Q&A with Big Happiness Author Mark Panek

Big Happiness
Big Happiness: The Life and Death of a Modern Hawaiian Warrior is a heartfelt look at the life of Percy Kipapa, the relationship between post-statehood development and Hawai‘i’s drug problem, and Waikane, Kipapa’s hometown in rural Windward O‘ahu.

After a successful career in Japanese professional sumo, Kipapa (known professionally as Daiki, or Big Happiness) returned to a Hawai‘i that had little to offer him in the way of economic opportunity. Seven years after his return, Kipapa was found murdered in the pickup truck of a friend—a drug dealer out on bail who later confessed to the killing.

Author Mark Panek, who met Kipapa while working on a biography of Akebono, draws on extensive interviews with Kipapa, his family and friends, other Hawai‘i sumo competitors, and Windward O‘ahu community leaders to tell the story of the struggles many young local men face growing up in rural O‘ahu. Panek, who teaches in the Department of English at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, agreed to answer a few questions about the book and his experience writing it.

Q: How did you come to write about Percy Kipapa?
It was at his funeral. Something more than sadness hung over the proceedings, given the tragic nature of Percy’s death. And while we all experience our own personal grief, I got the sense that at least at some point, everyone there was thinking: of all people, how could this have happened to Percy? Well over a thousand people rotated through the reception line throughout the day—an image that also spoke to what an incredibly warm and generous guy Percy was. And when I reached Percy’s mother in line—I’d met her once, three years earlier, for less than five minutes—she immediately recognized me as Percy’s “writer friend” and said that someone should have written a book about what her son had accomplished, but that now it was too late.

Q: Your book has been called “part mystery, part investigative journalism, part poignant Island portrait.” How do you write a book that crosses so many different genres?

I’d begun with the idea of simply honoring Percy for his parents, but structurally, the book began to take on a life of its own by focusing on that question: of all people, how could this have happened to Percy? That led me to have to define Percy as the type of guy who would have over a thousand people show up at his funeral, which in turn led into having to talk about all the events (including those directed by Percy himself) that conspired to put Percy in the truck on the night he was killed. That required me to historicize such things as post-statehood development, Hawai‘i’s drug war, land use issues in Waikane Valley, and others. To say it out loud makes it sound like a boring history book, and in early drafts readers kept saying, “Well, that’s interesting, all that stuff about Operation Green Harvest, but what does it have to do with Percy?” The challenge was in talking about such things and maintaining some sense of tension by moving Percy’s immediate story back and forth between foreground and background. You know, you hear abstract terms all the time—terms like “social impacts” or “colonization” or “gentrification” or even “ice epidemic” without really seeing concretely what those things mean. I doubt most readers will pick up the book having any idea who Percy Kipapa is, but hopefully they will come to see his story as a concrete example of these sorts of terms. If Percy is to become the human face attached to all these abstractions, then by necessity you’re asking your narrative to do a number of different things, often at the same time.

Q: How do you anticipate Big Happiness being received by the Kipapa family and the Waikane community?
The Kipapa family, particularly Percy’s parents, were heavily involved in this project from the start. I suppose this question is getting at how Big Happiness turns its focus to the ice epidemic, and that’s a good question. Initially I wanted to avoid the whole thing, because, well, you didn’t want Percy to be remembered as a “druggie” or a “chronic.” But then when I began researching addiction, and talking to people like Andy Anderson [former CEO of Hina Mauka treatment center—not the developer/politician of the same name], and eventually discussing Percy’s drug use with his parents, I began to see that glossing over Percy’s addiction would simply be contributing to the ice problem. Part of the reason the ice problem has been allowed to persist for over twenty years now is that we’ve stigmatized users as people covered in scabs, with no teeth, who choose to be the way they are. It’s a convenient stance to take. I took it myself with Percy when he asked to borrow money from me. Four years later he was dead.

To answer the question more specifically, the Kipapas read the book in draft form and came away proud of what Percy was able to accomplish in such a short life—not just in sumo, but all of it, including his battle with addiction. As for the Waikane community and the surrounding area—the setting works not just because it’s where Percy grew up and was later killed; it truly helps define the extent of the problems that led to Percy’s death. From the anti-development battles of the 70s through the fights for water rights in the 90s, we’re talking about perhaps the most civically engaged community in the state. The initial island-wide sign waving efforts to finally confront the drug problem back in 2003 began right in Kahalu‘u. The place is practically on permanent neighborhood watch. And yet in spite of all that, Percy was killed there. My hope is that people see Big Happiness not as a criticism of their community, but more an attempt to shed light on a huge state-wide problem by saying, “Even here. Even in Kahalu‘u and Waiahole/Waikane. How in the world is that possible?”

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