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Campus & Community

English Professor Caryn Lesuma aspires for Pacific Islander representation in young adult literature

A woman English professor wears a black T-shirt and grey and black Polynesian print sits in a chair in her office surrounded by books on bookshelves.

Laie is home to Pacific Islanders who grow up mixed within different cultures, shared Caryn Lesuma, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts & Letters and a Laie native. Many are seeking a sense of who they are, just as she did when she was younger, said Lesuma. As a part-Samoan, she added, she grew up trying to figure out who and what she represented.

Growing up in Laie, Lesuma said it was the norm for Pacific Island students to only earn college admission through athletic scholarships. However, books surrounding Pacific Islander young adults demonstrate “there are many ways to be a Pacific Islander,” she said.

When she was younger, there wasn’t much literature with Pacific Islander characters who she could identify with, shared Lesuma. As an academic, Lesuma said one of her areas of study is Young Adult Literature of Oceania (YALO). She said YALO books explore issues relevant to Pacific Islander young adults and help to represent their journey in understanding who they are.

There is value in representing the youth and providing literature for them to identify with, to help them “consolidate their identity and feel comfortable in their own skin,” said Lesuma.

A love for reading 

Lesuma said her mother always enjoyed reading. When she was a child, Lesuma said her mother would read books such as “The Chronicles of Narnia” to her and her siblings before bed, and she enrolled them in Kahuku High’s summer reading program. “She sort of set an example of what a reader is … so, we all were reading all the time at home.”

Ever since elementary and high school, Lesuma said she has enjoyed reading novels in the fantasy and science fiction genres. Both genres portray “the possibilities of new worlds and different ways of thinking,” she explained. She said she is optimistic about ideas of the fantastic, where there are many possibilities.

Her husband, Vaughn Lesuma, said his wife shared with him her passion for reading when they first met. “I’ve never been much of a reader, and since I met her, I’ve read more books than the rest of my life combined.”

Caryn Lesuma said she began studying realistic fiction while studying young adult literature as an academic field. Unlike fantasy and science fiction, realistic fiction revolves around characters dealing with real issues, she explained. Within the realm of young adult literature, she said this genre is important in addressing issues that young adults deal with.

Vaughn Lesuma said although his wife appreciates mainstream literature, most of its authors and the novels’ settings take place in mainland America or the United Kingdom. He said she thought it would be amazing to share more stories about youth in the Pacific, having the same impact as books like “Harry Potter” and “Twilight.”

“It was then,” Vaughn Lesuma added, “I saw her getting to work researching Pacific literature, going to conferences and presenting on these topics, even writing a thesis on it.”

Close-up shoot of books on a bookshelf.

Windows and mirrors

In her English 420 course, Caryn Lesuma shared she teaches books act as “windows” and “mirrors” for readers. Books act as a window for readers to look into and learn about others’ experiences and empathize with them, she said. Additionally, she said a book can mirror our own experiences, reminding us that we are not alone and there are other people who understand what we’re going through.

Caryn Lesuma said she resonated with Leila, the protagonist of the young adult paranormal romance book series “Telesa,” written by Lani Wendt Young. Leila, who is part-Samoan, starts off as being insecure about being mixed-race and gets defensive towards people’s remarks about her, Caryn Lesuma explained. However, she added, Leila learns to accept her mixed-ethnic background and recognizes it as another way of being Samoan.

“When I was her age, I felt similar defensiveness about being ‘afakasi [a Samoan with European ancestry]. I was proud to be Samoan but insecure about it because I didn’t speak the language or ‘looked’ Samoan enough. Like her, I have gained confidence in my identity by taking opportunities to learn more about what it means to be a Samoan woman.”

The series revolves around characters with elemental powers inherited through genealogy, while they try to manage relationship drama, Caryn Lesuma shared. She said the series represents Samoan youth, both in Samoa and the diaspora, and social issues in Samoan and popularized Pacific Literature.

Rhea Penrod, a senior from Provo, Utah, majoring in English, said she took several of Caryn Lesuma’s classes. She said Caryn Lesuma wants to bring more voice and attention to the Pacific literature genre, which isn’t easily accessible. This issue mainly stems from insufficient publishing which leads to the genre being unheard outside of the Pacific, explained Penrod.

Penrod shared she sent the “Telesa” books to her mother, who was excited to see that there were books with Samoan characters. She said it is important for people to become aware Pacific literature actually exists.

Vaughn Lesuma said his wife’s passion has led him to appreciate his culture more, as well as authors writing Pacific literature for the next generation. “We both grew up in Laie, and I’m so proud of her for representing that everywhere she goes.”

Female English professor wearing a black top and grey and black Polynesian print skirt, browses through the books in her bookshelves.

A call to action

Caryn Lesuma said her goal is to write a novel, nonfiction or fiction, and contribute to her own call to action: acquire more books with Pacific Islander representation. “If I’m going to be encouraging more writers to write these books, I should also be contributing myself.” She, Christina Akanoa and Becky DeMartini, head of instructional services at the Joseph F. Smith Library, are currently researching ways to improve Pacific Islander students’ reading and writing skills, she shared.

Christina Akanoa, assistant professor in the Faculty of Business & Government, said the project will target reasons why Pacific Islanders are failing English 315. Eventually, she said they want to help Pacific Islander students to not only pass English 315 but also pass with good grades.

The proposed pedagogy, or teaching method, is to help students better relate to the literature being taught, said Akanoa. She said Caryn Lesuma makes Pacific literature relevant to Pacific Islander students who better understand the context and background of the stories. In contrast, other literary fields are more irrelevant and hard for Pacific Island students to connect with, Akanoa explained. “If students are not connecting to the literature that’s been taught in classic content, they’re going to have a hard time in class.”

Akanoa said the disconnection between students and literature occurs when students can’t apply what they learn when they return to their home country. She said it’s important to bridge those gaps in applying different literatures to the students being taught.

“We also have to be flexible enough to allow for different types of thinking, or perceptions that students bring in, according to their experiences. … Their experiences are according to who they are, their identity, their backgrounds, where they’re from.”

Akanoa said she and Caryn Lesuma are both on the committee for the Center for Learning & Teaching at BYU–Hawaii. As such, she said they are required to further their scholarship and find ways to support the institution.

Connecting to young adults

Akanoa said Caryn Lesuma is passionate, committed and detail-oriented in teaching English. She said Caryn Lesuma can relate to young adults and understands their interests since she is a young teacher. Caryn Lesuma was able to create a presentation of their research for the school data governance in less than 24 hours, she added. “If a person has commitment to a cause, it really means that they love the students or they love what they do.”

Caryn Lesuma is a go-getter and does not wait for things to happen, said Akanoa. Oftentimes, she shared, Caryn Lesuma will be the first to complete her assignments for their colloquium class. She said her work ethic inspires her to always be on top of her work as well. “She’s not bothered by it. She’s just willing to move the research forward and that’s because she’s very passionate about this topic.”

Penrod shared Caryn Lesuma engages young adult literature from a fun perspective. During a conversation, she and Caryn Lesuma discussed how the young adult genre makes reading more enjoyable. She said it allows opportunities for people who don’t feel like readers to engage with the material.

“She really cares about young people. … Her No. 1 priority in teaching her students … [is] to be prepared for the future. She wants to help them feel seen and heard and confident in their studies and what they’re learning.”

Vaughn Lesuma said his wife’s love for teaching is a big part of who she is and she celebrates her students’ success and laments in their struggles.

Caryn Lesuma added the biggest value of her job is seeing students relate and identify with literature. At BYUH, people from and outside of the Pacific are able to draw connections and empathize with each other, she shared.

“That kind of realization and confidence can build to know that you’re not the only one going through what you’re going through.”