Rodney Morales took inspiration from the lives of activists George Helm and Kimo Mitchell.

A novel journey

Personal tale represents
the author’s 6-year quest

Novel represents an unforgettable story

By Genevieve A. Suzuki
Special to the Star-Bulletin

Author Rodney Morales took six years to complete "When the Shark Bites," a novel about a contemporary native Hawaiian family. Morales, an associate professor and creative-writing specialist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, took time writing the novel because he needed to concentrate on teaching.

"I don't think you can be a good teacher, writing all the time," said Morales. "The great thing about this book was, I could put it to the side for months and then pick it up, and it would still be there."

Then, as Y2K approached, he felt a more urgent need to finish the work. The story is one that nagged at Morales since 1984, when he was earning his master's degree in English from UH. The novel grew out of a biography class paper on native Hawaiian activist George Helm.

After a while, the paper didn't seem sufficient, and Morales turned the research into a compilation published by Bamboo Ridge, "Ho'i Ho'i Hou -- A Tribute to George Helm & Kimo Mitchell." "It was a thing I just happened upon," said Morales, 50, "a real labor of love."

Helm and Mitchell inspired several articles, poems and songs in the book. Helm, who fought for Kahoolawe's liberation from U.S. military control, seemed a special muse for many artists, including musician Malani Bilyeu's "Molokai Sweet Home" and Jon Osorio and Randy Borden's "Hawaiian Soul."

MORALES JOINED the list of influenced artists. Although his research on Helm provided inspiration, Morales said the native Hawaiian activist character of Keoni in the "When the Shark Bites" is not Helm.

"That's a character I made up," said Morales, who attributes all of the book's characters to representations of facets of his own personality.

So is he the Puerto Rican-American Henry? Is he Alika, the graduate student doing research on Keoni's life?

Can he be Henry's gracious wife, Kanani?

"If people want to nail me in that, it's going to be hard," Morales said. "There's a little bit of me in all the different characters."

Even in Sparkey, the small-time criminal?

"Whether they're heroic or degenerate," added Morales with a laugh.

There's also a little bit of the people around Morales in the novel.

He said he drew on his son's experiences for some of the children's stories in "When the Shark Bites." He also asked surfers for advice and students for names of their favorite bands.

"Different people helped with minor things," Morales said. "I didn't want to sound phony. I wanted the characters to ring true.

"A novel is a way to bring in all the different worlds I know."

Morales' novel will surely prompt discussion about the '70s activism involving Helm and Kahoolawe, and that sits fine with the author, who said a new generation needs to be informed.

"Friends of mine who are about my age and people who are involved in some way, they loved the book," said Morales. He said his friends are reading the book to their children.

"To me, that's the unwritten history of Hawaii," said Morales of the people who wanted to reclaim Kahoolawe from American bombing. "I thought, Nobody's going to do it, so I'd better try."

"When the Shark Bites," by Rodney Morales (University of Hawaii Press, 376 pages, paperback, $19)

Review by Genevieve A. Suzuki
Special to the Star-Bulletin

A friend once said he didn't mind purchasing hardcover books because they represent someone's life's work, and that was more valuable than any amount of money.

Rodney Morales' "When the Shark Bites" is that kind of book. It represents a time in the author's life when he was so moved by one person's engrossing story that he could not forget it.

The novel begins with Henry "Hank" Rivera's reflections while swimming for hours in search of Keoni, a character loosely based on Morales' muse, George Helm, a native Hawaiian activist who fought for the cessation of the bombing of Kahoolawe, and who was mysteriously lost at sea in 1977.

Hank remembers: "Keoni. Destined to be a lifelong friend. Comrade, brother, soul mate -- leader. But he had crossed too many people. Had become too much of a threat to the powers-that-be. But who would have done him in? The U.S. Navy? The local syndicate?"

Hank never finds Keoni, leaving him with questions that continue to haunt him and his family almost two decades later.

Several voices pick up where Hank leaves off, including his wife, Kanani, whom he met during his fellowship with Keoni.

When Hank speaks again, he is known as Henry, a middle-age man faced with moving his family to Waianae after their eviction from Waikiki.

A bright young graduate assistant, Alika, enters their lives when he needs help writing a paper on Keoni's life. Before calling Alika, Kanani ponders whether they could handle bringing Keoni back into their lives.

THROUGHOUT THE NOVEL, Henry and Kanani grow in spirit as they relive their time as members of the 'Ohana, the group that supported Keoni.

Kanani's own eloquent memories of Keoni echo her husband's admiration for the activist: "Keoni was clearly seen by the public as being the 'Ohana's chief spokesperson, the one who steered us. He had worked hard behind the scenes for quite a while, but now it was clear that he was the guy people wanted to hear.

"It was his vision that took us through the rough seas. It was his vision that was the most inspiring -- and inspired. He was the one who could articulate the hurt so many of us felt."

Although other characters contribute their thoughts and experiences, Henry and Kanani's lives remain the focus of "When the Shark Bites."

Memories Henry and Kanani fought to suppress emerge, forcing them to deal with issues needing resolution, including the struggle to find an identity as a contemporary native Hawaiian family.

This novel successfully draws the reader in with the intrigue surrounding Keoni's disappearance; the chemistry of Henry and Kanani's marriage; and their son Makena's remarkable fascination with the ocean. Morales' ability to relate from person to person is impressive and is especially evident in Kanani's entries. A quiet strength combined with thorough introspection makes her a key player in this story, leaving the reader to wonder whether Kanani, like Keoni, was based on a real person.

"When the Shark Bites" offers a more human view of the native Hawaiian movement than what we've glimpsed in the media. It's the kind of tale that will inspire more questions and possible novels.

Although the book was published in softcover, this is the kind of book that deserves hardcover reverence.

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