Saturday, February 2, 2013

Early responses to _Jack London is Dead_

"Are you still terrified, now that the book is out?" asked a Honolulu Weekly reporter.

 --No. If only for the wonderful poems and responses to the question, "what is it like to be a Euro-American writer in/from Hawai`i," the project was worth the early feeling of breaking a taboo.

"If a Hawaiian writer were not in touch with his heritage, could he be included in the anthology?"asked a graduate student.

 --No. First, because the arbitrary nature of the inclusion (and exclusion) process imitates that of other ethnic anthologies and so forces this very question. What does it mean to be Caucasian, to be Hawaiian, in Hawai`i? The question presumes that "white writing" is dominant, that if a Hawaiian writer is not in touch with his culture, he will "write white." But this anthology is not about dominant white culture; instead, it's about a culture that is perpetually questioned, like all cultures in Hawai`i. It's not the culture presumed to exist on the mainland (which does not include Appalachia, certainly, or other regional white cultures), the culture that is seen to blot out other cultures. The writing in this anthology is not central, it's also the activity of "outsiders." As such, the book could have included other "outsiders," like African Americans who live and write in Hawai`i. It's about whiteness as an experience, not with race as essentialism. There's a sense in Hawai`i of "whiteness" as a monolith; this book attempts to break that model. The multitude of approaches to poetry (and fiction) found in the book obviate the notion of monolithic, monotone, mono-culture, or (tellingly) of white culture as no culture at all.

"Your announcement to the department sounded defensive, especially the part about not wanting to go back to the old days [of the A. Grove Day anthology, A Hawaiian Reader]."

--This has been a huge issue from the beginning, that of tone. One of my outside readers for the book (hardly anonymous, as I asked them!), Anne Brewster, was sometimes exceptionally hard on me over my tone. Several times I resisted her, thinking that honesty was better than avoidance (that's my spin, not hers), but occasionally I decided to re-phrase a sentence, or take material out of my own statement. I asked the writers to avoid the twin sins of the white writer in Hawai`i, guilt and/or whininess, and they did. Acknowledgment and wit are better approaches. Scott Abels's "thanks for asking what it's like to be a haole; no one ever asked before," is a marvelous locution.

--I forget Noe Tanigawa's particular question at HPR the other day for a feature on Jack coming out soon (to include Jaimie Gusman and Scott Abels). But I found myself responding that we are living twin tracks of a life that is at once individual and historical, that being a white writer can be confusing due to the sense that the history of white people in Hawai`i has been complicated (to put it mildly!) but that as individuals we want to be included in the literary conversation. To be a member of a group with relative economic and political privilege but, at the same time, to find oneself marginalized as an artist, feels like a Catch-22. (Of course many of the homeless men begging by the road are white, so privilege is hardly monolithic either.)

--"Will this launch an era of 'haole power'?" asked Noe, playfully.

--No, that's not what we're after at all. The Black Arts movement, the Hawaiian Renaissance, the feminist movement, all asserted the need for political power to go with literary power. This anthology, while it of course posits the need for political action on the environment, the rampant militarism of the USA, and so on, does not assert the need for "haole power."

--"I'm showing this book to my student whose definition paper is going to be about the term 'Haole'."
Now that's what this book is for!

Finally, in response to a comment by Donovan Kūhiō Colleps, here are a few other essay-posts I've written on the subject of Euro-American writing in Hawai`i: on Judy Rohrer's book on haoles; on "writing while white"; on Tony Quagliano's work; on Juliana Spahr's Hawai`i writing; on Steve Shrader. More on Hawai`i writing in jacket2, here.

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