HONOLULU (KHON) — May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and though we are in its last week, there is still plenty of time to celebrate. Especially here in Hawaii, where cultures from across Asia and the Pacific have powerfully shaped local life for more than a century, there is no better time or place to celebrate those contributions.

Though there are many ways to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander culture, one of the most immediate and intimate ways to explore new perspectives is through the written word. Books allow us, briefly, to inhabit another consciousness and vicariously feel an entirely different life experience. Reading is the ultimate act of empathy.

To help guide us, we reached out to local literary luminaries to get some good book recommendations: Craig Santos Perez, poet and English professor at University of Hawaii at Manoa; “Da Pidgin Guerilla” Lee Tonouchi, writer; Dr. Ku’ualoha Ho’omanawanui, Director of Ka Ipu o Lono Digital Arts and Humanities Initiative and professor of Hawaiian literature at University of Hawaii at Manoa; Michelle M. Kamakanoenoe Tupou, instructor of Hawaiian Studies and Hawaiian & Indigenous Film and Literature at Windward Community College.

Craig Santos Perez: For AAPI Heritage Month, I recommend Joe Balaz’s new book Pidgin Eye (Ala Press, 2019). Joe is a Hawaiian author who was born and raised in Wahiawa and currently lives in Ohio. He is the author of multiple books of poetry, as well as the editor of Hoʻomānoa: An Anthology of Contemporary Hawaiian Literature. Pidgin Eye is his much-anticipated new collection that features over 35 years of his Pidgin poetry. This book honors the beauty, strength, and complexity of Hawaiʻi and the voices of its peoples. Balaz weaves history and humor, aloha ʻāina and protest, the spiritual and the everyday. Together, these poems envision a world in which—like Pidgin—“everyting deserves to fly.”

Lee Tonouchi: Typically when you read most mainstream Asian American anthologies, nomono pieces included for represent da Okinawan American experience. Being one Okinawan yonsei born and raise in Hawai’i, I love when new Okinawan stuff comes out. Das why I came all excited when da anthology, Mahalo Ayakari: Sharing and Celebrating Our Okinawa–Hawaii Heritage with Gratitude edited by Lynette Teruya, Jodie Ching and Allison Yanagi wuz released couple few months ago. Inside da collection made possible by Hui O Laulima get several personal essays, some poetry, fiction and drama, an’den get some artwork too.

One of my favorite pieces is Joan I. Paleka’s poem  “You’re Not Japanese!” where da narrator gets called out for being not Japanese: “‘You’re Okinawan,’ was my introduction to ethnicity while in grade school.” But ironically, as one adult “when someone asks what is my Asian ethnicity, I reply ‘Okinawan.’ / What’s next is ‘Isn’t that Japanese?'”

Okinawans can all relate to this cuz lotta people dunno we get our own culture. In this book, you can even sample some Okinawan language like in Derek Ichiro Shiroma’s poem “Uchinanchu Nu Chimugukuru” where he writes in Uchinaaguchi. “Uchinaa nu churasaya, Shimanu takara / Uchinanchu nu Chimugukuru, Masati churasa / Okinawa is so beautiful. / Just like an island treasure. It’s because of the Okinawan heart.” 

Photo: Hawaii Uchinanchu 2020

Dr. Ku’ualoha Ho’omanawanui: This is always challenging for me, as I am such a bibliophile and have so many favorites! Here are a few that are in no particular order:

Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan a novel. (Vintage, 2016). A gripping and compelling multi-generational saga of one Taiwanese family set against the history of the February 28 Massacre. Full disclosure, Shawna is one of my colleagues at UHM and teaches creative writing. She is a beautiful storyteller, and this novel is one return to periodically because it is so haunting. 

The Niuhi Shark Saga Series (trilogy) by Lehua Parker. It is very challenging to find excelling YA novels set in Hawai’i that are interesting and exciting for younger readers, provide a fun escape read, and respectfully represent Native Hawaiian culture, Hawai’i, and our contemporary Hawai’i lifestyle. As a Hawai’i born and raised Hawaiian author who now makes her home in Utah, Parker successfully navigates all these important areas of Hawaiian storytelling. She brings Hawaiian myth into the contemporary world in a new and imaginative way, and artfully spins a story that is entertaining, thought-provoking, and timely by addressing issues of bullying, climate change, identity, and belonging, all without being “preachy” or condescending. 

Written in the Sky by Matthew Kaleiali’i Kaopio (Mutual Publishing, 2011). Another excellent YA series (2 books, the second is Up Among the Stars; I think this would have continued with another book, had the author had not passed away). Like Parker’s book above, the protagonist is a displaced (suddenly homeless) teen Hawaiian boy trying to find his way in contemporary Hawai’i. Kaopio deftly incorporates Hawaiian culture, as ‘aumakua (Hawaiian spiritual guardians) and cultural practices (particularly dreams) help guide and nurture the main character. This YA novel deals with serious issues that affect our youth, such as bullying, homelessness, and identity, but also tempers it with a strong sense of cultural connection to the ‘āina in unexpected places, such as heavily urbanized Honolulu (most of the novel takes place from Kalihi to Ala Moana Beach Park, with a brief foray into Manoa and flashbacks to Kahalu’u), but also a sense of how we create ‘ohana beyond our immediate biological family ties. 

Prism Stalker by Sloane Leong (Image, 2018). Leong is the first Hawaiian (female) graphic novelist (as far as I’m aware), and Prism Stalker is her breakout series (there are 5 books thus far). I am new to the world of graphic novels, and find her sci-fi adventure series a fun contribution to the genre. I’m looking forward to her graphic novel A Map to the Sun, which will be released in August (I’ve already pre-ordered it). She is based in Portland, OR. 

Michelle Tupou: Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner (University of Arizona Press). As a 15 year-old high school student in Hawaiʻi, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner delivered a slam poetry presentation on nuclear testing in the Pacific called History Project. This was the beginning of an amazing career where her words would be at the forefront of the climate change movement today. Kathy was born in the Marshall Islands and raised in Hawaiʻi; today she is an acclaimed Marshallese poet and activist.  In 2017, the University of Arizona Press published Jetnil-Kijiner’s first collection of poetry, Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter.  The book has gathered words that have come together as powerful poetry existing at the intersections of the traumas that come with colonialism, racism, migration, nuclear testing and climate change. Not only has she shared her poetry with elementary students, she was also selected to share one of her poems at the United Nations Climate Summit in 2014.  Powerful words with a powerful voice from a powerful spirit.

Island of Shattered Dreams by Chantal Spitz (Huia Publishers). Island of Shattered Dreams is the first ever novel written by an indigenous Tahitian writer.  Its author, Chantal Spitz, lives in Tahiti and has a niece that lives here on Oʻahu.  Not only is the author connected to Hawaiʻi but the story itself parallels Hawaiʻi with its similar story of colonialism.  Like her book, Chantal Spitz is fiery, beautiful and strong with a most powerful spirit. Chantal originally wrote poetry in her diary as a gift for her three sons.  Eventually, her diary was found by her sister who decided it needed to be published. Luckily, before it could be published Chantal added family stories that connected the very lyrical poetry from her diary.  The added stories included the Tahitian and half-caste familyʻs generational stories of Tahitian and French colonial histories, nuclear testing and racial hierarchies. The book is a beautiful melding of love, drama, trauma, history and lyrical poetry; a wonderful read.