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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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, 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?
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?
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.
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’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.
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?
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—
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?
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.