Friday, October 1, 2010

Confrontations / Coalitions: The Value of Hawai`i Part One

Kuykendall 410, the room where English department faculty go to hear and deliver colloquia, like other rooms in the building, is confining. As Mari Matsuda said yesterday, you can't see the mountains (behind the back wall) and you can't feel the trade winds. It signifies public education as a proto-industrial activity, divorced from place or local purpose. This room, large and cold and capable of "holding" dozens of people, was the stage for two events in my professional life this week, events that signify to me where we are (actually, conceptually, metaphysically!) as writers and residents of this state.

On Tuesday evening, Adam Aitken's and my Foundations of Creative Writing course met in 410 to discuss readings that can be found in this previous blog post and on-line. The readings include a take-down of W.S. Merwin for rewriting Pi`ilani's narrative of the life of her husband, Ko`olau (also made internationally famous by Jack London, but that's another story, indeed); a back and forth between Ku`ualoha Ho`omanawanui and Dennis Kawaharada about whether or not his work (the publication of Hawaiian mo`olelo in English in books and on-line) amounts to an appropriation of Hawaiian culture; and an essay by Nandita Sharma and Cynthia Wright that argues (in part) against the Asian Settler Colonialism paradigm set forth in a book by that name co-edited by Candace Fujikane and Jonathan Okamura. The readings were intended to provoke, but I envisioned the conversation as one between friends (the students are fond of one another), where we poked at sore spots, but then worked our way toward a place where we as creative writers can all be active, productive.

Needless to say, perhaps, the class did not work to plan, although it did prove productive. A palpable tension filled the air-conditioned room. I began by suggesting that there's something Platonic about considerations of literature in Hawai`i, that more emphasis is put on "truth" than on imagination. Many of our literary controversies have entailed arguments over the truths of representations (of Filipinos, Hawaiians) or language (did you get your Pidgin right, your Hawaiian?).

We had opinions across the spectrum, from "anything goes" to "what can I write about here, when everything seems sealed off culturally?" We talked about the act of framing; if you say you don't know exactly what you're talking about, one student surmised, you can forge ahead. If you let people know you are writing what you hear, then you can get languages wrong, another posited. On the other side, there was suspicion of the audience, the readers who may know nothing about Hawai`i. One woman said she had taught someone in NYC a phrase in Hawaiian, which she worries she butchered, and is scared that the woman might consider her to have been "authentic" in some way. Another student talked about being but not appearing Hawaiian, growing up immersed in pop culture, and experiencing the sting of being told she wasn't "Hawaiian enough." And then a white male student erupted into an angry confusing diatribe about being called an "f-ing haole" and how the local community does not spend all its time thinking about these academic issues. He walked out.

On a personal level, I was left feeling that the students did not trust me or each other, that the conversation had been warped by fears of saying something that would be judged ill by someone else in class, or reported on to others outside of class. There was a sense that most of what was most valuable to say didn't touch the air-conditioned air. But Adam spoke eloquently about migration and his own experience as a mixed race person in Australia who has circulated around the globe for love and work. And I launched into my notion of "positive critique." If something is missing in the literary community here, fill it in. Write it. Publish it. Make alliances with other people who live here over the big issues, like the economy, like tourism, like militarism.

The class ended. I got some impassioned emails and much silence. I hear through the grapevine that some students didn't want to have the conversation at all; others worry that they didn't explain themselves well enough. And so the conversation will go on, mostly internally in ways that can be destructive, but one hopes can branch out, move, form, not get stuck. Stuck is a place that Hawai`i, or at least academic Hawai`i, lives in too much of the time.

Fast forward to Thursday at noon. The first of several panel discussions of The Value of Hawai`i: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future, edited by Craig Howes and Jon Osorio, and published by the University of Hawai`i Press. A large audience showed up from all over campus and the local community. We sat facing the windows that run only at the top of the room, so all you see are some clouds, if you're lucky. We sat facing Jon Osorio, Carlos Andrade (and their guitars), Tom Coffman, and Craig Howes. It was one of the few days I didn't have my camera with me, so it will need to be an imagined past for my readers. The event was advertised as an overview; the more focused discussions--of the military, tourism, education--will follow in coming weeks.

In somewhat backwards chronology, Osorio led us through the 1970s in Hawai`i, when the Hawaiian sovereignty movement became strong. No one could have imagined how strong it would become, he said, nor how many small movements it would inspire: the Protect Kaho`olawe Ohana, the Waiahole/Waikane protests, which led to the state mandating against development in that area (very near where I live), and so on. Many of these movements were peopled by the poor, the uneducated, but they spoke truth to power. Coffman then filled in the backstory of the 1960s, just after statehood, when Hawai`i took off economically, when multi-ethnic Hawai`i was a model for the rest of the country. Howes spoke of the near-universal health care coverage Hawai`i had as recently as the mid-80s and early-90s. Andrade sang a mele he wrote about Hā`ena on Kaua`i, where real estate and property tax prices are driving Hawaiians off their land. Julia Roberts, it seems, is a heavy in this discussion, as she paid $15 for a piece of property.

What impressed me most was the way that Osorio, in particular, spoke of Hawai`i as a place where we live, a place we need to protect. While he aims to work toward an independent Hawai`i (a goal toward which I have yet to figure out my own feelings and thoughts), he also means to do so un-exclusively, by figuring a community of like-minded (rather than racially-marked) citizens. As he writes in his essay from the book, restoring the Hawaiian Kingdom has garnered support over the past decade "because it does not lead to the destruction of relationships among friends and families because of race" (18).

Without in any way thinking this was a panacea for what ails us, I left the room feeling lighter, more optimistic than I have in years about how we all live and think about our lives here. I felt at home, and that's a place I want to be.

As a digression that is not one: Carlos Andrade talked about the need for self-sufficiency in growing food and trying to avoid consuming resources. I'm proud to say that my husband, Bryant Webster Schultz, has taken upon himself the project of easing us, to whatever small extent we can, off the grid.

He abandoned the dryer months ago, and hangs our clothes outside. He bought solar panels, so that our living room lights in the evening run off solar. He got us a rain barrel, so we can water our plants without using the tap. And he's now built a garden box, with plans for more on the bottom lanai, along with a second rain barrel. To a large extent this is all symbolic. We still drive too much--to Sangha's school, to my workplace, to Radhika's soccer games in Waipahu--but we are at least experimenting with the notion that we do not need to spend the world's resources at so quick a rate.

In future, I'd like to blog about the effects of this fresh paradigm of Hawai`i on the literature of Hawai`i. What does this mean for our notions of form? Practice? Publishing? Content (something we who teach CW think too little about with our students, I fear). Until then . . .

[Editor's note, 10/2/10: At this morning's soccer game, I talked to Chris Cummins (about whom a bit more at the end of this post), who remarked on the irony that the self-sufficiency I describe at the end of the post depends on privilege--space in which to grow things, put up solar panels, and the money to do it. The guy in a tent in the park can't grow his own food, Chris pointed out. Nor can he, in his small apartment, which he compared to the windowless hole of Kuykendall 410, remembered vividly from his student days. He also talked again about the "many directions" Hawaiians can go with the issues raised earlier in this post, legally, culturally, politically. Complication is the coin of the realm.]


Jonathan Morse said...

Ah, the days when we could see out the windows in Kuykendall Hall, because there weren't any . . .

At the time I arrived at the University of Hawaii (1977) and settled into Kuykendall, the entire un-air-conditioned building was clad in floor-to-ceiling metal louvers. It was charming when birds flew through the classrooms but less charming when every class had to come to a stop when a loud car rolled by outside, and when people complained in the student newspaper about the dust and the impossible acoustics, the chair of the architecture department would indignantly reply that that was natural.

But what's "natural"? In just my second semester at UH, I learned.

The course I was teaching was an evening section of sophomore American literature, and the text that particular evening was Walden, chapter 2: "Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails."

I read the sentence out loud -- and suddenly, through the unscreened louvers, there began pouring cloud after silent cloud of insects. They flew into eyes and ears and noses, they covered the pages of everybody's books, and then they shed their wings, paired up head to tail, and walked away like little two-car trains. It was termite swarming season in Hawaii, and I'd just experienced it for the first time.

Every springtime since, I've looked forward to the coming of the swarms. They have a beauty in Hawaii's warm, humid nights, and they remind us that the rainy season is past. Nevertheless, I'm on Wally's side in My Dinner with Andre when he protests: "But I like my electric blanket!"

And as to God: he seems to have both good taste in prose style and a sense of humor.

Adam Aitken said...

Thankyou Susan for mentioning me in relation to the mixed race issue. It would have been nice to talk more about this. I would say that there is an irony in that being "hapa", here is seen by both Asian-Hawaiians and some Native Hawaiians as "not a bad thing" if the mix contains some Indigeneity. What is is complex is in how a mixed race person is categorised in a census. If one has any Native Hawaiian blood, then that is a good thing. If one is part white, than that can be seen by many here as a plus. If I were to settle here, my being part Asian with no parts Native is seen as "not a good thing" to Native Hawaiian sovereignty activists.

But I have not intention of settling here. Should I go back to Thailand? My Thai ancestry does not give me any rights as a Thai citizen, as my mother gave up Thai citizenship in 1960. And what of my mixed-race status in Australia? As far as some Indigenous Australians are concerned, my mix of settler Anglo-Scots and Asian migrant marks me as a kind of double coloniser.
What of my cosmopolitan globetrotting post modernity? I am a privileged educator who can go around the world teaching English, so my hybridity is perhaps less of a privilege than it first appears. My main trade is English language and creative writing and I am completely without the language skills of a fluent Thai speaker. What I do feel I have is a sensitivity to other Asian cultures that is not something I am born with, but what I have been enculturated with as I spent some of my early childhood in Thailand and Malaysia.