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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, November 22, 2002

Author dives into ocean of politics

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

Rodney Morales' fiction is colored by his experiences — for example, visiting Kaho'olawe with a group and sneaking away on his own to the spot where activists George Helm and Kimo Mitchell launched their surfboards before they disappeared.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

Rodney Morales

• Age: 50

• Raised in Kalihi; family includes four siblings, a 19-year-old son and a longtime girlfriend.

• UH-Manoa bachelor's and master's degrees

• Associate professor, English, specialties in Pacific literature and American ethnic literature; director of creative writing; on sabbatical this semester

• New novel: "When the Shark Bites" (UH Press, paper, $19)

• Previous works: "The Speed of Darkness," short-story collection (1988, Bamboo Ridge Press); "Ho'i Ho'i Hou: A Tribute to George Helm and Kimo Mitchell" (editor, Bamboo Ridge, 1985)

Rodney Morales grew up listening to Bob Dylan and John Lennon, and yearned to write songs as they did — songs that said it all for him then, about rebellion and change.

But reality intervened: Morales needed a job that involved a regular paycheck. So when he graduated from Farrington High School in 1970, he went from Kalihi to UH-Manoa, from the piano-playing, band-gigging life to a world of words and ideas.

Music went with him, though. Morales uses lyrics extensively as literary

devices in his first novel "When the Shark Bites" (UH Press, paper, $19), the name of which is from the song, "Mac the Knife."

The jazzy but cynical paean, an un-likely choice for the title of a book set in the Islands, sets the tone of blended humor and danger for this work. But this readable and well-written fictional history of Hawaiian activism is no "Jaws"; it concerns itself with the more dangerous type of shark — the land kind.

The book began as a short story "ripped from the headlines" after Morales read about a shark attack. He played around with a story about a teenager who can't resist the water despite the shark danger. He missed a deadline for the Honolulu Magazine fiction contest, then entered a later draft in the 1994 competition and won. He thought he had the seed of a novel, but he couldn't get the voice right until he began to think about the boy's mother's perspective — how she would see things.

So was born the Rivera family: Henry, a construction worker and disillusioned activist; Kanani, who has a secret that dates back to her protest days; and Makena, their eldest son.

Morales is known as a pacifist and protester against reckless land development, a worker for Hawaiian empowerment and a vocal advocate of broadening the canon of literature that's taught in schools. Growing up on the streets and sports fields of Kalihi, he was rebellious but aimless, he said.

The '70s at UH-Manoa, with building occupations and other forms of protest, politicized him. But his studies in literature and creative writing have shown him his place.

And it's not to propagandize, he said, but to tell stories that might not otherwise be told.

"I found a way to address (socio-political issues) through writing. I could hand out a flyer as well as anybody and sit down and do a quiet protest, but I decided my gift is my writing," he said.

Still, for him, politics and art are connected.

"Just about every great novel is political. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 'One Hundred Years of Solitude,' one of the greatest novels ever, is very political, but Marquez wasn't going to preach Marxism in the book. He was telling stories."

So it is with Morales. "If I want to preach to someone, I'll write an essay, but I'm telling a very human story.

"These people have their politics and whether you buy into that or not, you get to know them for a while and you get to know where they come from, and I think that's important. It helps people understand each other."

Hanging out with people involved in the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana, he was completely in sympathy with their aims, but he held himself a little apart. "I was there to write," he said. In 1984, he edited a book, "Ho'i Ho'i Hou: A Tribute to George Helm and Kimo Mitchell," about the two men who were lost at sea during the Kaho'olawe protest.

Morales' fiction is colored by his experiences — for example, visiting Kaho'olawe with a group and sneaking away on his own to the spot where Helm and Mitchell launched their surfboards before they disappeared. And he has talked extensively with people who know about the various movements, the smoky rooms of island politics, government corruption, syndicate dealings and so on.

Excerpt from 'When the Shark Bites'

Henry Rivera, vainly searching for a lost comrade, becomes lost in the Moloka'i Channel himself.

"He stayed calm as he alternated between treading water and floating on his back, as he was doing now, simply allowing the current to carry him, to lull him. Seeing himself in similar repose on the bier, he contemplated his imminent death: what it would mean to whom. Who'd attend his funeral? He thought about the songs he would've liked to have been sent off with: "A Whiter Shade of Pale" ... "Hi'ilawe" ... some Beatles ... maybe "A Day in the Life"... Of course, they'd need to find a body in order to have a funeral."

But he emphasizes that his book is made up from whole kapa.

"I wasn't there, I didn't see these things or hear these things," he said. "I'm just such a good liar, such a good fabricator that I created really a resemblance to truth. You want people to believe it, and yet I know I'm making it up."

Morales makes use of the power that songs have to conjure up a time and place. Scraps of songs running through the characters' heads allow readers, especially those of Morales' generation, to connect — in a heartbeat — with the book.

He learned from his studies of narrative that his youthful ideas about songwriting were based on

a false premise. "I made the mistake when I was young of trying to write songs fast. I figured, three stanzas and a chorus, how long

can it take?" he said. "Now as an older person, I realize it takes a lot more than three minutes to distill what you want to say into three minutes."

In writing fiction, he said, you have to "write big, write voraciously, fill space, fill space," and then cut with equal fervor.

Morales may have mellowed somewhat in that he thinks of himself primarily as an artist, but he remains cynical about local politics and corruption in public agencies.

The book is full of stories that every Islander believes could be true. It isn't tied up in a pretty bow of optimism for good reason, he said: "I think if the novel gives false hopes, as though it's all resolved ... people walk way feeling that OK, it's done. But it's not done. The reality is things are still pretty screwed up here."

He also scorned to place a halo on the Hawaiians he portrays: "I can see that somebody down the line is going to inevitably say you should have cast us in a more totally good light, but that's not real. ... The Riveras are very real people, but they're more interesting for their troubles. ... I'd rather read about someone like that than some saint."