Writer-in-Residence: Lee Cataluna

Maui-born journalist and playwright Lee Cataluna visited Punahou as its inaugural Hawai‘i Writer-in-Residence from April 10 – 14. During her weeklong residency, she visited classes across campus, met with faculty and staff, and participated in three special events for the campus community and the public. 

In the classroom, the professional author read her children’s book “Ordinary Ohana” to kindergartners and first graders and led writing exercises for grades 2 – 5 students. She worked with middle school students on persuasive writing and visited classes in the Academy, from Asian Studies to English, to answer questions and read from her “Flowers of Hawai‘i and Other Plays,” even joining students in a joint reading.

Cataluna shared helpful writing tips throughout her residency, such as write first, revise later; start a story close to the action; and use rich sensory details. “Specificity is your friend in writing,” she told students. “When you pick the right detail – the quality of light in a room, the temperature of the wind – it can tell a reader so much.”

The dynamic and versatile Cataluna “awakened, encouraged and inspired” our inner storytellers, said Academy English faculty member Lara Cowell ’88, and helped students realize that their own unique and personal stories are worthy of commemorating in writing. The opportunity to ask questions and converse with a professional author was also a highlight for students, said Cheryl Durso, grade 5 Humanities faculty member.

During the public event, “An Evening with Lee Cataluna,” she read excerpts form her works and answered questions from the audience and host Timothy Dyke, a longtime Punahou English faculty member. Dyke and Cataluna’s son, Kainoa, joined her on some readings, much to the delight of the audience.

She gave a behind-the-scenes view into her creative process, sharing how she visited different Longs stores on the Island with a notebook to gather material for “Folks You Meet in Longs.” Writing other people’s stories has been an essential part of her work as a journalist, which carries over into her playwriting. Her happy place is sitting at the back of a theatre watching her characters come alive on stage through actors’ performances.

Cataluna compared the creative process to a flow state, where writing becomes fun and effortless, like surfing or dancing. Anyone can tap into this “rushing river” of inspiration, including students who might feel overwhelmed on how to get started with writing. 

She also recounted stories of her youth and her father, a plantation worker who became a manager and the first in his family to attend college. Being named Writer-in-Residence was an unexpected honor, she told the audience. “I’m sure my dad would never have thought his daughter would be Writer-in-Residence at Punahou School.” 

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