The Day Carl Sandburg Died


For much of the 20th century, Carl Sandburg was synonymous with the
American experience, a spokesman on behalf of “the people.” Using his unique
life as the basis for free-verse poetry, Sandburg became one of the most
successful writers in the English language: a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner,
biographer, children’s storyteller, novelist and captivating performer. Yet,
after his death in 1967, his literary legacy faded and his poems, once taught
in schools across America, were dismissed under the weight of massive critical
attack. AMERICAN MASTERS provides a dynamic examination into the life, work and
controversy surrounding Sandburg, exposing his radical politics and anarchist
writing during WWI as well as the burgeoning resurgence of interest in him and
his contributions.


Marie Milks


When retired State Circuit Judge Marie Nakanishi Milks was just three years old, she boarded a bus on the heels of an adult stranger and went on her own to her auntie’s house across town. Meanwhile, her frightened parents had called police, thinking she’d been kidnapped – and an island-wide hunt was underway. That was just the beginning of a life of discovery and travel. Milks recalls humble beginnings as the daughter of a waiter and a house cleaner in a modest rental home in Honolulu. She would take a job in Washington D.C. with Congresswoman Patsy Mink, go to law school, and become a respected judge who presided over major criminal cases in Hawaii. Today, in retirement, she travels the world.


This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Sept. 13 at 4:00 pm.


Marie Milks Audio


Download the Transcript




I would say that of all the cases I had, probably my highlight as a public defender was Henry Huihui IV, who was charged with robbery. The jury went home late at night. The next day, he saw me on the doorsteps. He said, You know, Marie, when the trial started, I thought I was guilty, but after your closing argument, I had reasonable doubt. And you know, if you’ve tried a case, that’s gotta be classic. And I said to myself, I think he just admitted to me he might have done it. You know.


Retired judge Marie Milks had a passion for criminal law. After serving as a public defender for seven years, she was appointed by Chief Justice William Richardson to a judgeship on the State District Court. Four years later, Governor George Ariyoshi appointed her to the Circuit Court, where she spent much of the next twenty years judging criminal cases. Marie Milks, 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. Retired Judge Marie Nakanishi Milks was not only the first woman to be appointed to the State District Court in Honolulu, she was also the first Asian. She went on to become the first woman appointed after statehood to the Circuit Court, where she was a judge until she retired in 2004. Marie Milks grew up in Honolulu in the late 1940s and 50s in a family that didn’t have a lot of money. Despite that, her parents made sure she got a good education, both inside as well as outside the classroom.


I had a very different kind of upbringing, partly because my father was really old when I was born. First of five children; forty-five years old. And so, he was very proud, you know, that he had a child. And I call him my first male friend. My father worked at night as a waiter; he was at the Waikiki Tavern, and then the Oahu Country Club. So, he would take me to the beach. I spent time with J. Aku Head Pupule’s children. He took me to Chinatown, where he played chess with his buddies. And then, on almost a daily basis, we would go to the Art Academy, then the Honolulu Art Academy, and then to the zoo. Mostly to get me away from home, where my mother was taking care of the other children that came two years at a time. You know.


So, you had a private audience with your dad.


I did; yeah.


All those months or years.






Yeah. And it was, I guess, an introduction that men were okay. You know, older men were okay. And I think it helped me in later life to accept a lot of the mentoring that I got from some of the male judges. And you have to understand, when I started at the Public Defender’s Office, some of my fellow public defenders would grouse about Judge this and Judge that, and I was them in a different light. A lot of them were like my uncles, my dad. And when they criticized me, I just took it as they were correcting my behavior.


Your mom didn’t speak in English, and she wasn’t schooling you in things.


One of my earliest memories of growing up with my mother was going to my friend’s house one day. Judith Angel, in the third grade. And I just thought she was the cat’s meow; she had blond hair. I wanted to be a Haole; I wanted blond hair. And we were in the living room, and I heard her radio, and I heard English voices. I said, Wow, your radio has English. My radio only has Japanese. She turned dial, and I went …


So, your dial never left the Japanese channel.




Ah …


I thought that was volume control. Third grade, now. I mean, slow in the head. I was ten years old almost before I realized that radios actually had channels on them, you know.


What about your dad? ‘Cause you had a lot of time with him.


My father was very, very strict about English. He was working as a waiter; he was with members at the country club. And we could not speak Pidgin in the home. I mean, really.


What happened if you did?


Oh, he would call us bakatare, and tell us, low class, and made us speak English.


Even with your buddies?


Yes. I mean, I was teased in elementary school. Haole lover, that kind of thing. Because I wouldn’t speak Pidgin. I couldn’t. I mean, that was a no-no in the family. So, one day, we had neighbors come to the house. They went up the steps, jumped, and broke the punee. And Rodney says, I never do ‘em, I never do ‘em. I said, It’s not I never do ‘em, it’s I didn’t do ‘em.


You know. So, I was the one correcting people.


And Kaahumanu School; that was a lot of town kids, lots of Pidgin. A lot of them didn’t do Standard English as well as Pidgin; it was Pidgin only.


Yeah, but we had teachers. You know, I had wonderful, wonderful teachers in elementary school. And I had one teacher in particular who was into poetry, in the third grade, Mrs. Macario. We had to recite poetry. But my recollection of Kaahumanu was very competitive for grades, and test scores. You know, we had to do well. And we were required, I mean, not only by the teachers, but by my parents; I had to produce. If I had a report card with all pluses and one check, I had to explain the check. What’s … what’s this?


What was your explanation?


I didn’t blame it on the teacher. I said, I guess I have to study harder. You know, that was always—


And that was an acceptable answer, probably the only acceptable answer.




So, your father is this Renaissance man who loves art, music, chess.


Polo; he played polo, he surfed. We have pictures of him with a surfboard. You know, with his horse. So, I was exposed at a young age to a whole different kind of world, even though I wasn’t financially or in a class that was, you know, high, middle, and felt very poor. I used to have to walk to the Natatorium from Nuuanu, from Country Club Road, because we couldn’t afford the bus fare. I had to sew my own clothes, you know. I think, though, looking back, that probably is the best thing that happened to me, because it really allows you to have gratitude, you know, for everything you have. I had one good friend, who’s now deceased, who believed in me. And you know, when we were seniors in high school, going on to be senior, she asked me, Why aren’t you in the Honor Society?




I said, Nobody told me. And she went to the registrar and found the information. On my GPA, my card—back in the days, they had index cards—was paper-clipped behind somebody else’s information.


So, you’d been making good grades, but you weren’t recognized as someone who made good grades.


Yeah, I had about a 3.9, whatever it was, which is pretty good. So, I got into the Honor Society, and my friend Mamo who got me into the National Honor Society was going off to college. And she said, Why aren’t you going to college? And at that time, you know, the tuition at the University of Hawaii was a hundred dollars a semester, and my parents were not going to pay; they couldn’t afford it. And the only way I could have gone to college would have been a scholarship. She filled out an application for me, and got me a State of Hawaii scholarship for four years through then Councilmember Frank Loo.


Amazing. And what’s Mamo’s last name? I know you said she passed away.


Yeah; Mamo Kuwanoe Powers. And her daughter, you know, recently got married and has a son. So, I’m kinda like a grandmother.


That’s a life-changing friend.


It is. I mean, I didn’t even apply to college. You know, so this is somebody to whom I owe not only her, but her daughter and grandson, you know, gratitude.


Retired State Judge Marie Milks finished college in three and a half years, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. She was considering options for what to do next when, once again, a helpful classmate made a suggestion, which led Milks to law school.


There was a big scandal in Hawaii with Hiram Fong; there was a nepotism issue that he was hiring relatives. So, Patsy Mink decided she would hire somebody through the Department of Labor. There was a posting for a job with her, and a classmate of mine said, Hey, you should go to Washington. So, I applied, went to an interview. I was a great typist; I could type a hundred and twenty words a minute; really fast. But the day she was going to call me, I had changed my mind. I had decided I didn’t want to go to Washington. So, I practiced. Mrs. Mink, I’m sorry, but I’ve decided—no. I’m sorry, but I decided to take another semester. So, I practiced and practiced. Phone rang. Marie, Patsy Mink’s on the phone. And I say, Hello. And she says, Can you start on January 19th? And I said, Okay. What did I just do? This is the end of my life as I know it. But you know, another opportunity. And working for her, think the biggest revelation to me was how you could be a woman and be a professional. You know. And she was remarkable. I wished more people knew her the way I got to see her.


I know she was considered an absolute workhorse.




And she expected so much from her staff.


Oh; we had to work Monday through Friday, and four hours on Saturday mornings. Which is what was almost a nonstarter for me to go to law school, because I had Saturday classes as a night student. And I had to talk to the dean, and he said, I think it’s going to be too hard for you to do this. And I said, I wouldn’t have applied.


You went to Georgetown.




Working five and a half days a week?


Yeah; yeah.


And that was a tough school to get into.




Were you a first there, too? Were you a first?


I think that’s what helped a lot. If I were to apply to Georgetown Law today, I … tell you, my chance of getting in would be zero, next to zero.


Why was it good then?


Because I was first Asian woman to ever apply.


Ever to apply?




Ah …


First. And there were so few women. This is during the Vietnam era. The number of male students had been reduced somewhat, so they took on a few more women. And I just happened to be lucky, you know.


And you met all of their criteria, which were high.


Which helped; yeah. Well, you know, I had good grades in college, and I had the Phi Beta Kappa admission, so that helped me. But … it was happenstance. And that was when I first wrote to Sam King. He corresponded with me and advised me about law school. And I thought, Hey, I think I want to be a family court judge. I applied to law school, by the way, to be a judge. That was going to be my career move. But it was family court that I was aspiring to at that time.


In law school, one of Marie Milks’ professors was Sam Dash, who was also her boss at the Criminal Law Institute, where she worked on a criminal offender program. Dash became one of the Watergate scandal prosecutors, and John Sirica, who presided over the Watergate trial, was one of her trial practice instructors. Milks’ exposure to criminal law shifted her interest away from family court.


After I started law school, criminal law became the thing for me. I just wanted to be a criminal …




At that time, I had kinda just wanted to start as a criminal attorney. Prosecutor, defense attorney; didn’t matter.


It didn’t bother you which way you’d be arguing?


My own personal family background, and feeling like an underdog in many ways, I thought I was a pretty good champion for the oppressed. And I related; I could relate to a lot of the clients who came from, you know, family with very little. Although, I have to tell you, I used to get into fights with my clients who were very anti-Japanese. Back in the 70s, they felt that Japanese people had things easy. You know, DOE; oh, look at all the DOE people, and da-da, and you Japanese. You know, I used to get that from some of my Waianae clients. And then, the the Kawananakoa public school came out of me; I said, Eh …


Eh, you know what? If you want to see who had a tougher life, I’m gonna win. So … back off. You know? And not that I had a tougher life, but I didn’t go to Punahou, you know. And that was the expectation of many of the clients, that I had the silver spoon, that I must have come from a rich family.


How did you develop their trust?


I worked hard. See, that’s the other thing. I don’t think that any one of them could ever feel that I sloughed off on things. Although, you know, I didn’t have the world’s best clients. I had some who were just horrible. I had three of my aunties go to court to watch me do a trial. It happened to be a sex assault case. And after the first day, they didn’t want to go back. Oh, it’s terrible, the kinds of people you represent. So, they didn’t come back to watch me anymore.


How did you put it together in your mind? You know, in some cases, sure looks like your client’s guilty.   And you’re associated with that person.


Yeah; yeah. You know, and it wasn’t that they looked guilty; a lot of them were really, really guilty. But there’s a little bit in some of us when you have a challenge or something difficult, it makes it almost easier. Because I always felt that even if my client was in fact convicted, it wouldn’t be that they were innocent and were convicted. That, you know, the case was proved. The harder question for me as a public defender was a question people asked all the time. How can you do it, when you know they’re guilty? How can you represent them, you know, when you know they did it? And my answer was, Well, the prosecutor went to law school; it’s their job to convict. It wasn’t my job to get them off. But it was rational; you know, it’s something that you have to kind of understand yourself, what your role is. Your role is to defend; it wasn’t to prove innocence, and it wasn’t to prove that my client didn’t do it. So, it was, I think an easier approach.


So, your job was to provide a spirited and and aggressive defense.


Yeah, yeah. Yeah. You understand your job, and that’s when you can have pride in what you’re doing.


After serving as a public defender for seven years, Marie Milks was appointed to a Hawaii State District Court judgeship in 1980.


You know, I remember when you went from the Public Defender’s Office to Circuit Judge, hearing criminal cases. I was a journalist at the time. There was a lot of concern that you would be a softy. Oh, poor defendant.


Oh, yeah.


You would go on that side. But actually, that didn’t happen. That was rarely the criticism leveled against you, if there was criticism.


M-hm. But see, I had career criminal defendants, so a lot of the sentences were mandatory. So, even if I wanted to be a softy, I couldn’t. But, you know, in all honesty about my own self-assessment, I thought I was pretty fair about what the appropriate sentence was. And from the general public’s standpoint, you don’t get to read everything, you know, in the pre-sentence report. And as a judge, you can’t repeat a lot of what you see. But if people saw the full extent of the reports we have, I think more people would be appreciative of what judges evaluate.


The other thing was, and I actually was called on a jury at one point; I realized, and I saw it for myself that the very people who say throw the book at him, send him away, didn’t want to convict.




It’s hard to decide that somebody might have to go to jail.


Yeah. That, plus you know, proof beyond a reasonable doubt is not what you feel. Because there were a lot of cases where there was that sense that the evidence wasn’t sufficient, and you have to learn to distinguish levels of decision making. But I really honestly believe that ninety-nine percent of people, if they were given the same kind of information that any particular judge had, would likely agree with most of what judges do. You know, I had one client, for an example, who was a serial rapist. He raped a lot of women. And back in those days when I was a public defender, they called it rape; they didn’t call it sex assault. He was the nicest client you would ever meet, admitted his wrongdoing every time. But he still … sexually assaulted people. But only people who handicapped or in wheelchairs. I mean, right? I mean, the reaction is, Well, what kind of horrible person would do this? Well, then I, as his attorney, got the pre-sentence report. Horrors of horrors; when he was three years old, his mother put firecrackers in his ear and lit them. You know? So, a lot of the defendants themselves have been very badly treated. Not an excuse, mind you. I’m not saying that gave him an excuse. But it can explain, you know, how people can go bad.


Yeah; I’ve heard the expression, Victims often victimize others.


Exactly. You know, one of the bigger points for me in my entire legal and judicial career was handling the Xerox, the Uyesugi case.


And the Byran Uyesugi seven-murder case was probably the biggest—well, one of the biggest legal cases in Hawaii over the decades. I remember that morning; I listening on the police radio as a reporter.


Oh, me too.


And you know, shots were ringing out at the Xerox building and there were seven deaths. And you were the judge presiding over the trial of the Xerox employee accused.


Right. Very interestingly; during the trial, he kept staring at me. You know. But he never scared me. I felt sorry for him. I did. And lot of my associates think there’s something wrong with me when I said I felt sorry for the defendants, but I did. I felt sorry for the father.


He lived with his father, as I recall.


Yeah; and the father went out and apologized for him. And we see that so many times in crimes that happen; parents apologizing for their children. And you know, I feel for them, because it’s tough to be aligned with somebody who does something, you know, heinous. Really; it was heinous. I feel sorry, actually, for a lot of the defendants and the families, what they go through. But I’m saying that this feeling sorry is more about the humaneness of what I’ve done, but the punishment was well-deserved. But that’s not to say I didn’t feel sorry for the victims, either. You know, it’s just that it’s sad when people do things like that, you know.


You sent him away for a life term without parole.






Right. There were several gratifying things about that case, one of which is—and I always subscribed to this as a judge on the bench, and that was to have regard for the victims. You know, you don’t take their side, but you always have to appreciate what victims go through. People don’t ask to be robbed. People don’t ask for their homes to be burglarized. But a couple years ago, one of the widows wrote to me and asked me for a job recommendation. You know, and I’ve had a good relationship with victims in other cases as well. But with respect to that case, one of the most gratifying things for me is, very few people know who the presiding judge was on that case. And to me, that’s the ultimate compliment to a judge who presides on a case; and that is, they don’t identify you with the case. It was about the facts, it was about the defendant, it was about the victims, and very little about the judge.


While Marie Milks was spending long hours as a public defender and then as a judge, she and her husband, Bill Milks, now a retired attorney, were also busy raising a family.


My daughter, her friends would say, Oh, you’re so lucky, you know, your mom’s a judge, you’re gonna da-da-da-da. And … not so true. Our son, on the other hand, really liked the idea that I was a judge, because the male-female thing; right? Having a mom as a judge, from a male perspective, was easier for him to handle than our daughter. I regret that I didn’t spend more time with them. But if I didn’t have decent kids who I didn’t have to go to parent-teacher meetings all the time, where would my career have gone? So, it was a family adventure, so to speak.


Did it work the other way with your husband?


Bill has never been intimidated by me at all. And one of his lines to me is, Marie, you know, you can’t be a judge twenty-four hours a day. But he’s been really, really supportive, everything I’ve striven for.


State Circuit Court Judge Marie Milks retired from the bench in 2004. Since then, she’s been serving as a part-time mediator, helping people resolve cases through compromise rather than through the courts. At the time of our conversation in summer of 2015, she and her husband were traveling the world, a passion that, as you will see, Marie Milks has pursued since she was a little girl. Mahalo to retired Judge Marie Milks 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.


When I was three, I said to my mother basically, I was gonna go to school. So, my mom says, Okay. Fixed me a little brown bag with some books and some Lifesavers, and … ‘Bye. Off I go, and I cross the street … to take the bus. And I got on the bus.


The bus driver didn’t say anything to this three-year-old girl?


He saw me get on the bus with somebody else. I knew where to get off, and this was at Keeaumoku and King Street, the old Sears building, which then became HPD. And my cousin and auntie, and everybody else lived on Young Street. So, I pull the signal, and I went to my auntie’s house. Now, here’s my auntie thinking that my parents just dumped me off at their house without telling her. So, I’m playing with my cousins. Meantime, she goes to the corner of Young Street and Keeaumoku, and they had this wagon. They had the sakanaya-san and the yasai-san, where they pull their sides up and sell fish or sell vegetables. So, my aunt is there when somebody comes up and says, Did you hear on the radio your niece was kidnapped, and the police are looking for her? And she says, She’s in my house.



It got to be the family story; Marie is gonna travel the world when she grows up.




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 pbshawaii.org.


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 pbshawaii.org.


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.


Robert Cazimero


Original air date: Tues., Apr. 29, 2008


Award-Winning Singer, Songwriter and Kumu Hula


Robert Cazimero, award-winning singer, songwriter and kumu hula, joins Leslie Wilcox for a good-fun, talk story session in which the two share laughter, tears and touching stories of living and loving – including stories about The Brothers Cazimero (Robert and his brother Roland) who’ve led a resurgence of Hawaiian music, language, dance and culture since the 1970s.


In part two of a two-part, good-fun, talk story session. Robert shares stories about his hula halau, the all-male Halau Na Kamalei.


Robert Cazimero Audio


Robert Cazimero Transcript




Aloha no and mahalo for joining me for another conversation on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Robert Cazimero is familiar to us in Hawaii as half of the Brothers Cazimero, the award-winning and highly successful musical duo. He’s well-known. But how well do you know him? When he speaks publicly, it’s almost always about an upcoming May Day concert, new recording, new DVD, a planned performance. Or he’s having a fundraiser for his all- male hula halau, Na Kamalei. Coming up next – we ask Robert to talk about the person, not public events. Part One of a delightful, two-part conversation with Robert Cazimero.


The Brothers Cazimero, Robert and Roland, were leaders in the 1970s resurgence of Hawaiian music and culture. More than 30 years later, they continue to record and they perform locally, on the Mainland, abroad. Robert is also kumu hula of the all-male Halau Na Kamalei.


I know you as a singer, a performer and a kumu hula; but where did all this start?


Well, I don’t know how far back you want to go, but I’ll start with being born.




Now, our parents, Roland and my parents were music people; they were entertainers. So we fell into that immediately because we were surrounded by it.


Did they perform in Waikiki?


Actually, not so much in Waikiki, although they did do that. Mostly for the military clubs and for private parties. And they played standards; the old mainland standards. So we learned to play that kind of music as well as Hawaiian music.


Whats an example of a mainland standard?


Well you know like, Our Love Is Here To Stay, for example, and Please Release Me, and stuff like that. So we do that, besides Kane‘ohe and Royal Hawaiian Hotel. And so it started there. And we thought everybody else did the same thing in all the houses that surrounded us there in Kalihi, until you know, we found out different. And then we went to high school, and we got more involved with that. In high school I met my kumu hula, Maiki Aiu Lake. And as she left the class that she had come to speak with, which was the class we were in, she told me; she says, You know, someday you’re gonna want to teach hula, and you know, You’ll want to take hula, she said; and I’m going to be that teacher. And I was like –


Did she know anything about you?


Well, I had just played the piano for her to sing the song that she had come to talk about. And so she – but no, she just told me that. And at the time, it didn’t really register, the depth of what she had said. So I said, Okay; and then went to lunch. You know, sort of like today, actually.




And then years later, I found myself at her door, of her school. So I went to the university, I took voice lessons when I was there. I would fight with my teacher every day. His name was Jerry Gordon, a really nice guy. I kept saying to him, There are a lot of people who sing your style, but not enough people who sing my style. So I’ll do what you want in class, and then I won’t do what you want –


Whats your style?


I think it’s more – at the time, I thought it was more laid back, island, floaty. You know, and what he wanted was something that was a bit more pronounced, more exact, full of history of a far-away land. I mean, Italy; when you’re from Kalihi, you don’t think so much about Italy. You know, so …


So it wasn’t just how you sang, but what he wanted you to sing about.


Yes. What he wanted me to sing about, and how it was presented. You know, because when I sang Hawaiian music, it was much more laid back and I would not say apologetic. But I mean, it was a step back. When I was taking voice lessons from him, it was definitely, you were out there. You know. So I was there with him for a few years, and then I left school because well, our careers started to take off with the Sunday Manoa, first, and then –


Well, now, what happened to the 60s and rock and roll? Were you part of that?


Of course. Yeah; yeah. Loved the rock and roll years. Yeah; I was definitely there. We thought that The Platters were cool. And Roland was a real big fan of Jimmy Hendrix; real big. And we got all into that. You know, I didn’t – we didn’t get so much into the drugs of it, as much as we did the music.




We really liked the music. And the fact that, you know, we’re the original Flower People, so we were like out there.


[chuckle] People talk freely about how you were instrumental in that Hawaiian renaissance; the music and language, and everything that came with it.


M-hm. You know, people do speak freely about the fact that we were there at the start of the renaissance, and leading the way. We had no idea. We had no idea we were leading the way for anybody, or to anything. We were just there, having a good time. We were just so happy to have people standing in line out there at Chuck’s Cellar in Waikiki, not to come for steaks, but to listen to us play music. You know, so we really had no time to think about this whole idea of the renaissance, until maybe like two or three years after we had already been in it, and someone brought it up and said, What was it like? And we were like, Oh well. You know, it was very interesting, and it was fun, and –


Well, when you would go out for gigs, did you and Roland think about, you know, your marketing plan, and who your audience was and how to tailor your music? Anything like that?


No. We were just as wild on stage as we were, you know, at home. We were doing what we were doing. Roland and I used to go to work in caftans and get on stage and change, and then on the breaks, we’d wear these caftans, walking around the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.




You know.


They’d never seen anything like that before.


Well, no. I would wake up in the morning, and cut my bedspread, and throw it on, and go to school at the university. ‘Cause it was the ‘60s, and you were supposed to wear your bedspread to school, or something like that. So yeah. It was never really planned out or strategically, or any kind of game plan, or –


But it was just who you were. You were doing what you were.


Yeah. And we were still kinda deciding what we were, and what we were doing. You know. And lots of experimentation in so many different facets. Lots of experimentation. So –


Did you do all kinds of music, or did you do just Hawaiian?


Well, at the time, with the Sunday Manoa, we kinda like felt like we should stay in this niche of Hawaiian music, you know. But the influences of like big things that were happening on the mainland became a part of what was entwined with the Hawaiian music. Yeah. So …


So Chuck’s Cellar was your Sunday Manoa time.


Was – yeah – was the very beginning, when we became known. Yeah. And I was 19 years old at the time.


Did you get all big-headed?


No, because we were change – you know, if you thought – there we go again. Just to make sure you knew you weren’t that important, we would change in the parking lot. There was no dressing room, you know, and you still got $15 for the whole gig. You know, so yeah. There was no way you could get big head. As the career got to be better and better, some people would say, You know, you folks are getting to be so Waikiki, so mainland. You know, you’re forgetting where you’re coming from. Well, let me just say, there is no way you can ever, ever forget that you’re from Kalihi, I don’t care what you try to do in your life, you know. And after a while, it gets to the point where it’s a time that is so beautiful, and so worth being a part of, that you never, ever want to forget. You know, I’m proud that I’m a Kalihi guy.


What part of Kalihi were you raised in?


We would say Waena. So it’d be like Kam IV Road, where you know, we were there before they built that monstrosity, the Kuhio Park Terrace. So in the old days, from the roof of our house, or the back porch actually, you could see the fireworks at the Ala Moana Shopping Center. You can’t anymore.


Wow; amazing.


Yeah; yeah.


And you always lived in the same place as you were growing up?


M-hm. And I finally moved out, gee many, many years later. ‘Cause our mom had Alzheimer’s for something like 15 years. And I had come home one day, and she had washed all my silk clothes in Clorox. And I knew that it was time to go.




So I left, and I never looked back. [chuckle] Roland still has the house.


Both of the Brothers Cazimero, Robert and Roland, are masters of their craft and consummate performers. But you’d never mistake one for the other. Different lifestyles, different approaches; but as artists and businessmen, the same respect for each other.


I really learned how to talk, to be comfortable in front of a crowd through Loyal Garner – watching her perform. Really too, the Society of Seven, as far as flow is concerned, in a show. And our friend Gramps, who was very influential, and my kumu, Maiki; watching them. Of course, now, there are the other influences, like Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Kenny Rankin, who I would listen to for hours. I’d play his records, and I would listen to his style, and try to mimic it. And if he was gonna hold it for these many measures, I was gonna hold it for that many measures, and one more. You know.


And you always thought you would go into music professionally?


No; because getting back to this brother and sister thing. The brother above me, Rodney, was the one who we considered the voice in the family. So it was very difficult, after he went into the service, for me to start singing, and then to have to sing in front of him. So that was something we all had to learn about; how to handle things like that.


Because …


Just the whole respect thing; that he was the older one. And still is. And I still think that of all of us, he has the most beautiful voice.


And how much does he sing now?


Well, he’s working on a new CD, my brother Rodney is. So I’m very excited for it.


Well, Roland seems like chaos.


[chuckle] He’s uh –


He’s out there.


That’s a good way of putting it. You know, he’s really reeled himself in, within the last maybe ten years. But you’re right; he was out there to the max, and over the top, being Roland Cazimero. I mean, he was wild and wooly and the women were everywhere and the liquor and the drugs and the food; and that’s making me sound like I was a prude.


[chuckle] And he would probably be late, and you would be on time? Is that how it worked?


Oh, yeah. Oh, big fights about that; I tell you. And it was really some difficult times there. But he – yeah; he had a tendency to come to work when he was ready to come to work. Yeah.


How about musically; I sense there wasn’t –




There was not any kind of schism about that?


You know, the thing about Roland was that he would come with stuff, because of his life, where it was. It would be so far off of what I thought was Hawaiian but I liked it. You know. And so he would do stuff, and I was like, Okay, let’s put that in and tape. Mind you, another thing about that too is, we had been with the Sunday Manoa, and Peter Moon was the leader at the time. And Peter and Roland got along really well. Because as much as I was grounded in the Hawaiian thing, those two boys were out in the world, and they liked other music and would bring it to the table. After we left Peter, then I had to listen a little bit more to Roland, because he would be the orchestra. I was just gonna be the voice; he was gonna be the orchestra. And it worked out quite nicely, actually.


Sure has; and still going strong.


Still going strong. And you know what? I can say now that it’s much more fun than it’s ever been. I’ve learned to relax a lot ‘cause you know, I was the one on pins and needles, thinking that I had to like choke his neck to shut up so that I could do a show. And now it’s just to the point where like it really – it sounds like such a cliché, but it’s all really good when it’s me and Roland. ‘Cause we’re just having a really good time, and it’s terrific.


Lets talk about Roland and you for a while.




I mean, you’ve had this long career with him.


Yes; very long. It’s a marriage, you know.


Long, and spectacular. And he’s your brother. I mean, did you folks grow up fighting with each other? Like –


All the time.



Like most siblings do?


Yeah; yeah. We fought all the time. But we got to a point – and I think – you know, we really started playing music professionally with our parents in the – well, I started in the latter part of the 60s, or middle 60s. Roland was already playing when he was eight years old. So when we went on our own, and by the time we got to like 1973 or 74, we had pretty much made up our minds that as much as this was show business, we were gonna concentrate more on the business part of it, than the show. I mean, the show would come along, so we knew that pretty much no matter what happened – believe me, dear, a lot has happened that we would stick it out. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t had full-out fights on stage, at the Waikiki Shell on May Day. I mean, not throwing blows, ‘cause people could see that; but I mean throwing words back and forth, and yeah. So it’s been a challenge, but it’s been great all the way.


Well, you two seem like such different personalities. I’m actually surprised that you are such an enduring and endearing duo.


I think because we embrace two different worlds that we bring everybody in from those different worlds and meld them into the Brothers Cazimero.


Well, how do the dynamics of the two of you work?


Well, okay; here it goes. We come from a family of twelve kids; eight boys and four girls. And it was understood thing as we were growing up that if our parents were there, the oldest child always was the one who we would listen to. I’m older than Roland by just one year. So …


Were you the oldest? No, right?


No, no, no; I’m number ten of the twelve, so there are nine above me. And so I would just tell them and they’d have to listen.


But you could only boss two other kids.


Yeah. Because if I said something, and my older brother or older sister said something over me I would say nothing after that –


But you could boss Roland.


I could boss Roland, and I could boss my sister, ‘cause she’s the twin to Roland. So although, I wouldn’t call it – Roland would call it bossing. [chuckle] But I wouldn’t.


Youre there in your nice aloha shirt and long pants, and he’s in green tights and a sweatshirt sometimes, crossing his legs on the stage.


Yes; yes.


Its just – it’s so funny, and so beautiful.


He does wear some of those clothes. And I have to take credit for some of it, ‘cause I did buy him a few of those things to get him into it at first. And as I grew out of them he just more and more into them. And it causes a lot of trouble for me in other places, I’ll tell you.


But he knows who he is, and you know who he is, and you understand each other.


Yeah. So there’s no problem there. You know. And we’ll make fun of it, too. He’ll make fun of it; and it’s fine. I like him so much more now, and that’s why we get along so much better.


One year difference.


Yes; only one year. But I always felt like I was tons years different than he was. Difference, as far as age.


Did you always feel like you had to keep the duo together, because he was not disciplined?


You know, I don’t know that I felt that way, ‘cause I knew – we had already decided on the business part, so I knew that late or not or whatever indecision, we were still going to be together. But it didn’t mean it didn’t give me heartburn or heartbreak or whatever. Because I was on pins and needles.


How much does he surprise you on stage with his comments?


Oh, I never really know what my brother’s gonna say; I never do. And sometimes I will say something that will trigger, and I know that it’s triggering something in my mind, and I think to myself, You stupid, stupid –


Dont make eye contact, right?




Dont laugh.


I shouldn’t have said that; and sure enough, he picks it up, and he goes, and I tell you, I can’t say anything, because the people are laughing so much, and it’s really so good, and I’m so pissed off.




But it’s so funny.


It works.


Yeah. One time, we were on stage at the Shell; it was Roland, myself, and Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole. I was between the two of them. And they started on this thing together, and I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. All I know is that the audience was dying outside, and I just said one thing, Leslie; I said just one thing, and I don’t remember what it was. Well I was smashed down like a bug, and I was like, Okay, I’m so staying out of this one.




Because Roland and Israel together they were amazing. They had a lot of fun, and a lot of history. So –


And that’s part of the fun of entertaining; the interactions, and you feed off each other, right?




And you become better than –


Especially when they’re –


– the sum of the parts.


– really good, talented people. You know. When you don’t have to say anything or explain anything. So it’s like you and I talking right now. You know, I’ll just say, Okay, you take it, and then you say, You take it, then we’ll both talk together, or finish each other’s sentences. Happens all the time. That’s why I said Roland and I have a relationship that is like, you know, we’ve been married longer than our parents were I think. You know how in Hawaii we tend to call people “Uncle” or “Auntie” as a sign of respect? Here’s a tip, Don’t do that to Robert. You’re about to find out why. And Robert also explains the feeling he’s had for some time, the one that drives him to sing every song like it’s the last time.


You know, in terms of experience and achievement, although I don’t know about in terms of age, you’re a kupuna. Are you treated as such?


Um some people try.


But you don’t let them? [chuckle]


No; I don’t.


What do you –


Another thing I –


– tell them? [chuckle]


I just – actually, you know what? I I’m very lucky that way. No one sees me as really being a kupuna. But –



And thats a good thing for you.


And that’s a –


Thats a –


– really good thing.


You know, that is a mark of respect, too.


Yeah; yeah. I just I do have a rule, though, and it’s, Don’t call me Uncle. Which is my email address, don’t call me uncle.




Unless we’re actually related; and if we are related, you gotta mention some names in the family line that I have to recognize. Otherwise, just call me Robert. You know. And I’ve gone through the gamut of people calling me Bobby from when I was a kid; Bobby and Bob, and god, I hate that.


Neva Rego calls you Roberto.


Oh, well; yeah.


You dont correct her. The voice coach you go to.


Oh, no; she can call me Roberto for the rest of my life. That’s fine. But the Bobby one makes me a little queasy. But then you know which part of my life they’re from. You know. And –


Do you tell people, Call me Robert? I mean, just –


Yes; I do.


– straight out?


Yeah. Hi, Uncle. No; just call me Robert. And you know, you know for Hawaiians, that’s a hard thing, because part of the respect is that you call each other Uncle and Auntie. But I just tell them, like, Don’t –


Thats because –


Don’t put any kind –


– you don’t see yourself as Uncle?


It’s because, you know, when you’re in the entertainment business, there is no such thing as age. Once you get out of high school, we’re all the same age. That’s what I say. So, don’t call me Uncle. And don’t call me Auntie, either.


[chuckle] Whats your middle name?


My middle name is Uluwehionapuaikawekiuokalani.


Which means?


Which means the verdant – the abundance of flowers at the summit of the sky. And my mother was pregnant, and she didn’t know she was, and my aunt, my Auntie Mary Sing who lives in Kalaupapa – that’s a whole ‘nother story – she called my mom and said, You know you’re gonna, you’re pregnant. And my mother said, No, I’m not. And she said, You’re pregnant; and my mother said, No, I’m not. And she said, Just listen to me; you’re pregnant, here’s the name of the child. So she gave my mother my name.


And shes calling from the Hansen’s Disease settlement at Kalaupapa.


Yes; she is. So my mother said, Okay. But because of the flowers in the name, o napua, she thought that I was gonna be a girl. Well, anyway; so but I got the name, anyway. And so yeah; sure enough, she was pregnant. She didn’t know it, but she found out from my aunt. And I’ve had that name ever since.


Do you think you live up to the name?


Oh, I hope so; I hope so. Because the funny thing is, as I graduated kids from my school to their own schools, they’ve taken parts of the name.




And they have it in their school. My niece is my namesake, and she has the same name. And then one of my dancers asked if he could name his son after me. And I said, Yeah; except take out the o napua, take the flowers part out. So this boy, Uluwehiikawekiokalani, is one of the newest members in halau now. He’s dancing in the school. That’s the kinda stuff just blows my mind. I’m just so glad I’m seeing it all happen. You know. It’s really cool.


Sometimes you look back at your life, and you go, Wow, if only this hadn’t happened, where would I be.




Was there any one of those moments for you?


Yeah. Would have been my seventh grade; if I didn’t go to Kamehameha, that would have been very different. I think that – because if not, I would have gone to Farrington. And for all I know, I could have ended up being a drag queen.




Just scary, you know. For me. Another thing is that you know, I constantly worry about my voice, and in December I have a tendency to catch colds, in December. So I try and be really careful about that. And one year, it got really bad, and I lost my voice. And we were doing three concerts with the Honolulu Symphony. And I did a concert every night, without a voice. I talked my way through the whole thing. And thank God that the people were receptive. Because it was one of the best concerts, ever. So, and then I have to tell you about one other time. Roland and I were performing at the Holiday Inn in San Francisco, near the business district. And we were doing the show; it was Christmastime, and the whole electricity, within like about eight, ten blocks, went out. And the management said, You know, we need to cancel the show. And the people said, No, don’t cancel the show. So they brought out this flashlight, a real big one, like this. And they stood at the back of the room, and they put the flashlight on, and we played the show. And we did like –what would you call that? Like well, unplugged concert. It was one of the most beautiful shows in my life; it was just great. So you know, glad we did something that at first we weren’t gonna do.


What do you see as the future of your singing career?


You know, it’s kind of difficult for me to think of a future, as far as I’m concerned. Because I just made – well, I’m telling everybody I’m 62, but I’m not. It’s just that they say to me, Wow, you look really good for 62.




So that by the time I get there they can say, Well. But I don’t see me being here that long, on this Earth, for this life. So what I really want to project is the fact that we just keep playing and doing the best in what we do. And if we can produce an album or a CD every year until the time of my demise, then I’ll be totally happy.


Okay; now, youve just shaken me up. You see yourself as having an untimely or early death?


Well, I thought – from when I was a kid, I always thought that I’d be dead by 21. I think it’s in a past life thing of mine. And the other thing was that if I stayed away from home longer than two months, that I would never return home. So that’s why my trips have always been short, and coming back in time. And then the longest one was maybe a little over two months, when Roland and I went with Maiki to Europe. But I always felt that after 21, all these years are real gifts for me. You know.


Do you think you, you live more fully every day, because have this –




– thought that you might not have a lot of time?


Absolutely. You know, when Roland and I were – I don’t know that I’ve ever said this on, you know, for television or anything. But when Roland and I were playing with Peter Moon – this was before 1975; we were working at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and we would get bomb threats in the room. And we would just be playing, and all of a sudden, all the lights would come on. And they would – we’d have to have everybody taken out, and we’d go out, and the cops would come in, or the bomb squad or whatever they were, and they would check the whole room, and then they would say, Okay, it’s okay. Now, this would happen sometimes three times a week. So but I’ll tell you; if you were in the audience after that bomb scare had been nilled, you found yourself at one of the most amazing, amazing shows. Because we sang like it was the last time. So ever since then, I try – I do that now. That whenever I do sing or perform, I do it like it’s my last time. Just in case; just in case.




You know, I really enjoy getting to know people on this program – especially people I did already know, like Robert. He’s got much more to share, including what it takes to get into his respected Halau Na Kamalei, why he expelled his much-loved brother Roland from the halau, and his favorite music lyrics. Please join me and Robert Cazimero for Part Two of a two-part LSS next week on PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


I gotta ask you one more thing.




The local thing with the [clucks tongue].




Can you tell me about that?


[chuckle] We were at the Ala Moana Hotel; in those days, we were upstairs at the Summit, which is now called Aaron’s, I think. And I was singing a song, and there was a man in the audience who was looking at me weird, and then he would say he was just looking at me, and so I said I said, What? He says, You’re singing the wrong words. And I was like, Okay. Then he said, If you want, I’ll teach it to you here by the elevator. So we just sat there, and he taught me the words. The next time I sing it, I’m downstairs at the – we called it the Cave at the time.




The Kama‘aina Room. And there was a woman in the audience, but this time she added that. She’s going, like [clucks tongue]. And I was pissed off. So I said, What? And was like, You’re singing the wrong words. I said, No, I’m not. I learned this from a guy who lives in Keaukaha. And she said, My mother wrote the song.


So I sat with her, and I learned it.


Again. [chuckle]




Robert Cazimero: Part 2


Aloha no. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Mahalo for joining me for another LS S – another island program produced and broadcast by locally-owned, non-profit PBS Hawaii. When singer Robert Cazimero stopped by to talk with me, one on one, he wasn’t alone. He mentioned that his ancestors, all those who went before, were right behind him. And part of the reason he is driven to meet high standards is the heavy obligation he feels to make them proud. Coming up next – Part Two of a two-part conversation with musical artist Robert Cazimero.


Robert Cazimero is more than a successful singer and recording artist. He’s also a most-respected kumu hula – teacher of Hawaiian dance. His all-male hula school is called Halau Na Kamalei. The halau is the subject of a documentary being shown on PBS channels nationwide that explores expectations and stereotypes, following the halau as it prepares for competition. Produced and directed by Lisette Marie Flanary, N           : M     H   shows us Robert Cazimero’s exacting and sometimes harsh teaching style and it reflects his deep devotion to his kumu, the late Maiki Aiu Lake.


I had a hard time with that, ‘cause they wanted me to tell stories about my kumu. And you know, outside of the family, we don’t tell stories, because it’s just so personal. You know. I didn’t want to tell stories. And then I said to Lisette, If this will help to show my respect for my teacher, then I’ll do it. Not realizing that it was really gonna show a lot more, and that it was okay. And that what I found out about my students is that they love me like how I love my teacher. [Whispers] Sorry.


How easy was it for you to control people’s lives? I mean, you know, kumu hula – That’s a really – – by definition is a –


– good question.


– control freak, right?




You know, it




Im not saying it very graciously, but –


No, no, no; it’s true, though. Yeah. And you have – there is such a power in being a kumu hula, you know, that is willingly given to you when the students come in. Because it’s what I did with mine. You know. If she told me to jump off a building, I would have asked, Which one, and how much higher do you want me to go? ‘Cause you just love them, you know. But I didn’t really know how to become a kumu. It’s like being a parent. You really don’t know how to be a mother or father until you have kids, and they teach you how to be that way. It was the same thing with being a teacher. When I started, my kids were like 15, 16 years old, and I was like 23, 24. And the only way I knew how to do it was to scare the well, to scare the –


And you used those –


– out of them.


– words too, right?




You would swear?




Youd call them names?


Yeah; I did. And they would say to me, You know, I don’t even let my parents talk to me this way. I was like, I’m not your parent; I’m your kumu. So you just better get over it, or there’s the door. And luckily, they stayed. Or luckily, they didn’t beat me up. And by definition, you have to keep order and discipline.


How did you decide how hard core you were gonna be as a disciplinarian, as somebody who punishes, or has control over –


I just played by –


– second chances, third chances?


Yeah. I played that by ear. I set really – you know, some really heavy duty rules on them. And if they broke it, then you know, there was no second chance.


Whats an example of a heavy duty rule?


Well, you know, I did not like drugs. I was never a drug person. I, well, sans liquor. Sometimes.




But yeah. So it’s like, you know, if I knew that you were coming to a performance, and if you were stoned then you’re out, from the performance and the halau, too. You had to be a certain look, you know. No one could – I still say it, although I’m much more lenient now. No student could dance if they were bigger than me. And back then I was almost 300 pounds when I first started. You know. So they all had to make sure that I the clothes, they looked good. Otherwise – ‘cause you know, people don’t really want to see guys dance in clothes; you gotta wear those malo things, and the lawalawas. And I never could wear

them, because well, ‘cause you know. But they had to. You know, ‘cause it was the look, and I wanted to make sure that people knew who we were.


Well, at that time, you had the only male halau.




Is it still the only male halau?


You know, I think it is. Because most people have both women and men dancing for them. But it was really Maiki’s dream that I teach only men. And I’ll tell you; like I said, I would have done anything she asked. So I had no problem saying, Okay; I’ll do it. The thing that you need to know about, if you’re gonna – Leslie, you’re ever gonna teach men? You want to –




– be a kumu hula. You’ll be not making any money. And –


As opposed to teaching women; you would make money?


Women, you can make money. People buy houses by teaching women. Teaching men, you will not make money.




They’re not gonna pay you to teach them how to dance hula. They’re – and there go – it goes back my kumu again, who said, If a man dances for you, then it is a privilege that you should have them. So I you know, when I was in halau, I was constantly on scholarship. And so that’s the way I’ve run my halau ever since; that it’s all scholarship.


You teach for free?


Yeah; yeah. And then when we need money, then we have a fundraiser. Or, if it needs supplementation, I have my career. And I swear, my kumu knew that too. ‘Cause I’m like her. She needs six of these things done, her daughter says, You can’t have the money; she’ll grab her money and do it herself. And I do the same thing. You know, it’s like, Well, no one tells me no when it comes to the halau. But if I want something, and they’re like, You know, we don’t have that much money we’re getting it. Yeah; we’re gonna just do it.


As successful as the halau has been, I’ve heard you say in the past that it’s not easy to get men to dance.


Yes; yeah. It gets harder and harder as the years go along. Although, a new revelation has come along for us; and that is that now, the sons of my students are dancing for me. And you know, I’ve graduated students as teachers. Four of them are teaching, even as we speak.


And thats a legacy.


That –




– really is. But as far as, for me, a real legacy and a continuation, so that I can actually see it myself; having the kids of my dancers with me. It makes me want to live longer. It really does. And it makes me want to be a better teacher, too.


How does someone get into your halau? Can any guy get into your halau?


Well, no. [chuckle] No, you can’t. You have to be invited.


And all of your dancers are part-Hawaiian?




They’re not?


No. No; and I don’t think that’s really important, either. And that comes from my kumu. You know. Because it’s more about the heart, I think, and the fact that once you become a member of my halau, then you are Hawaiian to me, because now you’re not just a member of the halau, but a member of the family.


Family; mm.


Yeah. And so all my family, all my brothers and sisters, and my nieces and nephews; they all know these guys. And they all know my family. So several years ago, we had a, a family reunion in Kohala, and they said, You know, we’re all going. And I was like, No, you’re not. They was like, Oh, yeah; we are. ‘Cause sister Jean and sister Gerry told us, and cousin Momi, that we’re family. So they all came. We all went to Kohala together and –


Whats more important; heart or dancing ability?


Oh, right now, today, at this very moment with you and me; heart.


But tomorrow, dancing ability?


Tomorrow, if we have a show to do and it’s time to get on the stage; dancing ability. But for right now, heart. But it doesn’t mean I’ll get rid of you. You know. Where before, I would get rid of people much faster. Today, I’m much more lenient.


Among your students in your halau, you’ve admitted your brother.


Yes. Roland came to halau for a while; I think it was a little over a year. And I kicked him out of halau because he was given an assignment and he didn’t finish it.


What was the assignment?


He had to learn two chants. And we laugh about it today, because had he learned, especially one of them, we’d be – we do it all the time in our lives, you know; all the time now. But I give my brother a lot of credit. You know, we’re born as brothers in this lifetime, and then he goes and puts himself, again, in my life by being a student. That’s a difficult thing to do.


Well, you could give him a second chance.


Well, the second chance is that he’s no longer a student, but he is a kokua. So my brother is there all the time. And I think in being the kokua now, it’s better than being a student. ‘Cause you still get the lessons, but you don’t get too much of the same pressure that happened. And what’s happened is, I’ve learned from that lesson too, and because of him, I’ve learned to be able to give chances to others. Where before, I would have [SNAPS FINGERS] got rid of ‘em, like how I did him. You know.




And the other thing is, you can’t talk back to me.




You can’t talk back to me.


He would have to stop talking back to you.


You can’t talk back – no. And Roland would like – you know, you can’t talk to me. Not in front of my students; you can’t talk back to me. That’s just the way it is.


But he can as a kokua?


Yeah. Yeah.


So he worked it out.


Yeah; he did. And I’m really glad he’s the kokua. And yeah. I love him; he’s a good guy. I’ve never said that before on camera, either. That took a bit.


[chuckle] Hes gonna want copies.


I think so too. He’ll be sending out to the family.


In birth order, Robert and Roland are number 10 and number 11 in a family of 12 children from Kalihi. The two men are family for life and highly successful musical partners for more than 30 years now. Appreciating family and health became more important than ever to Robert in 1990. That’s when he found out he has diabetes.


You were 300 pounds at one point?


Oh, yeah. Yeah. It was a long time ago, but still, it was a part of my life. I look at those pictures, and I go, Who is this monstrous person?


Had you always been heavy as a kid?


Yeah; yeah, I always was. And then in 1990, my doctor said to me; he says, You know, you gotta watch out, ‘cause you’re a diabetic now. And I was like, Oh; okay. So he said, You have to really think about this, and you know, you have to cut down, and you have to do this, and you have to exercise, and stuff. And I was like, Oh, jeez; what a bummer. And I started walking in 1990, and it’s been my companion for that long now, and it’s kept me down so that I’m now – I fluctuate between 197 to 204 pounds. And it helps with everything; you know, the heart, the blood, the breathing; stuff like that.


Thats right; breathing. I mean, you have to have good breath control, or you’ll lose your occupation.


And that’s why, you know, I never liked cigarettes. My father was real adamant about us smoking. You know. So I never liked that, ‘cause I thought, Okay; I’m gonna tell you another story.




When Peter, Roland and I were recording our second album called Guava Jam, no; sorry, Guava Jam was first, Crack Seed was second. I had just finished singing a song called The Queen’s Jubilee, from a family songbook of the Iaukea’s. And I was sitting in the studio, and Peter and Roland and the engineer were in that small room that they are over there, and Peter said, Okay, we’re gonna play this back to you. I was like, All right. So there were two big speakers here, and they started playing the song, and I’m singing along with it. Well, there was a mirror on the floor on the side over here, and I just happened to glance over it. And I was looking at myself in the mirror, and I thought, I found it very difficult to believe that the person I was looking at in the mirror was the owner of this voice that was coming through. Because I didn’t feel that person matched the beauty of the voice.




And that, for me, was – what’s that word; epiphany.




It was an epiphany for me, and I kind of realized that this voice was something special; and that’s when I decided that I’d better take care of it. So all these years, you know, losing the weight and keeping it down and exercising and watching what you eat …


And continuing to take voice lessons.


And continuing to take voice lessons with my dear kumu leo, Neva Rego, who I love to pieces. Both Roland and I went to Neva at a time where our voices were beginning to fade a bit. We weren’t aware of it. Well, maybe we were, and that’s why we went. But she added so much to what we needed to remember and do. And still does, you know. I don’t go as often as I used to, but she has spies. And they’ll come, and they’ll see us, and they’ll call her. And then she’ll call me and she’ll go, Roberto …




Can you come see Auntie Neva?


And its all about getting the best of your voice at any time in your life.


Yeah, and to keep it going. You know. My doctor, Kalani Brady, who is also a student of Neva’s – you know, we’re all kinda like intertwined. So there’s Neva and me, and there’s Kalani, and there’s Roland, and all of us, and stuff like this, and they always say to me, you know, This is something special; you have to take care of it; we’re gonna help you the best we can. So it’s an obligation too, you know.


You mentioned the beauty of your voice, which is so true. How do you look at that? Do you see that as a gift you take care of, or do you think uh, of something you created, or …


No; I think it was a gift. I really do. And I find that as I get older now, and as much as I love to sing, I think singing makes me beautiful. I also think that it’s one of the most honest and scariest things that I do in my life. Because when I’m on stage, or I’m at home, or at a cousin’s party, and if I’m singing, it is the most honest I could possibly be. I am as wide open as a book; and you can read all the chapters, ‘cause nothing [chuckle] nothing’s been blocked, or censored. It’s just honestly, blatantly there.


Well, funny you should say that. Because I was reviewing what’s been written about you over the years, but, you know, I didn’t really see a lot about who you are. Just what you do. Is that because you keep it close?


Yeah. You know, it’s not that I do that conscientiously; it’s just, I’ve always felt when we were talking to anybody, being interviewed, you know, that has a game plan. We’re talking about the CD, we’re talking about this May Day concert, we’re talking about entering Merrie Monarch and why we’re doing it. And so I did that. You know. Someday, someone will. And maybe it’ll happen; I’m not real sure.


I mean, well, you could do it now.


Okay; go.


[chuckle] I would just like to know what drives you, what moves you, what …


I think, first of all, my family. And my kupuna, the ancestors, and the fact that I feel that the – my heaviest obligation is to make them proud. To not make them embarrassed. Because – and I’ve said this before, and I love this image. That even as I’m here speaking to you, there are thousands of people behind me right now. Some I know, and some I don’t.


From generations back? From generations before, from countries that I don’t even know about; they’re just here. And you don’t want them rolling your eyes.




Their eyes. [chuckle]


Yeah; uh-huh. Or this thing; [clucks tongue]. You know how local people do that [clucks tongue] thing. And that would just kill me. But they’re all here, and I feel an obligation towards them, and you, and our people and this land. And then I think if I’m gonna do that, then I have to have an obligation to my health. Even as last night, I’m at a restaurant eating stuff that maybe I shouldn’t have, you know. I didn’t have the dessert, but okay, I had the pasta. And then when it comes to the hula, I have an obligation to my teacher and to my students. And I just want to be good for them. I want to really be good for them. And if it means that my personal life – my personal life does not suffer from anything; it suffers from me, if I want it to suffer. Okay. But my personal is really the family. And it’s a real broad use of the word family, because it encompasses the ones that I’m related to by blood, and those that I’m related to by heart. And it just keeps getting bigger. Sometimes I feel like I have no control over this; and at the same time, maybe I’m not supposed to. So I live my life now in a – I love to say this; a perpetual state of gratitude. I wake up every morning, and I just say thank you to everybody, and everything. You know, we’re from Kohala, on the Big Island.


North Kohala?


North Kohala. My mom is from Hawi, and my dad’s from Niulii. And my mother used to say, When you go to Hawaii Island, she says, you must say hello to everyone – the people, the rocks, the ocean, the trees; because they’re related to all of us. You know. It’s how I feel with uh, with everybody that we meet now, you know. That there is a purpose, and nothing is by accident; that I’m there to learn the lessons that are happening. And that I’m really, really grateful.


Its been such a long haul for Hawaiians, who still populate our prisons and are represented on the poverty lists and many haven’t had access to Hawaiian homelands. I mean, how do you see the Hawaiian condition today?


Oh, I think it’s appalling. At the same time, though, I’m one of the lucky ones, you know, who Hawaiians will look at me and say well, sometimes they’ll say, you know, You sold out.   I don’t – I’m not so sure how I did that; I was just working. But the other they say is, you know, I want to be like you. And I’m thinking, Oh, I don’t know whether you want to do that eit You know. But if I can help in any way I can and I think of Don Ho. ‘Cause he said to me one night when we were at you know, he used to go to McCully Chop Suey all the time.


M-hm; at 3:00 a.m. [chuckle]


Yeah, yeah; there you are. Okay; order all that food.




And Don said to me; he says, You know, when people ask for money, I give them money, our people. He said, Are you gonna do the same thing? I said, I don’t know that I can give them money, but I’m gonna give them what I can. You know. And if it’s the voice, or if it’s just being there then I’ll do it.


Do you what you can with what you have.


Yeah. Yeah. God, I can’t believe I said some of that stuff.


I forgot Don Ho used to go to McCully Chop Suey in the middle of the night. No, but it’s true; you’ve got to decide you know, how far you’re willing to go, and how much you’re willing to give.



Yeah. And you cannot just talk it; if you said something already, you know, people remember. They can go back now – especially with the internet; they can go back and see what I said 20 years ago. [chuckle]


Yeah. Well, that’s interesting. He was trying to get you to do the same thing he was doing.


Yeah. Yeah. And you know, Don was one of our greatest supporters.


Wow. He didnt feel a competitive deal?


No. He just liked what we did. And his mother liked us. So you know, it’s a Hawaiian thing. You know.


Yeah; yeah.


You’re a local girl; you understand that.




You know, I used to always say I don’t know that I would go to war for the United States of America. I don’t know that I would kill someone for the United States of America. But if they’re threatening Hawaii I would stand out front. And years ago, we had this – there was a kue. there was a march of all Hawaiians. It started at the Aloha Tower, and it came up to the Palace. Several – Ala, myself. Mapuana, maybe Vicky; we were there at the front, and our job – Manu. We were to chant all these people as we came in, continuously; it was to be hours and hours of our chanting these people in. And just before they were gonna open the gate, someone had told us that there might be something happening. That would include, you know, guns and stuff like this. And Roland had told Ala; If anything happens, you grab my brother, and you folks go in here. And you can talk the talk but if you can’t walk the walk, then what’s the purpose of it? I said, You know, if anything is gonna happen, then it’s meant to happen, and I’m putting it out there right now. So if anything happens, I ain’t going; I’m staying right here. I think it’s how you – when you believe in something, whether it’s our world, or peace or just another person, we have to do what is best for ourselves, and hope that it’s best for everyone too.


You know, you mentioned that lyrics really speak to you in song. What are the most beautiful lyrics that you sing, and in what language are they?


Well, there’s – if I had to pick an English song it would be two. One would be David Gates from Bread – he wrote a song called If. And my favorite line in that song is, And when my life and when my love for life is running dry, you come and pour yourself on me. When I sing that line, it’s like, to me, the heavens open up, and I am just drenched with all this love from the people who know me. The other one is from Carousel, I think. If I loved you, da-da longing to tell you, but afraid and shy I let my golden chances pass me by. And I’ve let many a golden chance pass me by. But there’s no regret. You can’t have regrets; I refuse to have regrets.


What about in Hawaiian?


In Hawaiian, too many; too many. You know, for me, the most simplest things have the deepest meanings. So oh, gee; god, what’s the – there are so many. I can’t even think of – okay, there’s a song what was written by Lei Collins, and it’s called – they call it Kealoha. And it goes, [sings]. In the third verse, it says [sings]. That I become very relaxed and I am comfortable when the scent of my lover is present. I love that line. Because no one knows that scent, except you, you know. And whether they’re there with you or not, physically, that scent that you remember can put them right in front of you. And I think that’s powerful; that’s – you know. And then another one is from Pua Ahihi, written by Kawena, and it says [sings] No, no, no, no. There’s this one verse, and it talks about there’s a flower, okay, so it’s you know Lanihuli? Lanihuli is that mountain there at the Pali; when you’re standing at the Pali lookout, it’s the one on the left hand side. And what it says is that you’re – this person that you love is like a lehua flower up there, but it is pretty much unreachable. And the reason that person is unreachable is because you put that person there. That that’s how much your love is extended to the fact that you would take this person that you love, and put them so high out of reach that it’s worth the love. That’s what it means to me.


Beautiful lyrics, lovely sentiments. Speaking of sentiments, I’d like to thank our viewers who’ve sent kind thoughts and encouraging words as PBS Hawaii works to deliver quality, local programming that inspires, informs and entertains. Mahalo to you and to Robert Cazimero for sharing your time and joining me for this L S S . I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


You know, we’ve lost some just treasures of Hawaiian music, and just recently too.




And of course, you know that you’ve earned a place in that vaulted place; I mean, you’re already there, where you’re a treasure. Do you ever think about how people will receive news sometime long from now, I hope, when you pass away? I think that’s why I work so hard when we do an album to make sure that it’s the best that it can be. Because really, it’s that music that’s immortal. It’s not this; it’s that music. So I try hard, and I wonder how they’ll receive it. You know, I wonder.


Juliet Lee


Original air date: Tues., July 12, 2011


Hawaii Author and Poet


Leslie Wilcox talks story with Juliet Lee, a Hilo-born poet and novelist who is perhaps better known by her pen name, Juliet S. Kono. Juliet takes Leslie back in time through vivid memories of modest living, teenage rebellion and family hardships. When Juliet was barely three years old, she and her family were swept up in the 1946 Hilo tsunami – a turning point for Juliet’s family and inspiration for her future work. Juliet has garnered several honors for her writing, including the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, the American Japanese National Literary Award and the Hawaii Award for Literature. Her latest novel, Anshu: Dark Sorrow, is set in Hawaii and Japan.


Juliet Lee Audio


Download the Transcript




My earliest memory would be where I’m lying down on the bed. I must have been about two or three. And the wind blowing the curtains in and out of the house, and I’m thinking, Oh, I’m here. Something about being here in this world.


How many of us are so self aware that we can describe what was surrounding us when we were only two years old? Through the very aware eyes of Juliet Lee, who writes under the name, Juliet S. Kono, we see life as it is, filled with duty, sorrow, and happiness.


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. If you were born in the 1940s or earlier, you’ve lived through a world war, and you’ve seen Hawaii grow from a quiet plantation-based society to a center of commerce. For Juliet Lee, who is also the Hawaii author and poet known as Juliet S. Kono, observations of growing up in Hilo, like the hapuu that her mother used for growing orchids, the flying ashes of sugarcane fires, a tsunami tearing through Hilo town are the ones that are locked in her mind forever. And these experiences shaped the story of her life.


You were a blackout baby.




And you’ve written about it. What does that mean?


I was born during the war, during the blackout, so we were called blackout babies. That was in 1943, and my mom went to the hospital, Matayoshi Hospital. I was born in Matayoshi Hospital. And so, I wrote a poem about being a blackout baby. Yeah.


And that means the windows were pinned with …


Black. I mean, all the window were painted, I think.


Oh, painted?




And then there were gas masks hanging on the walls, that you said looked like insects.


[CHUCKLE] Right. And the light bulbs were all painted black, just the bottom of the light bulb. You know how they are pear-shaped?




But just the bottom had this light shaft that would come down.


So everybody had to go to bed early, because lights off.


Lights off, right.


And I think you talked about looking at the ceiling and watching shadows dance.


Right. [CHUCKLE]


What happened to you when you were three?


Well, it was just before I was three, actually, and it was April Fool’s Day. The tsunami came in1946. And early in the morning, my mother was saying, Daddy, look outside, it seems so strange with the water receding. And my father said, Yeah, it’s so strange. And they were having breakfast about seven o’clock.


And you lived right on the edge of the water?


Water, right in front of Liliuokalani Park, the Japanese tea garden. I guess my parents didn’t think anything of it, until they heard people yelling and screaming, It’s a tidal wave, it’s a tidal wave.


In those days, no public education about tsunami.




No early warning.


No early warning. And my father saw the wave coming in near the breakwater, so he said he’s going to run down to start the car.


What kind of car?


A Model T; it was a brand new car. I think it was a Ford Model T, with a rumble seat. I’m not sure, but that’s the image I have. And my mother said okay, she’s going to get some of her valuables together, and she woke up my aunt, who was living with us at the time. She woke her up, and gave me to my aunt to take care of, and my mother grabbed my sister. But by that time, the first wave hit. We don’t know what happened to our dad, because the water took the house, and sort of floated it. And we were floating, until we banged into the neighbor’s and a mango tree of some sort, or another tree, and the house started breaking apart. So I remember, I think I remember, or I don’t know if my mother told me this, but my grandmother said, You young ones go, leave me. And I don’t know if I remember this, but she was waving to us.


And she stayed in the breaking up house?


The house. Holding onto a post. But my aunt took me, and she fell in a hole, so she was trying to lift me up so I could breathe above the water. And somebody took me. Saw me [CHUCKLE], and took me, but left her in the hole. We lost my mom, sight of her and my sister. But in the meantime, my mother said she was hurt by the barbed wire left from after the war, because they had all the coastline with barbed wire. And, anyway, we all got out of it.




Everybody lived.


How did you all find each other?


Well, my mother had my sister, of course, and my aunt walked out of the water. And my father, he said he went out with the car, and then he came … in with the car.


And who were you with, the two-year-old?


With a family. I remember he took me into the bed of his truck, and my mother found me with this family. And I don’t remember his name anymore. But my grandmother was found in a tree late in the afternoon. When my father went to look for her, she was found in a tree. And the boy, she said, that put her on the tree, he died.




He was washed away. But we survived. But it plunged us into deep poverty.


You lost everything.


We lost everything. Our car was like a pancake. And my mother salvaged some kimonos, and I remember her washing.


Did you have money in the house, or did—


Everything was …


Everything was in the house?


Yeah; gone. If she salvaged something, I don’t recall. Later, they found a tansu with her kimono and things, but everything was gone. So, we went to live in a rental, first with our grandparents in Kaiwiki. But, the house was so small, the plantation house was so small, so my parents found a rental in town, and that’s where we lived for another … well, my parents lived for, I think, until 1964, until they could finally build their own home.


Now, being plunged into poverty is something. What about emotional effects?


Well, I’m sure my mother suffered from post-traumatic syndrome. But, nobody knew about it then, or spoke about it. Because I remember her crying, washing her kimonos, crying. And I’m sure it’s my father, like, I mean, old Japanese style; Enough already! Stop your crying! [CHUCKLE]


In your book, Anshu, the beginning is set in the Hilo area, and the rest is in Japan. But poverty is a recurring theme.




And I really felt it as you wrote about it, just what day-by-day living was like, and looking for ways to nourish yourself, and find things, and wheedle things, and cajole things, and buy things cheaply. Did that come from personal experience?


I think so, in some ways. My parents were very frugal, and I remember my mother having vanda flowers, having my father go out to buy hapuu stands so we could have a vanda patch in the back of our rental, so that she could pick flowers and sell them for a penny apiece. And my sister and I would collect shoyu gallons and give it to a guava juice maker for five cents a gallon.


And that money was important?


Yeah. [CHUCKLE] It was important. And during summers, when we were old enough, we came to Dole Pineapple Company to work there. And so, yeah, we were entrepreneurial in a sense. Because I remember I wanted a pair of red shoes at one time, so I cooked a lot of cookies, and I made little packets, and went around the neighborhood selling it. But then somebody told me, Shame, [CHUCKLE] to do this. So I stopped.


Were you hungry at times?


Oh, no, no. Oh, never.


Not that hungry.




Not that broke.


Yeah. Well, you know, my father worked, and my mother worked.


And what did your mom and dad do?


Well, my father was a service station attendant, and my mother was a Baker I at Waiakea Waena School.


As a cafeteria worker?


Yeah; m-hm. So she had a State job.


And meanwhile, you would spend some holidays with your grandparents in Kaiwiki. Big room to play in. They had a small plantation acreage, right?


Right. They were, what do you call, plantation cane growers. I mean, they leased land from the plantation, from Hilo Sugar Mill, I think. And it was wonderful there. We could run around, and nobody told us anything. We played in the cane fields, and we played in the streams, and we caught crayfish, and you know, it was idyllic there.


Were there the seeds of a writer in you back then?


The first time I wrote was in third grade. And I wrote a story, a Halloween story, about my mother wearing a white robe, and it was Halloween, and I bumped into her late at night, and you know, I was very scared, and I screamed and carried on. And tried to make the story very dramatic. And my sister said later, when she read the story, she said, You shouldn’t lie, or, You shouldn’t—you know, that’s not the way it was. And she was my first critic. [CHUCKLE]


You’d taken poetic license. You made it dramatic.


I made it dramatic. And I don’t know if she remembers it, but I remember her saying, You know, that’s not the way it happened. [CHUCKLE]


There would be another visit from a tsunami, and that, too, would affect you. In 1960, you were a teenager then.


Right. I was a teenager, and I remember being sort of borderline juvenile delinquent, I suppose. [CHUCKLE] So we were out late that night with a bunch of boys that I knew, and a couple of girls. But then, we had heard about the tsunami warning, so we said, Oh, I think we all better go home. And we didn’t know what time it was going to be. They said it was about midnight, so we waited. And all of a sudden, we heard this great tremendous noise coming in. And the water came right up to the street where we lived, on Kilauea Avenue, and below that, everything was rubble. And people were screaming, and coming out of the water. And next day, I learned that a friend of mine, one of the boys that we hung around with, Clarence Imada, had died.


In her present life, Juliet Lee is an ordained Buddhist minister, as well as Juliet S. Kono, the Hawaii novelist, short story writer, and poet. Her Buddhist perspective is that life on this Earth is full of pain and suffering. Still, she’s often heard laughing. She has learned to find happiness every day, and to approach life head-on without sugarcoating or smug answers. Read her work, and you’ll feel her candor. And when you ask her about her teenage years, she recalls she ran away from home, smoked too many cigarettes, and drank a little too much, causing her parents much concern.


Oh, yeah. They were so worried, I think, and, you know, they were distressed. They were very, very unhappy. [CHUCKLE]


And your attitude about it was?


I didn’t know what I wanted to be or do, or you know, so I just did the best I could, and I really needed to grow up, I suppose.


When did you leave Hilo? You’ve been a Honolulu resident for a long time now.


Right. I left home when I graduated high school.


Hilo High?


Hilo High. And then, I came to the University of Hawaii, and tried and failed, and tried and failed, over and over again.


Why? Why do you think you failed?


I got married. I got pregnant, and then I got married. And even before that, I don’t think I was motivated, or I didn’t know how to be a good student. And so, I didn’t try. And I got married, I had my children. I didn’t go to school for a long time, and then I started going back, but then, I decided that I needed a job. So I went to work for the Police Department for many years.


What’d you do there?


I was a police radio dispatcher.


Oh. So that required quick thinking and good directions.


Right; right.


Kind of being in the thick of things.




Did you enjoy it?


Yeah. I enjoyed it, but then I also felt there were times that were very difficult. When children got hurt or people got hurt, or things happened, and there’s a lot of things that you’re privy to, and you wonder, Oh, how do things happen? Yeah. At the end, there were times when we had some scary things happen. And that’s where I met my husband, too.


At the Police Department?


At the Police Department. [CHUCKLE]


Was he a policeman?


Oh, no, no. He was a police radio dispatcher.


You grew up so tied to your Nisei parents.




And your Issei grandparents.


Parents, right.


And your Buddhism has been a continuing thread through your life. But you have an interracial marriage.




That’s where you didn’t go Japanese.




Tell me about that.


Well, my first husband was Japanese. And he carried a lot of the old Japanese style. [CHUCKLE] The man is the head of the family kind of thing. And I don’t know, it wasn’t that I said to myself, Oh, I’m going to get married to somebody of a different race or anything. It just happened that we fell in love. And so, it was just that. And it just happened that he was Haole. [CHUCKLE]


Was there any dissidence along the way with your family, or with you?


No. My parents accepted him right away. They liked him very much. And he’s very easygoing, so yeah.


And were you accepted by his family?


Oh, yeah. Yeah. His mother said, Yeah, oh, welcome into the home, and everything.


Imagine working an overnight shift as a police dispatcher, waiting to send police officers to a robbery or a domestic argument, or a murder. Great inspiration for a writer. For Juliet Lee, better known as author Juliet S. Kono, the motivation to write came out of just trying to stay awake.


During nightshift, we tried to stay awake. Because otherwise, our heads would be nodding and you shouldn’t do that, and sometimes we had this red mark on the top of our heads. [CHUCKLE] So anyway, I started writing, reading a lot and writing, and I created my first manuscript at that time. And then, I thought I really don’t know much about the world, so I think I better go to school. So that’s when I went back to school. I mean, I wanted to go back to school, and motivated. I was a nontraditional student when I went back, one of the first few nontraditional students.


And this time, it took.


Yeah. [CHUCKLE] And I graduated with my son. Yeah, for my BA. And then, I went on to get my master’s.


It seems to me you’ve learned an awful lot, apart from school. Because so many things have happened in your life, and which you’ve written about and shared with others.


Right; right.


You have this ability to be very honest. And not in ways I mean, in ways that show what is, as opposed to worrying about how it makes you look, how it makes the other person look. It’s as if you accept, and you lay it out there.


Right. I have a philosophy. I guess it’s kind of a Buddhist background that says, you are what you are, you can’t hide anything, that’s you. And I guess people say, Oh, wow, you don’t feel uncomfortable with it, what you’re saying sometimes. And I say, No, I don’t think so, not anymore. Maybe when we were younger, I thought, Oh, I’m not gonna say this, because it’s too shameful. But, it’s part of living. Everybody goes through all kinds of things, so I don’t think I’m any different from anybody else.


It’s very human, but on the other hand, I’m sure a lot of people haven’t heard it expressed. For example, when you speak of caring for your mother-in-law, and how aggravating it could be, how she would shoot the grateful looks to your husband, but for you, she had no aloha. But you were bathing her and taking care of her, and she wanted to be kind of the queen of the house.


The house; right. She was the queen bee. [CHUCKLE]


And you said, sometimes it got ludicrous, this sort of competition.




But on the other hand, it was a real part of the day, and who would make the first stand in the day.


Yeah. I wrote about her. In Tsunami Years, I wrote about her, and I wrote about my mother’s depression, and then later, I wrote about my son’s death. So, that book has these three areas that I talk about. And people say, Oh, aren’t you afraid of talking about your son in this manner? And I said, No, he had a drug problem, and he had a mental problem, and so ten years after he was put into Kaneohe, ten years later, he had died. So, I mean people say, Oh, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing really to be really sorry about. That was his life, and we kind of accept it.


Have you self-edited, self-censored?


Lois Ann Yamanaka always talked about the kernel of truth. There’s some kernel of truth in writing. And we take this kernel, and we explode it, and fictionalize a lot of things, and make it different in a way that, yeah, it’s not really, really sometimes the way it happened. We do a kind of verbal acrobatics to make it better. [CHUCKLE] This is what my mother said when she first read Hilo Rains, and she was afraid. She said, Oh, what are you saying in these poems? And she read it, and she said, It sounds better, our lives sound better. [CHUCKLE]


For most writers, the characters, words, and emotions come from within. They pull moments and memories from their lives to form their stories. As a writer, Juliet S. Kono, known in her personal life as Juliet Lee, dips into that well of her life, composing words that can at times provide meaning and comfort to our lives.


You wrote an entire book called Anshu: Dark Sorrow, and Tsunami Years was all about tragic events and lives. So you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about sorrow and sadness.


Sadness, yeah, and sorrow. People say, Oh, you’re usually, very happy every day. [CHUCKLE] And yet, where does that all come from? And I say, I don’t know, it’s just what I think about a lot. Because things are so random sometimes, you have to really try to understand these things.


There’s a passage in your book Anshu, which I would love if you would read to us. It seems to me, it’s the question we all ask ourselves at times of pain and distress and deep disappointment. And in this case, a mother has lost her baby to radiation sickness after the Hiroshima bombing. And she asks her Buddhist priest, Why did this happen? And here’s what you wrote.


Okay. Why did this happen?, I asked, looking up at him. No one knows. There are no answers to death, the hearts of men, the will of countries, the way of the world. We can only accept things as they are in a tragedy like this. But what happened to us, to Sumie, everyone, is difficult for me to accept. Aren’t you the least bit angry? I understand the anger, but anger carries with it a different kind of destruction. It will eat at your heart if you give in to it, to no avail. It will only leave you unhappy and troubled. I guess I don’t understand anything.


And to say that is a lot better than a pat answer, isn’t it?




You know, you hear a lot of things said to try to relieve distress. For example, this mother who lost her child, Don’t worry, you’ll have another one.


Another one. Yes.


There are some answers that simply are not … I mean, that overstretch or take you into a deeper place.


Right. It’s hard, for parents, to explain to children why tragedy happens, and why things are so random sometimes, and it has no real meaning to things that happen. And I don’t know how people, you know, get through things sometimes, but we’re humans, and with time and everything, all things can be overcome, to me.


This Hilo girl grew up to be a Honolulu-based writer who commands words with power and delicacy. Under the name Juliet S. Kono, she wrote the award-winning novel, Anshu: Dark Sorrow, also poetry books Hilo Rains and Tsunami Years, and she’s published short stories. She also is a wife and Buddhist priest, Juliet Lee, who looks at life unflinchingly, while striving for happiness. For PBS Hawaii, and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.



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