115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Reading Pacific Literature as YAL: Re-Constructing Adolescence in Matthew Kaopio’s Novels

Caryn Lesuma, University of Hawai'i, Manoa

This paper examines constructions of adolescence/ts in Matthew Kaopio's novels Written in the Sky and Up Among the Stars in order to show how reading Oceanic texts as young adult literature can counteract stereotypes about Indigenous youth in the region while providing models for young readers to negotiate power structures. 


While the field of Pacific literatures in English is itself fairly recent, a critical mass of texts has solidified within the past two decades that make it appropriate and necessary to begin studying subsets of the field: in this case, texts written for and about adolescents. Through an examination of Matthew Kaopio’s novels Written in the Sky and Up Among the Stars, I assert that Oceanic YA literature requires greater critical attention in the broader field of Pacific literatures because texts about adolescence/ts often function as potent sites of interpellation into existing power structures. However, this very quality also gives them the potential to act in powerfully resistant and decolonial ways. Current scholarship about Kaopio’s work convincingly argues the importance of the texts as sites of colonial resistance and Indigenous futurisms. While the texts are widely acknowledged as young adult, to date they have not been critically examined as such. I build on existing scholarship by arguing that reading these texts as “young adult” allows for an interrogation of adolescence and what it means to come of age in a colonized state. This is particularly important in Hawai‘i, where Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada warns that a dearth in young adult and middle grade narratives written for and by Hawaiians “threatens to create [a] lost generation…there are no versions of our mo‘olelo explicitly aimed at those in these in-between generations, especially if they are not already avid readers” (Kuwada 106-7). In labeling Kaopio’s works “young adult,” I am engaging in what John Rieder calls a “rhetorical act” with significant consequences: “Generic attribution…affects the distribution and reception of texts: that is, the ways that they are put to use. It is a way of telling someone how to read a text, and even more a kind of promise that the text can be usefully, pleasurably, read that way. The attribution does not just classify the text, it promotes its use by a certain group of readers and in certain kinds of ways” (Rieder 200-1). Labeling the novels as YAL asks us to examine their portrayal of adolescents/ce in Hawai‘i and the consequences of such representations, which not only shape how adolescents view themselves, but how they are viewed—and consequently acted upon—by the rest of society. I argue that Written in the Sky and Up Among the Stars challenge stereotypes about race, class, and adolescence in Hawai‘i by offering teen readers a counternarrative to American popular constructs of adolescence that is rooted in Kanaka Maoli epistemologies and ontologies. This re-construction of an Indigenous youth culture provides an actionable “way to be” for youth in Hawai‘i that positions them to embody social, cultural, and ultimately political change.