Interview with Native Hawaiian/Guamanian Author Catherine Payne

Native Hawaiian/Guamanian author Cather­ine Payne lives by the ancient Chamor­roCatherine-Payne val­ue of inafaʻ maolek, or mak­ing things right. An impor­tant aspect of inafaʻ maolek is that the whole com­mu­ni­ty, not just the nuclear fam­i­ly, is respon­si­ble for rais­ing healthy, hap­py chil­dren. Pic­ture books, says the author of five books for kids, can be key to open­ing con­ver­sa­tions between chil­dren and grown-ups.

We cer­tain­ly agree. Wel­come, Cathy, to our talk story! 

Alo­ha and håfa adai! Before we begin, please allow me to explain a lit­tle about our language.

The CHamoru Lan­guage Com­mis­sion on Guam decid­ed to use the CHamoru spelling for its orthog­ra­phy, but some peo­ple still use the Chamor­ro spelling. The Chamor­ro peo­ple in the Com­mon­wealth of the North­ern Mar­i­ana Islands still use the Chamor­ro spelling. To avoid the debate, I used CHamoru/Chamorro in my answers.

Since I’m mixed race but born and raised on Guam, I pre­fer to be called Guamanian.

Maha­lo for that, Cathy. For those who haven’t met you yet, please tell us a lit­tle about yourself. 

My moth­er is from Oahu, and my father is from Guam. I was born and raised on Guam where I ate CHamoru/Chamorro food as much as I could! I grad­u­at­ed from the Acad­e­my of Our Lady of Guam. My biggest sup­port­er was my mater­nal grand­fa­ther, who was from Oahu. He passed away when I was in high school, but his sup­port still means a lot to me.

Why did you become author? Have you always want­ed to be an author?

I’ve loved writ­ing since I could grip a pen­cil, but I did­n’t try children’s lit­er­a­ture until about a decade ago. There are so many kinds of writ­ing that it took me a while to fig­ure out that I should con­sid­er children’s literature.

Chep­chop Unai by Cather­ine Payne (Uni­ver­si­ty of Guam Press, 2018))

What do you enjoy most about writ­ing, espe­cial­ly for kids? What are some of your great­est challenges?

I love read­ing my books to chil­dren and see­ing their reac­tions! My great­est chal­lenge is find­ing time to grow as a writer. I’m busy as an Eng­lish instruc­tor and tutor, but I read craft books and watch craft webi­na­rs when I can.

What is your writ­ing process like?

I spend a lot of time think­ing and talk­ing about sto­ry ideas before draft­ing. I usu­al­ly revise drafts count­less times.

Three of your books are co-authored by your broth­er, John Payne. What is it like to work with a fam­i­ly mem­ber? What strengths do each of you bring to a project?

I like work­ing with my broth­er to devel­op sto­ries. He brings his imag­i­na­tion; I bring my analy­sis. While he comes up with new ideas, I fol­low indus­try stan­dards for plotting.

Please tell us about Chep­chop Unai. What inspired you to write that sto­ry? Who inspired your main char­ac­ters? What do you like best about them?

I’ve always want­ed to write about Guam because it’s my home. Chep­chop Unai is writ­ten most­ly in Eng­lish, but it has a sprin­kling of CHamoru/Chamorro words. It reflects the way I speak. My first lan­guage is Eng­lish, but I use CHamoru/Chamorro words to express cer­tain ideas. My fam­i­ly inspired my main char­ac­ters because the sto­ry depicts a close rela­tion­ship between a child and his grand­par­ents. I like show­ing how grand­par­ents are impor­tant in children’s lives.

Mole and Tell by Cather­ine and John Payne (Sci­ence Nat­u­ral­ly, 2023)

Mole and Tell is your STEM pic­ture book. Itʻs quite dif­fer­ent from your oth­er titles. What was the jour­ney like to write that book? What was your favorite part of writ­ing your books? What was most challenging?

Yes, I ven­tured out­side my com­fort zone to write a sci­ence book like Mole and Tell. One of my favorite parts of the process was hav­ing inci­den­tal diver­si­ty. It fea­tures a Native Hawai­ian girl named Leilani! The most chal­leng­ing part was mak­ing sci­en­tif­ic con­cepts under­stand­able and engag­ing at the same time.

Youʻve also writ­ten two board books for younger kids, Ten Lit­tle Surfers in Hawaiʻi and These Lit­tle Kit­tens in Hawaiʻi. What inspired you to write those books? How did those books come about? What did you enjoy about writ­ing them? 

I’ve always want­ed to write about Hawaiʻi because I love vis­it­ing there. After writ­ing and revis­ing sto­ries set in Hawaiʻi, I sent them to a pub­lish­er. Luck­i­ly, they’ve done well.

With­out giv­ing too much away, what is I Lalai i Bilem­bao­tuyuan about? Can you talk about your main char­ac­ter? What char­ac­ter­is­tics do you love about her? 

I Lalai i Bilem­bao­tuyan is a pic­ture book about a girl learn­ing how to play the bilem­bao­tuyan, a CHamoru musi­cal instru­ment, from her grand­fa­ther. At the same time, she learns how to cope with antic­i­pa­to­ry grief. 

Through her curios­i­ty, Lalai finds her pas­sion for play­ing the bilem­bao­tuyan. I love Lalai’s curios­i­ty and her desire to learn. It’s impor­tant for chil­dren to explore and try things to find their inter­ests and passions. 

I Lalai i Bilem­bao­tuyan by Cather­ine Payne and John Payne (Uni­ver­si­ty of Guam Press, 2022)

Do you have any expe­ri­ences as a Gua­man­ian writer that you might share with our read­ers? What would you like to see change in the indus­try regard­ing the accep­tance of BIPOC creators? 

The U.S. book indus­try focus­es on West­ern sto­ry struc­tures like Freytag’s Pyra­mid, but fol­low­ing that mod­el doesn’t come nat­u­ral­ly to me. I hope that the indus­try becomes more open to alter­na­tive nar­ra­tive structures.

What beliefs do you think your work challenging?

I’ve met peo­ple who didn’t think it was pos­si­ble to have a lit­er­ary career while liv­ing on Guam. Thanks to the inter­net, I’ve joined online writ­ing com­mu­ni­ties, tak­en class­es, and col­lab­o­rat­ed with pub­lish­ers beyond Guam’s shores. Liv­ing on Guam hasn’t hin­dered me.

What are your hopes and dreams for the year and beyond in terms of your pub­lish­ing career and what you would like to see pub­lished in the future?

I’m hav­ing fun writ­ing more sci­ence pic­ture books, and I’m also learn­ing how to write chap­ter books and mid­dle-grade novels.

What advice would you give an aspir­ing writer?

Please don’t let your loca­tion lim­it you. You can thrive even if you live on an island in Typhoon Alley like Guam. Sure, storms make life hard­er, but they run out of rain.

As you know, we always end our inter­views with niele ques­tions … Is there a fun fact youʻd like to share about your­self with young readers?

When I was a lit­tle girl, I want­ed a name like Leilani, so I gave a char­ac­ter in Mole and Tell that name.

What kinds of books do you enjoy read­ing? Any favorites?

I enjoy read­ing short sto­ries with plot twists like Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder.”

Who is your hero?

I admire Queen Liliʻuokalani’s lead­er­ship and artistry. She is a good role mod­el for females.

She’s my hero, too. What advice would you give your younger self?

It’s ok to not know what you want to be when you grow up. I even­tu­al­ly found my pur­pose in life after tak­ing paths with dead ends.

Good advice, for sure. Maha­lo, Cathy, for talk­ing sto­ry with us! To learn more about Cathy, vis­it her on Insta­gram and lis­ten to her watch her inter­view with Read with Rosa on YouTube. 

Images cour­tesy of Cather­ine Payne.

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