Sunday, December 04, 2005


Brief notes on Paul Theroux's Hotel Honolulu

On page 290 of the Houghton-Mifflin hardcover edition: "Many slow-speaking and stammering islanders were aggressive out of pure frustration. They squinted instead of replying, or grunted, or gaped like fish..." Somewhere else in HOTEL HONOLULU, Paul Theroux describes Hawaiians as aristocrats who have sold the castle and now scowlingly show the tourists about. Except, as he well knows, it wasn't like that. The castle was taken by force of arms in support of the powerful American investment interests, landgrabbers, developers, speculators, and the missionaries, who arrived before anyone else since they were "the cutting edge of trade".

Nevertheless, there is some aloha in this novel: in a local newspaper interview, Theroux said he feels sad everytime he takes off from the Honolulu airport. He does at least love the physical place, and part of his spirit seems to have settled there, and yet he continues his compassionless habit of trashing the indigenous people, so prevelant in his cold, and even despicable book, THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA. For one of America's most intelligent serious authors, acerbic sarcasm directed against native peoples is a disturbing artisitic trait, and a kind of intellectual neo-fascism, a defense mechanism at best, and it keeps Theroux from approaching greatness in his writing.

Most evident in Happy Isles, the "kind spirit" to quote from his own dedication in his early book THE KINGDOM BY THE SEA, A JOURNEY AROUND GREAT BRITAIN, is gone: irony turns to sarcasm and to a bitterness which only a new love in Hawaii seems able to heal. In KINGDOM he is still "on track" and his private life has not fallen apart. His invocations of Henry James in HONOLULU warn the reader against making false identifications; yet, there is no clarity of artistic distance, and the Polynesian people whom he trashes in HAPPY ISLES with scorn, he does feel a more positive emotion for, in spite of himself perhaps, in HONOLULU. A true memoir of what really happened to destory his London-based marriage and set him off to the south seas would be his deepest book. I doubt he could do it.

And a belated Mahalo as he himself wrote so often at the close of his shorter sports pieces set in the islands, to the late Dr. Hunter Thompson, one of our greatest prose non-fiction stylists.

He doubtless knew the tale of Princess Kaiulani, whose photo by an unknown photographer graces a card printed by Cool Breeze (P.O. Box 11421, Honolulu, 96828-0421) and sold in stores all over Hawaii. She left the islands as a young girl to be educated in England. When the U.S. government overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy, she traveled to Washington, DC, to plead the case against this illegal action, but the territory was annexed and in Hawaii, less than a year later, Princess Kaiulani died at age 23.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Hawaiian Stuff.....

Michael Dougherty's TO STEAL A KINGDOM, subtitled "Probing Hawaiian History" is a must read for any student of Hawaiian history and cultural studies; in fact, for anyone who cares about the people of Polynesia. Few know that the gunboat diplomacy which led to the annexation of the islands was the first incursion by an American republic turned imperialist power outside of the mainland. Michael Dougherty's book traces this development, and his book continues to be an influence on the Sovereignty movement in Hawaii, the first serious secessionist movement since the Civil War. Although many consider this political position to be dead-in-the-water, it seems to me that the U.S. needs Hawaii more than Hawaii needs the U.S., and it is not impossible that someday there will be an independent confederation of Polynesian nations, from Hawaii in the north to Tahiti and her islands in the south to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the east, and, if not a Maori New Zealand, then at least Samoa and Tonga in the near western Pacific. Dougherty's book does not take a position on this, but it is clear his text is filled with excellent research and aloha. Dougherty, born in 1924, and still active on Oahu, hails from the southside streets of Chicago, and served four years in the Pacific during World War II in the marine corps. In the heyday of television he did PR work for Red Skelton and a host of others, moving to Huntington Beach, California, where he spent his spare time surfing. He came to Hawaii to help organize James Byrne's campaign for the governorship, the first democrat to be elected to the new state's highest office. Later he made several documentary films, before turning his energies to writing, publishing, and distributing. In his Introduction, he notes: "Since Captain James Cook is generally recognized as the first European to observe Hawaiians in 1778 and since many contemporary Western beliefs regarding Hawaiians are still based upon observations by Cook and his crew it seemed obligatory to put Cook and his sponsors under a magnifying glass....Royal Society spin-doctors had altered the accounts of Cook's logs and the journals of his crew, as well. When I found documented evidence validating that premise, the question became, how did these sanitized accounts effect Hawaiians?" TO STEAL A KINGDOM was awarded the Gustavus Meyer Human Rights Award as "the outstanding work on intolerance in North America" in 1997.

Political activist Haunani-Kay Trask is also a poet, and a fine first book of hers, LIGHT IN THE CREVICE NEVER SEEN was published in 1994, the " first book of poems by a native Hawaiian to be published in North America" as Eleanor Wilner comments in the Introduction to the Calyx Press edition. In spite of her hard-as-nails radical stance, this book too is filled with aloha:

every half hour
jet booms
smash the air

but banana stalks
bend with the wind

And in her poem, WAIKIKI, for example:

gifts of industrial
culture for primitive
island people
in need

of uplift discipline
complexity sense
of a larger world

their careful taro
gardens chiefly
politics, lowly

Waikiki exemplar
of Western ingenuity
standing guard against

the sex life
of savages

the onslaught of barbarians

Lois-Ann Yamanaka is originally from Molokai. She is a poet turned novelist. Her debut book of poems, SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE PAHALA THEATRE (Bamboo Ridge, 1993), is a marvelous, witty, and enchanting work, written mostly in Pidgin, (see LIVING PIDGIN BY Lee A. Tonouchi (Tinfish Press, Honolulu). This excerpt is from "My Eyes Adore You":

Need somebody to read um right for once
'cause they brown and chilly, scare
sometimes, just like his, he say

though I never lay a hand on you

He changing the end of the song,
making up the words.

My eyes.
My eyes. Fill.
He ain't simple, Mama. Ain't

This is a coming-of-age book, a dazzling first book. Here is the opening from PUEO DON'T FLY, the young poet speaking of her friend and mentor, a taxidermist on Molokai.

Bernie let me touch the glass eyes
in the tray at his shop.
He order um from a magazine call Van Dyke.
He tell sheeps and goat get the same eye.
Chinese ring neck pheasant or blue pheasant
same like a chicken or like my rabbit, Clyde.

Bernie, he stuff Clyde when he die last Easter,
but when I seen my rabbit -
all matted his fur was
and his eyes no was the same;
his teeth real buck not like the real Clyde.
I say, Thanks, Bernie. I know
he trying for be kind to me.
but I cry all the way home.
That's why Bernie say he going quit stuffing pets.

My favorite of her novels is BLU'S HANGING, powerful, heartfelt, and extremely controversial in Hawaii.

Olivia Robello Breitha was living in Honolulu in 1934, when she was taken by Bounty Hunters as they were then called and pulled out of her high school: "The exam took about 20 minutes. I then stumbled out of the room back into the cubicle to put my clothes on. I was allowed to go into the office to say goodbye to my sister. I have never felt so lonely. I was taken to the infirmary, given pajamas, and assigned to a bed. I was so very scared when I saw the patients. I really can't blame people who are scared of leprosy."

MY LIFE OF EXILE ON KALAUPAPA is the memoir of this beautiful teen-age girl who became a courageous woman, and I am not ashamed to admit it moved me to tears. Published by Arizona Memorial Museum Foundation in 1988, it clearly had an impact on one of America's most distinguished poets, W.S. Merwin, a long-time resident of Maui. He dedicates his masterpiece, THE FOLDING CLIFFS, (Knopf, 1998) to her.

For those who do not have the patient dedication to read a 300+ page narrative poem, a stately lyric meditation which is a very great achievment indeed, there is a song titled NA PALI OUTLAW in a recording titled PACIFIC TUNINGS which tells in popular music this haunting tale of love and tragedy in nineteenth century Hawaii.