Stuart Holmes Coleman’s interview with Kevin Whitton for Free Surf Magazine
O‘ahu’s Westside has a deep tradition of being rough, rugged and Hawaiian. And for good reason. Author Stuart Coleman bore through the hype and stereotypes to research and explore the recent history of surfing and tradition at Makaha in his just-released book, Fierce Heart: The Story of Makaha and the Soul of Hawaiian Surfing. Coleman had an epiphany while working on his first book, Eddie Would Go: Story of Eddie Aikau Hawaiian Hero, and saw the compelling story of surfing and culture embedded at Makaha through the Keaulana ‘ohana and extended family. Now, he’s taking the story worldwide.
FreeSurf Magazine: Tell us a little about Fierce Heart.
Stuart Coleman: It’s a portrait of a community and that community is Makaha, on the Westside of O‘ahu. It’s one of the least-understood places in the islands with one of the higher populations of Hawaiians, and its background as the birth of professional surfing makes it a unique and special place. The Makaha International in 1954 was really the very beginning of professional surfing.
FSM: Is the book a historical piece?
Coleman: I give some background history about the place itself, but then I focus on two generations of the Keaulana family, starting with Buffalo and ending with his sons, Brian and Rusty. It also includes their extended family of Rell Sunn and Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole and some of the larger- than-life characters on the Westside.
FSM: How long did the research take?
Coleman: About four years, start to finish. When I was doing research on Eddie Would Go, I met Brian Keaulana and he introduced me to his family and they showed me so much aloha, an incredible family in an incredible place. They really are the greatest watermen in the world, and in the back of my mind I was also thinking that someone needs to write about them.
FSM: The Westside has a bad reputation for being the Wild West, are there any myths you dispel in your book?
Coleman: That was part of the reason why I was interested in writing about this place because there were so many stereotypes and myths about the wild Westside and how rough it is. It’s a touchy thing because it is a rough place and people there will tell you that you have to be tough to survive on the Westside. I got the title because Makaha literally means fierce. And yet, the contradiction is that they have so much heart, and this is where you’ll find a glimpse of ancient Hawaiian culture. It really is full of aloha.
FSM: Aren’t stereotypes just exaggerations of reality?
Coleman: I think they’re fiercely protective of their culture and community because, in many ways, this is where is most of the Hawaiian Homestead lands are, and they were pushed into the corners of the island. They’ve seen their culture being taken away as people move in and take over their island. This is kind of the last stand, a place to protect what they have, and a way of life. It’s still very traditional and Hawaiian.
FSM: Can you surf anywhere you want now on the Westside?
Coleman: When you have the blessing of the Keaulanas it’s always good [laughs]. It’s always good to go down there and know somebody. But like Brian says, people on the Westside are extreme people, if you treat them well, they treat you extremely well. If you treat them bad or disrespect them, they’ll treat you extremely badly.
FSM: Do you see surf culture being more palatable to the mainstream than in previous years?
Coleman: I’ve been a lifelong surfer, but I was a little frustrated by books that were just about surfing, written by surfers for surfers. What I try to do is show a full picture of not just surfers, but watermen and Hawaiian culture, and the lifestyle of people who love being in the ocean. And that includes sailing, diving and swimming. I didn’t know if there would be a market, but I am trying to tell more people that these are fascinating individuals, whether they surf or not.