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ʻŌiwi poet Noʻu Revilla debuts book about aloha in the 21st century

Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada
Noʻu Revilla

Growing up in Waiʻehu, Maui, Noʻu Revilla said her parents encouraged and helped to cultivate her love of storytelling. Her dad is a fisherman and an artist and her mom is a “memory maker,” encompassing everything from photography and videography to sewing and creating family newsletters.

The 36-year-old also grew up hearing her grandma’s stories and lessons about shapeshifting. She said many of these experiences inspired her to write her first book, “Ask the Brindled,” a collection of 42 poems that debuted last week.

“My father is a wonderful storyteller. It just showed me like, I want to move people like that. They literally would move off their chairs to kind of follow my father and his story,” she said. “And then to see my mother take time … to take me to libraries, and to give me these little mini assignments, you know, fill the page … and my job was to fill the page with a story.”

Based on her Ph.D. dissertation while studying at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, Revilla’s book looks at the concept of aloha in the face of colonization and sexual violence. It also highlights intergenerational healing and desire through the Hawaiian moʻo, or shapeshifting water protectors that often appear in lizard form. She said the title is a nod to the brindled skin of moʻo and their role as protectors.

"Ask the Brindled" debuted on Aug. 9.
Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada
"Ask the Brindled" debuted on Aug. 9.

“Aloha is a community-building practice,” she said. “It is a knowledge practice. My grandmother is a very major presence in the collection. And aloha becomes this kupuna-like figure...”

Revilla said she recently flew back to Maui to read some of her poems to her dad and sister, which was a special moment for her ʻohana.

“They were so present with me as I read. And the aloha that I planted in each poem, they reciprocated,” she said. “This book is drawing so unapologetically from what I've learned from my family, especially the women in my family. So it makes me feel like I'm doing something good. And it really just makes me want to keep writing.”

Another inspiration is the late Native Hawaiian activist and author Haunani-Kay Trask. Revilla emotionally recalled finding Trask’s book in a library while attending New York University.

“It didn't feel like she was trying to market the book to anyone but other ʻŌiwi who were off island or weren't raised with that knowledge,” she said. “It just felt like such an embrace… And that this is what I want my book to do. I want my book to embrace.”

Revilla was the first ʻŌiwi poet to win the National Poetry Series competition last year — and was offered a book deal.

She is considered the first openly queer ʻŌiwi woman to have a full-length poetry collection published by a leader in the industry. But she said it’s so much more than her.

“I have to show love for all the generations of people who fought so hard to make it possible for me to write a poem that is deeply erotic, deeply unapologetic, deeply gay … and have it published in a book,” she said. “There needs to be more of us.”

Revilla said she’s excited about upcoming collaborations with Indigenous artists and writing more books. As a creative writing assistant professor at UH, she considers it a gift to help guide future generations.

“One of the most beautiful things to see is a classroom of writers who never knew each other and … the kind of trust that gets cultivated between writers who have decided to show up, not just for their own stories, but for each other’s stories," she said.

An official book launch event will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 1 at Ka Waiwai in Mōʻiliʻili (1110 University Avenue).

Jayna Omaye was a culture and arts reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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