Lehua Parker is an extraordinary person. Her talent, imagination, and brilliant sense of humour led to the creation of the Niuhi Shark Saga – an engaging trilogy for younger audiences. Do you want to know more about the books? Read on.
Pasifika Tales: How did you come up with the idea for the Niuhi Shark Saga?
Lehua Parker: Way back in second grade at Kahului Elementary, I saw a film called ‘Legends of Hawaii’. It told the story of Nanaue, the demi-god who could take shark or human form and how as a young man he lured people into the ocean and ate them. For decades I thought about how his human family hid him from the villagers and how his hunger was so great that he ate his friends. One wintry day, the snow outside was piled as high as the laundry in the hallway. Sorting clothes, I thought about Hawaii and this story again. I sat down and started what was going to be an adult novel that explored the relationship between a tourist and a Hawaiian demi-god. But these rascally kids kept popping up, and I wrote more about them than the adults. What if there was a kid who didn’t know he was a shark? What if instead of allowing him to prey on humans, his family did everything they could to keep him from becoming a monster? Once lightning struck and I realized Zader was allergic to water and Jay was a surfer, I abandoned the adult novel and started to write what became ‘One Boy, No Water’ and ‘One Shark, No Swim’.
PT: Was it difficult to write for a MG/YA audience? Did you encounter any challenges?
LP: The biggest challenge was writing an authentically Hawaiian story for island kids that would also be read by mainlanders and others not familiar with the culture. The first draft of ‘One Boy, No Water’ had a lot more Pidgin and far less explanation of cultural practices than the current third edition. I really wanted to write a story where island kids saw themselves and people they know that was also a story for kids who didn’t like to read. But the perceived market for these kinds of stories is very small, so I often found myself in a catch-22: the publisher didn’t want to invest in marketing because people weren’t buying the books in large numbers, but no one would buy books they didn’t know existed. In reaction to this, I wrote less Pidgin in ‘One Shark, No Swim’ and even less in ‘One Truth, No Lie’.
PT: The trilogy is based on Hawaiian tales and legends. Would you say that children and teenagers are drawn into stories of other worlds adjacent to our own?
LP: I think so. Fantasy and magic realism allow MG/YA readers to connect with difficult subjects in ways that are ‘safe.’ Zader is the ultimate outsider. On the surface, it’s because of his weird water allergy. But kids are smart. I think they look at Zader and see all the reasons kids are made to feel like outsiders to their peer groups, including race, religion, socio-economic status, scholastic ability, athletic ability, appearance, or sexual orientation. I think Zader’s journey from hiding who he is to using his weaknesses as strengths – and Jay’s journey, too – empowers kids to think about their own challenges differently.
PT: Although Hawaiian lore is omnipresent in the novels, you didn’t forget about the ‘real world’. You made Hawaii so vivid. Did you want to show readers what an incredible place the 50th state is?
LP: Oh, thank you! You’re too kind! Yes, I really wanted to show the real Hawaii, the Hawaii I grew up in, and not the plastic hula skirt version people think they know from television and movies. Remember I mentioned all the snow on the ground when I started ‘One Boy, No Water’? A lot of writing about Hawaii had to do with me being very homesick for the beach and island food. During the cold winter months where I live, local grocery stores and restaurants have ‘Hawaiian Days.’ They bust out paper flowers from India, masks from Papua New Guinea, samba music from Brazil, grass skirts from who knows where, and put canned pineapple on everything and call it Hawaiian. Frankly, some days it really gets on my nerves. Some of the writing was probably in reaction to this – you wanna see Hawaii? I’ll show you the real Hawaii!
PT: You were quite bold to incorporate Pidgin into the dialogues. Did you have any doubts whether or not this would be a good idea?
LP: I always wanted to use Pidgin – and to use more than what’s in the current editions. But books are funny things. They are commodities that have to meet market expectations and be profitable. The original publisher was targeting a mainstream USA market. For this market, there’s still too much Pidgin in the books. Outside of Hawaii, school kids really struggle, and at first glance, teachers and librarians think it’s poor grammar. Island kids and adults don’t have a problem with the Pidgin. They get excited to read it. But this puts me in a quandary for other stories I want to write in this world – how do I balance authenticity with marketability? Still trying to figure that out.
PT: Let’s focus on the characters for a moment. They are so well-developed! Who (or what) was your inspiration for them?
LP: Fearless authors and comedians like Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Amy Tan, Andy Bumatai, Rap Reiplinger, Kiana Davenport, and others showed me how to create characters that reflected the world around them. All of the characters in the Niuhi Shark Saga are either the kinds of people I had in my life – or wished I had – growing up. When I talk with island kids about the books, they all know somebody like Uncle Kahana, Jay, Char Siu, or Zader. I went to school with kids like Tunazilla, Alika, Maka, and Lisa Ling, and had teachers and neighbors just like the ones in the books.
PT: Which of the characters was most fun or difficult to write and why?
LP: I had the most fun with Ilima, the dog who is not a dog. When I first started writing her character, she was just a diva. But then I started to understand that she was so much more, and it became a lot of fun to think up ways to drop hints to the reader. One of the hardest was Jay in the third book. He goes through so many difficult things, and I hated that.
PT: What would you like readers – children and adults alike – to take away from the trilogy?
LP: To never be afraid to write your own truth. I hope people are entertained, of course, that the books bring back memories of hanabata days for adults and keeps kids engaged in reading a whole trilogy. But when I talk with school kids, I tell them that we each have our own stories, and those stories are important. If we don’t tell our stories, others will, and their false stories will become the truth for many. I tell them to be brave, to worry less about others say you can or can’t do, and just go for it.
PT: Will there be a continuation to the Niuhi Shark Saga?
LP: Yes. I have many more stories in my head, including some about Maka going to college, Lili and her birth mother, Ilima and Uncle Kahana solving other supernatural problems, and at least one book set during the time Zader was away in ‘One Truth, No Lie’ about a girl who can see ghosts and moves to Lauele and goes to Ridgemont with Char Siu, Maka, and Jay. There are also several short stories, including how Pua and Justin meet. Unfortunately, about two years ago, I put these stories on hold due to some ongoing challenges with the original publisher of the Niuhi Shark Saga that resulted in the eventual return of my rights to the series about a year ago. I’m hoping to return to them soon.
What are you working on right now and are there any new books on the horizon?
LP: A while ago, I decided to work on other projects, mainly short stories and essays which have been published in anthologies and literary journals. Right now, I’m working through a contract for five novellas based on fractured fairy tales. The first novella is called ‘Nani’s Kiss’, and it’s in ‘Fractured Beauty’, a boxed eBook set available in October from Amazon. ‘Nani’s Kiss’ is a sci-fi story loosely based on ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and features Polynesians in space. I’m just starting the second novella in the series, a sweet contemporary romance based on ‘Cinderella’. During the family vacation to Hawaii, Rell has to play nanny to her rotten younger step-siblings who do all they can to ruin her vacation and convince the Prince that Rell’s not the one. The ‘Fractured Slipper’ boxed set is scheduled for publication in December. I’ve got one more top-secret book in the works, but no publisher on the horizon. I’m hoping to return to Lauele Town and those stories in November.