Hawaiian Funeral

Hawaiian Funeral

Today, more of the research I did while writing Finding ‘Ohana! Before I researched Hawaiian funerals, I wasn’t sure if my book would include a funeral, even though one of the main characters dies. But, again, my subconscious knew better than me and as soon as I read about traditional Hawaiian funerals, I knew I had to include one.

Part of what drew me to it is how much of a party it is. I’ve been to “celebration of life” funerals, usually for someone who’d lived a long life. But the expert’s answer on the website above implies that all Hawaiian funerals are celebrations of life. They wear brightly colored aloha wear, and they all match. Often the mourners are even wearing the exact same pattern. This seems to me like an extension of the ‘ohana beliefs. Because the family is so important, they will dress the same to show their unity while saying good-bye to a loved one.

Another aspect of the Hawaiian funeral that gives it a party feel is that it is usually outside. And when you’re in Hawai’i, it’s a little hard to be depressed when you’re outside. Everywhere you look there is life, bright and beautiful and all but impossible to ignore. 

Finally, the idea of being able to smell the reception’s barbecue during the funeral stuck with me too. To me, and maybe a lot of mainlanders, a barbecue means a lazy summer afternoon with no worries on anyone’s mind.

The whole event reads like a party, from the clothes to the location to the food. To be honest, I love it. I’ve always said that I want my will to say that there’s no black allowed at my funeral. People are sad enough when someone dies, they don’t need a bunch of black clothes everywhere to bring them down further. 

The great thing when writing about another culture is being able to see the world someone else sees. A lot of the time it seems weird and foreign to the writer, but it’s completely normal to the characters from that culture. So, a character who was born and raised on the mainland, like Cinnamin, would be viewing Hawaiian culture with the same eyes I was when I was researching it. Only she is grieving when she sees it. 

When you’re a mainlander grieving, the only thing you want to see when you look out the window is what you imagine London looking like during the Industrial Revolution. You certainly don’t want to be dragged out into paradise with people who are all dressed in bright, matching outfits. So rather than being interested and falling in love with a new way of seeing the world, Cinnamin is resentful that she can’t have anything familiar, even the way she is forced to say good-bye to someone she loves. 

Hawaiian ‘Ohana Beliefs

Hawaiian ‘Ohana Beliefs

“‘Ohana” and “family” are not interchangeable. This site was a great help to me while I was trying to understand the full extent of the meaning of ‘ohana to Hawaiians.

Our society puts so much emphasis on the individual that it can be hard to comprehend a belief system which places the relationship to family higher than the individual. For a while I fought against it in my mind: “But movies and TV would have me believe that people who hold the group in higher regard than the individual are evil! I have to find myself, be true to myself, set myself apart from others…” Seriously, how often have you seen a protagonist break away from the oppressive chains of those who would have him be part of a group? No, he has to stand on his own two feet and be an individual!

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being an individual. But these messages tend to create a feeling of not only wanting to prove one’s individuality, but also to separate from others. One year when I was a teenager, my mom told me to pick out a black or white outfit for a family photo. I put up a stink: “I don’t wanna look like everybody else!” I whined. “Why do you want me to conform?” I was being oppressed. So I told her I would wear lavender. It’s not like I wanted to wear neon and be visible from a hundred yards, I just wanted to stand out a little.  I showed up to take the photo and saw that my mom and sisters had made last-minute attempts to match. They were all wearing lavender. I was mad at first. I tried to stand out and be an individual and they ruined it. 

Well, needless to say I was being selfish. My mom had to wear a plain tee-shirt because I just had to wear what I wanted to wear. And this family photo was not just us. My great-grandparents, who are no longer with us, my Grandma Nancy, her three sons (my dad and two uncles) and their families, including my cousin’s daughter, brought the total to four generations. The photos from that day are the only professional ones we will ever have with that exact group of people. And every time I go to my parents’ house and see those pictures, and my lavender top that I just had to wear, I feel embarrassed and ashamed and just so sad that I was thinking of myself at such an irreplaceable moment.

If I had valued my family as ‘ohana, I would have matched them. I would have found a black or white top that would match, but still make me feel pretty, like I did for our most recent family photo (on Maui, incidentally). I would have understood that ‘ohana is like a lei (keep reading for a future post).

In Finding ‘Ohana, everyone at the funeral in chapter three is wearing not only the same color, but the exact same pattern (as is common at Hawaiian funerals — keep reading for a future post).

There’s something beautiful and selfless about the belief that family is greater than anything else in this world. The Hawaiian ‘ohana knows no bounds — it transcends blood and even death! They would have no saying comparable to “blood is thicker than water” because you don’t need blood ties to be ‘ohana. And when people we love die, we know they won’t leave us, not because of an old cliche that says that they’re always in your heart, but because they continue serving and protecting their ‘ohana even in death. Nothing can break the bonds of ‘ohana.

In our society, we have legal adoptions in which blood is unimportant. But how often does the adopted child want to find their “true” parents? In an ‘ohana frame of mind, the adoptive parents would be the true parents. We also have friends of the family. Again, these friends would be considered ‘ohana themselves.

This is why Kamea not only views Cinnamin as her own daughter (not daughter-in-law) but also views Lucas as a son, and Julie as a granddaughter. Cinnamin always thought of Lucas as brother-like, but Kamea saw this bond as brother/sister period. And that made Julie, Lucas’ daughter, part of the ‘ohana as well. From a mainlander’s point of view, there are so many non-blood connections that they would never consider Kamea and Julie family. But “Kamea had said that Lucas was like [Cinnamin’s] brother, and Julie [her] niece, so they were just as much part of her ‘ohana. And why would Kamea [babysit] one grandchild [Kalani] and not the other [Julie]? Julie had even started calling her ‘Grandma Mea.’ She liked the way it sounded, and would sometimes say it over and over in singsong. [Cinnamin] did not understand it. [She] envied how easily a child could accept a new person as family.”

Part of Cinnamin’s struggle in “Finding ‘Ohana” is to do just that: accept new people as family. She clings to her parents even though they turned their backs on her and has trouble trusting that Naali’s parents will not do the same. ‘Ohana is a foreign concept to her, and she struggles with viewing Hawaiian cultures through mainlander eyes. (This is called ethnocentrism, for you scholars out there.)

Growing up in the church I did helped me understand ‘ohana better. In our church, other members were called our brothers and sisters. My best friends were in the church, and we spent nights at each others houses more than (I realized only recently) most children our age. My friends’ parents were trusted to bathe me along with their own daughter and to read us a Bible story before bedtime, and even to give the same punishment my parents would give if they were there. If someone in the church needed a place to stay, our home was open to them. When I got older, I started babysitting for the kids in our church — if the parents were at a church-related event, I wouldn’t expect to be paid. After moving away, I still saw my childhood friends whenever I could. Even now that I’ve stopped going to that church almost altogether, I feel that I have a connection with those friends unlike any others I’ve lost contact with over the years.

The difference between ‘ohana and my childhood church is that when someone left the church (not moved away, but actually left the church itself) they were gone. We called it “falling away.” It didn’t happen often, but when it did it was like the person disappeared off the face of the earth. “Where is Fred this week?” “Oh, he fell away.” Sometimes people would hope that person would come back to the church, and for all I know maybe the adults stayed in contact, but usually it felt like we’d just lost him.

In this way, our church was much more like Cinnamin’s family than like Naali’s ‘ohana. I actually never noticed until writing this very blog post. Funny how writing helps you learn about yourself.

New Beginning

I’ve gotten some feedback that the beginning of Finding ‘Ohana is a little slow, and that it gives too much away too soon. So I’ve written a short alternate opening. I’m still deciding if the voice works with the rest of the book, but I thought I’d post what I have here:

 

I had been to funerals before, but not like this. Never like this. Everyone else on the boat and riding the waves around it, everyone but me, was in aloha wear: a white background covered in bright blue Hawaiian flowers. Even the ocean matched them. But I was wearing the black and white memory of a time when I had been happy.

The boat rocked gently on the waves, like a baby’s basinet. A few people around me closed their eyes and reveled in the salty breeze. They looked as though they were relaxing. As though this were just another day at sea. As though they had not just lost a person that had held them together like glue.

I suppose they still had each other to hold them together. They were a family, and to them that meant they could never be alone.

The boat lurched more vigorously than usual, and I gripped the edge to remain upright, although no one else seemed affected. The boat returned to its rocking, gentle as a cradle. I held on, knowing that if I let go I would fall, cradle and all.

Ihupani started the funeral by reminding us all why we were there. But I knew why. We were there because of me. Because I wanted to have a baby.

The Hawaiian Aikane

The Hawaiian Aikane

Finding ‘Ohana has been a story in me, waiting to get out, for about five years now. I felt like I knew the characters and I had seen times in their lives before I ever sat down to write a word. So when my creative writing professor, Susan Palwick, gave me my first big critique on the story, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. She said something along the lines of: “It’s too much that they’re both an interracial couple and a lesbian couple. In fiction, it’s enough for them to overcome one social stigma or the other, but not both.”

We’ll just set aside the fact that, in real life, there are plenty of people who are lesbian and non-white, or gay and lower-class, or any number of other combinations of intersecting identities. For the sake of fiction, every choice needs to have a purpose. Yes, it sounds mechanical, but as fiction writers we need to be able to write with our souls and view our work intellectually. Cinnamin’s is a lesbian because her sexuality serves the story by affecting her identity with her family and as an individual. But, Palwick asked, “Why is Naali Hawaiian?” She challenged me to come up with a reason for it that serves the story, or change it.

Well, like I said before, these characters had just been there in my head. I saw Naali as a Hawaiian, so I wrote her as a Hawaiian. So I was determined to find a legitimate reason for her to be Hawaiian before I could even think about changing her. Once I started researching, I felt that it was meant to be. There must have been some kind of… intuition maybe… that made me see Naali the way I did. The link I posted above is one of the things that made it all fit so well.

Same-sex couples had been honored by Hawaiians for generations before they were invaded by foreigners. Even “the first parents, Wakea and Papa” had aikane in their household. Traditional Hawaiian culture had no reason to view same-sex couples as any less natural than opposite-sex couples. And the aikane of a family member is also family, just as an opposite-sex partner of a family member would be an in-law for mainlanders. There is even a Hawaiian saying, “He aikane, he punana na ke onaona.  An aikane is haven made of loveliness.” (This saying is quoted in Finding ‘Ohana.)

This was better than I could have hoped for! It was perfect for Naali to be Hawaiian. Better than perfect, it was fate. More of Cinnamin and Naali’s story fell into place. I already knew that Cinnamin’s family had cast her out, but now I knew that was juxtaposed by Naali’s family welcoming her with open arms. I knew that they were exactly what she needed to be able to love herself. I knew that now there was no way for the story to go but to have Naali be Hawaiian, and for her family to be deeply in touch with their roots.

When I found info on the traditional Hawaiian perception of family, everything fell even more into place. But that’s a story for another post.

Hawaiian Wedding

Hawaiian Wedding

Since earlier today I posted about my next novel, I thought I would take the time to show off my resources for Finding ‘Ohana. When I was writing Cinnamin and Naali’s wedding, I based it off of the information I found at the site linked above, with the obvious changes necessary for a ceremony with two brides.

I started researching Hawaiian weddings so I could understand how Naali might want their wedding to be like. But once I saw exactly what the customs are, I couldn’t help but incorporate them in the story. What can I say, I’m a sucker for symbolism.

 

When Naali and I had stood on this beach four years ago, I had been so nervous, knowing that all those eyes were on us. I had wriggled my bare toes in the sand, happy to have the long gown conceal my fidgeting. All I had wanted was to be somewhere, anywhere, alone with Naali and to kiss her all over, starting with my two favorite freckles on her shoulder, just above her collarbone.

“Love is an eternal bond,” the Kahuna said after he had welcomed our friends and Naali’s family to celebrate our marriage. “Just as these leis are unbroken circles, so will your love for one another have no end.” He pulled two leis from the small table that had been set up behind him. Also on the table were a large leaf and a wooden bowl filled with water.

“Each flower in the lei,” the Kahuna said as he handed one lei to Naali, “continues to have its own individual beauty when it is added to the circle.” He handed me the other lei. “Its beauty is enhanced by the rest of the flowers. In your marriage you will keep your own individual identity and beauty. Also like the lei, your beauty is enhanced by the beauty of your partner – it is with the support of your relationship that you will grow more fully into the person with whom your partner fell in love.”

Naali reached up to put her lei around my neck. “Lei no, au ko, aloha.” Please wear my love like a beautiful lei.

I closed my eyes as the lei fell over my face. I felt the tips of Naali’s fingers brush my cheek. She did not let go of the lei until it was resting on my chest, and I could feel the warmth of her hands lingering on my skin. My face became hot and my smile turned embarrassed as I wondered if anyone had noticed. But I only briefly thought about the other people there; when Naali’s hands left my chest, I opened my eyes, and all I could see was her.

I gingerly put my lei around Naali’s neck, too embarrassed to touch her as intimately as she had touched me. “Lei no, ow-koh, aloha,” I fumbled through the line I had practiced with Naali yesterday.

She reached up to flip her hair out so that the lei rested underneath it, and slid her hands to grasp mine, still at her shoulders. She squeezed gently, reminding me that we were the only two people there – the crowd was watching a wedding, but we were the only ones experiencing it. I relaxed, and was able to feel the warmth in her skin instead of only touching it. We moved our hands in front of us again, so our bodies were connected by two sets of arms reaching toward each other.

“Continue to celebrate your love,” the Kahuna said. “And may these leis be a reminder to you of the bond you share.” We’d had the leis preserved after the wedding. They were still hanging behind glass on the wall in our living room. I had not been able to bring myself to take them down when I went to our house after the hospital, to get the things Kalani and I needed.

‘Apona handed a ring to Naali, and Lucas handed the other to me. I turned it over and over in my hand as I listened to the Kahuna recite the vows.

“Manaali‘i, do you take Cinnamin to be your wife, to have and to hold from this day forth, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health? Do you promise to treasure her in your heart as the special makana that she is to you? And do you promise to respect, love, and cherish her, as long as you both shall live?”

“I do.”

Naali’s voice was strong, and unwavering, as it always was. But she allowed softness to it as well. She drew out the last vowel, sinking it into a whisper. Her promise was not for the ceremony, or because it was the standard response to the question she had been asked, it was for me. Only for me. I saw our lives stretch out in that promise, further than the ocean stretched into the horizon. I saw us both as old women, hands still entwined as they were when we began.

I answered the same when the question was posed to me, and I tried to give Naali my full meaning in those two syllables. I squeezed her hands, trying to make all my love for her flow down my arms, concentrate in my fingers, and course into Naali’s hands so that she could feel exactly what I felt. When I told her this later, she’d said she did feel it, for me.

At the Kahuna’s request, Naali and I reached out, with our rings resting in the palms of our hands. He took the wooden bowl and the leaf from the table behind him. Naali had told me beforehand that the bowl was made of Koa, the most precious hardwood in Hawai‘i – it represented integrity and strength as the foundation in our marriage. It was filled with water from the ocean not twenty feet from us. The leaf was a Ti leaf, the symbol of the gods, and represented prosperity, health, and blessing of mind, body, and spirit. The Kahuna dipped the leaf into the bowl of water, and sprinkled three drops first onto the ring in Naali’s hand, and next onto the ring in mine, symbolizing all of our relationship’s hindrances being washed into the Pacific. Both our separate and shared pasts were cleansed in the salt water so that we could begin anew.

Ei-Ah Eha-No. Ka Malohia Oh-Na-Lani. Mea A-Ku A-Pau,” the Kahuna chanted. May peace from above rest upon you and remain with you, now and forever. “E Ke Akua, E Ka Uhane Hemolele.” Bless these rings and those who wear them. May they be eternally surrounded by Divine love and light.

Naali placed her ring on my finger and repeated the Kahuna’s words: “With this ring, I wed you, Cinnamin, my Evangeline, for today, for tomorrow, and for all the years to come. Please wear it as a sign of my love and that you have chosen me to be your wife.”

I did the same for Naali when she was done. When the Kahuna said, “You may now kiss your bride,” I nearly glanced out at the crowd of faces staring at us. But Naali squeezed my hands, and I shifted my gaze to her face. She was beaming. I forgot that anyone else was there on the beach. Our lips met, and moved together slowly. It felt sweet, with a hint of passion underneath.

And the Kahuna pronounced us married. We did not have a marriage license or certificate, but Naali had said that did not matter. When we had first announced our engagement, Ihupani told me that we were already married, as far as their family was concerned. I was already part of their ‘ohana.

“The wedding itself isn’t even so much about making it official,” Ihupani had said. After all, nothing was really being made official on that day. “It’s more about celebrating the bond you already have.”

Still, as we entered Kamea and Ihupani’s house for the wedding reception, we were introduced, for the first time, as Manaali‘i and Cinnamin Makaiau. And it felt official.

Synopsis of My Next (Untitled) Novel

While I’m working on getting Finding ‘Ohana published, I have another novel in the works. This way I can keep my writing muscles from going soft. Plus, it shows agents and publishers that I am not just a one-novel kind of writer.

I read that the best time to write a synopsis is before you write the book, so you aren’t bogged down with all the details you know once you finish the book. So here it goes:

 

At twelve years old, all Gwen wants is to grow up enough to get on a high school theater stage, like her big sister. Until a fire puts Gwen in the hospital, and her desires become a lot more immediate — like the desire to just look normal again. But it takes months for her burns to heal enough to be fitted for a wig, and then the application, consultation, and measurement process to qualify for and receive a wig take even longer.

Meanwhile, it takes not one, but six people to donate hair before one wig can be made. An executive still dealing with childhood abuse, a college kid whose mom keeps telling him to get a haircut, a reality-show-queen-turned-hair-model, a closeted butch lesbian whose younger sister is getting married, a trophy wife who shows she’s a “good Christian” by donating her hair every two years, and an eight-year-old girl who thinks her face would look fat if she had short hair. Six people must all come to the same decision to cut a foot of their own hair, even though they will likely never come in contact with each other, nor the little girl they are helping.

 

So there you have it. The novel will follow all seven characters, with their stories interweaving in a way that they’ll never see. I’m hoping that the finished product will show what my inspiration was: the way that people touch each other’s lives even when they never meet face-to-face.

It will probably end up being Women’s Fiction, like Finding ‘Ohana. In the coming weeks, as I continue to work on the character development and then on the outlines of each character’s story, I’ll post what I come up with here. Obviously I don’t have a title yet. I don’t name most of my writing until I’m at the end of it. I’m sure something will come to me, but as always I welcome any helpful suggestions.     : )