10 Books That Will Help You Understand Hawaii
From Poetry to Photography, History, and Ethnography
This article originally appears in the Summer 2017 issue of Rain Taxi.
In Sarah Vowell’s 2011 walk-about through Hawaiian history, Unfamiliar Fishes, the author and social commentator opens with a tease: “Why is there a glop of macaroni salad next to the Japanese chicken on my plate?” After dubbing Hawaiian-born Barack Obama our first plate lunch president, Vowell proceeds to unveil the complicated answer. (More on that below).
Some nine million tourists are expected to visit the Islands this year—a 2 percent increase over 2016. It’s an open question how many of those nine million will wonder about the provenance of their plate lunch specials. Far fewer will likely contemplate the constellation of meanings behind a striking sentence in the introduction to Whetu Moana: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English (Auckland University Press, 2003). “Since the 1950s decolonization has taken place,” the editors write, “and while most of our nations are again politically independent some, such as Aotearora, Hawai’i and the Society Islands, remain colonized.”
“Colonized” is not a term the Hawaiian tourist industry is apt to employ. Captain James Cook, who “discovered” the Islands in 1778, feared what European intrusion would mean. “The order not to permit the crew of the boats to go on shore was issued,” he confided in his journal, “that I might do everything in my power to prevent the importation of a fatal disease to this island . . . ”
Maybe one million Hawaiians lived in the Islands at the time. The explorers, exploiters, and whalers who followed brought whisky and rum, venereal disease, flu, measles and the common cold. By the late 1870s, fewer than 50,000 pure Hawaiians were left, with that number rapidly falling.
The missionaries, who arrived in 1820, at least brought books. The Islands’ literacy rate soared from zero in 1820 to possibly 90 percent by 1834—a few points higher than the current United States level. Literacy, as a means to preserve Hawaiian identity and negotiate a complex future, has played an outsized role in the history of the Islands.
The first newspaper published west of the Rockies came off a Ramage letterpress, in Hawaiian, via the Lahainaluna Seminary campus on Maui. The small building of white stone and timber, Hale Pa’i (House of Printing), is now a museum devoted to the early history of the written word in the Islands.
The annual Hawaii Book & Music Festival in downtown Honolulu attracts thousands each spring. The University of Hawaii Press is one of the most impressive university presses in the country, and first-rate literary magazines like Manoa, Hawaii Review, and Bamboo Ridge often deal with what it means to call the Islands home.
Meanwhile, James Michener’s 1959, 1,000-plus page blockbuster Hawaii, the Islands’ War and Peace, is still hoisted on the beaches or poolside.
But Hawaii’s story does not begin or end with Michener. The Islands stand at the apex of the Polynesian Triangle; Honolulu, it has been said, is the Rome of the Pacific. Historically, ethnically, and spiritually, the Islands face west and south, their backs to the mainland. An appreciation for Hawaiian culture when on a ten-day vacation, even with Hawaii in tow, is a fragile commodity.
What follows is a list of books this mainlander and frequent visitor has found helpful in the quest to understand the Islands. “Understand” may be too ambitious a word. The more attainable goal for an outsider is to arrive in the Islands, not as a tourist, but as a traveler.
A Hawaiian Reader
(Mutual Publishing Co., 1959)
This seminal anthology has gone through several printings for good reason: Each entry is a gem of post-contact writing. The strengths of A Hawaiian Reader, published in tandem with Hawaii’s statehood in 1959, also exposes a historical fault line: the book starts off with an excerpt from Cook’s vivid journals, which the editors title “The Discovery of the Hawaiian Islands.”
The Hawaiian people had lived in those Islands for more than 1,000 years, but it is only on page 331 of the 361-page book that we come to “Writings from Ancient Hawaii.”
Still, this is the place to delve into Hawaii’s literary heritage, which includes narratives by early explorers and famous writers like Mark Twain, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, May Sarton and James Jones, along with slices of the missionary writings.
Perhaps no better poem about the Islands has been written by a haole (someone of European ancestry) than William Meredith’s “An Account of a Visit to Hawaii.” Meredith first visited the Islands as a naval aviator during the war. In eight, finely wrought stanzas he captured the ambiguities of our paradisal projections:
A place to earn in more chastising climates
Which teach us that our destinies are mild
Rather than fierce as we had once supposed,
And how to recognize the peril of calm,
Menaced only by surf and flowers and palms.
In the too-short “Ancient Hawaii” section, excerpts from “The Kumulipo,” the Hawaiian creation chant, reflect the sheer physicality of the Hawaiian universe:
At the time when the earth became hot
At the time when the heavens turned about
At the time the sun was darkened
To cause the moon to shine
The time of the rise of the Pleiades
The Spell of Hawaii
(Mutual Publishing Co., 1968)
The follow-up anthology to A Hawaiian Reader is not quite as strong as its predecessor but is still essential. Many of the same authors appear here, but it is Robert Louis Stevenson’s “An Open Letter to the Reverend Doctor Hyde of Honolulu,” published in 1890, that takes the palm. The Scottish author’s Swiftian philippic is one of the most searing in the English language, as he takes down the man who sneeringly and inaccurately questioned the reputation of Father Damien De Veuster of Molokai. In Australia, Stevenson had come across a letter by Hyde published in a church bulletin: “He was not a pure man in his relations with women,” Hyde wrote, “and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness.”
Stevenson visited the lazaretto shortly after the future saint died in 1889, stayed a week, and bore witness to the immense suffering. In taking on Hyde—who, Stevenson noted, lived in a comfortable house in Honolulu—Stevenson gave no quarter. “I conceive of you as a man quite beyond and below the reticences of civility,” he noted, “with what measure you mete, with that it shall be measured you again; with you, at last, I rejoice to feel the button off the foil and to plunge home.” Little of Hyde was left standing.
Nathaniel B. Emerson, Unwritten Literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of the Hula
(Bureau of American Ethnology, 1909)
As the 19th century ended, Emerson, a child of missionary stock and a medical inspector at the leper colony Molokai, transcribed from oral sources the poetry and chants of the ancient dance, the old songs sprung from a communal imagination.
With its flowing, graceful gestures invoking landscape, myth, the weather, the gods, love, and sex, the hula might seem as allusive as Finnegan’s Wake. Emerson maintains a running commentary on the chants, or meles, provides footnotes, and supplies the Hawaiian texts. When the Hawaiian cultural renaissance gathered strength in the mid-70s, this became the go-to book for students of the hula. The poetry is lyrical as the Hawaiian universe.
Misty and dim, a bush in the wilds of Kapa’a,
The paddlers bend to their work, as the flower-laden
Shrub inclines to the earth in Maile-huna;
They sway like reeds in the breeze to crack their bones—
Such the sight as I look at this tossing grove,
The rhythmic dip and sway on to Wailua.
Haunani-Kay Trask, Light in the Crevice Never Seen
(Calyx Books, 1994)
Trask is professor emeritus of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and this is a book of poems from a Hawaiian woman’s volcanic heart. “Racist White Woman” stands at one end of the spectrum:
in your painted
When Trask’s poems are angry, they’re as unequivocal as a knife blade—yet behind every curse, it’s said, lurks a silent prayer. At other moments, the pendulum swings towards the beautiful:
Morning rains wash
the damp sand cool
and grainy. Over
the cream of foam, young
surfers hover, tense
for the rising glory.
Trask provides generous notes to her poems as she rends the veil on the shadow side of “paradise,” along with its moments of grace:
every island is a god
wild with grasses of light
Andrea Feeser, Waikiki: A History of Forgetting & Remembering,
art and design by Gaye Chan
(University of Hawaii Press, 2006)
The lavish, coffee-table appearance of this book, with its vintage photos and beautiful art, shouldn’t deceive: it has teeth. Feeser, Associate Professor of Art History at Clemson University, taught art history at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. If she sometimes writes like an academic, the compelling subject matter allows the treatment to assume a kind of scholarly lyricism.
Waikiki and nearby Diamond Head represent modern tourism’s ultimate postcard icons. As Feeser makes clear, this famous stretch of land—or real estate, in modern terms—with its mild surf and clear, blue waters, was once a rich agricultural area replete with sacred sites, streams and fresh water springs, taro plantations, and royal fishponds. “Taro, for lack of water, may become misshapen,” she quotes an old Hawaiian proverb. “For lack of care one may become ill.”
The tourist hordes carpeting Waikiki’s sands, the cheek-to-jowl hotels, the set-jawed rookies staggering towards the water with their rented surfboards, form a numbing caricature of historical heedlessness. Feeser writes: “value has much to do with what is visible and invisible, and that sometimes we view what is not meant for our eyes and overlook what we should, perhaps, most examine.” Her book strikes a blow for the lost, overlooked world that was Waikiki.
John Tayman, The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai
Tayman, former deputy editor of Outside magazine, tells the story of Molokai’s leprosy settlement well. Starting in 1866, and for more than 100 years, the Hawaiian and the U.S. governments exiled some 8,000 people to Molokai’s isolated Kalaupapa Peninsula with scarcely a nod to due process. By the time Damien arrived at the colony in 1873, conditions were as horrifying as a scene out of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it: “sights of pain in a land of disease and disfigurement, bright examples of fortitude and kindness, moral beauty, physical horror, intimately knit.”
One story among thousands of heartbreaking stories is that of Olivia Robello. On a warm October morning in Honolulu in 1934, the beautiful, willowy 18-year-old, engaged to be married, answered the doorbell. The door opened to a skinny man with briefcase who said he worked for the board of health. The man took a seat on the couch, pulled out some papers (routine tests performed on her removed tonsils weeks before showed signs of the dreaded bacillus) and informed her he had instructions to escort her to the leprosy hospital in the city—the last stop before Molokai. Olivia, who later wrote a small, poignant book, titled My Life of Exile in Kalaupapa, died there in 2006 at age 90.
A cure for leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, came in the 1940s and the quarantine was lifted in 1969, but a handful of former patients and their descendants still reside in the stark, windswept peninsula with its mostly unmarked graves and old buildings. Visitors can hike or ride a mule down the 1,600-foot cliff (pali) to what is now the Kalaupapa National Historical Park. Out of Hawaii’s nine million annual visitors, a mere 8,000 come to this haunted, intensely spiritual place that stands at the very antipodes to Waikiki’s circus.
Gavin Daws, The Shoals of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands
(University of Hawaii Press, 1968)
Daws, an Australian transplant who taught history at the University of Hawaii, has written numerous books set in the Pacific, but this history is canonical. The author is especially good on the run-up to the sleight-of-hand takeover by the United States which, among other Hawaiian prizes, coveted Pearl Harbor’s warm-water port. Daws brings the players in the last years of the monarchy to vivid life—King Kalakaua, Queen Liliuokalani, Stanford Dole, Walter Murray Gibson, Claus Spreckels—fascinating protagonists in a clash of two worlds.
The book ends on an elegiac note. Like Vowell with her plate-lunch special, Daws is as alert as a magpie to Hawaii’s ever-present past: “History came to Hawaii by way of the sea, and traces of the past are still visible in the water as well as on the land. At Lahaina, close to the harbor, skin divers prospecting on the sandy sea bed occasionally turn up anchor chains and oil lamps and square-faced gin bottles from whaling ships, coffee cups from Navy submarines and Matson cruise liners, and splintered calabashes and stone adze heads tossed overboard from Hawaiian canoes.”
Immaculate storytelling, and, when he wants, a poetic reach: after nearly five decades, Daws’s book is hard to beat.
David Malo, Hawaiian Antiquities
(The Bureau of American Ethnology, 1903)
Malo, a Christian convert who became an ordained minister and Hawaii’s first superintendent of schools, was born in the mid-1790s and died in 1853: his life spanned the transition from old Hawaii to the new.
Hawaiian Antiquities, completed around 1839—fewer than 20 years after the first missionaries arrived—is a precious source book for the pre-Christian Islands.
Malo catalogued the Hawaiian world: the plants, birds, tools, surfing, morality, the making of fish hooks, religious rites for healing the sick, the ritualistic universe gathered around canoe-making, the ways of warfare, the gods, games, and sorcery. His writing style has a dry, low-key sweetness bordering on ingenuousness that puts the reader in his corner: “The women of the poor and humble classes gave birth to their children without paying scrupulous attention to matters of ceremony and etiquette.”
After his death Malo’s body was taken by canoe from Kihei in Maui around the bend to Lahaina and borne up the steep butte overlooking the old whaling town. He rests above the giant letter L chalked into the hillside. His wish to be buried where no white man might build a house above him has been honored.
At life’s end, Malo came to regret the role he played in helping the haole. “If a big wave comes in, large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean,” he wrote, “and when they see the small fishes of the shallows they will eat them up.”
Sarah Vowell, Unfamiliar Fishes
(Riverhead Books, 2011)
Some critics of Vowell’s books have knocked her bouts of glibness. For others, glibness as cutting social commentary is part of the attraction. There’s certainly a dash of it in this 211-page narrative: “This book tells the story of. . . how Americans and their children spent the seventy-eight years between the arrival of the Protestant missionaries in 1820 and the American annexation in 1898 Americanizing Hawaii,” she writes, “importing our favorite religion, capitalism, and our second-favorite religion, Christianity.”
Mostly, the approach works in her favor, especially when the best-selling author of Assassination Vacation and Lafayette in the Somewhat United States evinces grudging admiration for the courage and durability of the early missionaries after having made satirical hay with their straight-backed ways.
As for why there is a glop of macaroni salad next to the Japanese chicken on her plate lunch: “Because the ship Thaddeus left Boston Harbor with the first boatload of New England missionaries bound for Hawaii in 1819.” Which led, eventually, to the plantation economy where, out in the fields, workers brought in from China, Japan, the Philippines and Portugal shared their meals bento style.
Vowell is at her best when she plays the undetached observer, as when she writes of the annual David Malo Day celebration at Lahainaluna High School each May. “The Hawaiiana Club serves a poi supper in his honor, putting on a choral and hula pageant at sunset on the school grounds downhill from David Malo’s lonesome grave,” she writes. “Wearing yellow leis, the Lahainaluna performers were all smiles but well rehearsed, dancing to Hawaiian songs and chants about the beauty of places such as Nuuanu and Hana and Kauai, with discipline and grace.”
There is a recitation of Malo’s dolorous lines about “unfamiliar fishes,” but the evening, which includes an announcement of a David Malo Scholarship, remains upbeat. In the middle of the song “O Kou Aloha,” the students leave the stage to search for their mothers in the audience, and lower leis around their proud heads. “It was such a graceful, happy gesture that just about everyone teared up.” This is a glimpse of Hawaii most of us will never see. It’s hard not to be moved.