Sunday, March 8, 2009

Witi Ihimaera and students

This past Thursday, March 5, I attended a colloquium in the English department at UHM devoted to the fiction of Witi Ihimaera's students. Witi is our Citizen's Chair Professor and Distinguished Visiting Writer this semester; he is best known, as he acknowledges, as author of the book that inspired the movie, The Whale Rider.

Witi is a lively, engaged teacher. He organized the reading as a kind of call and response, using both his own interjections between readers and gentle demands that audience members turn to their neighbors and chat for five minutes at a time to prompts such as, "What is your Pacific story? WHO are YOU and WHERE are you FROM?" The quick inventories of the past that he demanded we begin with were appropriate punctuations to the readings by Witi, Alexei Melnick, Gina Kanekoa, Ida Yoshinaga, Keala Francis, and Kenneth Quilantang, Jr. Each graduate student (and one undergraduate) began by offering a couple of questions to the audience, as if to make us into a large informal workshop.

The readings by graduate students were remarkable for the spaces and genres they opened up in what has long been called "local literature." Their pieces of fiction were surprising in many ways, not least because none of them followed the usual realist-narrative-in-standard-English-with-Pidgin-dialogue form that has so long dominated fiction here. Hence, we were offered a narrative in flat out pidgin, nothing else, by Alexei Melnick, on the meth epidemic in Hawai`i, a subject that he says makes it impossible to see Hawai`i through any other lens. He also argued for work in Pidgin for those who speak Pidgin, despite claims by unnamed publishers to whom he has shown his manuscript that such people do not read--read "buy"--books. Gina Kanekoa, the lone undergraduate, read a story that linked joblessness in Hawai`i to military recruitment, and chronicled one death in Vietnam. Ida Yoshinaga began with a long explanation of her concerns, which include uses of fantasy writing to explore real sociological and cultural issues in Hawai`i, and then read from her sci fi fantasy work. Among her characters is a woman locked in an abusive relationship who turns to sand when she gets upset. There were also reptiles, space vehicles, and Pidgin English running through the section of her novel that she read. Keala Francis's writing is more lyrical than most I have heard from fiction writers here. She writes about personal loss in a family in which there is a missionary descendant and an ecologist. She quoted another writer who said, "To know what you don't know is a kind of omniscience," the kind of statement one wants instinctively to disagree with, but still provides a useful writerly koan. We go on precisely because we want to know what it is we do not (probably in both senses of that phrase, the positive and the negative). Finally, Ken Quilantang read from an allegorical story about a boy (aptly named Boy) in a tattoo shop who comes from an abusive family; his best friend is a woodrose bush out in the back yard of his house. Much of the piece is written in Pidgin. Again, not the kind of story one hears every day, either here or elsewhere. There is something heart-aching about Ken's work, which tends to be at once vicious and humane, genuinely sad (in a way that word no longer does justice to).

Witi Ihimaera finished with a story of his own, or was it memoir, about his father calling him late at night in Honolulu to ask the narrator to keep him awake so that he would not die (the father is in his 90s). While I wished for a sterner editorial hand in parts of the narration, which seemed in places to become operatic, its center was terribly affecting, as was the entire reading.

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