Friday, January 10, 2014

Literature in Hawaii

Back in November last year, Jill Engledow, a British writer based in Hawaii appeared on my blog in order to introduce her new book.  The Island Decides is set in Maui in the 1960s, and follows a young mother's plight to reclaim her lost child.  I was taken by Jill's story, and by the idea of life on what is known by most as a tropical holiday paradise.  So I was excited when she agreed to come back and tell us more about the world of books and literature of Hawaii.  Over to Jill.

On a plane to Paris a couple of years ago, I discovered that Hawaii is not as famous as we who live here like to think. To my amazement, the Frenchwoman sitting next to me had never even heard of Hawaii. So for those who also are unfamiliar with these lovely isles, allow me to introduce them.

Hawaii is a chain of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, stretching some 1,500 miles from the ancient, almost submerged original islands in the northwest to the largest, newest and still-erupting Hawaii Island at the southeastern end. These islands grew from a “hotspot” under the Pacific tectonic plate, which sends a plume of molten magma from deep within the planet to build new land in long-lasting, spectacular but gentle eruptions. Because the plate moves very slowly to the northwest, older islands are carried away from the hotspot and gradually dissolve into the sea. Six of the newer islands at the southeastern end are populated. 

That’s the geological background of islands that are farther from other landmasses than any place on earth. Today, Hawaii is the 50th state in the United States of America (and the birthplace of President Barack Obama), a place many Americans dream of visiting, a tourist mecca attracting people from around the world. 
I live on Maui, the second-newest island, still bearing the marks of volcanic eruptions less than 600 years ago and still potentially live, since 600 years is nothing in the life of a volcano. Maui is a place of great natural glamour, a “Goldilocks” island that is not too big, not too small, not too hot, not too cold. It has miles of beautiful beaches, an amazing geological feature we call the “crater” at the top of the volcano that makes up the eastern end of the island, a wealth of talent among its people, and gorgeous views anywhere you look. Obviously, I am proud to live here, but it’s not just me. The island slogan is Maui No Ka Oi: Maui is the best. And Maui is regularly named the “best island in the world” by various travel magazines.  

With that background, I’d like to share some suggestions for those who want to read about Hawaii. The islands have a long history of storytelling. The Polynesian people who first arrived here nearly 2,000 years ago believed fervently in the power of the word, and though they never developed writing, they memorized long, subtle, elaborate chants to preserve their history, tell of their chiefs’ adventures and praise the beauty of the land.
When Christian missionaries arrived in 1820, their first task was to create an alphabet, and within a few decades Hawaii had one of the most literate populations on the planet. They filled thousands of newspaper pages, putting ancient stories into writing. At last, that work is being digitized and translated into English, bringing a long-lost literature to the modern world. One great saga, of journeys undertaken by the little sister of the volcano goddess Pele, is The Epic Tale of Hiiakaikapoliopele. This illustrated book is pricey but precious, a collector’s item indeed. But there are plenty of Hawaii-themed books for regular readers.
A contemporary look at the skills and knowledge of the native people of Hawaii is in Voices of Wisdom: Hawaiian EldersSpeak, by MJ Harden, who interviewed highly accomplished elders, tapping wisdom passed down through generations. The beautifully written book is illustrated with equally beautiful black-and-white photos.
James Michener, an early master of the multigenerational saga, lived in Hawaii for years and wrote the fabulous book called Hawaii. I first read this when I was a youngster, and I remember sitting in the car waiting for my mother to buy groceries, reading the incredible first section that describes the Islands’ fiery rise from the ocean. Though I myself had seen amazing recent eruptions, it still boggled the imagination to think that the supermarket and its asphalt parking lot were built upon that fiery base. Michener’s version of Hawaii history is fiction, but I think it is true to the spirit and the general trend of Hawaii history over many generations. This classic is now available for the Kindle.

The American artist Georgia O’Keeffe visited Hana, a remote and beautiful area on Maui, in 1938. She stayed with a family whose daughter, now an old woman, has written a memoir of that visit, illustrated with paintings O’Keeffe did while in Hawaii. 

My own writing has been nonfiction until recently, mostly appealing to regional readers who know and love the Islands. Now I’ve ventured into fiction with The Island Decides, a tale of a young mother who “finds herself” when she travels to Maui to reclaim her lost child. I specialize in writing about the history of Hawaii (The Island Decides is set in 1971, which probably qualifies as history for younger people), and future novels will draw on the knowledge I’ve accumulated writing about Hawaii’s past. 

There are many other books about this beautiful place, including some by famous early visitors such as Mark Twain, Jack London and Isabella Bird. More are on the way, with a lively set of self-publishers on Maui alone; mysteries set in the Islands are particularly popular. If the books I have mentioned pique your interest, perhaps you’ll want to read more--or even come for a visit.

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