Closer to Home: Okinawan Culture

As promised, this past week I visited the Hawaii Okinawa Center to get a look at their museum and library. The center is run by the Hawaii United Okinawan Association (HUOA), which was established in 1951 by immigrants from Okinawa and its outlying islands, and now numbers 40,000 members in the Hawaiian islands.

Hawaii United Okinawan Association logo. Uchinanchu pride~

Since I am still waiting on my contacts for the Micronesian children’s book project, I want to try to at least storyboard a few ideas for children’s books based on Okinawan culture. Luckily I am half Okinawan and so there is far less ethical concerns with me taking on this type of project, i.e. no cultural appropriation.

In any case, the HOC is comprised of two main buildings and a Japanese-style garden. The larger of the two buildings is rented out for banquets and events, while the other building houses administrative offices and basically everything else. As such, the museum is fairly small. There are a few shelves of books on Okinawa — all in Japanese, — a decent array of shisa (pictured below), Ryuukyuuan glassware, a karate photo gallery, and tools and artifacts from issei (first-generation) immigrants.

photo 2

I was mainly interested in the shisa, which are a sort of lion-dog hybrid in Okinawan mythology (filtered from Chinese guardian lions). These statues are found at most entryways in Okinawa, usually as pairs: one with mouth open, the other closed, representing the retention of good spirits and the warding away of evil from the household or building. I would love to do some sort of trilogy of children’s books focusing on the shisa: 1) its origin myth, 2) an explanation of the traditional pairing and the open/closed aesthetics, and 3) a modern-day adventure story in Hawaii.

The origin of the shisa has several different versions, but the one I like best is about a village by the sea that is plagued by a vicious sea dragon. When a visiting king learns of the village’s troubles, he entrusts a small stone shisa to one of the local children. The next time the dragon returns, the stone shisa begins to vibrate and shake, a loud roaring ripping apart the sky. From the tiny statue, a giant shisa appears and his next roar is so powerful that it knocks loose a massive boulder from heaven, which crushes the dragon in one fatal blow. The shisa disappears but the small stone statue remains, entirely in tact. From then on, to keep the village safe from harm shisa statues are erected around the city as guardians against evil.

What a rad story. (I think the hardest part will be explaining that random boulder falling.)

photo 4

I’ll try to post more as the storyboarding progresses. It is hard to fit in all the research and work around the novel I’m working on (which is my priority), but this might be a good way to get my work out in the local lit scene, and much more quickly than a novel manuscript. I have a meeting with the Executive Director of HUOA for after the annual Okinawan festival in August, so hopefully things will start picking up from there!

See you there (if you live in HI).

I’ll go back to more general posts about writing next week, mostly because I’m in the midst of a very frustrating chapter (and swamped in these side projects). Everything seems a bit random on this blog right now but as things progress I’m hoping it will all come together. And, if not, meh.

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Hawaii Literacy + Local Children’s Books

First off, apologies for the late post. I spent most of last week in fetal position thanks to food poisoning. There was a lot less writing getting done than weeping and projectile vomiting. (You’re welcome.)

On the upside, I finally was able to meet with the executive director of Hawaii Literacy, which is a local non-profit organization dedicated to helping adults and children learn basic reading and writing skills, particularly if they are English as Second Language speakers. In Hawaii, one in six adults is considered functionally illiterate — unable to manage daily living and employment skills based on English reading and writing levels — and many come from a background of immigration and poverty. The majority of Hawaii Literacy’s adult and family literacy programs are Micronesian (Chamorro, Yapese, Chuukese, Marshallese, etc.) and Polynesian (mainly Samoan and Tongan), as well as Filipino, Chinese, and other East and Southeast Asian cultures.

Help support Hawaii Literacy here!

I was an intern at Hawaii Literacy for a semester through my university’s English department, and I was lucky enough to be given permission to focus on grant writing for that period. Long story short, there is a severe lack of children’s books focused on and written for children in these ethnic minorities, especially any of the Micronesian cultures. There is a sizable market for local children’s books, everything from local retellings of famous fairy tales (The Musubi Man, a play on “The Gingerbread Man,” SumorellaSnow White and the Seven Menehune, etc.) and a plethora of alphabet books (G is for Gecko, etc.), which rightfully focus on local modern culture and the Hawaiian culture. Many also offer insight on local Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cultures in Hawaii, as they make up a large part of the population. But for the children most in need of literacy services, one is hard-pressed to find any representation of their cultures in local literature, children’s books or otherwise.

From the Mouth of the Monster Eel: Stories from Micronesia.
Literally one of the only Micronesian children’s books in our libraries.

So, I had an overview meeting with Suzanne Skjold at Hawaii Literacy to discuss a potential project for creating these kinds of resources. Much of our discussion centered on the fact that I am not of Polynesian or Micronesian descent, and therefore how to keep from culturally appropriating and how to give the correct credit if these stories do get published. She recommended I spend a year working with the Micronesian community and learning from them before I even begin the writing process. Hawaii Literacy teams up with Chaminade University’s Micronesian Club and Lumana’i O Samoa club every year for their Tales and Treats events to work with children and families from the two largest housing developments on Oahu to shape oral storytelling traditions using native folktales, legends, and myths. With luck I will be able to be a part of this come January.

I may also have a meeting with Buddy Bess, founder of local publishing house Bess Press sometime in the near future, thanks to Suzanne. She says a lot of his passion projects focus on Micronesia as well, so I hope a meeting with him will shed light on how to go forward with this gargantuan project.

I’ll be visiting the Okinawan Cultural Center’s library and museum on Friday to try to push that children’s book project forward, too, so I’ll try to blog about that this weekend. Also, at some point I think we all need to discuss the CRIPPLING FEAR that dogs every step of the writing process because, really, it is getting old.

As always, go bother Cya and Plutark to post, dammit, because we always need their writing advice. And donate to Hawaii Literacy if you can spare the money or a few books!

Writer Friends (And Why They Matter)

Barely a month into my “final” decision to remain unemployed until I finish my manuscript, and I catch myself job searching far too often, fretting about money and the impossibility of ever finishing this novel.

every dayI FIGURED WE WOULD BE. Cya is a good friend.

So, an important tip for all you writers, (and free because I didn’t learn it in any one of my English classes): Get friends who write. I don’t care if they write fanfiction for fun or are gearing up to complete a manuscript of their own. They will be the best weapon in your arsenal in a war where you are always going to be your own worst enemy.

When I first undertook my graduate thesis, I was privileged enough to be able to take a semester off to dedicate to writing a novel-length piece. It went well for about the first two weeks. The next two months were a hellish pit of tears and self-esteem lost to the burning pits of First Draft Atrocities. My parents have never been involved in my writing but they were rightfully concerned. My Significant Other was sympathetic and encouraging. The writing process was continuing but falling to shambles as I lost sight of everything with the only ambition to get to the end, hoping it would all turn out okay somehow.

A lot of pages got written. I will say that. Somewhere around four hundred in three months, I would say. They were not good. I can say that now and I could surely say that then. But how do you fix that in a vacuum?

You don’t. Or more accurately, you can’t. Not alone.

I finally caved and asked my friends to read through the draft as beta readers. First impressions: The world I had created was flat and incomplete. The characters were generally likeable but their motives and desires were either too simple or too confusing. The plot was too slow. The structure cut off all the rising action and went back to exposition inexplicably.

wellNo, but, really, that 400-page draft was awful.

They were ruthless, but they were right.

At this point, however, none of my friends were writers, which is not to say that it was thus easier to dismiss their criticisms. As proliferate readers, they knew what to look for in a story, but nothing about the processes behind creating characters, a world, a plot, and a conclusion.  Together, they began to ask questions that made me think more about the world I was setting up for my characters, poking holes in my fallacious (and lazy) rationales, and helping me research the scientific aspects to make the sci-fi components more prevalent as well as believable. There was still a struggle, but the gaping hole of despair was no longer my permanent dwelling.

Eventually my friends took it upon themselves to try to understand the writing process — I can only assume that they looked at my fits and starts and woeful cries as hyperbolic gestures at this point — by starting a writing contest between themselves: a short science fiction story to be written in one month’s time and to be judged by several other friends (and myself, although I got so involved in hearing about what they planned to write that I had to remove myself from the judging process). Once they began writing, they began to understand the tears and pains. Once they understood that, they begin to give different advice and critiques to the now steadily growing story (I would call it a draft but, really, with all the changes it was just a whole new incarnation altogether).

Non-writer friends can also be encouraging and empathetic and very helpful when it comes to feedback. But writer friends are going to know what to say to you when you text them in the middle of the night, suddenly panicked that the second half of your book is too slow compared to the first and therefore your reader is going to stop reading and everything you’ve planned will be for naught. Writer friends are going to ask the right questions — “Tell me about this character and their background. Tell me how this environment works. Why did you choose to do it this way? Why does this character do this right then?” — because they understand how to construct these images and ideas, and they know how hard it is to ever get them right. It is not an abstract to them. It is a similar way of breathing and thinking and existing among words.

by crom

An accurate representation of Cya and I.
From By Crom! by Rachel Kahn.

In conclusion: I don’t know, guys, I say a lot about nothing, but my story and I would be nowhere without my writer friends (Cya and Plutark especially; read their blog) and their devotion to weekly meetings to listen to me cry and pontificate. This one’s for you guys.