Monday, February 02, 2009


Literature in Hawaii

I tried to think of novels that are iconic representations of Hawaii--this is easy to do for a city like New York. Not so easy for Hawaii. Certain novels come to mind: From Here to Eternity by James Jones, and Hawaii by James Michner. In a bookstore I found a few "Hawaiian Readers" which compiled pieces written by writers throughout history. There were Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain (and the aforementioned Jones and Michener). But where were the Hawaiians?

Wikipedia lists a few writers with roots in Hawaii. Every now and then on my trip I found books on Hawaiian and Polynesian myths, collected in the 19th century. But the Hawaiians themselves are largely silent. No surprise, I suppose, when you think about the fact that Hawaii is essentially a conquered country. It's a bit eerie to look at all the leis and the Alohas and the goodwill and to think about the history behind the commodification of these things and the near silence in literature of Hawaii's people.

Of course, the silence of conquered people isn't unusual. The whole thing made me think of a conversation I had with my friend, the poet Orlando White. We met a few years ago, and our talk is something I've returned to in my mind from time to time because his world-view was so interesting to me. Without betraying any confidences, I'll just say that I've always been struck by the the skepticism with which Orlando said he viewed language. (Watch what people say, not what they do, said my father). Words do have power and whoever writes history, of course, gets to control the truth. This isn't a new concept; we learn this in school, and the more we study, the more we are taught to question the truth and if history has hidden layers that are not at the front of the historical record. In our country, Native Americans--Orlando's people--were often taken from their parents and "re-educated" into forgetting traditional beliefs. In a context like that, I could see how talking and words would appear to have a tricky, unreliable power.

My argument--and how like a privileged person this makes me sound--is that the only way to make sure your story is on the record in the first place is to tell the truth yourself. And I thought to myself how privileged I am to come from two cultures accustomed to wealth and conquering and having their way, with rich literary traditions for men and for women to boot. And I also thought to myself how we are only just now starting to see the emergence of literature from second generation writers. Now we are trying to tell stories that others might miss because they are so busy looking in on us as rather fascinating objects.

But back to Hawaii. Land of Polynesian myths, sadness, beauty and a mixture of people. It's waiting for great stories and great fiction, for someone with a sympathetic and synthesizing mind to write something true. And by true, I don't mean another one of these books in which white people go, get stoned, fall in love, and fight with each other while hiring locals to do the cleaning and shopping and act as back-drop figures. There is a story about the inside of Hawaii, about the reality of being Hawaiian that is waiting to be written. My guess is that some young person is out there now wrestling with all of the cultural richness to produce such a story, as someone out there is always noticing a creative void and trying to fill it.

But it was a beautiful and strange thing to visit Hawaii, to see what a playground it is for tourists, and yet how poor it is in some places, and slightly disorganized. It felt very familiar and yet I suspect if I'd had time to do a little more digging, I would have found myself in a place that very nearly felt like a foreign country. I'm keen to try the other islands now, and read whatever else I can on Hawaiian literature, land of Hawaiians and hapas like myself.

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