About a month ago, I was in a bookstore and came across an 8” x 8” book. Immediately, the word “‘Ohana” jumped out at me. What was this word, a word very dear to my own family’s culture, doing on a book that wasn’t about Lilo & Stitch? I was filled with hope: did I finally find a new book with Hawaiian representation written by a Hawaiian author?
Lee Cataluna’s Ordinary ‘Ohana was everything for which I was hoping.
In Ordinary ‘Ohana, Lee Cataluna writes about a boy named Kainoa. Throughout the book, Kainoa introduces his diverse family, which goes beyond the master narrative of a nuclear family, and his family’s culture. As Lee said in our correspondence: “To [Kainoa], they’re just ordinary. This child’s idea of family is very grounded and very inclusive. His family is who he loves.”
After reading and buying her book, I wanted to interview Lee for Colorful Pages because Ordinary ‘Ohana is exactly the type of books we strive to support educators, librarians, and families in using. Thankfully, Lee agreed to an interview.
I hope you too are able to see the importance and beauty of these Colorful Pages. Here is my interview with Lee Cataluna, author of Ordinary ‘Ohana:
Kaitlin Kamalei Jenkins: Tell us a little bit about yourself
Lee Cataluna: I am primarily a journalist and a playwright. I have worked for many years for Hawaii’s largest daily newspaper as the metro columnist.
My most recent playwriting commission was from La Jolla Playhouse for their 2018 POP tour. I have a play in production right now in Honolulu. I’ll be teaching a playwriting workshop in upstate New York this spring and heading to the Autry Theater in LA in summer to workshop a play. I have an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside
KKJ: What is your racial and cultural identity? How does your identity add to your work as an author?
Lee: Born and raised in Hawaii. I’m Portuguese and Native Hawaiian. Years ago, the Native Hawaiian side of my family held a huge family reunion. They started from our great-great-great-grandparents, born in the early 1800s (the Kainoapuka family line) and included everyone who descended from them. It was a week-long event with hundreds of people gathering on the west side of Kauai, where our ancestors lived. Though we were all related one way or another, it was like a league of nations. There was every corner of the globe represented at that reunion. Every color of the human rainbow. The experience of seeing an incredibly diverse family related by blood, marriage, adoption or whatever (it got pretty confusing!) has shaped so much of what I’ve written since then.
KKJ: What do multicultural/diverse books mean to you? In your opinion, what is the importance of multicultural/diverse books?
Lee: I like the idea of art and literature being sometimes a window into a new world, sometimes a mirror reflecting our own experiences. I think multicultural and diverse books are both a window and a mirror, and I think that makes these stories very, very important.
KKJ: What inspired you to write Ordinary ‘Ohana?
Lee: I was teaching creative writing and creative nonfiction at `Iolani, a prep school here in Honolulu. My students were writing really lovely stories about their families and their lives, and it struck me that today’s children are much more comfortable and secure with families that don’t look like a 50’s television image of a family. They felt no need to explain why siblings didn’t look alike or why it wasn’t a two-parent household or why they have two dads. They didn’t have to make sure anybody was OK with their family. The voice of a little boy introducing his family as ordinary just came to me.
Also, when my family was visiting Disneyland one time, there was a father and son standing in line in front of us at one of the popular rides (Cars, I think.) The two looked nothing alike and they were clearly having a wonderful time together. The dad was wearing a shirt that said “Real dad” and the boy was wearing a shirt that read “Real son”. Just picturing those two right now is bringing tears to my eyes, thinking about all the questions they were trying to fend off and all the comments they’ve probably already had to deal with. Nobody gets to say what a “real” family is for someone else. Those two were real. Nobody gets to say what is “ordinary” for another family.
KKJ: Tell us about your own ‘ohana.
Lee: My own family is small. I am married and my husband and I have one son (named Kainoa) who is 12 and my husband has an older son (25) from his previous marriage. My extended family, though, is huge.
KKJ: In Ordinary ‘Ohana, Cheyne Gallarde’s illustrations and your words combine to create such a vivid and amazing description of Kainoa’s family and family culture. How did you and Cheyne Gallarde meet each other? What was the process for your collaboration on this diverse picture book?
Lee: Cheyne Gallarde is multi-talented and Instagram-famous. He and I had many mutual friends, but it wasn’t until I saw an exhibit of his work at the Honolulu Contemporary Museum of Art that I realized we had a lot of synergy in our work – – kind of a balance of humor and reverence when it comes to people and a fascination with characters who seem like quick sketches but who you can imagine have rich life stories. I brazenly contacted him out of the blue and asked if he was interested in working with me on a project. We met for coffee and he liked my manuscript. He made some sketches and we went to the publisher as a team and pitched the project. We have complementary skills and a shared aesthetic, so working together was very easy. We ended up being great friends and he did the sets, props and costume design when Honolulu Theatre for Youth did a play inspired by the book last year. If you look on the page that talks about laulau fundraisers, the character in the green tank top holding one bag is Cheyne’s self-portrait. All the other characters in the book are based on people he knows or people he sketched on the city bus.
KKJ: How would you like teachers to use Ordinary ‘Ohana in their classrooms? How do you envision your book being used with students?
Lee: I love being surprised by how teachers use something I’ve written to suit their curriculum and their particular students. For me, the last page of the book is the most important. It is a place where the child who owns the book can declare who their `ohana is. I like the idea of the child getting to say who they love —nobody gets to tell anybody else who they should love and who they consider family.
I think students like writing stories about their families. Those are certainly some of the most vivid pieces I’ve read as a teacher – – write what you know, right? I try to encourage students to find the “telling details” when describing character, like the coconut cake or the uncle who can barbeque anything. Eudora Welty said ‘The universe is nestled, always, in the radiant particular’… I try to encourage writing students to find those radiant particulars, the wonderful, specific details that hold the entire universe of the character or story.
You can buy Ordinary ‘Ohana either on Amazon or on Lee’s website. A big thanks to Lee Cataluna for her great interview responses and the pictures featured in this post. I cannot wait to see what Colorful Pages Lee writes next!