By Renèe Tillotson & Sarah Hodges
Families and people out there who don’t feel “typical” — which is likely all of us — inspired Lee Cataluna to write Ordinary ‘Ohana for children. She tells the story from the perspective of young Kainoa (named after Lee’s son), who believes his family is normal… until he tries to explain how everyone is related. He comes to realize that his family sounds quite complicated! Reading the picture book, we come to appreciate how loving and close Kainoa’s family is, despite all the different ways everyone is connected. Isn’t this often the case in our lives?
Most of the characters in her book, published in 2016, don’t exist in Lee’s actual family, although she freely admits that she comes from a Portuguese Hawaiian family full of diversity and dearly loved characters. In our interview, Lee shares a true story of a girl who grew up being like a sister to her dad, but was actually a cousin of his. When the two of them grew a bit older and the girl was taken away to live with her real mother, Lee’s father remained closely bonded to his ‘sister’. Lee grew up, knowing this beloved family member as “Auntie-Cousin-Tita.” Lee remembers, “My dad just loved her his entire life. She was the sister that he never had.”
“Basically, there’s no such thing as an ordinary family,” Lee chuckles. Lee created this story with a broader family in mind – the human family. Once when reading aloud to a captivated bookstore audience, Lee spotted a mom and her daughter in the back of the audience listening intently. The daughter was nonverbal and in a wheelchair. When Lee got to the page in the story about a cousin who doesn’t walk and doesn’t talk, Lee saw the mother hug her daughter closely. “Ah-ha!” Lee thought to herself. She understood at that moment that Ordinary ‘Ohana really does have a place and a purpose for coming to life. The book has found its home in countless other spaces, among diverse communities, from Malama prison in Hawai’i to a Native American organization in Seattle.
Lee mentions how something magical happens when we are read to again as adults. “I’ve read this book aloud at the prison and seen these big guys with tattoos sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for the page to turn. We’d have the best discussions afterward, and the things they would say to me were healing for me. They’d ask me, ‘What was your dad like?’ So much bonding has come from reading this book together.”
“I write from the love that comes out of chaos,” says Lee.
Once after Lee read her book to a group of college students, a young woman came bounding up to tell her excitedly, “This is MY story! I married an older man whose kids are older than I am, I’m raising my younger brother who is trans, I’m having my second baby, and I’m in college. If you came to our house for dinner you’d think we were dysfunctional, but we’re perfect together.” Lee recalls getting the chills, realizing how meaningful the book is for all sorts of people. “I played a small role in writing it,” says Lee. “The book really found its own life and use.”
Lee’s teaching experience at Iolani High School in Hawai’i seeded the book’s creation. While Lee was there teaching creative writing, she assigned students to write about their families. “Their stories were so great!” exclaims Lee. “I was kind of jealous of how good they really were.” Her students caused her to see that GenZ is much more open-minded than generations of the past. Inspired by their stories, Lee decided to write her own story of family.
Perhaps many of us on ‘Oahu have read Lee’s peppery news articles in the local papers, most recently in Civil Beat. How many of us knew that one of her favorite contexts for writing is children’s theatre?
“I do a lot of work for TYA youth theatre. The director I was first working with told me to go to the shows and watch when all the kids get wiggly — it means that there’s something wrong in the story. Either it’s boring or too intense. I test things out. I go visit my teacher friends’ classes and read a playscript. I put myself in front of kids and take their critique, and I do it often. A kid will tell you when your book or play stinks and they will tell you where and why. Adults have layers and motives – kids don’t have that filter at all.”
Lee continues, “Honolulu Theatre for Youth did a play of Ordinary ‘Ohana. Cheyne Gallarde, the illustrator for the book, created the costumes and props. I needed to write the backstory to make it into a play. I loved being in the audience one time when a little 5th grader in the audience squealed with delight when the wheelchair kid rolled out onto the stage.”
What’s Lee’s secret to being a writer, we ask. She explains that her creative process is about flow, being like a little straw floating down a river. “As a writer, I’ve learned not to get in the way of that flow.”
Lee’s writing journey doesn’t follow a typical path. But does any good writer’s? Their unique perspective informs the work of wonderful authors. Coming from a public school on Maui, Lee never saw herself getting into writing, though her friends and family all saw it coming. After earning undergraduate degrees in Psychology and Dance Therapy, she worked at a cable TV show on Kauai which brought her closer to storytelling. Working at KHON TV and on a local radio show, she did more writing, more storytelling. Lee began to recognize her gifts in this field.
In her 40s, Lee enrolled at UC Riverside to complete her Masters’s degree in Playwriting. “I had to talk myself into doing this since I didn’t feel as if I had the background for playwriting,” Lee sighs. In the class, everyone else seemed so well-read and knew their Shakespeare. “I realized how little I knew about the things that I love,” she remembers. She immediately put herself into a self-driven program to read all the books she never got to read in high school. To this day she maintains a reading list and enthusiastically checks books off as she finishes the last chapter.
“For me, one measurement of success is the experiences I get to have as a writer. It takes me out of the house into fascinating places.”
For more about Lee Cataluna’s work, please see:
A Native American family program in Washington State that had kids read Ordinary ‘Ohana:
The Arena Stage in Washington DC and the Indigenous Earth Voices project Lee worked on, turning interviews with Native Elders into monologues. The film is still being edited and will probably be released in June 2021.
Lee’s award-winning 10-minute play that she will turn into a full-length play for San Francisco Playhouse:
Play for adults: “Funeral Attire”
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