Stuart Coleman is Hawaii's modern master storyteller. His non-fiction novels bring legendary Hawaiian real life heroes to the masses — tales formerly passed verbally from direct descendants and family to friends. Coleman put legend and fact in ink to spotlight the inspiring feats accomplished by legendary personalities like Eddie Aikau, Nainoa Thompson, Rell Sunn and Isreal Kamakawiwo'ole.
Coleman's penchant for sharing the lore around giants of the sea has also put him at the head of Surfrider in Hawaii, a worldwide environmental organization that aims to protect and expand the awareness of our coastal areas.
Coleman participated in the first Study Hall Lecture Series at THE MODERN HONOLULU. Held in The Study, the hotel's bar, the series is an opportunity for travelers and residents to meet the personalities shaped by Hawaii's history and those shaping it's future. Stuart shared what has influenced him along his writing path.
We talked with Coleman about how a Carolina kid found his way to paradise, and what prompted his celebrated writings, namely, "Eddie Would Go," the novel about subject Eddie Aikau.
THE MODERN HONOLULU: Let's start at the beginning...You were born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. What put Hawaii on your radar?
Stuart Coleman: When I was in 7th grade there was a mandatory course called "Culture of the Pacific." The class was taught by the school's principal, and he was a soldier in World War II that was injured in the Pacific war theater. The time he spent recovering in Hawaii had a profound effect on him. He claimed his true identity was as a Hawaiian (he was not); he felt he was literally born in the wrong place and he spoke Hawaiian. The stories he told captivated me.
Around the same time, I started surfing the little waves off Charleston's coastline. I told my dad, 'Someday I'm going to go to Hawaii and surf the big ones.'
THE MODERN HONOLULU: You made good on that promise?
Stuart Coleman: Indeed. I had taught on the East and West coasts of the mainland. When a position opened up at Punahou, I applied and got it, teaching creative writing. Amost immediately, I started hearing stories about the sailing voyage of the Hokulea, a traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe that was navigating sans modern equipment across the Pacific Ocean, originally helmed by Dave Lyman, now captained by Nainoa Thompson. For fun, I was writing stories for surf magazines on the pioneers I had formerly just read about. But it was always a little boring. Then, I heard the story of Eddie Aikau from Marion Lyman, the sister of one of the Hokulea's captains.
THE MODERN HONOLULU: Talk about the release of "Eddie Would Go" and how it changed things for you.
Stuart Coleman: The book came out in 2002 and it changed my life. It was an opportunity to write about a Hawaiian icon first and a big wave surfer second. No one previously had talked [on such a visible platform] about the racial issues, the resurgence of the Hawaiian Renaissance, so on. Maybe that's why Random House and Simon & Schuster initially showed interest but ultimately passed on printing it. I ended up self-publishing, which turned out to be the greatest thing. I formed a company, raised $25,000, wrangled in Quiksilver to buy a bunch of copies to cover the print costs and sold out of 7,500 pretty fast. I set up my own book tour throughout Hawaii and up and down the East Coast. During that time, St. Martin's Press took the book national and Random House eventually bought the rights to some international editions.
THE MODERN HONOLULU: Did you identify at all with Eddie Aikau, someone you didn't get to meet but were able to write about so eloquently?
Stuart Coleman: I did. I grew up across the street from a graveyard and Eddie literally grew up in a graveyard. I spent a lot of time with Eddie's family, heard hundreds of stories. He saw apartheid issues in South Africa when we went there to compete in swimming and it devastated him. Yet, he had the presence of mind to come back to Hawaii and use that energy to try and resolve racial issues within the Hawaiian community. He was well on his way to becoming an iconic figure long before people realized it — long before he paddled off from the Hokulea and perished.
THE MODERN HONOLULU: Talk a bit about what followed for you, after the book's success.
Stuart Coleman: I finished teaching at Punahou after five years, did three years at Iolani, and then started teaching at the East-West Center, which was started by President Kennedy in 1961 in hopes of bringing the best and brightest from around the world to Hawaii. I coordinated leadership programs and set to work on my second book, called "Fierce Heart," about the West Side of Oahu and all the legends that came out there. It came out in 2009 [St. Martin's Press]. Rell Sunn's story really blew me away; she's someone I look forward to sharing more about in the future.
THE MODERN HONOLULU: And now?
Stuart Coleman: I'm working as the Hawaii coordinator for Surfrider, which has five chapters on the islands. We develop programs to expand awareness of our precious coastal waters — it's a global organization that makes a real difference. And I'm working on a new book — a collection of stories — that meld indigenous wisdom with creativity, spirituality, economics and environmentalism. I am to get it out in the latter half of 2015. I look forward to it. People can stay tuned at Stuart-Coleman.com