Thursday, December 1, 2016

What is Hawaii?

[ed. I've read some of Paul Theroux's other books and just got done reading Hotel Honolulu. It was entertaining. I have to say though, if you haven't grown up there, you will never completely get it (Hawaii). So much has to do with growing up in the culture. The shared experiences, customs, diversity, history, economics, isolation (among other things) all contribute to a unique and somewhat autonomous society. Usually, the first question anyone asks when introduced to someone else is: what high school did you go to? It's the basic context for establishing shared trust and communication.]

Hawaii offers peculiar challenges to anyone wishing to write about the place or its people. Of course, many writers do, arriving for a week or so and gushing about the beaches, the excellent food, the heavenly weather, filling travel pages with holiday hyperbole. Hawaii has a well-deserved reputation as a special set of islands, a place apart, fragrant with blossoms, caressed by trade winds, vibrant with the plucking of ukuleles, effulgent with sunshine spanking the water—see how easy it is? None of this is wrong; but there is more, and it is difficult to find or describe. (...)

One of the traits that I’ve found in many island cultures is a deep suspicion of the outsiders, palangi, as such people are called in Samoa, suggesting they’ve dropped from the sky; a haole in Hawaii, meaning “of another breath”; the “wash-ashore” as non-islanders are dismissively termed in Martha’s Vineyard and other islands. Of course it’s understandable that an islander would regard a visitor with a degree of suspicion. An island is a fixed and finite piece of geography, and usually the whole place has been carved up and claimed. It is inconceivable that a newcomer, invariably superfluous, could bring a benefit to such a place; suspicion seems justified. The very presence of the visitor, the new arrival, the settler, suggests self-interest and scheming. (...)

I have lived in Hawaii for 22 years, and in this time have also traveled the world, writing books and articles about Africa, Asia, South America, the Mediterranean, India and elsewhere. Though I have written a number of fictional pieces, including a novel, Hotel Honolulu, set in Hawaii, I have struggled as though against monster surf to write nonfiction about the islands. I seldom read anything that accurately portrayed in an analytical way the place in which I have chosen to live. I have been in Hawaii longer than anywhere else in my life. I’d hate to die here, I murmured to myself in Africa, Asia and Britain. But I wouldn’t mind dying in Hawaii, which means I like living here.

Some years ago, I spent six months attempting to write an in-depth piece for a magazine describing how Hawaiian culture is passed from one generation to the other. I wrote the story, after a fashion, but the real tale was how difficult it was to get anyone to talk to me. I went to a charter school on the Big Island, in which the Hawaiian language was used exclusively, though everyone at the place was bilingual. Aware of the protocol, I gained an introduction from the headmaster of the adjoining school. After witnessing the morning assembly where a chant was offered, and a prayer, and a stirring song, I approached a teacher and asked if she would share with me a translation of the Hawaiian words I had just heard. She said she’d have to ask a higher authority. Never mind the translation, I said; couldn’t she just write down the Hawaiian versions?

“We have to go through the proper channels,” she said.

That was fine with me, but in the end permission to know the words was refused. I appealed to a Hawaiian language specialist, Hawaiian himself, who had been instrumental in the establishment of such Hawaiian language immersion schools. He did not answer my calls or messages, and in the end, when I pressed him, he left me with a testy, not to say xenophobic, reply.

I attended a hula performance. Allusive and sinuous, it cast a spell on me and on all the people watching, who were misty-eyed with admiration. When it was over I asked the kumu hula, the elder woman who had taught the dancers, if I could ask her some questions.

She said no. When I explained that I was writing about the process by which Hawaiian tradition was passed on, she merely shrugged. I persisted mildly and her last and scornful words to me were, “I don’t talk to writers.”

“You need an introduction,” I was told.

I secured an introduction from an important island figure, and I managed a few interviews. One sneeringly reminded me that she would not have bestirred herself to see me had it not been for the intervention of this prominent man. Another gave me truculent answers. Several expressed the wish to be paid for talking to me, and when I said it was out of the question they became stammeringly monosyllabic.

Observing protocol, I had turned up at each interview carrying a present—a large jar of honey from my own beehives on the North Shore of Oahu. No one expressed an interest in the origin of the honey (locally produced honey is unusually efficacious as a homeopathic remedy). No one asked where I was from or anything about me. It so happened that I had arrived from my house in Hawaii, but I might have come from Montana: No one asked or cared. They did not so much answer as endure my questions.

Much later, hearing that I had beehives, some Hawaiians about to set off on a canoe voyage asked if I would give them 60 pounds of my honey to use as presents on distant Pacific islands they planned to visit. I supplied the honey, mildly expressing a wish to board the canoe and perhaps accompany them on a day run. Silence was their stern reply: And I took this to mean that though my honey was local, I was not.

I was not dismayed: I was fascinated. I had never in my traveling or writing life come across people so unwilling to share their experiences. Here I was living in a place most people thought of as Happyland, when in fact it was an archipelago with a social structure that was more complex than any I had ever encountered—beyond Asiatic. One conclusion I reached was that in Hawaii, unlike any other place I had written about, people believed that their personal stories were their own, not to be shared, certainly not to be retold by someone else. Virtually everywhere else people were eager to share their stories, and their candor and hospitality had made it possible for me to live my life as a travel writer. (...)

But it wasn’t just native Hawaiians who denied me access or rebuffed me. I began to see that the whole of Hawaii is secretive and separated, socially, spacially, ethnically, philosophically, academically. Even the University of Hawaii is insular and uninviting, a place unto itself, with little influence in the wider community and no public voice—no commentator, explainer, nothing in the way of intellectual intervention or mediation. It is like a silent and rather forbidding island, and though it regularly puts on plays and occasionally a public lecture, it is in general an inward-looking institution, esteemed locally not for its scholarship but for its sports teams.

by Paul Theroux, Smithsonian |  Read more:
Image: Jacques Descloitres / Modis Land Rapid Response Team / NASA GSFC)