writing

Jordan and Aaron Kandell
Hollywood Screenwriters in Honolulu

Cover story by Liberty Peralta, PBS Hawaiʻi

 

The Kandell brothers on the set of Adrift. Photo courtesy of Aaron and Jordan Kandell

 

Twins share DNA, but Jordan and Aaron Kandell share a whole lot more.

 

“We’ve always been interested in the same everything: same sports, same books, same careers,” says Aaron. “Anything that’s not sharing and having it, like us going to a movie theater by ourselves to watch a movie, feels weird.”

 

The Kandell brothers as young children. Photo courtesy of Aaron and Jordan KandellTo date, the brothers have never confirmed whether they are fraternal or identical twins, but they suspect they’re the latter. Their parents, the brothers say, were only expecting one child.

 

“The doctors said, ‘Wait, we have another pair of feet in here,’” Aaron says.

 

Jordan and Aaron now have their own young families, and live next door to each other in the Mānoa neighborhood in Honolulu. Despite so many shared interests and so much time spent together, the brothers insist that they never tire of each other’s company.

Jordan and Aaron Kandell on LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX premiering Tuesday, December 10 at 7:30 pm“It was always supportive; we always liked to do the same things,” Jordan says. “It was kind of better together. There was never any other version of it.”

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Jordan and Aaron Kandell

 

Among everything else they share in their lives: Hollywood screenwriting credits. The ʻIolani School grads co-penned the 2018 drama Adrift, based on a true story about a couple stranded in the middle of the Pacific after a hurricane.

 

Disney’s Moana, released in 2016, was co-written by the Kandell brothersThey were also on the screenwriting team behind the 2016 Disney animated film Moana. The project existed for three years before the brothers came into the picture. They say that by then, the story had lost its way. The brothers helped flesh out the storyline and characters, and connect major plot points.

 

Disney’s Moana, released in 2016, was co-written by the Kandell brothers

 

Jordan and Aaron also got rid of previously written characters that Jordan says were “culturally insensitive.” They brought in cultural advisors to provide guidance on the film’s wayfinding elements, and “the cultural values we just grew up with that might drive Moana through her journey,” Jordan says.

 

The Kandells’ journey toward their dream career as screenwriters was not an easy one. “It took four years to sell our first [script],” Aaron says. “It took 10 [years] till Moana. That whole 10-year journey was informative and challenging, before you kind of figure out how to read the swells and steer the canoe.”

 

Says Jordan: “If you’re gonna take every ‘no’ personally, I don’t know how you move forward.”

 

The brothers credit their outlook on life to their mother, Sherri, whose curiosity and fearlessness they admire. Aaron says she would always tell them this when they were kids: “The only thing you can control in your life is your attitude. Everything else is a variable that you can’t predict or control.”

 

 

 

AMERICAN MASTERS
Edgar Allen Poe

 

Discover the real story of the notorious author, starring Denis O’Hare as Edgar Allan Poe. The program explores the misrepresentations of Poe and reveals how he tapped into what it means to be human in a modern and sometimes frightening world.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Ciara Lacy

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Ciara Lacy

 

Documentary filmmaker Ciara Lacy was valedictorian of her graduating class at Kamehameha Schools and Yale University alumna is the daughter of a Native Hawaiian activist. Lacy’s love of storytelling and social justice causes began in Central Oʻahu with an electric typewriter, and led her to New York and Los Angeles and work on a succession of films and other media projects. A painful medical condition forced Lacy to reevaluate her life and return to Hawaiʻi. She underwent treatment and found a new source of inspiration in a story about Hawaiian men trying to reconnect with their native culture as inmates who’d been shipped to an Arizona prison. This drove Ciara (pronounced Kee-ah-rah) to create the documentary film Out of State, with colleague Beau Bassett, chronicling the journey of two released prisoners returning to Hawaiʻi to make a new start. This May, Lacy’s documentary will premiere nationally on PBS stations, including PBS Hawaiʻi, on the film series Independent Lens.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, July 21, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Program

 

Ciara Lacy Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Your gender in doing this prison story …

 

Yeah.

 

How did that affect the dynamics?

 

I will say that the prison setting had more yin-yang, feminine and male energy than I would have expected.  So, it wasn’t an all alpha male situation.  There was a lot of spectrum of gender that presented at the prison setting.  So, as much as like, going into it I had thought of like, you know, whatever X, Y, Z bad movie I’d seen about a prison, that wasn’t the truth.  You know, when you make a movie, you want to show up and own the space, and say: This is how everything has to work.  Right?  This is my crew, this is my schedule, this is what it has to be.

 

Because producers are …

 

Because producers …

 

The synonym is, bossy people.

 

I’m so bossy.  I’m so bossy.  And you know, when it came to working in the prison, I call it Daoist filmmaking.  You know, you don’t have control, and you just give it all up.  And you say thank you for whatever you’re able to do.

 

She’s a filmmaker who went into an Arizona prison to document the stories of Native Hawaiian men who were incarcerated thousands of miles from home. Ciara Lacy, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Ciara Lacy is a Native Hawaiian producer and director of the documentary, Out of State. The film follows two Native Hawaiian men from their confinement in a for-profit Arizona prison to their struggles reintegrating into society on Oahu.  While still locked up in Arizona, the men began to reconnect with their native culture, even though they were isolated thousands of miles away.

 

I never knew one ounce of Hawaiian before I even came jail.  I learned everything in jail.

 

[CHANTING]

 

I always took from people.  That’s how I knew how to get what I wanted in life.

 

Why couldn’t I have learned my culture while I was outside?

 

Ciara’s path to making this film was also filled with her own personal struggles. She spent her early years growing up in Central O‘ahu, where she loved to draw and write stories on her electric typewriter.

 

I was born early.  So, I was born like, six weeks early, and my mom and dad didn’t have a name.  My mother studied opera at UH, and she was singing an aria at the time, and Ciara was one of the words in the aria.  And they needed to give the baby a name, and she pulled that out.

 

What does it mean?

 

It means light, or clarity.  So, it’s like, kinda like chiaroscuro, like light and dark, the painting technique.

 

Oh, that sounds like you’re well-named.

 

What’s your earliest memory?  What was your home life like?

 

I had a great family.  You know, my father worked at Pearl Harbor for like, thirty-five, thirty-seven years.  And you know, I was lucky; I didn’t realize it at the time.  My mother was a housewife in the 80s and 90s.  And it was the four of us; you know, my mom, my dad, and my sister.

 

Did you have adversity along the way?

 

I mean, I was weird.  I didn’t necessarily fit in, but I was okay with that.  When I was very young, I don’t know, maybe five or six, my dad went to a garage sale.  My parents love garage sales.  And he went to a garage sale, and he bought an electric typewriter.  And I fell in love with the thing immediately, because I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.  And so, I would sit there, and I would just type at it.  And I’m sure some of my teachers from elementary school, like, they must have thought my mom was typing my homework.

 

Because I would turn in all my homework typed.

 

In elementary school?

 

Because I liked to type.  And I remember in fourth grade, I wrote a really weird story about like, a drug addict in Vegas.  And I’m like … what fourth-grader does that?  And I’m sure my teacher thought this was weird.  But it made sense, because that was the kind of thing I would do.

 

Future filmmaker Ciara Lacy went on to high school at the Kamehameha Schools Kapālama Campus.  She applied herself, and became valedictorian of her graduating class.  That opened up many possibilities for her future, although she wasn’t quite sure what that future was going to be.

 

When I was little, I knew we didn’t have money for me to go to college.  Which is not uncommon.  Right? I mean, college is super-expensive. So, I needed to make sure I could go. And that was what drove it.  So, it’s like, I mean, whatever college is, you know, like, I didn’t know; I just knew it was something that I needed to do.

 

And did you know what you wanted to do with this life-changing experience of college once you’d attained it?

 

No.  And I think that was the problem.  Like, I knew I needed to get there.  And then, when I showed up, I was like: Well, now what?

 

And when you showed up, you showed up at Yale.  You got a very good …

 

I was very lucky.

 

You got good scholarships, and you got a top college.

 

Yes; I was very lucky.

 

Did you find it intimidating at all, this idea that everyone at Yale could be the smartest one in your?

 

Oh, my gosh.  Everyone at Yale is super-smart.  Are you kidding me?  It’s like, two hundred percent imposter syndrome.  Like, okay, what am I doing here?  And it takes a second, and you realize everyone’s thinking the same thing. And you know, everyone’s coming from vastly different spaces.

 

And what did you end up majoring in?

 

I ended up majoring in psychology.  And I did crisis counseling in college.  And that, I really connected with.  But I wasn’t sure if that was gonna be my career.  And I thought that counseling and the crisis counseling would be good for business.  And that was about it.  But I didn’t think I wanted to go into therapy as my career.

 

But unlike many people, you didn’t stay on the mainland; you came back.

 

I came back.

 

And then, how was the job hunting when you came back?

 

Job hunting was hard.  I had a really hard time getting a job.  And I wanted to work in production.  I like, had a secret love of music videos.  I still have a love of music videos.  And that’s what I wanted to make.  But I didn’t have a degree in that, because who gets a film degree. It’s way too lofty.  And that’s not a real job.  These are things I’m telling myself.

 

M-hm.

 

Right?

 

A year after graduating from Yale University and returning home to Hawai‘i, Ciara Lacy decided to pursue her secret passion: to produce music videos. So, she packed up again and left for New York City to enter the world of video production.

 

And I went back, and I showed up in New York. And I had two thousand dollars in cash, and a credit card.  And I sold hotdogs at the Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park, and I taught the SATUs for Princeton Review.  And I temped, and I interned for free, and I did whatever I could to kinda just figure my way.

 

So, you’re out there selling hotdogs.

 

And somehow, you get hired in media production.

 

So, I had no idea where to get started.  And at the time, I was like: Okay, I don’t have any contacts, I don’t know anybody, I’ll just go on Craigslist.  You know, you can get a couch, and maybe I’ll a job.

 

And so, I was like, putting my resume out there, and sending it off into the ethos.  And I sent off for a music video, to work on a music video as a production assistant.  And with no credits, no experience whatever.  And I got an email back from this guy; his name is Terry Leonard.  And he said: Meet me tomorrow at the McDonald’s at Union Square.

 

And you didn’t say: Uh-oh, this guy could be a total crank or serial killer.

 

I was just like, well, It said the McDonald’s at Union Square, so I’m not gonna die.  And I said, okay.  So, I went and I met him, and we talked.  And he said: Okay, show up to work tomorrow; we’re working on this music video.  And I showed up the very next day, I had no idea what I was doing, and whatever he said, I was like: Okay, I’m down.  Like, he sent me to go pick up gear with a five-thousand-dollar deposit.  I’d never held that much money before in my life.  I had five thousand dollars on me, I’d just shown up in New York City.  And I was like: Well, you know what, nobody’s gonna rip you off because—

 

And he trusted you with five dollars.

 

He trusted me with five thousand dollars. ‘Cause he was like: Well, you went to Yale, you’re not gonna steal my five thousand dollars.  So, I guess that helped.  And I was like: Well, nobody’s gonna steal it from me, because nobody’s gonna look at me thinking I have five thousand dollars.  I went and I did that, and then he sent me off to the mayor’s office of film and television, and I went in and got the permits for the next day. Did I know how to get a permit for a shoot in New York?  Absolutely not.  And I think that sort of like, I don’t know anything, has been a big part of just like, how I’ve done my career.  Like, I don’t have to know everything; I just have to be able to ask somebody else who does, and be okay with—

 

Yeah; as long as you’re learning.

 

Yes.  I ask the question.  And I’m not afraid to ask the question.

 

Ciara Lacy spent about ten years between New York and Los Angeles, working in television production.  She climbed the ranks, moving up from an intern to a producer, and she was finally able to work on music videos and rock documentaries for artists, including the members of the Dave Matthews Band and Cindy Lauper.  However, in 2011, a medical condition sidelined Ciara.

 

Yeah; it was a mystery.  Like, when I first started getting sick, I thought it was carpal tunnel.  I had all this pain in my arms, and in my hands.  And it was absolutely frightening.

 

And then, it turned out to be worse than carpal tunnel.

 

Yeah.  And then, I was like, okay.  So then, I was like: Okay, this is carpal tunnel, I’ll go get like, acupuncture, and I’m starting to do yoga, and I’m doing all these things.  And like, that wasn’t actually what it was.  And I couldn’t lie down, and then I couldn’t stand up.  So then, I was like, constantly in pain.  I was living in New York at the time.  I couldn’t carry my laundry to go do my laundry at the laundromat down the road. Like, I just couldn’t do things. And I was young and super-functional; you can’t like, ooh, what are you doing?  Like this is not Ciara.  Ciara can do stuff.  It took a while for them to kind of figured out what was wrong.  And I was diagnosed with this neuromuscular disease called thoracic outlet syndrome.  And you know, it’s probably repetitive stress.  It’s bilateral; it’s probably from all of this that I’d been doing, and I’d been doing a lot of it.  And it was the world saying I needed to slow down.  I moved back home, and I was thirty-one, and I was told I might have to get a new career.  And it really affects your ability to think when you’re in a lot of pain.  It’s just like, super-foggy.  And like, you know, I was the kid that used to wake up before the alarm clock.  Right? And now, I was just sleeping all the time, because that was the only thing I could figure out, outside of taking the medication to take the pain away.  So, it’s just like a very different person.  And I gained a lot of weight, and you know, it was a pretty dark moment for me.  But again, like, when I look back at it now, right, I don’t begrudge any of it, because it’s helped what got me into the place where I think I really wanted to be. And it got me back home.  I never left home thinking I didn’t want to come back. I just didn’t know how. Right?  And you know, I found myself back at my parents’ place.  And you know, I left very young, and I’d always been independent.  And to have to return and not know what I was gonna do about work and money, you know, I didn’t want to be a burden.  I’d never thought of myself as that before.  And so, it was a lot of, like: Okay, what can you do?  And just rethinking a lot of things.

 

But you say this is all gonna turn out for better.  I know one thing that happened.  That’s when you came back here, and you were ill, you met your husband, your future husband.

 

I did.  I met Chris Kwock.  And like the night I met Chris, I hadn’t gone out in a very long time.  And you know, I went out with my very good friend, Kristen. And she’d been kind; she’d taken me out for my birthday the night before, and she was like: Will you come out with me the next night?  You know, I wasn’t going out, and my first response in my head was no.  And I was like: That’s not what you should say; you should go.  And I went with her, it was the end of the night, and we were about to go home because Kristen’s teaching Sunday school the next day.  And we bump into this party, and oh, it’s my birthday, and I was like: No, it’s my birthday.  And then, we have the same birthday, and it turns out I meet this guy’s friend.  And I had lost my grandfather.  I had lost him the year before, and he always had these like incredible shiny eyes.  And I met Chris, and … I saw those eyes again.  And I’d been so—I’m sorry.

 

I’d been so sick for so long.  And I was just so sad.  And … when I met him, I thought: You could be happy.  And I’d forgotten … I’d forgotten.  And like, I don’t do good if I’m not happy.  You know.  It’s just sort of how I am.  And so, it was so random.  In this moment, where like, I shouldn’t be here, and I don’t want to be at a bar, and I’m super-sick.  And like, this guy I’m talking to, this like idea clicked in my head.  It’s such a small thing.  You could be happy.  Like …

 

And it’s nothing he said.  It’s just who he was.

 

I was like, this guy with the shiny eyes.

 

And like, it was something I’d forgotten. And in the haze of everything, my friend turns to me and she goes: We have to go.  And I was like: Okay, we’ll go.  And I’m not thinking straight, and we walk out the door.  And I gave my number to his friend, and I said: Tell Chris to call me.  And we walked across the street for some reason, and I got a text message.  And it said: That’s not your real name.  And I was like, because whose name is Ciara, I guess. And I wrote back; I’m like: That’s my name, and where are you?  And I turned my head, and he came running to where we were.  And we ended up just hanging out with him, and dropping him off at his house.

 

And you’ve said something about him; that he taught you something you actually really didn’t know, that there was more to life than work.

 

Oh, yeah.  I didn’t know that.  My whole identity was like, my performance.  Right?  My whole identity was, okay, what are the outcomes I provide.  Right?  Like, how did I do in school, how am I doing at work, you know, those are the things that I knew I had control over.  Right? You don’t have control over people. I have control over the things that I can do.

 

Achievement.

 

Yeah.

 

M-hm.

 

Totally.  And you know, I never thought of my life as having somebody else in it.  I never did.  And I think that was just partially just because in was always off doing my own thing, I just never assumed anyone would be there to do that.  And you know, and my identity was so wrapped up in my work. And that’s why it was so crushing when I got sick, because it was like, if you take away my work, you’ve taken me away. What’s left?

 

Yeah.

 

And that’s a very sad thing to think.  It’s a very sad thing to think.  And yet, at the time for me, it was true.  And you know, as I spent more time with Chris, you know, he would say things that I think most people would be like: That’s terrible. He would say things like: You’re not that special.  And when he says that, it wasn’t that I’m not special, it’s that your work doesn’t prevent you from having the other obligations.  The work doesn’t come first.  Right?  The work is part of it.

 

Ciara Lacy and Dr. Chris Kwock got married two years after they met.  As Ciara was still adjusting to life with her medical condition in Honolulu, she found the inspiration to create her first original documentary film.  She would pack her bags again, heading this time to a prison in Arizona.

 

So, I was in physical therapy, and one of my mother’s friends who’s a physical therapist would throw out all these ideas. Oh, you should do a film about this.

 

Or you should do a film about that.

 

I’m sure that happened to you all the time; right?

 

No, it didn’t, actually.

 

No?

 

It didn’t.  And like, at first, it caught me off guard.  But in my mind, I was in such a dark space where it’s like, I can’t do anything.  Like, I could barely ride in a car at this point.  One day when I was in physical therapy with my aunt, she was like: You know, there are these guys dancing hula in Arizona.  And I took pause, because I was like, this doesn’t make any sense. You know, dancing hula at a prison in Arizona; why are they in Arizona?  And like, how does that feel to you, Ciara, knowing they’re dancing hula behind prison.  You know, behind prison bars.  And I packed it away in the back of my head, and I went off to go wallow in my own sadness. And two weeks later, I was at home … on a Friday night.

 

Doing nothing, ‘cause was lame and sick, and I Googled what she had said, and I saw a video online.  And I cried.  Because I was seeing people who, in the moment that I saw, were so far from our community, and were trying to find a point of reconnection, and were coming back from what was probably, you know, without having specific details, really tough stuff, man.  I mean, probably some of like, the toughest stuff one could think of to come back from. And yet, they were still trying. And I saw that, and I was like: You have no excuse; you have absolutely no excuse.

 

You related to them.

 

Yeah.  And in that moment, again, this like crazy click in the head.  I was like, maybe we can heal each other.  And I didn’t know what that really meant.  But I tucked it away, and I thought about it.  And I saw my cousin Beau.

 

Beau Bassett.

 

Beau Bassett.

 

Your co-producer or part of the producing team.

 

Yeah; my producer on Out of State.  And at the time, he was a public defender.  And I mentioned to him this idea, and he was like: You know, this is a big issue for Hawaiians right now.  And he’s like: We should do this.

 

Filmmaker Ciara Lacy, along with her cousin Beau Bassett, and her mentor Terry Leonard, set out to produce Out of State.  The documentary is Ciara’s directorial debut.  It chronicles the lives of two Native Hawaiian men leaving the Arizona prison where they’d been serving time, and returning to Oahu to make a fresh start.

 

You know, the goal was to be as honest about what we were seeing.  So, I almost even intentionally didn’t look up statistics and facts, because I didn’t want my mind, as we were making the film, to be clouded with, oh, this is how things are supposed to go, because this is where the numbers are at.

 

Mm …

 

So, let’s just stay true to what actually happens. Right?  And as small, and as like, humble as we can appear is more important, because the process was never about us.  Right?  This film is not about me.  This film is not about Beau.  This film is about the men who were willing to share their lives, and hopefully, we can do something positive with this.

 

And they were reconnecting with Hawaiian culture.

 

M-hm.

 

In an effort to be whole, and to go back and make a life for themselves.

 

Yeah.  And I mean, you know, that effort, I can get behind.  If you’re gonna try, like if you’re gonna try and nobody else is helping you—this is a very organic program that they have.  This is something that the men developed themselves.

 

There are many interesting themes in your film.  And one of them, I think David Kahalewai, one of the prisoners, talked about how it’s really hard to forgive yourself.  It’s hard to start on that journey where you can change.  And then, for the others too, how can somebody be ready for change when they have known nothing like what they really want to be.

 

Yeah.  No; and I think, you know, first thing to that is, what a humble and like, vulnerable position for someone to put themself in.  Right?  For someone like David to be willing to recognize that, and to share that with other people.  You know, we were very fortunate because the men that participated in the film wanted to make sure our community understood what they were trying to do.  Right?  Wanted them to understand how hard it could be, and wanted do this film to help each other. Like, maybe if I tell my story, or share my story, maybe if somebody knew how hard it was for me, that’s gonna help one of the other brothers who are in prison to figure it out and do better.

 

You forgive yourself for a lot of stuff that you did.  Yeah. I think I had to go to the ends of the Earth and hit bottom to really find out who I was.

 

I’ve been locked up fifteen years.  I’ve been waiting all this time; I want to come home. But where is home?

 

I don’t want to go back to jail, ‘cause I have too much to lose.

 

We don’t live in isolation.  No man is an island.  Right?  And so, it’s about knowing that it’s all about interactions.  Doing better, for them, is important for them to do the work and put it out there.  But it’s also gonna be hard, because the other people around them are gonna have to do the work too.  And as a Hawaiian, it’s like, we talk about hewa; right?

 

M-hm.

 

We talk about hewa, what is wrongdoing.  And how does hewa work?  It doesn’t go in one direction.  If I do something bad to you, I have to apologize, but I also need your forgiveness, and I also need you to be ready for that.  The solution is both of us.

 

Right.

 

So, the solution isn’t just me coming out, trying to do better.  The solution is, I need your forgiveness.

 

That reminds me of what you said about your own life as a filmmaker, which was, life tends to be incremental, one foot in front of the other.

 

I just show up, man.

 

I just show up.

 

And you keep going, and you hope to be in a forward step.

 

Yeah.  You hope everything you do is a little bit better.  Do you always get it right?  No. But do you hope to put yourself out there and try?  Yes. And for me, it’s like, I make a million mistakes every day.  Like a lot.

 

M-hm.

 

But I know that I’m at least putting myself out there, and I show up.  And if I do something wrong, I will apologize, and we’ll figure out a way to fix it.  And I’m not afraid of that.

 

In 2017, the documentary Out of State was released, and went on to win several awards on the film festival circuit, including Best Documentary at the Cayman International Film Festival and the San Diego Asian Film Festival.  Ciara Lacy’s health has improved, but her medical condition still requires management.  She continues to produce and direct with a slate of new film and television projects. Mahalo to Ciara Lacy of Honolulu. And thank you for joining us for this edition of Long Story Short on PBS Hawai‘i.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

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

 

Yeah; I think for me, the provocation is important. It’s like, it’s about instigating that ripple.  Right? I push the ripple, and then we start asking more questions.  It’s not necessarily about always finding the solution.  Right?  Maybe the questions help us get to the solution, but part of it is, we need to start asking more questions.
 

 

 

 

ARTBOUND
La Raza

ARTBOUND: La Raza

 

In East Los Angeles during the late 1960s and 1970s, a group of young activists used creative tools like writing and photography as a means for community organizing, providing a platform for the Chicano Movement in the form of the bilingual newspaper/magazine La Raza. In the process, the young activists became artists themselves and articulated a visual language that shed light on the daily life, concerns and struggles of the Mexican-American experience in Southern California and provided a voice to the Chicano Rights Movement.

 

Preview

 

 

 

SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED
The Merchant of Venice with F. Murray Abraham

SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED: The Merchant of Venice with F. Murray Abraham

 

Three centuries before The Merchant of Venice was written, England became the first country in medieval Europe to expel its Jewish population. Comparing Shylock to the stock Jewish villain of the day, the episode looks at the efforts over the years, for better or worse, to treat him more as a victim – and rescue Shakespeare from any taint of anti-Semitism.

 

Preview

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Nora Okja Keller

 

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

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Oct. 21, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Finding a Voice Through Writing

 

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

 

Nora Okja Keller Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

M-hm.

 

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

 

[chuckle]

 

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

 

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

 

So by day, in the sunlight—

 

Yes.

 

–you’re a happy—

 

My secret identity.

 

–mom with kids. [chuckle]

 

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

 

[chuckle]

 

[chuckle]

 

And instead, it’s violence.

 

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

 

Yeah, I—

 

–tough, tough one for me.

 

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

 

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

 

So she could feel more comfortable?

 

M-hm. You know—

 

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

 

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

 

What does he say? Does he have a version?

 

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

 

[chuckle]

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I see.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Are you that way too? Are you very social?

 

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

 

Is anybody allowed to intrude? Can your husband—

 

Oh—

 

–interact with you then?

 

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

 

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

 

No, not—

 

Or did you have difficulty feeling accepted, or—

 

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

 

M-hm.

 

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

 

Was that a mom thing?

 

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

 

Ah.

 

You know.

 

You didn’t have to choose sides?

 

I didn’t want to choose.

 

Or pick one.

 

I said, I’m everything. Yeah.

 

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

 

When did the writing bug hit you?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

M-hm.

 

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

 

And that was never featured on career day, right?

 

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

 

Did they—

 

–anything like that.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

[chuckle]

 

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

 

Back to arts.

 

Yeah; back to the arts. [chuckle]

 

College?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

How are you gonna use it? What’s the—

 

Yeah.

 

–paycheck gonna be?

 

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

 

What writers have you loved along the way?

 

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

 

So she influenced you as a writer—

 

Yeah.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

[chuckle]

 

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

 

Did you find Cathy Song on your own?

 

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

 

[chuckle]

 

[chuckle]

 

So am I.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

How come you didn’t?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Right; right. Yeah.

 

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

 

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

 

Why didn’t they go home?

 

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

 

Thats one of the themes in both books.

 

M-hm.

 

It’s what it takes to survive.

 

Right.

 

And how do you move on?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Yes.

 

–terrible images

 

A burden.

 

–to live with.

 

Right. You’ve passed on your burden.

 

M-hm.

 

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

 

M-hm.

 

You know, I—

 

The burden of—

 

–felt like I was—

 

–history.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

[chuckle]

 

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

 

[chuckle]

 

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

 

And timing is good too, isn’t it?

 

I think—

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And what does it—

 

Adding the—

 

–want to be. Yeah.

 

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

 

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

 

M-hm.

 

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

 

I know.

 

Whats the third book going to be about?

 

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

 

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

 

You’ve become a teacher part time—

 

Part-time.

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

1 2