Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islanders Heritage in Horror: Interview with Lopaka Kapanui
Lopaka Kapanui is the author of four spooky story compilations about Hawaii and the people who live there; “Haunted Hawaiian Nights,” “The Legend of Morgan’s Corner,” “Mysteries of Honolulu,” and “Mysteries of Hawai‘i.”
As a Master Storyteller, Lopaka has received a special citation from the Hawai‘i State Legislature in 2020 for perpetuating and celebrating local culture, history, language, and folklore through storytelling and knowledge of the Islands’ history and legends.
In between scaring people and finishing his first novel, Lopaka enjoys spoiling his dog, Pi, and teaching his grandkids all about the classic horror stories and movies he grew up with.
What inspired you to start writing?
What inspired me to start writing was a love of stories and a huge imagination. As a child I was sickly and I spent a few months in the local children’s hospital. I was by myself a lot, and without the luxury of electronic devices and social media, I spent my time in the hospital library where there was a large collection of Hawaiian legends and mythology. As you can figure already figure out, I read through every single book available. That is what inspired me to write.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
What drew me to the horror genre was a movie I watched as a kid. It was an anthology piece from Japan called, Kwaidan. It messed me up pretty bad, and yet, I couldn’t forget about it. The characters were real to me, because in Hawai’i we have a large local Japanese population who are descended from the plantation era. These were people, that looked like my neighbors, my teachers, and my friends. It was the same reaction I had when I read Salem’s Lot. All the characters were very relatable, and that’s what made it horrific and intriguing to me. Fictional characters that could very well be based on people I knew.
Do you make a conscious effort to include Pacific Islander characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
That my people, Hawaiian and local are not criminals, low lifes, jobless, homeless, assholes. That although we know our history, culturally, and spiritually, we are not stuck in it. I want to portray relatable characters of Pacific Islander/Asian/LGBTQ who are living in a spiritual culture in Hawaii that is still relatable and relevant and very much alive today.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
What writing horror has taught me is that a most of time, it’s people who are the monsters. The monsters we know from horror, are just waiting to see what’s left over for the pickings.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
I have seen very few changes in the horror genre because of how formulaic it has become. What is good about that is that horror writers have had to work really hard to come up with more unique aspects of horror stories and cinema. I believe this is how it will continue to evolve. Like Stephen King said, think of the worst thing that could happen and write about it. As long as horror writers are always thinking of new ways to horrify their readers, the genre will always evolve.
How do you feel Pacific Islanders have been represented thus far in the genre? Do you feel there has been adequate representation? What hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
As for Pacific Islanders being represented thus far in the genre, there have only been few and most of them are non-Pacific Islanders portraying our horror stories from a non-Pacific Islander point of view. So, no, there has not been adequate representation. My hope is that storytellers like myself and my very good friend, director Mitchell Merrick, have more opportunity to present our works on a national stage, staying true to our stories without being forced to add the stigma of the great white hero.
Who are some of your favorite Pacific Islander characters in horror, and in fiction in general?
Some of my favorite Pacific Islander characters in horror are the Night Marchers, the Mo’o wahine, and the goddess Pele. Also, the lesser Hawaiian deities or are tricksters and trouble makers. As for fiction in general my favorite horror character is Ben Mears in Salem’s Lot.
Who are some Pacific Islander horror authors (or authors in general) you recommend our audience check out?
I recommend Glen Grant. Although he was not a Pacific Islander, he did start the horror genre in Hawaii with reverence and respect by asking permission of the people whose stories he printed if it would be alright to do so. Which is a very Hawaiian thing. Others have printed their own collection, but Glen Grant loved what he was doing and was not trying to collect a paycheck. He was also my boss and mentor.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
One piece of advice, speaking only for myself, and not as an authority; is that writing horror is visceral. It is channeling. It’s spiritual. Once you know that, then the details regarding the people, places, and things all fall in line.
And to writers of Pacific Islander heritage out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
My advice to writers of Pacific Islander heritage who are just getting started is that above all things, trust your ancestors. Especially, when you have writers block. Ask them for help and they unlock the door and reveal everything you need to know.