Interview: Kapena Landgraf
Born and raised in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii, Kapena spent much of his childhood in the plantation towns of Pepe’ekeo and Papa’ikou along the Hamakua coast. His family later moved to the Kaumana area of upper Hilo where he attended Hilo High School, graduating in 2006. Kapena moved to Oʻahu to attend UH – Mānoa in that same year, eventually earning both his BA and MA in English. Currently a Ph.D. candidate in English, Kapena is the current Fiction Editor of Hawaiʻi Review and is an avid reader of indigenous Hawaiian literatures and local literatures of Hawaiʻi.
How long have you been writing?
I began writing in 2008, when I took a 313 creative writing course from Rodney Morales. I jumped majors a few times during my undergrad, from chemistry to medical technology to secondary education in English. I was pretty set on becoming a high school English teacher with a BEd in secondary education, but taking Rodney’s course opened a new chapter in my life. Studying literature and redeploying the techniques of great writers was, and still is, so compelling to me. I wrote my very first story in that class, and it went on to win a Myrle Clark award for creative writing. The very next semester, I became an English major and I’ve never looked back.
Could you tell us a little about that first story?
My very first story was titled “Baptism.” At the time, I was very into war stories, mostly fiction, creative nonfiction, and memoir. “Baptism” was about the experiences of a sailor aboard a US navy ship fighting the Japanese in the battle for the Pacific. I was quite naive when it came to anything war related, so the story was driven more so by the central character than by plot. I became fixated on nailing the development of dialogue in the story, and thus, I see “Baptism” as sort of the genesis of my obsession over dialogue. I’m a big fan of silences in literature as well as film, and I insist that the speech of my character be concise but potent; loaded in a way that permits the reader the freedom of interpretation.
What has changed, in terms of either subject or yourself as a writer, along the way?
Since then, much has changed in terms of my writing focus and style. Most of these changes came during the MA program, where I took American literature and Hawaiian literature courses from Jim Caron and ku’ualoha ho’omanawanui. I had always felt my writing lacked direction and purpose. I knew I could write a decent story, but I would choose my topics on a whim. I didn’t like that. I credit much of the students in the MA program for pushing me toward indigenous Hawaiian literature. No’u Revilla was a big inspiration to me, and slowly but surely, I began to embrace my Hawaiian upbringing and heritage within my personal writings. My MA thesis ultimately combines the the literary style and techniques of Faulkner and Hemingway to describe Hawaiian stories of dispossession, loss, but also reclamation. I continue to write in this fashion. There’s something about minimalist writing that I find incredibly powerful.
Was there anything challenging in this shift to embracing your background?
My decision to embrace my Hawaiian heritage was, and continues to be, extremely difficult for me. I come from a very assimilated family who have built solid reputations at multiple levels of government here in Hawaiʻi. My journey through academia, an indeed writing for that matter, has been driven by a desire to develop some sense of “hyrbid-identity” that observes a balance between embracing my Hawaiian blood while also being sensitive to the limitations of my upbringings within an assimilated family. This is why I’ve found the readings of John Dominis Holt to be incredibly powerful. I often describe my writing as “fractured” for exactly this reason, choosing to portray my central character(s) as passive and silent in order to illustrate the incredible amount of internal conflict that exists within an individual who is a child of two very different worlds. Jonathan Osorio wrote an amazing article, “On Being Hawaiian,” borrowing its title from one of Holt’s texts. In it, Osorio goes to great lengths to describe Hawaiians who are “huikau,” or confused about who they are; their identity, their origins, their sense of belonging. Haunani Trask has also written of such confusion in a number of her articles, and unfortunately for me, I belong to this group of “confused” individuals who were divorced from the history and culture of their lahui. However, rather than viewing my situation as hopeless, I think I’ve been given an amazing opportunity to illustrate the repercussions of colonialism, assimilation, and reclamation experienced by those who occupy the grey space of erasure. It is a place where deep meditations can be had as to the emotions of finding a sense of belonging.
I was big on Raymond Carver when I started writing and kind of obsessed over his economy of language. How was minimalist writing useful for the stories you were trying to tell?
I’ve really become a fan of Faulkner and Hemingway and their use of imagism. I’ve received a lot of flak about this being very “cliche” and odd, since I’m “idolizing” these well-known American authors to portray narratives steeped in Hawaiian history and cultural issues, but as Lilikala Kame’eleihiwa has said about Queen Lili’uokalani’s writings, one of the queen’s greatest strengths was her ability to redeploy Western technologies (language, education, etc.) for purposes supporting the lahui and the kanaka. Faulkner and Hemingway have a way with world-building that is truly unbelievable to me. Some of their shorter stories can completely gloss-over much of the main character while a narration of the senses conveys to the reader everything and anything they need to know. I think that works which observe an economy of words forces the reader to reach certain monumental epiphanies for themselves, encouraging moments of self-reflection, self-realization, and meta. A true connection is thus established between not only the reader and the text/characters, but also the underlying themes presented in the story itself.
How would you describe your work thus far?
It’s difficult for me to discuss my work because, until VERY recently, I’ve never shared any of it beyond the classroom workshop setting. Since much, if not all, of my writing concerns elements of indigenous Hawaiian culture, traditions, and knowledge, I’ve kept my writing underground for reasons of kuleana. I feel very strongly that if I’m going to incorporate anything Hawaiian into my narratives, I must do so responsibly. It’s a great fear of mine to lose credibility because I misinterpreted an olelo no’eau or retold a part of Hawaiian history inaccurately. I thus take my time before sharing my stories to make sure I’ve done as much research as I possibly can; that I’ve consulted with others more knowledgeable on particular issues and have their approval. Most of my stories deal with a character in the process of reclaiming his Hawaiian heritage and ancestry, mirroring my own journey through life and similar to the works of Alani Apio and John D. Holt.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently brainstorming a number of stories. I have an odd writing process that relies heavily on post-it notes and web diagrams as brainstorming techniques. What make this odd is that when I actually start writing a story, I tend to completely ignore all the brainstorming I had initially done in preparation. I’m looking to do a short piece concerning the plantation period and the use of bango tags. Another idea I’m working on is a story told to me by my grandfather about several forestry cabins on Hawaiʻi Island that could hold invaluable information within their walls concerning Hawaiian history and language.
Hear Kapena read his work on Sept. 17, 2015 7 p.m. at Manifest in Chinatown.