hawaiian legends, adventure, and the rainforest

Michelle Liu
April 08, 2024

Legend has it that picking the ohia lehua on the Big Island can get you in trouble with Pele, the goddess of fire. Native Hawaiian author Malia Maunakea learned that moolelo (story) as a child. It inspired her to write her debut novel Lei and the Fire Goddess.

Malia Maunakea with her debut novel. Photo courtesy David Heinrich

“Because I grew up in Volcano and Hilo, Pele was everywhere; she was just a part of life. One of my earliest memories is my living room glowing red from the volcano erupting,” says Maunakea, who now lives in Colorado. “Pele has always been in my head and I wanted to pay homage to her.”

In the book, Maunakea tells the story of Pele and her fiery temper from the perspective of Anna, a 12-year-old part-Hawaiian girl. Anna destroys Pele’s lehua blossom and must save her friend from the goddess’s wrath. Maunakea draws on the moolelo she grew up with, intertwining Hawaiian legends and culture with themes of friendship, family, and identity.

Like her protagonist, Maunakea also struggled with her identity as a child. Despite being kanaka maoli, she felt like she didn’t fit in as a student at Kamehameha Schools. “I never felt Hawaiian enough to belong there. I was called ‘haole’ growing up, so the crummy feeling of not knowing who I was and where I belonged went into creating Lei,” explains Maunakea.

“Writing this book has been a healing journey. I had to dig into my insecurities, but I now understand that it doesn’t matter what I look like, that I am Hawaiian enough.”

Maunakea went on a book tour across the Islands, visiting elementary schools and sharing the message of “being enough” with students. The experience was one she’ll always treasure. 

Maunakea with students at Kahului Elementary School. Photo courtesy Amber Quale Photography

“It’s different from doing book tours on the continent; the kids in Hawaii just got it. They already have so much understanding of what the mo'olelo are and the gods and goddesses,” Maunakea says. “It was so fun seeing their faces light up during my presentations. They would come up and tell me, ‘Anna looks like me!’”

That was also important to Maunakea while writing her book. When she was a child, there wasn’t Native Hawaiian representation in any of the books she read.

“It’s what I would have wanted to read; it’s what I want my kids to read and learn about. I wanted to create a story for the kids of Hawaii that would reflect their experience growing up,” Maunakea says. “It’s also a window for folks not from Hawaii who want to learn more about our culture and way of life here.”

A student reading Lei and the Fire Goddess. Photo courtesy Amber Quale Photography

While her book is filled with adventure, Maunakea took an adventure of her own in writing it. She has a degree in civil engineering and never thought she’d become a writer. But she decided to give creative writing a try in 2020 and Lei and the Fire Goddess was created. Her sequel, Lei and the Invisible Island, comes out in June.

“If you like doing something, give it a shot because you never know if you don’t try,” says Maunakea. “I had the same experience as many kids growing up in Hawaii; I was just a country girl climbing trees over a cow pasture. You just don’t know where life will take you.”

Interested in more Hawaii-based literature? Be sure to check out wahine on the waves featuring local writer Mindy Pennybacker and her book, Surfing Sisterhood Hawaii: Wahine Reclaiming the Waves


Share this article

By commenting, you agree to Island Scene's Terms of Use.