First Impression: Kapaemahu

by Ethan Seavey – Pride and Less Prejudice – August 5, 2023:

When I was planning to write a “first impression” style article about an LGBTQ+ inclusive children’s book, my first instinct was to talk about what the book would have taught me when I was young. I did not expect to pick up a book that would teach me, a queer adult, about new aspects of queerness. That changed when I first opened Kapaemahu. 

In this book, authors Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer, and Joe Wilson share the traditional Hawaiian story, The Healer Stones of Kapaemahu. The story is told in simplified Olelo Niihau, the language spoken by the few Native Hawaiian people who still live on Niihau island, as well as English. While it is told in a language that children would have no problem understanding, it demonstrates the importance of highlighting Hawaiian stories which have been erased by white colonists. In this case, the erasure of this story goes hand in hand with the intentional erasure of the Mahu people.

In the story, four Tahitian people arrive to Wakiki, where they are welcomed by the Hawaiian people. They learn that these people call themselves “mahu” and are neither male nor female. “They were mahu—a mixture of both in mind, heart, and spirit.” As the story goes, these four visitors are blessed with rich healing powers which they share with the village. In gratitude, the Hawaiian people erect four enormous stones, and the mahu people transfer their healing powers into the monument.

Here, the story takes a turn. The traditional story fades away, but the book continues, telling us that the stones were sacred for centuries, until American colonizers took control and built a bowling alley on top of the rocks. Finally, the book ends with the re-creation of the traditional Hawaiian monument, and a young child who engages with the mahus’ power, still strong, in the rocks.

At the end of the book is further information for adults and curious children alike. One can learn that the main author, Wong-Kalu, is mahu herself, and implores young children to embrace the male and female spirits inside of everyone. One can also learn about the importance of this story in the wake of a worldwide pandemic, or about the origins of this story, or about the language Olelo Niihau.

I feel a lot of pride working with PLP knowing that this book is on our list. I believe every student who reads this book will take many lessons from it, and I know the same is true for the teachers sharing it. Wong-Kalu introduces her audience to a story and a culture which has been purposefully destroyed by American imperialists out of fear of their power.

Moreover, the illustrations of Daniel Sousa accompany the story and bring life to each page with warm yellow and red tones—except the brief depiction of the way American tourism has forever changed the beautiful land of the Hawaiian people. The distinction is stark and begs the audience to reconstruct our image of what Hawaii is and what our relationship to it should be. It begs us to do our research and listen to the Native Hawaiian people who are still living and demanding to be heard, to be respected, and to receive retributions for the decades of oppression under American rule.

It appears that this is part of the reason that the niche community that can read this dialect of Olelo Niihau is given priority in the text, as the English language translations always appear second. It is an effort to demonstrate this problem and to undo the assumption that American English is the default.

The experience of listening to Wong-Kalu read her story is an exceptional one. She brings reverence to each line and delivers the words, in both languages, beautifully. To conclude her read-aloud, she shares more knowledge about being mahu and what her Hawaiian heritage means to her. You can find this read-aloud in the dedicated read-aloud category on PLP’s website, under the resources tab.

The historic oppression of the mahu people began with prejudice and discrimination against mahu performers and continues to this day. Across human history and in many different cultural spheres, people have been choosing to live outside the binaries of sex and gender which were constructed by Europeans and enforced onto other communities through colonialism. Today it is essential that we deconstruct those binaries in our minds. Maybe that starts with reading Kapaemahu.

Full article here.