UH Hilo English students and faculty attend writers conference; Patsy Iwasaki presents work

At the Kauai Writers Conference, students explored the process of writing works of fiction, poetry, and graphic novels, and learned what inspires others to create.

Group photo of UH Hilo group attending conference.
UH Hilo students and faculty gather for a group photo at the 2023 Kauai Writers Conference held in November. (Front row, left to right) Jaden Kapali, Elena Espinoza, Evangeline Lemieux, and Taylor U‘i Barongan. (Back row) Amari Ohara, Jun Reyes, Braden Savage, Katina Gronowski, David Katz, Susan Wackerbarth, Pohakalaokeaolani Van Veen, and Patsy Iwasaki.(Courtesy photo)

By Evangeline Lemieux.

Patsy Iwasaki pictured
Patsy Iwasaki

Students and faculty from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo’s Department of English traveled to the 2023 Kauai Writers Conference in November, where UH Hilo Assistant Professor of English Patsy Iwasaki gave a talk about her graphic novel.

The conference, organized by coordinator David Katz, is a well-known annual conference that attracts notable local, national, and international presenters and participants with dozens of presentations and workshops about all things writing, editing and publication.

Wanting to make an educational impact upon Hawai‘i students, Katz and the Kauai Writers Conference worked with Iwasaki and Instructor of English Susan Wackerbarth to sponsor the Hilo group to attend and participate in the conference activities by covering the registration fees and meals for two English faculty members and nine students majoring in English or pursuing a certificate. The airfare and accommodations were supported by the Howard and Yoneko Droste endowment.

Many of the presentations at the conference had themes of inspiration and connection. Through watching these presentations, students and participants were able to take a look inside the process of writing works of fiction, poetry, and graphic novels, and to learn what inspires others to create. Iwasaki is a member of the conference’s faculty and her talk was no exception.

Hope for the community

In her presentation at the conference, Iwasaki focused on the process of creating her graphic novel Hāmākua Hero: A True Plantation Story. The book documents the story of Katsu Goto, who immigrated from Japan to Hawai‘i to work on the O‘okala sugar plantation in 1885. Goto was lynched by plantation associates for his activism against the inhumane working conditions of the plantation.

Book cover, graphic illustration of sugar worker.
Book cover of Patsy Iwasaki’s Hāmākua Hero: A True Plantation Story, available at Bess Press.

The process of researching, writing, and illustrating this graphic novel took author Iwasaki and illustrator Avery Berido, a UH Hilo alumnus, many months. The tragic story of Katsu Goto is not very well known, and before the efforts of adopted niece Fumiko Kaya, very little of Goto’s legacy and narrative was public knowledge.

Although Goto was tragically murdered by sugar plantation associates, Iwasaki highlights how his story can now become a message of hope and resilience for communities.

“He was ambitious,” she says, “and he did come to Hawai‘i because he wanted to fulfill his hopes and dreams, and he was a champion for sugar cane worker rights in Hawai‘i. Although his death was a horrible tragedy, it marked an early turning point for the organization of plantation labor and the eventual establishment of labor unions in Hawai‘i, so now he is being honored and remembered for his courageous action, and his story is being used as a culturally relevant educational resource that can 1) maintain culture, and 2) encourage community resilience.”

It’s important to Iwasaki to utilize arts, design, and education, as well as make her work accessible to readers of varying ages and reading abilities. This made a graphic novel an innovative option for telling Goto’s story.

Graphic illustration of hanging.
Manga style graphics depicting the first moments of the crime the night Goto was hanged.

“I was hoping to add a little bit more of a multi sensory experience for the reader,” she says of the graphic novel. “Teachers using Hāmākua Hero, especially those teaching alternative learning students who may be disconnected with the educational system, after they connect with Goto’s character, they are invested in his story and they are impacted by it.”

Iwasaki’s plans for the story don’t end with the graphic novel. She is producing and directing a documentary film about the life and death of Katsu Goto, due for release in the near future. She says some sections of the graphic novel lend themselves to “the process as a storyboard for the documentary film.”

With regard to inspiration for the project, Iwasaki feels compelled to tell the story.

“If an idea for a project lands on your head, it’s because it knows you are the one to give birth to it,” she says. “It’s almost as if you have been selected and you now have a duty. The idea knows you are the one who can do it.”

Related story

Katsu Goto Legacy Week honors memory of Hāmākua Hero

Story by Evangeline Lemieux, who is double majoring in English and medical anthropology at UH Hilo.

Share this story