Victoria Kneubuhl

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
The Storytellers

 

This special edition of LONG STORY SHORT is a compilation of Leslie’s past conversations with several of Hawai‘i’s storytellers. We feature the playwright and author Victoria Kneubuhl, whose rich stories aim to amplify Hawai‘i voices and perspectives; Florence “Johnny” Frisbie, who, at 15 years old, documented her childhood adventures on the remote Cook Islands in her autobiography Miss Ulysses from Puka-Puka; and Phil Arnone, who built a long career on telling Hawai‘i’s stories as a television director and producer.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Sept. 16, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

The Storytellers Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

I want to make things honest, and develop that aspect of my soul, my nature. And I’m very, very much into writing about my philosophy about anything and everything that comes to mind.

 

Most of my writing life is concerned with how the past collides with the present. But I’m also saying, you know, that there’s a lot of things, even in my personal life, that … they were like seeds that somebody put there.

 

I’ve learned so much about Hawaiʻi and about these people, and about the culture. Things like that are special, I think for everybody, and not just for me.

 

Memoir writer Johnny Frisbie, playwright Victoria Kneubuhl, and television director Phil Arnone are all storytellers. They strive to capture and share the human experience, whether it’s about their own lives, or the lives and times of those who came before. Storytellers, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Former Hawaiʻi Public Radio general manager Michael Titterton likes to call storytelling the quintessential social act, one of the oldest human behaviors that’s not only a vehicle for healing, illumination, and understanding, but for being civilized. In this edition of Long Story Short, we revisit three storytellers who were previous guests on this program and hear what drives them to tell stories. Johnny Frisbie and Victoria Kneubuhl are writers; Phil Arnone tells stories through the visuals and the sounds of television.

 

We begin with Florence Frisbie, known all of her life as Johnny. Her American father, who also was a writer, left the United States in the 1920s looking for a simpler life. He found his paradise on the small atoll of Pukapuka in the Cook Islands. Johnny Frisbie was the second of five children born to Robert Frisbie and a native Pukapukan. Johnny was only a teenager when she published her autobiography, Miss Ulysses From Pukapuka, and in her book she recounts the story of her life being raised primarily on the small atoll, but moving from island to island in the South Pacific.

 

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

 

Oh, that’s hard work.

 

Yeah, well, we played most of the time.  And that was introducing us to work, and teaching us maybe basically how to take care of taro patch. And there wasn’t much to do for kids, but we didn’t miss anything. We were also comfortable doing nothing, just sitting. You know, just sitting and looking at each other, or maybe singing a song. And you know, ask a few questions or two. It was really basically a lot of thinking. You know, Pukapukan people think a lot; they just sit and, you know, they look up, and they look up at the coconut tree, maybe thinking, Mm, that’s almost ripe, ooh, I must pick that one. Yeah. There’s a lot of communicating to the outer.

 

So, you wrote this book between the ages of twelve and fourteen.

 

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

 

So, it was a diary.

 

Yes.

 

In which language did you keep your diary?

 

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

 

And Miss Ulysses; where did Miss Ulysses come from?

 

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

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

 

Yeah, that’s right.  And we traveled a lot. You know, we did. Even if it’s just from one island to other, you know, to us, it was big time.

 

You’ve received accolades as the first woman writer out of the Pacific.

 

M-hm.

 

At age fifteen, is when the book came out.

 

M-hm.

 

How’s that make you feel?

 

Good; I feel good. But the thing is, I think being so young has given a challenge to the women who are educated, you know. I mean, like the New Zealand women, Maori women who, you know, have degrees, university. You know, it made it easy for them, made it easy for a lot of Polynesian women to say, Hey, she did it at fourteen, and she had a book published at sixteen. Oh, you know, why can’t I do it? You know, to me, that makes me happy, you know, if I was of some use in that area.

 

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

 

M-hm.

 

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

 

I’ve been very lucky. Yeah, been very lucky. Oh, I don’t know how to say it. Because I’ve delved a lot in philosophy, and so, I want to make things … honest. And develop that aspect of my soul, my nature. And I’m very, very much into writing about my philosophy about anything and everything that comes to mind, and I’m discovering that I haven’t really committed fully to what the majority of people think about some things, and how they do it. And I’m very careful that I don’t make a fool of the life, the people, with my family.

 

Is that because of your upbringing, and how …

 

It’s so different. Yeah; it’s so different. It’s not a struggle, but it’s been a constant awareness of, you know, where I come from. You know, my feelings, my thinking.

 

Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl has spent a lifetime as a playwright and as an author of mystery books, for which she has received literary awards from the Hawaiʻi State Foundation On Culture and The Arts, and the Hawaiʻi Literary Arts Council. Victoria’s Polynesian heritage is at the heart of her passion for writing stories, whether they are about historical figures from Hawaiʻi’s past, fictional sleuths, or events that changed the course of history in our islands.

 

Most of my writing life is concerned with how the past collides with the present. But I’m also seeing, you know, that there’s a lot of things, even in my personal life, that … they were like seeds that somebody put there from the past. And that you know, someone planted a seed when I was a little girl, and you know, something else grew when I grew up. And so, I think that the past, and the present, and the future can get extremely blurry. And I think we have a lot to, you know, especially when we look back at how our kūpuna took care of their physical environment, we have a lot to learn from them.

 

I think your plays give a sense of that, that the past is a constant. It’s sort of timeless.

 

I think there are certain things that transcend time. And I think that some of us, you know, we feel that the responsibility of our kūpuna is our responsibility too. You know, and when I look at what my great-grandmother was doing during the 19th century, how she was close to the queen, and how she supported the monarchy in a really tough time, I kind of feel like, you know, I should be doing some of that kind of work too.

 

What does that mean today, to be doing the kind of work of supporting the monarchy, which no longer exists?

 

Well, for me, you know, my work in writing living history programs and presenting public programs about that time period in history, that has been my work, you know, that I’ve wanted to do and that I’ve had the opportunity to do. So, I feel like telling that story over, and over, and over again.

 

And to accomplish what?

 

Well, for one thing, you know, that history was not told to me when I was in school. And 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.

 

At some point, did you leave playwriting behind, or did you decide 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 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.

 

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 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.

 

Yeah.

 

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 kūpuna that aren’t with us anymore. So, I think fiction is a wonderful place for preservation, too. 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 we have such a rich history and a rich presence, that we have more than enough material to supply the world with wonderful stories. 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. And so, I encourage people to look at where they came from, and tell those stories.

 

Phil Arnone made his mark in Hawaii as a television director and producer. He not only directed the top-rated Channel 9 News during the 1970s and 80s, but he produced and directed live coverage of many local events and other regular programs. He returned to his roots in the San Francisco area to continue his career in television production. When he decided it was time to retire in 2002, he and his wife moved back to Hawaii. But as it turns out, he did not retire. Instead, he put his knowledge of the Hawaii community and his production skills to work in creating television specials about Hawai‘i’s iconic people and places. His documentaries about such people as Duke Kahanamoku, Rap Reiplinger, Eddie Aikau, Don Ho, Israel Kamakawiwoole, Dave Shoji, and Jimmy Borges are only a few of the programs he has produced. What makes Phil Arnone’s programs so special is his persistence to dig deep. He presses for more, more, more in telling the story of a person’s life, whether it’s finding people who know the subject of the story, or rummaging in garages for old film footage and photographs stashed in boxes that had long been forgotten.

 

[SINGING] A long time ago …

 

God bless you guys. I miss all of you so much. Aloha.

 

Do you go under people’s beds to find this video and film? You find stuff that nobody else has found to illustrate your films.

 

Well, you just have to not give up. You know, because it’s not all immediately available, and lots of times, people have it in cardboard boxes in the back of the house, somewhere in the garage. And you gotta encourage them and make them want to …

 

Go look.

 

‘Cause we’re usually talking about a friend or a family member in this case, and I say, I need your help. You know, we need to see. Like when we did the Rap Reiplinger show, I mean, part of it was old footage from the action stuff, the fun stuff he did. But we found footage of him as like a three-year-old on eight millimeter in a cardboard box, in the back of the house. But his sister, one of his sisters found that for me, and it was great. I mean, it’s so much more fun to see somebody grow old into where you remember them, and tell the story that way.

 

[SINGING] How can you love me? You really haven’t seen all of me. You know, you haven’t seen the side that frightens even me. It’s so hard for me to see why you love me.

 

It harkens back to those days where nothing less than perfection was okay for your newscast. Because I’ve seen you; you have enough material to do a very good film, but you will go get more and more information, and you’re okay with a lot of it not being used, just so you have all the great choices.

 

Yes; that’s important. I mean, we do; we need to have all of that. But obviously, we can’t use every photograph or every piece of footage.

 

But you’ll go out of your way to get that photograph.

 

Yeah.

 

And you don’t feel bad if you don’t use it later.

 

No, I don’t. But I want to have it. I want Robert, when he writes, to feel like we’ll have something to show. It’s not gonna be a radio show. We need to have visuals, and I need to make sure that I’m giving him enough to write to. So, yeah. I mean, I think most producers will try and do that.

 

Who are some of the celebrities you’ve gotten to know well through following their lives and coming up with a sixty-minute show?

 

Ooh. Well, you’re right. For a while, we were doing only shows about people that had passed on. And then if I call somebody and I say I want to do a show, they get very nervous.

 

They think I’ve been talking to their doctor or something, and know something they don’t. But you know, we started with, I think, Eddie Aikau and Duke Kahanamoku, and Iz. Those were the first three that we did. And obviously, those gentlemen have passed on. But the truth is that I’ve learned so much about Hawai‘i and about these people, and about the culture, that I never learned when I was here working at KGMB. I mean, we never did shows like this, and I never left that station. I was always in the station doing things. And the treat is that it’s as much from for me as I hope as it is for the viewers, because I’m looking at these great old photos, at this fun footage, and learning about, You did that? Like the Jimmy Borges show; I was totally unaware of his Forbidden City activities in San Francisco as a young singer. I thought he just was born at Trapper’s. But things like that are special, I think for everybody, and not just for me.

 

And there isn’t much in the way of long form filmmaking for commercial use.

 

No; and I think, you know, Mr. Blangiardi has been kind enough to continually support this kind of programming. And without that, you know, it wouldn’t be done, because they become expensive, and you gotta give him something he can sell.

 

There must have been moments in making your shows where you thought, I got it, that’s the moment, that’s the shot.

 

The Jimmy Borges documentary, the best shot that people will remember and maybe cry at, and laugh at, and enjoy, and applaud at, would be when he stood up and sang a duet with uh, Melveen Leed at the Moana celebration of Love of Jimmy evening. And it’s an incredible experience just to be there, and we have it on video. And it’s a very emotional time.

 

[SINGING] We left our hearts in San Francisco …

 

I dearly love what I’m doing now. And that’s why I keep doing it, I guess. I mean, I never get tired of it, and it keeps me, I think, from being boring and bored, and hopefully, these stories are worthwhile doing, so I continue to do them.

 

Thanks to the drive and determination of those whose passion it is to tell stories, Hawaii history and culture are kept alive, and our community is richer for it. Mahalo to Florence “Johnny” Frisbie, Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, and Phil Arnone, all of Honolulu, for telling your stories and for sharing your experiences with us. And mahalo to you, for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

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

 

[SINGING] Above the blue …

 

[END]

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
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

 

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?

 

Yes.

 

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?

 

Yeah.

 

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.

 

Yeah.

 

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 PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

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.

 

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