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Between the Deep Blue Sea and Me - An Interview with Lurline Wailana McGregor
 
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Between the Deep Blue Sea and Me is the American Indian Library Association’s winner for best Young Adult book for 2010. Check out what librarians have to say about Between the Deep Blue Sea and me and other 2010 AILA award winners. Listen to the author read an excerpt of the story at teachingbooks.net.

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In September 2008, ku'ualoha ho'omanawanui, PhD, sat down with Lurline Wailana McGregor to talk story about McGregor’s first novel, Between the Deep Blue Sea and Me. Dr. ho'omanawanui is currently assistant professor in the English department at the University of Hawai'i–Mānoa and serves as chief editor of 'Ōiwi: A Native Hawaiian Journal. Buy the novel here.

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 Tell us a little about yourself.

My late father, Calvin C. McGregor, was born to Daniel P. and Louise A'oe McGregor of Hau'ula and later Kalihi, O'ahu. Daniel’s mother was Kaloaokalani, the daughter of a Hau'ula konohiki. His father was a sea captain. From my father’s side, I am one-quarter Hawaiian, one-quarter Scottish and one-eighth Chinese. My mother is Madeleine Fauvre McGregor, from Indianapolis, Indiana. Her ancestors came to the United States from Germany. My mother came to Hawai'i on a tour after high school on the S. S. Lurline, where she met my father aboard the ship. They stayed in touch and got married after she finished college several years later ... so yes, I am named after the ship! I am the fourth of five children and the only girl. I grew up in Honolulu and attended Punahou School. I went to the Mainland for college and stayed on after that, living in various parts of the country before returning home for good in 1992. A two-minute video of my life is posted online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JoqSSsMBC0c.

As a side note, the Louise A'oe McGregor Award for best song leader at the annual Kamehameha School Song Contest was named after my grandmother, who was in Kamehameha’s first graduating class of girls in 1897 and as valedictorian, was the first girl to receive her diploma!

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What inspired you to write this novel?It is a story contextualized by the connectedness between generations, land, culture and spiritual guardianship-all drawn together in a 'now' time.

My inspiration started with the movie Whale Rider, based on the novel by Māori writer Witi Ihimaera. The movie is authentic in its portrayal of Māori people yet the story transcends culture and is able to resonate with a worldwide audience. It made me think about all the stories in my own Hawaiian community that could speak to and inspire a worldwide audience, and that a story told through a feature film would have the reach to do it.

As far as why this particular story, it came to me as I was sitting at Kaimana Beach one morning writing in my journal. At that time, there was almost daily news coverage about how members of Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai'i Nei had repatriated items removed from the Forbes cave. The Bishop Museum had “loaned” them the items and now wanted them back, and Hui Mālama members were refusing to return them. Since I had been involved with iwi repatriation and passage of the Native American Graves Protection Act of 1990, I had very strong opinions about the controversy. I didn’t consciously set out to write a plot about taking artifacts from a museum, the story just started coming out when I began writing.

That was the inspiration for the movie script, which I spent two years writing. I started moving into the next phase of putting the script out to investors and producers but still felt that it wasn’t completely where I wanted it to be. I started thinking about writing it into a novel to help fill in what I thought were still gaps. At the same time, a friend told me about Kamehameha Publishing. I spoke with Matthew Corry, the managing editor, who thought my story sounded interesting and told me the next deadline for submission was in a couple of months. That became my real inspiration for actually sitting down and writing the novel—the deadline!

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This moolelo is about the dilemmas we face in making choices that ultimately assure our survival.

You have a lot of experience with nonfiction and script writing. This is your first creative work of fiction. What do you see as some of the differences in the writing process between these genres?

I was very fortunate to have a writing partner for the film script project, Joy Harjo, a very accomplished American Indian poet, musician and writer, who also has had experience writing narrative film scripts. She led me through the process of writing fiction. I first had to know the characters. With nonfiction characters, whether they are historical figures or contemporary people, there is a lot of research involved to understand their personalities, what drives them, so that you can accurately portray them. In fiction, you make all that up and it has to be believable! It’s a different challenge, giving characters personality traits that will make them likeable or unlikeable and make their actions plausible. Same with the plot—it has to make sense so the viewer or reader can follow it yet have twists and turns so it’s not completely predictable. With both fiction and nonfiction there needs to be a story arc with a beginning, a middle and an end. Sometimes for nonfiction the story arc can be more challenging to create because history or a person’s life is ongoing, unless they’ve passed on or it’s about a specific event. 

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What do you see as some of the relationships between nonfiction and fiction? While this is a fictional story, it certainly resonates with real life experiences for Native Hawaiians and other indigenous people. It will strike the hearts of all readers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.

Nonfiction and fiction writing are both forms of storytelling. I was always more interested in the nonfiction genre because true stories are more powerful than fiction, and there are so many mo'olelo that have lessons and morals, why not draw on history and real people? At the same time, I love reading fiction stories! Writing a fiction story, and more specifically a story rooted in my own Native Hawaiian culture, meant I would have to be accurate in the aspects of the culture and the community that I was portraying. I did as much research as I would do for a nonfiction piece. As a member of the Native Hawaiian community, I also had my own life experience to draw on. This story will probably resonate most closely with Native Hawaiians and other indigenous
people who have similar life experiences.

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Could you give an example of where fiction crosses over to nonfiction?

The environmental issues affecting Hawai'i and government corruption is an example of where the story specifically crosses over to nonfiction. Lei is an environmentalist, and I wanted to go much further with cruise ship pollution, the beach cleanup, government protection of industry but instead I just touch on it. I even had the Superferry in the story at one point and the current governor’s real-life decision to waive environmental protection laws on their behalf, but it was starting to distract from the plot.

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Will there be another book, perhaps?

I would like to write both Lei’s and Albert’s stories and have been thinking about them and what the plots and arcs would be. Albert would probably be a little easier to write because he has lived his life. Lei is still a work in progress.

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I’ve noticed in Witi Ihimaera’s work, each novel focuses on a different family member or branch of the family; they are all related in their family genealogy, but the novels don’t necessarily intersect, they each tell their own story; that’s very fascinating.

In my case, Lei’s and Albert’s stories have already intersected, so Between the Deep Blue Sea and Me could be a taking off point for their stories or it could just be an episode in their very different lives.

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Yes, Albert was interesting; I recognize him, but I don’t understand him. I think it’s a generational difference/attitude.

When my cousin Davianna read one of the earlier drafts of the movie script, she said she didn’t understand how the father could sell his family land. That was good feedback, and I hope I’ve made the rationale behind his actions clearer! Albert’s story characterizes many Hawaiian men of his generation and perhaps the previous generation. I look at my own father’s generation, who’s a full generation before Albert, and it was the same story. He was raised Hawaiian, but his life became mainstream American. The downtown Honolulu environment created the values against which he measured his success. Occasionally my mother would tell me it was sometimes hard for him because he felt that he had to choose [between being Hawaiian and being American], and it led to confusing and sometimes contradictory choices. Colonization didn’t happen all at once. It is an ongoing struggle, and Albert is a very complicated character.

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A riveting and provocative look at the gifts we pass on ... This story is a gift.Davianna’s question is an appropriate one, especially for many of us in the younger generations who were born into a time of more cultural and political activism, like the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana (PKO) movement. I have students now who don’t even blink an eye about Hawaiian language immersion schools, because they’ve been raised with—and are products of—those schools. So as readers, we don’t understand Albert as well, because we have cultural freedoms or access and aren’t faced with the same pressures and choices as previous generations.

Everyone has heard stories about how their grandparents or great-grandparents were forced to speak English in school and were punished for speaking Hawaiian. Our culture was not in very good shape by the time members of my generation, who came of age during the 1960s and 1970s, started protesting the bombing of Kaho'olawe, started Hawaiian language immersion schools, started the Hawaiian music renaissance, and built and sailed Hōkūle'a using the navigation system of our ancestors. My generation recognized that it would be up to us to carry on our ancestors’ traditions as a living culture. As a generation, we had to overcome negative stereotypes about our people to become truly proud to be Hawaiian. There are different pressures on the next generation, but pressures nonetheless.

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I found the part of the novel that deals with the cruise ship pollution absolutely shocking, not because it seems unauthentic, but because it’s not discussed very often. We hear about Kaho'olawe, Mākua Valley, and the Superferry, but I’ve heard that the environmental damage and problems that happen with the Superferry pale in comparison with the cruise ships. I couldn't put it down until I finished. It's wonderful!

Lei showing Charlie the pictures that the lifeguard took was based on an actual event. Archie Kalepa, a big wave surfer and lifeguard, was the one who was on the Jet Ski who saw it all. He saw the quarter-mile of garbage bags floating behind the ship, well within the three-mile limit of land. I started reading up on cruise ship pollution and the environmental groups trying to deal with it. It’s all right there on the web! The cruise ships pollute knowingly and purposefully, then they pay the fines when they are caught. It’s only a few million compared to the billions they make. The federal government and Congress won’t do anything.

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The cruise ship issue almost took the spotlight away from the main focus of the novel, the repatriation of the pōhaku manō. It is such a big issue, calling for its own story to be told in another novel, perhaps Lei’s novel.

I hope I’ve piqued readers’ interest to start learning about cruise ship pollution. It’s destroying the ocean and reefs and beaches worldwide, yet it’s rarely discussed. People have no idea. It’s not the only cause of ocean pollution, but it is a big one.

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Who is your favorite character in the novel?

Lei is probably my favorite. She’s the most interesting, mostly because of everything she has had to overcome to get to where she is. Lei appears to be the antagonist at first, but she is not, she is actually a second protagonist. I had in mind the Pele and Hi'iakaikapoliopele relationship. Lei and Moana were close when they were young, then separated by jealousy when they got older. Moana’s character is not as fiery as Pele’s, and Lei’s personality is a little wilder than Hi'iaka’s, but she is still the healer.

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Do you see this project shifting you away from documentary filmmaking?

No, it’s more of an opening up for future projects. Now I want to write more novels in addition to making a feature film and more documentaries!

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From an indigenous perspective, how do you see filmmaking as a modern expression of oral tradition?

People use the tools that they have and in the old days, memory and leo were the most readily available tools. Then came print. Today, film is a useful means for indigenous storytelling and passing on knowledge. The biggest difference is that through film, the knowledge becomes accessible to everyone. There are cultural practitioners who don’t want to share their mana’o with just anyone or have it taken out of context and for that reason, will not allow themselves to be filmed.

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Before Whale Rider, there were a number of indigenous filmmakers in other parts of the Pacific who made films that tell very compelling stories, Māori films like Barry Barclay’s Te Rua, or works by Aboriginal film maker Tracy Moffat. Why do you think there really haven’t been Native Hawaiian films outside of documentaries? What are some of the challenges to this kind of filmmaking?

A journey of self-realizatoin and expanded cultural consciousnessThere are film commissions in Aotearoa and Australia to which anyone can apply for funds and support. There is also the Aboriginal film commission in Australia and the Treaty of Waitangi in Aotearoa, both of which create some equity in providing government money specifically for indigenous filmmaking. Our option is Hollywood, which is economically driven and caters to mass audiences. Hence, indigenous stories—and indigenous filmmakers—are largely ignored. When indigenous narrative films are made in this country, they are usually low budget, which can affect production quality and certainly marketing.

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Good production quality can be an issue with novels as well.

Integrity and caring about details is probably the most important ingredient to good production quality. It has been a blessing to work with members of the Kamehameha Publishing staff who are all sensitive to cultural issues and who take so much pride in their work and in the products they put out.

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Unfortunately, that is a problem for Hawai'i writers who are published on the continent or by publishers who lack cultural knowledge about Hawai'i. The result is basically good novels, but issues like inaccurate language use slip through. If there was at least one editor with knowledge of these things on those projects, they would have turned out better, with less criticism and a bigger readership.

I’ve heard horror stories about Hawai'i writers and their experiences with Mainland editors and publishers. That’s another reason I’m so grateful to everyone at Kamehameha Publishing! Everything I was concerned about in my manuscript we addressed together. They made suggestions that made the story even stronger and better than the original manuscript. They brought their own cultural expertise to the story, as well as an outside eye, going through it carefully, catching things that didn’t work.

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Details of place and specifics are the “'ono” of story and literature for our kūpuna, and these things are culturally important to us.

Yes. That’s why it means so much to me that Kiele Akana-Gooch at Kamehameha Publishing created oli for Moana and her 'ohana. I originally had generic oli in the book, but now the chants speak specifically to family and place, which will give Hawaiian language readers insights into the plot before others figure out what’s going on.

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I like Kahi'u’s character, how he just pops up. He’s charming and funny, and he reminds me of the local boys catching a ride to the beach, who jump in and out of the back of my truck, going, “Tanks Aunty!” with a shaka and a smile. His role is important. He’s like a little figure, but he’s really not.

He’s another character I enjoyed writing. I wanted to develop him more, but since he’s a shark, he simply doesn’t have the same human complexities as the others. At the same time, he had to be likeable and endearing enough to Moana that she was compelled to come back home to help him.

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Haunani Trask often quotes Toni Morrison’s statement, “The best art is political.” Politics meaning, too, that you’re keeping something cultural alive that the colonizers didn’t or don’t want to be kept alive (like Hawaiian language, or hula). Do you see the process of telling your story—such as working with a Hawaiian publisher, wanting a Hawaiian film crew and actors being involved, and Hawaiian control of the projects—as being even more important, in some respects, than the story itself?

Everything is always political. From the writing to the publisher to the film crew to the actors, it is very important to me that everything be as Hawaiian and authentic as possible. I hate to qualify by saying “as possible” rather than just saying everything must be Hawaiian, but when it comes down to it, if it means getting the movie made versus not getting it made, I will have to see what the offer is and if I can live with it. After all, politics is also the art of compromise.

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You’ve mentioned that you envisioned this as a movie, and then wrote the novel. What are some of the differences in the writing process between the two?

In writing the movie scenes that take place in the ocean, for example, I was always aware of budget. It’s very expensive to film on the water, whether it’s the canoe shots or underwater or swimming. It was very liberating not to have to think about how I was going to write a scene without it costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Another example is that in the book all I had to write was, “Moana was thinking about ... as she was driving.” In the movie script I had to figure out how I was going to show what she was thinking without having her calling her friends all the time. That’s why writing the novel was an opportunity to really flesh out the characters, because I could go so much deeper into what they were thinking without having to do it through dialogue or voice-over.

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Hawaiian students tell me, “We’re not into reading and writing because we come from an oral culture.” How would you respond to them?

I would first want to know what they are into and how television, internet and filmmaking fit into their paradigm. They’re not making a political statement unless they can demonstrate that they are using some other non-Western influenced means to develop and express their intellect. When reading and writing came to the islands almost two hundred years ago, our kūpuna became highly literate. The amount of intellectual discourse in the many Hawaiian language newspapers speaks for itself. There is as much power in the printed word as there is in the spoken word.

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Who are some of your favorite writers?

Ever since I discovered Māori author Patricia Grace in the early 1990s, I have read everything by her. I would be remiss if I also didn’t mention Kurt Vonnegut (my second cousin on my mother’s side). I try to read most of what is locally written and written by Pacific Island writers as well as others, both fiction and nonfiction. I like a lot of writers, too many to name here!

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What do you find appealing about work by other writers?

Good writing is paramount. After that I love intelligent thinking and good storytelling, like with Patricia Grace’s work. Her stories are rooted in Māori culture, but they transcend to a worldwide audience. You don’t have to be Māori to appreciate and understand her stories, or Witi Ihimaera’s.

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Who do you visualize as your primary audience?

I have written this book first and foremost for my own Native Hawaiian community, living here and outside Hawai'i. Next, it is for the Hawai'i community and everyone who embraces our culture. I also hope this book resonates with other indigenous cultures of the world, from the Pacific Islands to North and South Americas and beyond. After that, I hope all people who care about the earth will read this and connect with the story.

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There’s the stereotype that Hawai'i is a paradise in the middle of the ocean and is thus immune to environmental issues and other problems, like illegal, toxic dumping on the continent.

The garbage that gets dumped at sea has to go somewhere. People are fooling themselves if they believe we are immune to environmental pollution.

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What are some of the influences along the way that have inspired the work you do?

Since the 1980s, my work has mostly had to do with perpetuating Hawaiian culture. When I was staff for Hawaiian issues on the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., my staff colleagues were mostly American Indians. I learned a lot about their issues, from water rights to health care to sovereignty. After I came home I was the executive director of Pacific Islanders in Communications, a broadcast consortium dedicated to empowering indigenous Pacific Islanders to tell their own stories through the medium of television. This job allowed me to travel around the Pacific and meet other indigenous Pacific Islanders and experience their cultures. I saw how television has become a colonizing tool for traditional Island cultures. I was also involved with Hui Na'auao, a Hawaiian sovereignty education organization in the early 1990s, through which I met and talked with many Native Hawaiians throughout the islands about what sovereignty meant to them. At the same time I was involved with Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai'i Nei and participated in some of the iwi reburials. All of these experiences have helped to shape my thinking and inspire my work.

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Do you expect criticism of the novel?

There are many opinions about Hawaiian culture: what’s right, what’s authentic, what’s politically correct. I’ve done my research, I’ve consulted with cultural experts whom I respect and trust, and I’ve asked permission.

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Is there any pressure because people might expect the novel to represent every aspect and perspective of Hawaiian culture?

Since this book has been my own idea and my own project, I don’t think anyone besides me has expectations.

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Similar things have happened in real life—the disappearance of the kā'ai from Bishop Museum, and the controversy over the Forbes cave artifacts.

Even the earthquakes off 'Ewa in the novel have a basis in real life. I’ve talked with cultural experts, geologists, legal experts—everything in the novel is based on real incidences. I’m just reporting facts in a fiction framework.

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As a writer, I’m always interested in how other writers do this—intersect reality and fiction. How did you determine what to accurately represent and what to fictionalize?

For the cultural aspects of the novel, it was critical that everything be accurate. When it came to the characters and their scenarios, I was concerned about consistency and believability. Events have to happen so the story can advance, and there has to be a beginning, middle, and a conclusion. The fictional plot moves the story forward, but within that the cultural descriptions are accurate.

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What other kinds of influences do you see on this novel?

The story of Pele and Hi'iaka and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey are my most important literary influences.

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What do you hope people get out of the novel?

I hope people will think about how every action they take—whether as individuals or as a community—does matter. I hope people also will reflect on how change starts with taking personal responsibility. Mostly, I hope the novel will convey that it is everyone’s responsibility to mālama i ka 'āina, that our role as humans is to be the protectors, not exploiters of the earth, and that we are connected to all things.

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What do you see as a challenge for Hawaiians today?

Identity is our biggest challenge, as Hawaiians and as Americans. Where does one begin and the other one end? We live in a capitalistic, not a subsistence economy. Each of us needs to decide how we will keep the gifts of our ancestors alive in the twenty-first century while earning a living within the construct of mainstream American culture.

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Much of that begins with the overthrow, when the difference between a national identity and an ethnic/cultural identity becomes split. It’s different in other parts of the Pacific, where the blood quantum issue we deal with is laughed at.

Blood quantum is a tool of the colonizers to divide us.

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What do you think are some of the successes of Hawaiian culture today?

Our language, which was near extinction forty years ago, is thriving today. Hula, chant and music are flourishing. For the last three decades, Hawaiians have been sailing Hōkūle'a all around the Pacific, using only the navigational tools of our ancestors. Now there are many sailing canoes and students learning ancient navigation. These are all tremendous cultural accomplishments.

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Is there anything else you’d like to add?

No matter who we are or where we come from, we all have ancestors. Sometimes knowing their stories can help us to understand who we are and can even guide us in our daily lives. As a Hawaiian, I feel very enriched by my ancestry and what I’ve inherited from my culture. It’s a blessing and a responsibility.

Story is my way to give back to my culture, to help move it forward, and to encourage other Hawaiians, especially young Hawaiians, to believe in themselves, believe in our culture, and to have confidence that we can be all the things we want to be. It is important to know ourselves as Hawaiians.

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And knowing that these things transcend time—our ancestors love to travel. They did it on canoes, my grandfather was a bus driver, my sister and I love to go cruising—

I look at my own seafaring ancestors and my love of the ocean and I smile at the title of my book, Between The Deep Blue Sea and Me. We carry our ancestors’ DNA. These gifts have always been relevant, we just need to understand them in a contemporary context.

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Kamehameha Publishing - Amplifying Hawaiian Perspectives
Kamehameha Publishing - Amplifying Hawaiian Perspectives