Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Interview with Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada

The CFS for Making Monsters may have closed, but our ongoing quest for monsters continues… This week we’re joined by Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada, author of the story “All My Relations” in the Pacific Monsters anthology from our friends at Fox Spirit Books. Our third visitor from the Pacific region, Bryan was kind enough to chat to us about his story, his writing, Hawaiian monsters, and the sea.

Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada is a tiny part of his beautiful beloved Hawaiian community that fights every day for breath, for ea, for connection, for sovereignty. He is sometimes called tree, bear, Morris, hoa, and more. He is also sometimes an academic, editor, translator, blogger (, poet, writer of dorky sff stories set in Hawaiʻi, photographer, and/or videographer. What he mostly does is surf with his mother and a crew of fierce activist poet wāhine who tease (and teach) him mercilessly.

The Future Fire: Is the kupua in “All My Relations” an evil monster (in the conscious way that only humans can be truly evil) or is it just a naturally predatory creature like the shark?

Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada: I don’t think that I would say that the kupua is evil. I think that he is just working from a different set of cultural values than we are. For example, his ideas about justice fall more in line with an understanding of living in balance with things around him, being a part of the cycle of life and death, that aligns a little more with traditional Hawaiian understandings of the world. It’s when he really isn’t allowed to participate in the world according to that understanding of justice anymore that he truly becomes monstrous. Though his situation is taken to an extreme, I think that it sheds light on what happens, particularly for indigenous folks, when their worldviews come into conflict with society at large. We are then seen as monstrous and without a place in contemporary times or society.

Is there a science fiction and fantasy tradition in Hawai‘i, and is it distinct from SFF elsewhere?

BKK: This is a tricky question in certain ways, and I guess kind of depends on what kind of genres and cultural understandings you are working with. I think that a lot of our traditional moʻolelo (story/tale/history/account) have elements that jibe very well with fantasy, which is actually what drew me to fantasy in the first place. I read a lot of “myths” from different places when I was younger because there were very few books with Hawaiian stories in them when I was little. But even though some of what appears in our moʻolelo align with elements that appear in fantasy stories, we have never seen them in that way. These are not myths and legends, they are stories that populate the landscape and inform our daily lives.

Living on an island, how visceral is your relationship with the sea?

BKK: For many, but not all, of us who live in Hawaiʻi, we have a very deep relationship with the sea. It’s how we feed our families (though I myself am a terrible fisherman) and how we spend our free time. Those things in and of themselves are not such visceral connections, but what being so intimate with the ocean teaches you is respect.

Some of the most experienced waterpeople, divers and surfers alike, have been taken by the sea, sometimes on clear days and in calm conditions. So many of us have lost people to the water, sometimes because they were inexperienced, but mostly because the ocean is that powerful. We are so often humbled by the sea, and entering it means entering the food chain, something that we are not used to anymore.

I think that is also one of the reasons we are so dismissive of tourists sometimes. We see them on the North Shore in winter, near the shorebreak, turning their backs to the ocean so they can take group photos with the giant waves in the background. We hear about them on the news because they were killed when they went too close to the blowhole where the ocean comes shooting out a hundred feet into the air. One of the things we learn first as young children is to respect the ocean, and so for us the power of the ocean and the danger that comes with it is a basic fact of life, and if you don’t understand that, maybe it’s best if you don’t interact with the ocean.

Among other things, you write steampunk stories set in Hawai‘i. Can you give us a little teaser?

BKK: I recently had a story entitled “Ke Kāhea: The Calling” published in an anthology entitled Black Marks on the White Page, edited by Tina Makereti (whose story is also in Pacific Monsters) and Witi Ihimaera, from Penguin New Zealand. The story takes place in the Hawaiian kingdom of the nineteenth century and these giant creatures called tutua have been coming and destroying heiau (temples) and burial sites.

In Hawaiian, we have a saying “i ka ʻōlelo nō ke ola, i ka ʻōlelo nō ka make” [‘in language there is life, in language there is death,’] so to combat the tutua, a woman whose mother can heal with her voice, a practice we call lāʻau kāhea, combines that training with a device that changes the frequency of her voice to call forth a goddess from a traditional story printed in the Hawaiian-language newspapers.

One of the reasons that steampunk appeals to me is the broadly Victorian settings, because the Hawaiian kingdom, though very much a Hawaiian kingdom, had a lot of Victorian influence. Queen Kapiʻolani and Liliʻuokalani even attended Victoria’s jubilee, and Queen Emma was a penpal of Victoria’s. One of the things that having steampunk set in the Hawaiian kingdom lets me do too is bring my historical research to bear and let people know things about the kingdom that they never knew.

I mean, I think most people didn’t even know that Hawaiʻi was a kingdom, much less one that was modern and progressive and had near universal literacy and a widespread public education system. ʻIolani Palace had flushing toilets before the White House did. Hawaiʻi outlawed slavery before the United States did and declared that any slave who made it to Hawaiian territory was automatically free. It wasn’t a perfect place, by any means, but it was much different than people understand. We still get described as Stone Age in the newspapers even now.

What is your favourite place to write or create art?

BKK: I admit that this is not my most productive place to write or create art (that’s mainly sitting in front of my computer writing or doing post on photos I’ve taken), but I love to create with my friends. It’s where I get the most inspiration and strength from them. Most of my friends are activists or writers or poets or artists or all of those things, and so when we get a chance we will gather together and prompt each other to write or produce art that we can present to the community and raise awareness about certain issues.

For example, some friends had attended a conference in Papua New Guinea, where some folks from West Papua talked about the genocide they were facing —500,000 killed since the 1950s—under Indonesian military occupation (and please look this up if you haven’t heard about any of this before). And the folks at the conference asked my friends, who are poets and musicians, to help spread the word about what is happening with them. So we had a gathering at my house, where folks familiar with the situation came and talked to us about it and then we ate together and wrote and planned.

I can’t remember the exact time frame, but maybe about a month later, we put on a performance at Kamakūokalani, the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. We had poetry and music and speakers, even traditional Hawaiian chants of lamentation for the West Papuans who had been killed. And even though it was a heavy performance to be a part of, it felt important.

If you joined a motley crew of pirates, what would be your sea-name?

BKK: Haha, the women I surf with are a pretty motley crew themselves. They’re all activist poet/writer/organizer folks. And my mom. But they call me Bear, partially because I’m a big guy (and maybe cuddly?) but also because they think I’m kind of growly to other people out in the lineup. So my name also evolved into Justice Bear and Murderbear. I’m thinking Murderbear would lend itself more to high seas piracy than something more cuddly, although I don’t know if a bear is the most fitting sea metaphor.

What are you working on next? What can people who enjoyed “All My Relations” look forward to reading?

BKK: I really wish that the next thing people read from me would be my dissertation! But alas, I am not sure if that is going to happen. February is Hawaiian Language Month, so I just published a sci-fi story in Hawaiian, but I’m working on a story now having to do with deep-sea mining and people genetically modified with shark DNA and trying to connect it with our beliefs around ʻaumākua, or ancestral guardians.

There are also a lot of endangered native species here in Hawaiʻi and a lot of our environment is threatened by invasive plant and animal species, so I’m also working on a series of stories that has a section of the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources that deals with invasive species that are threatening our magical environment as well, and I think Hawaiʻi works well for that kind of storyline because we have so many different cultures here that have come through here and mixed their cultural beliefs and values in with ours.

Thank you for joining us, Bryan!

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