Monday, July 26, 2010

"Be a Haole, a Dumb Haole, or a Dumb F-ing Haole": On White Writing in Hawai`i

I'll begin with a couple of anecdotes, perverse scripture to my homily about haoleness:

On a recent flight from Atlanta to St. Louis, I sat next to a large white man, former college football player, country music producer (in his home), and staunch Republican. We ran each other through talking points, like football players on a telestrator, quickly discovering that all we had in common were mothers with Alzheimer's, a not insignificant fact, at least until you start talking health care reform.

"Racism is worse than it's ever been," he told me. What bothered him most was that people like him felt they couldn't criticize the Obama administration without being called racists. (Where the direct racism is in that I don't know.)


A (non-white) student told me that white people have no culture, go looking for it in other peoples' cultures. Hence white teens and hiphop. Hence even white people who take up causes like the environment.


Judy Rohrer's new UH Press book, Haoles in Hawai`i takes on the work of defining whiteness in Hawai`i. She notes the absence of scholarship about the category, "haole," as compared to work on other groups in Hawai`i: "Academics, who are still mostly white even in Hawai`i," she writes, "tend not to study themselves, but rather that which they deem to be abnormal, different, or a problem" (6). While I'm not sure I agree that haole scholars do not find themselves to be a problem (some do far too much, I suspect), I wonder why the term is so pervasive and yet still unused in some crucial contexts. Why, for example, do we not think about "haole writing" in Hawai`i? More on that in a bit.

Rohrer offers a needed contextualization of "haole," and tries to divorce the term from its racial marker. Among her takes on "haole" is that the subject position is performative: white people can be "haole," but so can those non-whites who "act haole," meaning they are loud, opinionated, full of a sense of privilege. Rohrer draws out the meanings of "haole" from several strands of Hawai`i's history. There's a "local" (mostly Asian American) take on "haole," which stems from the plantation system, where haole were the bosses. And there's the Kanaka Maoli take, which comes from the longer, perhaps deeper, experience of colonialism. And of course there's the haole take on haole, which she divides into the categories of "savior" and "victim" (too few categories, to my mind). And then there's the haole desire not to be haole, to be native or kama`aina. (This begins to sound like the whiteness of the whale. . .)

As this all-too-quick synopsis of Rohrer's book indicates, the narrative possibilities for haole are limited, often self-limited. The gerund states it better: haole are often self-limiting. I would add to her list of characters the "guilty settler," the person who (understandably, perhaps) feels guilty that her people colonized and damaged others, and who tries valiantly to avoid all of the categories described above. Rohrer sets out a concise history of haole privilege and of native Hawaiian poverty, rate of incarceration, and so forth. The guilty settler valiantly tries to find a way not to appropriate Hawaiian and local stories. Sometimes this person (or function) sets itself up to police other haole, those who write about Hawai`i. It is perhaps one of these gatekeepers to whom the following poem was addressed in a graduate workshop of mine several years ago. The poem is called "My Potatoes," written by Mason Donald.

Don't write about Hula,
she explains to me. It's not yours.
Try working with hula
hoops instead. That's more fitting
to your . . . personal subject position.

This voice goes on to tell the writer not to write about Kamapua`a, Waikiki, Pele, even about "commodification and sexual exploitation."

No, no. You don't understand,
she continues.
Write about your home.
Write about your people.

The writer of this poem grew up on the Big Island, graduated from public schools there, attended the University of Hawai`i, and currently lives in Honolulu. The punchline to his poem, "It's not easy writing about / potatoes," is doubly ironic, since he grew up on rice but is being asked to write about a food (crucial element of Hawai`i writing!) that he doesn't eat, only because it is associated with his ethnic group.

I would argue that such material privilege leads to poverty in narrative or poetic possibilities. Because, if we are to mark haole as haole, then we must consider them not simply as politicians and CEOs, but also as artists. If you are marked as an outsider even if you grew up here, it's pretty hard to write about your own life or about the place you grew up as you (and many of your friends) knew it.

It may be inevitable, then, that we don't talk about "haole writers" in Hawai`i as a group. They seem to me to be everywhere, but they are not marked as such. This strikes me as a curious combination of old-style privilege (we do not mark what is dominant) and new-style condescension (haole writing about Hawai`i is no longer dominant and they don't have much to say anyway). Well, that combined with the exhaustion of high school readers of Robert Frost, among many of the "dead white males." But I'm not talking Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson, here; I'm talking those who walk the streets of Honolulu, go home, and write.

Open the newish tome (and I mean the weighty door stopper on steroids volume), Honolulu Stories: Two Centuries of Writing, edited by Gavan Daws and Bennett Hymer. Cast your eye at the Table of Contents. Look to the categories used to group poems and stories. These categories come in an odd mix of period (the nineteenth century); economic system (plantation); places (Waikiki, around the island); feeling (dislocated); markers like local and Hawaiian; and the ambiguous, "The Way We Live Now."

So what is "local"? The selection is almost completely local Asian; there are no "local haole" here. In this section of the book we find what might otherwise be an issue of Bamboo Ridge Press's annual journal. "Dislocated" expands the "Local" category in intriguing ways, drawing in African American writers and white ones, but also including local Asians. The "Plantation" section is almost exclusively local Asian. "On the Beach at Waikiki," to which the book devotes two sections, includes many haole writers, including writers of songs like Irving Berlin. But we also find Haunani-Kay Trask here, alongside Paul Theroux--an odd couple if there ever was one. "To Be Hawaiian" speaks for itself.

There are haole writers here. The section "The Way We Live Now" begins with a poem by Faye Kicknosway. Kicknosway is a well known poet nationally who taught at UHM from the late 1980s until last year. Her poem, "The Other Shoe," fits in this section (maybe), but would also fit a section hypothetically titled, "White Writers of Hawai`i":

Answer the following: What's
a pineapple? A sheep? A night blooming

what's a South Sea Islander?
Measles? Immigrant labor? Cholera?

What's a rat? A horse?
Plague? What's history? And why

is it time sugar moved to Thailand?

I'll tell you: Because Max Von Sydow
and Julie Andrews
put long grey shirts on it.

This would be the 1966 movie version of James Michener's Hawaii. Von Sydow is a Calvinist, and Julie Andrews is his wife. As the "product description" at tells it: "They came to bring God, but instead brought disease and destruction." They also--the poem suggests--brought definitions with them, the need to categorize. And then literature (Michener) and film reinforced these categories through the costuming department in Hollywood. This strikes me as a poem worthy of the category "white poetry," (if there were such a one) in its oblique, yet pointed, critique of "haole colonialism," to say nothing of what is often called "Haolewood." Kicknosway is not Michener is not Stevenson or London. The other shoe has dropped.

Juliana Spahr's contribution is a poem about Palolo Stream and the parking lot beside it. It is about how space is organized in Hawai`i, about how "gathering" (or the Hawaiian sense of place) is carved up by fences, by ownership, by cars. "Certain of we have rights and / these rights are written so that / there is a possible keeping, a / keeping away, that denies / gathering." Among these "certain of we" the poet counts herself; she is one who drives to and from the "lot."

The white person (marked as tourist or colonial) appears in several poems by white writers, from William Stafford to John Logan to Terese Svoboda who writes the word outright:

Actual travel schools
refine this pact but you're not

the devil, you're "howl-ee"
as a full moon that rises apart
from the condos must be howled at?

For the haole tourist, money is to the land as blood is to the "native," in Svoboda's poem. It's not an equal position; it may represent economic capital and power, but not the power of story. Because this story is what happens over and again in this book and others. The haole writer gets to write about tourists and potatoes. Or maybe that is what he or she thinks. If there is bad ownership of land and goods, there is no good story to be owned.

Missing from this book, a gap that will be noted more by outsiders than insiders, I suspect, is anything by W.S. Merwin. The absence might be due to a lack of permissions or because Merwin's The Folding Cliffs (which takes place on Kaua`i) was seen here as an act of appropriation of a story by Pi`ilani Koolau, which was first appropriated by Jack London in "Koolau the Leper." (An extended and severe critique of the book as "a masterpiece of literary colonialism" by Kapalai`ula de Silva can be found here.) For whatever reason, and despite the various reactions to Merwin's work one hears --from boredom to disgust--there is in Merwin's work a concern for the environment. Quoted here is one such expression, notable now that Merwin is Poet Laureate (for whatever that is worth, likely not much):

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
with our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

If one did not know how different are the models provided by Merwin and Spahr, one might assume them to be of like minds, as they are of like repetitions. Palolo Stream and the everywhere of Merwin's poem are surely linked. (See "Thanks" by Merwin in full.) The intensity of discussions of how and when to write about Hawai`i can be seen in the exchange between Ku`ualoha Ho`omanawanui and Dennis Kawaharada, here and here.

In a fascinating and misguided op-ed in the Wall Street Journal recently, Sen. James Webb (D-VA) (known to advertise himself as Scots-Irish), does some special pleading for white people, while arguing against anti-discrimination policies that target ethnic and racial groups. He's making a class argument that gets caught up in the web of race. But the piece is fascinating because it suggests in what for a brief moment was called "post-racial America," we've more complicatedly arrived at an America in which there are white people who know they're white people. They are like my friend on the airplane, and many of them are unhappy about it. Given that there are white people, however, Webb is correct (as I see it) in asserting that "white America is hardly a monolith. And the journey of white American cultures is so diverse (yes) that one strains to find the logic that could lump them together for the purpose of public policy." Cultures as defined by economics is what I think he means: Appalachian culture and Manhattan culture may share whiteness, but they sure don't sing the same tunes. Whites in Portland don't usually see eye to eye with whites in Alabama (although the exceptions are telling). I and my friend on the plane were both white, but our cultures--in the widest meaning of "cultures"--are different.

One way to think about "haole writing" is to categorize white writers, as people. There are the visitors, the distinguished visiting writers, those who stay for a few years, those who spend decades, those whose families span generations, those who stay and those who leave. A better set of categories, to my mind, would spring from the question: what does a haole writer have to write about? To that question I would answer that such writing, while it needs to acknowledge the histories of this place, also needs to look to contribute something other than self-critique. It needs to get into issues of the environment, family--issues that range from the global to the quotidian. We need narratives (beginning perhaps from the conscious destruction of the old "savior/victim" dichotomy) that add to the larger conversation rather than ape it or self-flagellate.

I've written this in the spirit of inquiry, as nothing fixed or certain. As Tinfish's editor, I try hard to avoid ethnic categories as such. Tinfish will never publish an anthology devoted to writers of a particular ethnicity. Tinfish 18.5, for example, was a book by Hawai`i writers of different backgrounds whose concerns focused on Hawai`i. (It seems ironic in this context that there were no haole writers among them.) The aim is to create conversations across and between the usual categorical imperatives. In the case of 18.5, the writers applied their various lenses to issues of development, militarism, tourism. The point of the anthology was to link writers, not to list them. (This is an intention that is often ignored by students who want to read Hawaiian writers, or local writers.) But given that these categories exist, that they can do good work for writers and readers, let's honestly engage that of "haole writer" and see what good can be made of it. So far its range seems excessively narrow, if sometimes powerfully mined. Not only should we not write much about potatoes, but we should not have to write about how we can only write about them.


The title of this post comes out of Judy Rohrer's book on haole. The phrase was spoken by Prof. Phyllis Turnbull after weeks of hearing a white student from California complain about being categorized as "haole." These were the three choices Prof. Turnbull offered the student, clearly feeling that she belonged in the third but might better aim for the first.

Ed. note: Merwin apparently has never written about Honolulu, which is why he's not in the book, according to Gavan Daws. Amazing that he never wrote a poem about O`ahu.


Jonathan Morse said...

Absolutely: "excessively narrow, if sometimes powerfully mined." So would it help if, in the spirit of the aftermath of Massey or BP, you were to ask about the technology of the mine -- specifically, the reasons why the miner chose to drill where and how he did?

Consider three recent disasters in the authenticity-extraction business, for instance.

Rahila Khan's Down the Road, Worlds Away, a volume of short stories about the plight of Pakistani women in London's East End, was published by Virago, a British press that publishes only books by women. In the usual course of these things, it garnered a certain number of reviews whose thesis was that only a woman / only a Pakistani / only a Pakistani woman could have written etc. etc. etc. When it turned out that "Rahila Khan" was not just an English man but an English man with a name right out of an 18th-century novel, the Rev. Toby Forward, Virago furiously pulped all the unsold copies of his book.

In Australia, "Helen Demidenko's" novel about the plight of Ukrainians during World War II, The Hand that Signed the Paperwon prize after prize. Then it turned out that "Helen Demidenko's" real name was Helen Darville. She was an associate of the English Nazi David Irving, and her purpose in writing the book was to zing the Jews.

And in the United States, "Forrest Carter's" memoir The Education of Little Tree turned out to have been written by a man named Asa Earl Carter who was not just white but whiter than white. Among other things, he was the author of George C. Wallace's "Segregation forever" speech.

In textual terms, all three of those books are hoaxes. But in authorial terms, they're different, aren't they? At the least, they spring from different motives. More interesting, perhaps, might be that they spring from different ideas of the words "write" and "I." Would those differences be worth exploring in a creative writing classroom?

Andy Godefroy said...

There are so many different issues at work when discussing how ethnicity relates to literature: first there is the dynamic of fiction and non-fiction and then the question of authenticity and finally the question of privilege. This last issue is the most interesting because it is used by "local" or "ethnic" writers to disparage "white" writers but it also seems to be a slippery slope which in the case of Hawaii means that "locals" are infringing on "Hawaiian's" inherent privilege to write about Hawaii. As a Haole I find myself spending extra time as I edit my stories to critique my characters and viewpoints in terms of the people that could claim those characters as representative of them. The "Blu's Hanging" controversy is an example of how the author is far from dead and that even fiction is judged as reality these days.

Jaimie Gusman said...

Thank you for this post, Susan!

Anonymous said...

Jonathan, I don't think you can conclude Darville's main intention was to attack Jews though the effect on Jewish Australian readers (and for everyone else who had detected the stick of racism in its pages) was incendiary. Although it can primarily be read as an apologia for the behaviour of Nazis one of the intentions was to exercise a deliberate attack on what she and many other Anglo Australian writers perceived as the increasing fetishisation of "ethnic" or "multicultural" writing. Her novel won prizes because the prize and the itself had a reputation for being a foundation of Anglo-centric "settler" fiction. So when her novel surfaced, the judges went overboard on what they judged as a great Australian novel about migrant experience. Perhaps Darville's performed ethnicity hoax worked in her favour. It certainly embarrassed the judges. What was interesting also was that advocates of po-mo performative aesthetics loved Darville's gesture. Australian lit has many of these hoaxes, though Darville's is on my opinion the one that reveals the most about race and literary politics in Australia.

Roller shoes said...

thank you for share,good post

Adam Aitken said...

Sorry, the "Anonymous" was me, Adam.

Shantel Grace said...

Great post Susan.

ida! said...

Thanks Susan!

From what I remember, Judy is working in the strategic tradition of writing interventions by white US continental and Canadian scholars in the then-new field of critical white(ness)/critical race studies in the past 20 years. These interventions occurred due to the widespread backlash in America and the West against feminism, multiculturalism, gay rights, etc., and are very much part of the culture wars (though in a limited way; the media has been too skittish to present this specific discourse of crit. white studies...what does that tell us?).

These continental interventions were motivated by historical concerns in the late 1980s through the 2000s of the new rise of the skinhead and Neo-Nazi movements and the now-very-present-but-for-years-invisible organizing of the radical right in religious European American communities, among working class and poor whites; by racialized economic backlash against globalization by working-class whites who lost their jobs and status within urban America due to runaway factories; and by middle class whites, especially men, whose jobs were downsized by corporations and who were told to share power with women and minorities in promotion and hiring.

Such scholars included:

* David Roediger:

* Noel Ignatiev:

* Karen Brodkin:

* Ruth Frankenberg:

* LGBT white feminists such as Minnie Bruce Pratt & Dorothy Allison:

* Elvi Whittaker, on whose work Judy builds:

I think there is a use in historically tracing the sociological patterns, belief systems, and political and institutional positions of discrete groups of European American settlers--by region and class (as defined by accumulated wealth, not just annual income, and also by socio-economic status or SES within the broader community, not just personal/in-group identity), by religion and interrelationships with other communities, and by generational, housing, occupational, epidemiological, and migratory patterns, among other things.

To some extent, sociologists of Hawai`i have done this in the extended debate over the socio-economic status and community identity of the Portuguese in Hawai`i:

(click on Weinstein, Manicas, & Leon's response to Geshwender et al.'s article on the Portuguese in Hawai`i)

Prior to Whittaker's work, locally published journals such as Social Process in Hawai`i and Hawai`i Journal of History tried to document some of these patterns, albeit not with as critical or interventionist an eye as the work of critical white studies scholars. They did tend to focus on the missionaries.

Appreciate your sharing this link with me!

Eleanor Svaton said...

Great post, Susan. Now it just remains to be seen which 625er (if any) will make a final project entitled _Haoles Writing Hawai'i_???