Decolonizing the Mind
Kathleen Tyau's brisk, humorous, more sparsely written Makai also explores hanai, and the economic stresses that result in many generations living under one roof. This in turn creates stresses, although it's the more the merrier as far as the narrator, big-hearted Alice Lum, is concerned. Makai, which means "toward the sea," centers around the lifelong friendship and conflicts between two women, poor, "plain Chinese" Alice and beautiful, rich, Hawaiian-Chinese Annabel Lee. Annabel, the adventuress, moves to Florida. Alice stays, puts down roots, and endures the growing remoteness of her moody husband, her elder daughter's moving out and the bittersweet pain of knowing that her younger, retarded daughter never will.
In flashbacks, Makai, like Song of the Exile, depicts Pearl Harbor and the hardships of the war years in Honolulu. In the book's present time, Alice's daughter Beatrice visits the mainland and returns with her childhood friend and new lover, Annabel's son Wick. The funniest scenes in the book show part-Hawaiian but totally haolefied Wick trying to fit in: No matter how much he uses pidgin and the shaka sign to locals, "they know."
Tyau's recurring images include hula and ballroom dancing, salty awkward sex, bare feet and polished shoes, all kinds of underwear, island women sewing "getaway" clothes, handed-down jade embodying a lost mother; floods rushing to the sea that Alice fears. While Makai unrolls gracefully in controlled, disciplined prose, I couldn't help but wish that Tyau would take more chances, dive a little deeper into the psychological depths. I couldn't lose the feeling that her protagonists--like Davenport's--were ultimately stock characters, manipulated by a deft puppeteer.
And so we come full circle, from the distortions of Jack London to the reclamation of Hawaiian identity by emergent native voices, to yet another Western visitor's retelling of native story--only this time, one receptive to the pre-existing culture. London's conceits should be flung to their unhallowed rest by the astonishingly beautiful reworking of Ko'olau's tale by the poet W.S. Merwin. This book-length narrative in verse, The Folding Cliffs, relates much of the action through Pi'ilani's eyes; Merwin, a twenty-five-year resident of Hawaii, writes like a man possessed, letting himself be the vessel for the story. He begins after the fact, with Pi'ilani's return to the remote valley of Kalalau to make sure her husband's bones haven't been disturbed, creating a sense of foreboding and loss so wrenching that the reader can hardly bear to go on, especially when Pi'ilani remembers their little boy, Kaleimanu, imitating the calls of the birds that ply those high cliffs. But we do go on, drawn in by the warmth of the characters and their love for one another and a world of sheer rock, mists, plunging waterfalls and crashing waves.
Merwin, who shares with Charles Olson, A.R. Ammons, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder and others a heightened sense of the natural world and sensitivity to pre-Western cultures, brings all the devices of his mature skill--imagery, rhythm, moments of lyric flight from a tersely cadenced free verse--to this retelling. The sometimes highly tactile images he chooses to repeat, of rocks, streams, mosses, certain birds and flowers, a cold touch running down between the breasts, build patterns of emotion in the characters and the reader and hark back to Native Hawaiian literary traditions, in which the people were part of the living body of their land. In Hawaiian verse, or mele, concrete pictures carry an underlying meaning, or kaona. In 1893, the year Ko'olau went into hiding and Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown, Ellen Wright Prendergast wrote "'Ai Pohaku," the stone-eating song, which exhorts eating this "astonishing food of the land" rather than taking the government's money in exchange for "its sin of annexation/And sale of native civil rights." No wonder Ko'olau and Pi'ilani chose to live in a fortress of rock. In the most famous illustration of kaona, the rain on the cliffs entering the buds of the lehua trees in Queen Liliuokalani's song "Aloha Oe," while beautifully and accurately capturing the upland forests, is also a sexual image.
Merwin's images are auditory, as well. As Ko'olau dies of leprosy, Pi'ilani hears again the 'uwa'u 'uwa'u calls of the petrels that Kaleimanu had mimicked, and also the "sounds some said were crickets and others said were land snails singing and they were spirits." Delicately and suddenly, Merwin makes us take Pi'ilani's leap between actual and spiritual "realities," and achieves a kind of synthesis between Western myths and Hawaiian oli, or narrative chants. Pi'ilani's return to Kalalau and the remains and spirits of her dead remind us of Odysseus, Orpheus or Virgil visiting Hades. The colony of lepers, "damned" in the eyes of Western society, inhabits the "rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death" of Milton's Paradise Lost, with joy. When Merwin writes of the waves ending against the cliffs and sands of Kalalau Valley, he is also thinking, as the Hawaiians do, of their original journey to these shores by sailing canoes. He writes of the birth of their literature, in which "they had become their journey which was the tale they repeated," in a time when "it was still their day their light their shore with those trees."
When a missionary asks to write down her history after Ko'olau's death, Pi'ilani becomes uncomfortably aware of the misappropriation and Christianization of her story; he asks her, for instance, if she prayed while being shot at on a cliff ledge. For a while she feels as if, by this telling, she has lost touch with her story. But later, when she meets friends from that time, "she saw then that it was the terrible moments there that she did not want to forget...the sickness of Kaleimanu day by day she did not want it to slip through her fingers now and be gone or his dying and their burying him she wanted to keep even the pain of it." It is akin to Sunny Sung's reaction, in an Allied hospital, to a doctor's assurance that she'd heal, she'd forget. "Why did they think she wanted to forget? That any P-girl wanted to forget?" Remembering shared suffering, exactly what happened and why, what was there before, what was taken and what should be taken back, is crucial to the decolonization of the mind.