Decolonizing the Mind
The trustees were challenged, among other reasons, for failing to aid Hawaiian-language preschools; the language, which was banned by the American-imposed government in 1900, is seen by Kanaka Maoli as central to their cultural revitalization. "Language, in particular, can aid in decolonizing the mind," Trask writes. With their books, written in English but affirming Native history and values, Kiana Davenport and Kathleen Tyau are part of this process.
It's far from an easy one, though, given prevailing "racist beliefs that Natives do not understand or even know their culture well enough to assert it," as Trask puts it. And, echoing assaults on affirmative action on the mainland, many local haole resent Hawaiian reparations. In Rice v. Cayetano, a case scheduled to be argued before the Supreme Court this fall, a white Big Island rancher claims that allowing only ethnic Hawaiians to vote in OHA elections violates his constitutional rights. Trask shows just how invidious the influence of Western historians and anthropologists has been, portraying Hawaiians as lazy, promiscuous, weak--an inferior race. Hawaiians, for instance, had no resistance to diseases introduced by foreigners, and the missionaries portrayed their decimation by syphilis as payback for their sinful nature. These prejudices were popularized by Jack London, a white supremacist who in 1912 appropriated the historical tale of Ko'olau, a Kauai man at the turn of the century who, after helping care for Hawaiians with leprosy, came down with the disease himself and chose armed resistance rather than exile in the leper colony on Molokai. The story is taught widely in local schools, including Kamehameha, according to Dennis Kawaharada, professor of literature at Kapiolani Community College, in his Storied Landscapes: Hawaiian Literature and Place.
Kawaharada points out that London stresses Ko'olau's individualism, projecting onto him a Western love of freedom, not the actual values that a Hawaiian of that time cared for most: family and place. As explained in a Hawaiian-language account by Ko'olau's wife, Pi'ilani, keeping his family intact was the reason he refused to leave. By making Ko'olau, as he dies, reflect upon the superiority of the white race, London "epitomizes the strategy of colonization through the usurping of the native voice in storytelling," says Kawaharada.
That native voice is to be found resurgent in Tyau and Davenport. Tyau's sentimental comedy of manners and Davenport's sprawling, tragic melodrama differ vastly in style, but both books personalize, as novels should, vital contemporary struggles--in this instance not only for political self-determination but for the Hawaiian people's very identity. In literary terms, they can thus be called "popular" novels in more than one sense.
Davenport's Song of the Exile, a saga of star-crossed lovers, opens in 1942 in Rabaul, New Britain, where Korean-Hawaiian Sunny Sung is imprisoned in a "comfort women's" compound for Japanese soldiers. To distract her fellow inmates from their misery, she tells them about her Parisian interlude with her Hawaiian lover, Keo Meahuna. Davenport then flashes back to Honolulu in the mid-thirties, where Keo lives with his Hawaiian-Filipino family in working-class Kalihi Lane. A musician and waiter at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, he falls in love with the jazz he hears played by black musicians on tour, and with Sunny, then a University of Hawaii student.
Keo's sister, Malia, seeks Western sophistication. Working as a hotel maid, she cuts the labels off guests' French clothes and sews them into her own. She refuses to speak local pidgin English like the rest of the family, prompting her mother's complaint, "You coming too high maka-maka." There's good stuff here: ambitious characters, class and racial tensions building beneath the somnolence of Honolulu on the brink of war. But then the novel makes an epic diversion that wades toward the farcical, sliding at last into a sea of language overenriched with an algae bloom of conflicting images.
From New Orleans to Paris, where Keo plays in nightclubs and he and Sunny work for the Resistance, to Shanghai where their infant daughter is impaled on a Japanese soldier's bayonet, it's a case of overkill, replete with rapes, tortures, bombings and coincidences. For instance, a Japanese friend from Paris becomes the commmandant of the camp where Sunny is enslaved.
Though such plotting is overwrought, it's interesting to see Davenport invert the cliché of Hawaii-as-dream-destination with a romance in which Hawaiians, dreaming of Paris, become tourists, basically, in the war zones of Europe and Asia. Back in Honolulu with Malia, the book returns on course. In between turning tricks in wartime Honolulu, she has an affair with a Hawaiian athlete, Krash Kapakahi, who becomes a political and labor leader, urging Hawaiians in the then-US territory to vote "No" on statehood and instead demand return of their stolen lands. If they don't, he predicts, accurately, the state will take possession of the 1.8 million acres of Hawaii Kingdom lands that were ceded to the United States by the Americans who illegally overthrew Queen Liliuokalani. Krash presents the argument that grassroots sovereignty groups make today: Since Hawaii voters weren't given the choice of self-government, as required by Article 73 of the UN Charter, statehood can't be legal.
In a lovely gesture, Malia names their daughter Anahola after the baby her brother Keo and Sunny lost. The girl grows up considering Keo her father, reaffirming the Hawaiian tradition of free adoption, hanai, a principle of sharing responsibility for children that accompanies the Kanaka Maoli's system of collective, not private, rights to water and land.