotel?


Yeah. Or Uncle Billy’s, or something. I don’t know. Do I feel like so emotionally tied to this, that I would, I don’t know, go hold a sign outside of their hale? No. It’s a function of here’s an opinion, maybe people will talk about it. Maybe people will react to it. Maybe it’ll provoke a discussion.


Have you been surprised sometimes? ‘Cause I’m sure you can predict the way most columns will be received. Was there any really counterintuitive response that you’ve experienced?


Larry Mehau called me up once, and told me, Right on, sistah, you get balls. [CHUCKLES] This came years after, and I tell this story kind of as a source of pride. Sort of the only person who has ever come up to me, finger in my face, said, I don’t like what you wrote, was Larry Mehau.


And he’s a big guy.


He’s a big guy. And, he carries …



—the weight of his name. And he, full-on, finger and everything, I didn’t like that.


What didn’t he like?


What did he like?


What didn’t he like?


What didn’t he like? Something I wrote about Frank DeLima, his friend. And the one he did like was the one I wrote about June Jones.


Oh, really? Now, you wrote about Frank. Was it the ethnic humor Frank DeLima column? You went after Frank for doing ethnic humor.


In the schools.


In the schools; I see.


Yeah. And he and I have kinda been in the same place. We’ve been in schools together since then, and he’s cool, I love his work. But I know what it’s like to be … I don’t want to be causing him any more grief from me, but I know what it’s like to be a Portuguese-Hawaiian girl growing up in Hawaii, and having to deal with all the things that I am purported to be, as a Portuguese girl.


What is the stereotype? When you were growing up.


[CHUCKLE] Talk too much. Yeah. Talk too much, but say nothing.


And you got that?


Constantly. Yeah. Yeah; and I had to fight to be in the college prep classes.


So we’ve talked about the columns that got you the most heated responses. What were your favorites? Were those the ones that were your favorites?


I know it sounds weird, but I love writing story obituaries. Where you can spend time with a family and try to get the tone right, of someone’s life. And what that meant to the family, to the community, that kinda stuff.


For example?


One story I wrote, it was a while after the woman’s death. But a man called me up, and his daughter’s killer was being sentenced, and for the first time in this whole long process after the murder, he was asked to give a victim’s statement. And he wanted to kinda talk with me about it. And I said, Well, I can help you write it, but, I’d love to hear your story. And we spent hours at his picnic table outside his house in Kalihi, and his wife kept bringing out food. And journalist not supposed to eat, right? But in Hawaii, you have to.


If you turn it down—


Yeah, kinda the interview stops. And I think I had about three lunches, and it was moving on into dinner, and I was still there talking to him. He spoke in metaphor, in a like, uniquely Hawaiian way. And I had to try to understand what he was saying. Like, his daughter played the harp. And I thought, Wow, that’s an unusual instrument for a girl who grew up in Kalihi, what’s that about? And he goes, Well, I was a diver, and sounded like when I’m diving. So those kinda things. And like, I had to kind of understand him, and then I wrote his story about what it was like, what her life meant to him, what it was like for him to try to give a victim impact statement in court. And that was the first time I remember writing a story about someone’s life, and kind of feeling like I could almost hear them. Like as I was writing it, and I don’t want to sound too, like woo, kinda thing. But I was thinking, gosh, I hope I’m helping, I hope I’m doing the right thing, I hope I’m getting this right. And I kind of felt a presence.


Did they enter the column in the court record?


I think he might have read it, yeah. I don’t know for sure, but I think he might have read parts of it and, had his own things to say.


So that actually has given you the most satisfaction, that kind of column?


Yeah. I like when I write about somebody, somebody alive too, and they say, Yeah, you got it, you got it right.


You captured it.


In 2011, the year of this taping, Lee Cataluna published her first novel, Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa, the story of a character named Bobby and his misguided attempts to go straight after serving prison time. Lee also is completing her studies in the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program at the University of California at Riverside. Mahalo piha, Lee Cataluna, for sharing your long story short, and thank you for watching and supporting 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


If I’m not mistaken, some of your earliest storytelling had to do with comedy. You were doing audio, right? Audiotapes.


I did that for a while.


To me, comedy is harder than anything, and it makes you so vulnerable.


That’s why I’m not doing it anymore. [CHUCKLE] Michael W. Perry told me to my face, Lee, you’re not funny. [CHUCKLE] And I think he was right. I’m not; I’m not funny in person. Sometimes I can write funny. But that was more like I did it when I was younger. It wasn’t what I wanted to be. It was just sort of an experiment. You know, grew up huge, huge fan of Booga Booga, and Rap, and Andy Bumatai, and Frank De Lima, and so much of my writing is influenced especially by Rap, I would say. I mean, most people, my generation say that, right?


Part 2: Creation and Change


The only thing that drew me to the story was, Bobby’s voice was so insistent. But again, I don’t want to sound like I’m nuts. But, he was a very clear voice for me. I could hear the way this guy spoke. He had a lot of stories to tell. And it was that experience that some writers describe as almost taking dictation.


Award-winning playwright and newspaper columnist, Lee Cataluna, reveals the creative process behind her first novel, 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. Lee Cataluna is a popular columnist for the Honolulu Star Advertiser, and creator of the local box office hit, Da Mayah. She went on to write other productions for Kumu Kahua Theater, Diamond Head Theatre, and the Honolulu Theatre for Youth that include Folks You Meet in Longs, Musubi Man, You Somebody, and Ulua, the Musical. Lee Cataluna’s body of work as a television anchor and reporter, newspaper columnist, and playwright has earned her the Elliot Cades Award for Literature and the Pookela Award for Playwriting. Her latest foray into long form fiction began as a writing sample to gain entry into a master’s degree program. She recently launched the completed work as her first novel titled, Three Years On Doreen’s Sofa. It’s the story of a character named Bobby, a hapless ex-con, trying to make a life for himself from his new home on his sister’s sofa.


I’ve written for an all-male cast in a theatrical production before, and I was so proud of myself that I captured these male voices. And I’ve gone through the experience of writing for men, having men cast in the parts, having a male director, showing up at rehearsal, and having them say, Yeah, this is so like a middle-aged woman’s version of a man. So [CHUCKLE] I don’t have any illusions that I can, like, channel or any of those kind of things. I mean, I know it’s through my perspective.


Do you think you got this character?


I hope I got this character.


Tell me about the book. What made you write it, and why pick this subject? I mean, you explain that you’re not like the main character in the book, but you are kinda like Doreen—




—in Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa.


I think I’m kinda like Doreen.


Who is a hard case.


She’s a hard case. But, I fight my inner Bobby. Bobby is the protagonist narrator, who just can’t get off the sofa; he just can’t get his life in gear. And I kind of think a lot of people have their inner Bobby. But those of us who have jobs and families, and function in the real world, we have also our inner Doreen that kicks us to do something. Kind of that fear, slash, anger, slash, survival that makes you do stuff you don’t want to do.


And this brother and sister are the first in their—well, Doreen is the first in the family ever to get off government assistance.


Yeah; she’s pretty proud.


While Bobby is an alumnus of prison.




So, what made you pick this milieu?


The only thing that drew me to the story was, Bobby’s voice was so insistent. He was a very clear voice for me. I could hear the way this guy spoke. He had a lot of stories to tell. And it was that experience that some writers describe as almost taking dictation.


So, was he an amalgam of people you knew, or did you know a Bobby?


[CHUCKLE] Everybody knows a Bobby.


But this is a distinctive Bobby. I mean, he pilfers all over the place, he justifies—


But he has a good heart.


He rationalizes.


He’s never really malicious, right? He just kind of like bumbles along, and he’s just kinda having a good time, and oh, kinda bragging about all the bad things that happened to him. I’ve known many Bobbys. He’s not any particular Bobby. When there’s some sort of program that touts itself as, we change lives, and then they sort of give you their spokesperson, like, Oh, yeah, my life is completely different now, and halfway through the interview, right, you have the warning bells going on, like, this guy is doing all the stuff he says he hasn’t done in six months or whatever, and he’s going to do it right after I leave, and he probably did it this morning. Yet, he’s like, a fantastic storyteller, and even though I know he’s lying, like, I want to hear the stories.


And he has no self-awareness.


None whatsoever. None. I mean, Bobby in the story is so stuck in a very, very early stage of child development. He really wasn’t nurtured, and he doesn’t understand some basic things about human relationships, about sexuality.


Well, even the background, I mean, the story you give him, of how he came into the world is pretty incredible. What’s the genetics?


Well, he and Doreen are brother and sister, but they’re also cousins. Because they have the same father, different mothers, but their mothers are sisters. And they were conceived the same day, in the same car, in the same parking lot.


And there’s another sister.


And there’s another sister.


With a different …


Different mother, unrelated, but same father. So it was a busy night for their dad.


And now, where did that come from?


[CHUCKLE] You’d be surprised. Stuff happens in families. But where it came from in terms of the functionality of the novel for me was, I wanted to have these two characters who had the same sort of genetic background, but not the contrivance of twins. But I wanted them to have the same genetic background, the same early childhood experiences, yet they’re so different as grownups, and why. ‘Cause I didn’t want it just to be blamed on, oh, he was born that way, or that’s how he was raised. I wanted it to be something else.


Doreen has kids, and she’s struggling to get a better life for them, and she’s telling Bobby, Don’t you drag us down.


That’s right.


I’ll help you out, but don’t you drag us down.


That’s right. She has concerns external to herself. And she pulled herself out of that path. And I wrote her to be a pretty tough lady. She really doesn’t stand for anything, yet, she lets Bobby come into their house. And I don’t think we see too much—Doreen doesn’t let her soft side, but just letting him in, she was giving him a chance. Bobby doesn’t take chances.


No. I don’t want to give away the end of the novel, but I mean, there is no redemption for Bobby, right?


How could there be? He says, when there’s two choices, It’s my job to take the bad one. He just sees himself that way.


Another thing he said, and I really flash on this because I too have interviewed people where this is exactly what I thought. I think Bobby is quoted by you as saying that, I feel good when I’m numb.


Yeah. I feel best when I don’t feel anything. Yeah. Yeah; I mean, my big test for myself in this book tour was, I went to read at the Women’s Correctional Center in Olomana, and to the writing group that is there that Pat Clough has, that she teaches. And so, I knew if I was gonna get anything about, like this wasn’t true, this doesn’t ring true, you don’t know what the heck you’re talking about, I was gonna get it there, and that I was gonna get the truth. And it was a really cool experience. And as I left, kind of my gift came from the warden, who said, I know Bobby. And he named Bobby, and I won’t name his Bobby, but he told me who Bobby was, who is not currently there at the facility. And then, I did a reading at Kumu Kahua, and Judge Steve Alm came up to me afterward. He says, I got Bobby on my docket this week. That’s been cool. I mean, it’s farce, Bobby is an unreliable narrator. He’s lying. I think his big addiction is to drama, and to stories, so he’s making stuff up. But I wanted him to ring true. And I hope he does.


And he knows his stock and trade is stories.




That’s who he is.


Yeah. I mean, he’s got these other addictions, but mostly, he’s most comfortable when he’s lying on the sofa, little bit loopy, with his slush float. That’s kind of his mother’s milk that he never got as a kid. And dreaming up crazy things, bragging about his misadventures.


Writer Lee Cataluna’s first novel, Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa, incorporates Pidgin dialect, and has successfully taken what is essentially a spoken language and translated it for the written word. Here’s an excerpt from novel that gives Bobby’s narrative account of his relationship with his sister, Doreen.


Me and Doreen get kinda that same love-hate going on, like our mothers. I love Doreen, she hate me. Well, no, she don’t really hate me, she love me, deep down. I am her closest blood relative in the world, next to her mom and her kids and our dad. Even closer, because she related to all of them only side, but with me, we have double blood. She would do anything for family. And me, family. She would do anything for me. Which is why it’s cool that I live couple blocks from her wallet every so often, and sometimes Kennison’s wallet, and Liko’s piggybank, which is really a turtle or some kine dinosaur animal, but he still call it piggybank. He not so good with his animals yet. But not Doreen’s wallet. Oh, no, that girl is smart like the mother, and she not tired like the mother. She still young, that’s why. Get more chance she count her money at the end of the day, and she going notice when stuff is missing. Plus, Doreen don’t have the love for her Uncle Bobby yet. She still see me like one parasite and one loser. I gotta prove to her how I am, really, inside. Which is why I gotta take her mother’s money, just for now, just while I still yet getting on my feet, to help me get on my feet. Takes money to make money, right?


And that is funny, but it’s so insightful.


Justifying bad behavior, most of us. I know I do that, sometimes. My behavior is not quite as bad. It’s not that bad. But still, that self-justification, and delusional. He’s wrong; he’s wrong about stuff. He’s wrong about a lot of things, especially about relations.


But he sees Doreen as really loving him when she gets on him.


She’s barely tolerating him. I mean, she has a feeling of obligation.


I’m wondering if you’re looking to make a transition to more than a regional writer, or when you use Pidgin, do you become more than a regional writer? Is that translatable?


I think I’m trying to answer that question for myself. Since this book—this is the last piece that I’ve written in Pidgin. I’ve been trying to write, and I can write in standard English. I do. But I’ve sort of stepped away from it, like I kinda got that itch really scratched in a full length novel. Graduate school is certainly expanding … my understanding of writing. The kinds of books that I would read, you know, the stuff that gets assigned to you is like, whoa, I would never pick this out unless somebody told me I had to read it. So that’s been good. Kinda painful, kinda good. But the first three chapters of Doreen’s Sofa, that was my writing sample that I submitted for application for graduate school. So … it got me in. [CHUCKLE]


In the year 2000, following a decade-long stint in television news as a reporter and anchor, Lee Cataluna made the career transition to print media as a columnist for the Honolulu Advertiser. And in this year of our taping in 2011, she writes for the Honolulu Star Advertiser. Already celebrated as a dramatist, Lee is probably better known at this time for her provocative newspaper commentaries. In 2005, while making a living writing about other people, Lee Cataluna’s own private life was thrust into the public spotlight while she was pregnant with her first child.


You know, there was a time when you almost died.


Yeah. I did die.


You did die?


M-hm. I don’t have the light story, so don’t ask that. But, yeah, yeah. I was coded. So …


And how has that changed you? It can’t have just been a ripple in the pond. Did it change you?


[SIGH] I don’t know. I mean, that happened six years ago. And I still feel like I’m in it. I don’t have that distance from that. I haven’t processed it, I haven’t written about it, I rarely talk about it.


Do you have a sense of it happened for a reason?


No. And if there’s any big change in my life, it’s that the loss of that, the loss of that everything happens for the reason. I can’t really believe that. I mean, I don’t know if anyone who goes—anyone who loses a child, that’s a tough one.


Because that was part of your almost losing your life, you lost a child.


Yeah. Yeah; we died together. And the doctors only brought me back. So, I have hard time seeing that as a miracle. I mean, I had an amniotic fluid embolism, and those are almost always fatal, to both mother and child.


And that just is something you can’t control, you don’t know. When you get pregnant, you just don’t know if that’s gonna happen to you?


It’s a plumbing accident that happens during labor. A little clot of something, maybe the baby’s hair or something, and the amniotic fluid gets into the mother’s bloodstream, ‘cause there’s a lot of stuff going on during labor. There’s a lot of blood vessels that are ruptured, and it gets into your bloodstream. So it could happen to anybody. But it’s so rare, and it’s almost always fatal. And when it’s not fatal, the mom is usually so—there’s been so much damage. And they told me that I should feel lucky that I can walk and talk, and breathe on my own. ‘Cause I was coded for forty minutes, while my child was still inside me.




Yeah. So …


Do you feel changed? Not emotionally, but I mean, have you had any physical effect?




That lingers?


No. The folks at Queen’s, Dr. Ikeda, and Dr. Lau, they ran my code beautifully. And there’s times I still search for words. But I can breathe. [CHUCKLE] I can think, I can walk, I can plan, I can remember.


And you had the guts to get pregnant again.


How could I not? How could I not? How could I say, Oh, okay, well, that was my one shot. I mean, that was one of the decisions that my doctor had to make on my behalf, because I was hemorrhaging out. So many things happen with this amniotic fluid embolism. First of all, your heart stops. [CHUCKLE] I mean, that’s the first symptom, is that your heart stops. And then, things get worse. And part of it is, you bleed out. So I had like, six units of blood. And I’m hemorrhaging, and they have to … the protocol is that they save the mother’s life, and then they get the baby out. [SIGH] So they left in my uterus when it would have been … ooh, that’s gross, yeah, to talk about it. [CHUCKLE] When it probably—you know, there was a decision to be made.


You’re a young woman, and they wanted you to have that option.


But I’m hemorrhaging. So, probably safer to just cut all your losses. But, they worked hard, and they left me with that. So I thought, damn it, I’m gonna use it. [CHUCKLE] They left me with that, I’m gonna try. And my doctor, particularly Dr. Lau, who I will love forever, she’d been with me through everything, she went with my husband through everything, ‘cause he remembers it and I don’t. ‘Cause I was down. But she said, No guarantees it’s not gonna happen again. We don’t know anything about this thing.


Did she try to say—




—better not?


Yeah; everybody said, better not. And I said, I’m going to. She said, Okay, well then, let’s work on this together.


And so, you said that—I mean, I don’t know what the odds are of it happening again, but—


Nobody knows, because nobody lives past the first incident.


What was that like, every day of the pregnancy which resulted in your son?


I wasn’t afraid of dying. I was afraid of living the way I had been living with that loss, and not having the guts to try again. To me, that would be worse. You know? What is my life without that trying, who am I without that trying.


How long did you wait?


The doctors told me to wait six months. And I waited six months. [CHUCKLE]


And then, you were pregnant again?


I think it was the next month. So yeah, seven months later. So, yeah, everything happened May of 2005, and my son was born July 2006. Yup. And my husband had to sit on the same bench where he sat outside. ‘Cause with my son, part of the precaution was a scheduled C-section. Like, we’re not gonna let you go into labor [CHUCKLE], ‘cause you can’t be trusted. But who know what would have happened if everything had been … so he had to be really brave for me, too. And that’s been a lesson for me. I mean, I guess maybe in the way that I’ve changed, I’ve had more compassion. And at first it was, I didn’t want to talk to anybody, ‘cause people couldn’t help but saying stupid things, in the name of being kind. Like, it was meant to be.


It’s like they didn’t quite think it through, or they’d never had anything like that happen.


Or they never had anything like that happen. And then, you start to realize—I mean, for me it’s happened to so many people, and they don’t talk about it. And then, when it happens, and then they bond, they have this little clan, secret. Because only those people understand. And I had one woman, Nancy Moss, and I will be grateful to her forever. She sought me out. She said, You know what, the same thing happened to me. And she took me to lunch, and she let me say everything, every stupid thing that I needed to say to somebody who understood.   And she understood. And it happened to her, thirty years prior, but it was still fresh for her too.


Why do you think you haven’t written about it yet?


This is the first time I’m talking about it to anybody other than … I don’t know. [CHUCKLE] I haven’t made sense of it. I don’t know … I don’t know if you can make sense of it. You just kinda pick up and keep going. Yeah, you can’t … [SNIFF] some things—you just come to the conclusion that some things, you’re just never gonna understand, or it might take a long time to accept. I don’t know. It’s the closest thing that I think I might have to a war experience, and a lot of those soldiers don’t talk about it when they come back. It’s just things you can’t put into words.


Of course, in your case, it was publicized that you were in the hospital, you were seriously ill.


Not my doing. [CHUCKLE]




Not my choice.


By your own newspaper.


Well, because one of the TV stations had already gone for it, and pulled out, archive video of me when I was like twenty-four years old and had a bad perm.




Yeah. And I have to say, and maybe that was a lesson too. Not The Lesson, but A Lesson about what it’s like to suffer through something publicly, and how to manage that. And I think people grieve differently. That was a big lesson too. Some people really love having [SNIFF] support. I wanted to be left the hell alone.


‘Cause you must have had a stranger or two ask you about it, and that must have been pretty …


Yeah, I still do.




And then people misunderstand, because my son was born so soon afterwards. They think that everything turned out okay. So that I’m comfortable to talk about it, that it’s a story of victory. And in some ways, it is. But my son has his own life, and he has his own purpose. He’s not the replacement.


And do you correct them, when they think it all turned out great?


No. Because it burdens them. It makes them feel like, Oh, crap. [CHUCKLE]


There’s all this intricacy that you’ve got to work your way through, even though it’s covered with pain.


Yeah. And I don’t want to put—at first, I would just tell people, I would just bluntly tell people, that things did not turn out the way I wanted them to. And then I could see that it was hurting them, and I thought, they were trying to be nice. So, I’d just kinda get through the moment, and then I’d go in the bathroom and cry. [CHUCKLE] And then I’d stop.


Do you wonder what happened, to your spirit while you were forty minutes coded?


Yeah. You know, I got ripped off. I didn’t get— [CHUCKLE]—


You didn’t get the light?


I didn’t get the light. I didn’t get the light.


Well, that’s because you weren’t ready to go.


I don’t know. I don’t know; who knows. Who knows. Someday, maybe I will understand, but I’m not there yet. Maybe some people go through—I know people who’ve gone through similar or way worse experiences, and they understand things differently after. And I hope I get to that point. But for now …


But you don’t have a sense of, the light went out inside me for a while? No recollection?


No. They gave me Versed, so that I would not remember. And so, I came out of all this. I was not awake for … I don’t know, five, six days, and I woke up in ICU, and I’m like, I don’t remember anything. And they were like, Good, you’re not supposed to, we kinda took that away from you to kinda ease the burden.


And then you must have said, What happened to my child?


Oh, yeah.


Who told you?


Well, she lived for two weeks. So, she lived long enough for me to meet her, and hold her.


And that’s good.


Yeah. It is. Yeah, I got to see her. I got to kiss her; got bathe her.


Your colleague in writing, Juliet Lee—


Oh, love her.


She’s a Buddhist priest who says, you know, some things in life are just random, they don’t make sense.


I tend to think that. But I would never argue with someone who gets through this tough, tough life in this tough, tough world by saying everything has a reason. If they believe that, then it’s absolutely true.


Let’s talk about … you’re living in California. Tell me about your life now.


I’m in school fulltime. My little boy is in kindergarten. My husband works at the Desert Sun, he’s the managing editor there. I’m homesick every single day. It was a really tough decision to make, but we’re kind of economic refugees. When the Honolulu Advertiser shut down, my husband had come back there, and he was not offered a job with the surviving paper. He was rehired at the Advertiser three weeks before the sale was announced. So all of us at the Advertiser, were shocked, and many of us are still dealing with, what happened. And I think that’s true for Aloha Airlines, and many other big companies here that we’ve seen go. So what do you do? You evaluate, you hold onto what you can, you try something new, you try to make the best of the situation.


Is it harder to write about Hawaii from California?


Sure. Because so much of good writing is the walking around, right? My dad used to say, A farmer has to have his boot prints in the field. You can’t farm from the office. And I don’t think you can write from the office too, right? Like the best stories are the ones where you walked around, and you like, smelled the smoke, or you know, whatever.


But on the other hand, it gives you some distance, so sometimes that perspective works.


Sometimes; sometimes. I try to report a lot. Actually talk to people. Get them on the phone, or email back and forth or whatever, so that I’m not just doing observational things. I try to rely more on reporting. Where I’m at in the desert, for a while, I was driving around—for too long, I was driving around with my Hawaii license plates, and people were like, Hooey! So, definitely a lot of transplanted Hawaiians, local people in California, in the desert. That’s not the kind of stories that people here want to read. They want to read about here. So I freelance for the paper, and I write one story a week. And I try my best. Try my best to stay in touch. Can you completely stay in touch from another state? No, ‘cause I don’t get to walk around. But, I spent my summer here, and I’ve been here the last week, and, try my best.


At the time of our conversation in 2011, writer Lee Cataluna is fast approaching the completion of her course studies to earn her master’s degree in fine arts from the University of California at Riverside. Next, a children’s book about a Maui bird that wants to fly to the summit of Haleakala. Mahalo nui, Lee Cataluna, for sharing your long story short. And thank you, for watching and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episode of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit


One of the rewrites for me was to try to make the Pidgin more accessible. And that’s where graduate school has helped me, has taught me a lot. Because I’d been reading a lot of pieces written in dialect, different dialect, dialect that I’m not familiar with. A lot of people have read Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which is a fabulous book. And so he throws in a lot of different, like, street slang and Spanish words, and just lot of stuff going on. And I had to analyze, okay, why am I digging this, ‘cause this is not a speech pattern that I’ve heard or familiar with, and how is this working, and try to learn from that kinda stuff.


Nora Okja Keller



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


Finding a Voice Through Writing


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


Nora Okja Keller Audio


Download the Transcript




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


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


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




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




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


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


So by day, in the sunlight—




–you’re a happy—


My secret identity.


–mom with kids. [chuckle]


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






And instead, it’s violence.


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


Yeah, I—


–tough, tough one for me.


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


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


So she could feel more comfortable?


M-hm. You know—


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


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


What does he say? Does he have a version?


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




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


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


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


I see.


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


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


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


Are you that way too? Are you very social?


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


Is anybody allowed to intrude? Can your husband—




–interact with you then?


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


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


No, not—


Or did you have difficulty feeling accepted, or—


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




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


Was that a mom thing?


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




You know.


You didn’t have to choose sides?


I didn’t want to choose.


Or pick one.


I said, I’m everything. Yeah.


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


When did the writing bug hit you?


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


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


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


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


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




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


And that was never featured on career day, right?


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


Did they—


–anything like that.


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


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


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


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




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


Back to arts.


Yeah; back to the arts. [chuckle]




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


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


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


How are you gonna use it? What’s the—




–paycheck gonna be?


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


What writers have you loved along the way?


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


So she influenced you as a writer—




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


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


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




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


Did you find Cathy Song on your own?


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






So am I.


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


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


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


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


How come you didn’t?


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


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


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


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


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


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


Right; right. Yeah.


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


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


Why didn’t they go home?


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


Thats one of the themes in both books.




It’s what it takes to survive.




And how do you move on?


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


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


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


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


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


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




–terrible images


A burden.


–to live with.


Right. You’ve passed on your burden.




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




You know, I—


The burden of—


–felt like I was—




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


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


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




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




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


And timing is good too, isn’t it?


I think—


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


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


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


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


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


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


And what does it—


Adding the—


–want to be. Yeah.


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


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




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


I know.


Whats the third book going to be about?


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


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


You’ve become a teacher part time—




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


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


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




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.




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.




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.




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.




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 —




— 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.




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.



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.




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


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.




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.