Friday, August 26, 2011
Juliana Spahr in/on Hawai`i: _well then there now_
Last Fall I taught an honors composition class, which focused on place-based writing. One of our texts was Juliana Spahr's "Dole Street," an essay she wrote in 2001 about the street on which she lived, which runs through the makai (ocean, south) side of the University of Hawai`i, where she taught. "It's amazing that someone who had lived here for such a brief time learned so much about this place," said one student who has lived here all her life. The essay is a marvel of observation, built from a question: what is the history of the street I live on? Out of that question came others: what is my place on this street that I live on? What is my place in the history of what this street means to Hawai`i's history? I begin to feel the force of Spahr's characteristic repetitions in my own syntax. This is her fourth book about Hawai`i, and the one I like best. The others are Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You (Wesleyan, 2001), This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (University of California Press, 2005), and The Transformation (Atelos, 2007). well then there now is published by Black Sparrow (2011). The book has been reviewed in the Honolulu Weekly by Shantel Grace.
Spahr's essay "Dole Street," collected in this volume, is built of narrative history, photographs, personal memories, stories told about place by Hawaiians, immigrants, settlers (more on that last word in a moment). There is a schematic map of the street that reminds me of the image puzzle in The Little Prince. Instead of a snake who has swallowed an elephant, however, this map shows a snake swallowing Honolulu, from St. Louis Heights on one end, to Maryknoll and Punahou Schools on the other. The elephant in the room is what it means to be a white schoolteacher in Hawai`i: "As the stereotypical continental schoolteacher, I need to think about how to respect the water that is there," she writes, "how not to suck it all up with my root system, how to make a syncretism that matters, how to allow fresh water to flow through it, how to acknowledge and how to change in various unpredictable ways" (49).
The best teaching often involves little more than pointing one's stereotypical teacher-finger and asking questions. Here, look at this place you think you know and find out its history, its ecology, its names. While tourism gets a bad name, and for good reason, there's something beautifully touristic about looking at the place you live in with fresh eyes--and then doing the non-touristic hard work of finding out what you've looked at. It's a move from looking to seeing, not one from looking to taking. That's what Spahr tells us throughout this essay and this book.
Asking what this means matters.
And the answer also matters.
But back to that word, "settler." Near the end of "Dole Street," Spahr takes issue with a syncretistic view of Hawai`i (the happy multi-culti view that everyone mixes and gets along, which the tourist bureau propagates): "It is that Dole Street mainly tells a certain history, a history of how the arrival of western education and its separations and refusals to mix came with and was propped up by settlers who came mainly from the continent and their powers" (49). And then the clincher: "It tells an old story, which is also a current story."
Yes and no. Let me historicize a bit. The power of the word "settler" (more powerful to me than to a reader unfamiliar with Hawai`i, no doubt) comes with a long story attached to it. Spahr lived in Hawai`i from 1997 through 2003, spending 2001 in New York City. The Acknowledgments to her book page tells us where her work from that time was published, but there are no dates, except for mention that "Some of We and the Land That Was Never Ours" was reprinted in Best American Poems of 2001 (ironic considering its content). It might bear saying that she wrote her Hawai`i pieces while she was living here. "Dole Street" was published for the Subpoetics collective (selfpublish or perish, it was called) in 2001. This would be five years after Haunani-Kay Trask's well known remarks to the MELUS conference, which was held in Honolulu in 1997. In that address, Trask shifted the operating paradigm in Hawai`i from one that privileged "locals" (for the most part non-white people born and raised in Hawai`i) to one that privileged native Hawaiians and declared that haole and Asians were all "settlers." The first concept was made current by the Bamboo Ridge group (founded, 1979), and the second by `oiwi journal (founded, 1998) and other publications. This speech inspired Candace Fujikane and Jonathan Okamura to collect essays on Asian Settler Colonialism, a text that is used often in English department classes to this day. That text, with less rhetorical panache than Trask's speech, ordains that everyone who came to Hawai`i, whether to own a plantation or to work as contract labor (or as a refugee from the Khmer Rouge), is responsible for the ills that have befallen Hawai`i and for keeping Hawaiians from being sovereign in their own islands.
It's important to think about power, history, race, class. But the Asian settler colonialism argument would not be so powerful if it did not leave out so much out. While it has caused everyone I know here to think and rethink their lives, it paradoxically dehistoricizes Hawai`i and the literature of Hawai`i in ways that mask change. More significantly, it has worked against the creation of alliances across categories, especially racial ones, but also class differences. By making politics a question of blood quantum, it ignores our (inclusive) urgent need to come together in opposition to military build-up, environmental destruction, houselessness, the third-worldization of Hawai`i. And against globalization. The UHM campus displays a huge banner in front of the main administration building welcoming APEC to Honolulu. That is a problem for all of us to tackle.
Spahr's book replays many of these arguments, without explaining them for the reader outside of Hawai`i. Her arguments waver between extremes. Her sonnets on blood take both sides of the debate, showing how everything is interconnected, but also castigating "settlers" (including her and her partners) for "bunkering." "And because we could not figure it out bunkering was a way for us / to claim what wasn't really ours, what could never really be / ours and it gave us a power we otherwise would not have had / and and we believed that this made the place ours." This comes before the very end of this sequence, exquisite in its ambivalences: "this place was not ours until we
grew and flowed into something other than what we were we
continued to make things worse for this place of growing
and flowing into even while some of us came to love it and let
it grow in our own hearts, flow in our own blood. (29)
The enjambment is telling: "what we were we / continued to make things worse." Were the second "we" to fall to the next line, it would be easy: "we continued to make things worse," which is part of what she's writing. But "what we were we" is a crucial question, too, and a more surprising one. That's the question. Are we we because we belong to one or another group, or because we care about this place. So often one's desire to participate in group 2 gets blocked by one's perception that groups 1 matter more.
But I don't think that is the final view, or even the majority view, certainly not when I take my kids to soccer or baseball or hula practice and feel the pull of a larger community than that of the university or the anger in the voice of a father berating his kids, or people yelling insults at one another. All of these happen, but "we" are also welcomed into community, if we enter it on its terms. Which we will we be also provocatively shuts out the possibility of "I." The "I" is lyric, but it is also a bunker, I think I hear (want to hear) Juliana saying to me. Rewrite the lyric as a we and we're getting somewhere. Especially if "we" is that difficult thing, a hard-earned syncretism.
Another essay, "2199 Kalia Road," gets at the conflict between private ownership and beach access in Waikiki. There's an admirable playfulness here; Spahr writes that she liked to "indulge in the myths of Waikiki as much as possible" and to suggest visitors drink a mai tai at the Halekulani, otherwise the villain in this piece. (This reminds me of Charles Bernstein who, on catching sight of the old Tahitian Lanai bar in 1992, exclaimed, "now here's the real Hawai`i!") She gets at the many things missing from the Halekulani's presentation of itself to its temporary residents, including the seediness of its surround. She tells us that the beach has been renamed Gray's Beach from the original Kawehewehe, "which means the opening up." She tells us how nostalgia sells. But she also moralizes. The "fellow working class midwesterners [wander] around with fake smiles on their faces." How are we to know the authenticity of a midwestern smile? The midwest from which these tourists flee is full of "awful midwestern rust and environmental decay" (115), where one presumes the frowns are real. And so it's not surprising that the centerpiece of this essay is a fairy tale in reverse, one that begins in happiness and ends very badly indeed, with a dead haole, pushed into the Ala Wai canal by a man with "anti-caucasian psychosis" (120). In the fairy tale (and like a fairy tale), people are divided into neat binaries. Dillingham is "an evil man," while "now there are two sorts of people associated with Waikiki[,] those who sign deals in the spirit of the Kewalo and live the way of the dredge". . . and those who live the way of the watershed as much as they can" (120).
Yes, Hawai`i often seems to live according to fairy tales, whether those that govern the tourist industry's propaganda, or the one in which the wicked witch of Dillingham is thrown in the canal and destroyed in the very place he (or someone with his skin color) had dredged. I applaud Spahr for offering up these narratives about this place. Her observation and her reportage are wonderful. Less compelling to this reader are those moments when she falls into a previously charted narrative about the role of the "haole" in Hawai`i's history. That's a hard one to think your way out of, but I hope some of us can begin to do that work, make things rather than feed the binaries of inside and outside.
Last weekend I thought I detected a shift in the tectonic plates that compose Hawai`i's literary world. At a reading of "native voices," organized by Craig Santos Perez and Brandy Nalani MacDougall, there was no mention of settlers, no visceral bitterness. The anger there was (and is) folded into erotic narratives (by No`u Revilla, for one). The force of the literature and orature came from within. There were links being made between Pacific Islanders, if not others. There was power there, and it was not the power of division, but of making, joyful making. This is not to say that anger has been overcome, or that it has no role in changing this place. Everyone but everyone in Hawai`i is always already angry about something. But it is to say that things may be happening that push us past the colonial/post-colonial/neo-colonial moment and into a new place, where literatures--whether native or Asian or white--can operate without constant fault-finding.
Note: there are at least two links to the Honolulu Weekly in this post. The Weekly is suffering from the economic downturn, among other woes. Please support their work, either by advertising in their pages, or by offering them a donation. Follow this link to find out how.