It may have been dark and rainy outside the glass walls of the Leis Family Class Act Restaurant at UH Maui College on the night of Nov. 7, but inside was full of bright cheer and warm nostalgia. That’s because Julie Checkoway, the author of the eminently interesting and readable 2015 book The Three-Year Swim Club, was on island to talk about how she–a writer from Salt Lake City–came to write about one of Maui’s greatest stories.
Though nearly everyone on Maui has heard of Coach Soichi Sakamoto, few know the details of how he took a bunch of Pu‘unene sugar plantation kids in the 1930s, taught them to swim in irrigation ditches and turned them into international swimming legends.
“It was a great book,” Chancellor Lui Hokoana told the 40 or so attendees–including Mayor Alan Arakawa and his wife Ann–during his introduction. “Not what I expected it to be.”
Former Maui County Corporation Counsel Paul Mancini expanded on Hokoana’s sentiments. “We all know the story of Coach, but the book is more about the people of Maui,” he said. “Maui is a plantation community–how do we keep the values that we grew up with? That’s what the book was about for me.”
But Checkoway herself had the most illuminating comments of the evening. But the point of the evening’s discussion wasn’t so much to applaud her as to hear–in plain terms–what gave her the right to do the book in the first place.
Believe me, as someone who moved to Maui a dozen years ago, this is a question I continually ask myself when doing my own writing and reporting. It’s a question everyone should ask about every author they encounter, regardless of place or subject matter. Put another way, “Who owns the past of Maui?” Checkoway asked during her remarks. Her answer summed up my own thoughts perfectly.
“It’s always best… to address issues of cultural appropriation when trying to tell the story,” she said. “But it must be told by someone! And the untold story of the Three-Year Swim Club was also untold here. Sharing the story would enrich others.”
I interviewed Checkoway at length for our Nov. 4, 2015 story “Talking story with ‘The Three-Year Swim Club’ author Julie Checkoway about Soichi Sakamoto, Maui’s sugar ditch kids and Olympic glory.” Click here to read it.
Photo of Julie Checkoway (second from left) talking with students at UH Maui College: MauiTime