Bachelor Thesis, 2008, 45 Pages
“I wanna be a scientist,” I said, “like Tom Swift.” “I suppose you get straight As in science and math?” “No.” “You’ll never be a scientist.” “I wanna be a stuntman,” Ben said, “in Hollywood.” My father pulled his Cutlass over in front of the school and frowned at Ben. “Start saving for your funeral.” - Punahou Blues
Love and hate, joy and anger, passion and frustration, life and dreams, hopes and illusions - the themes and topics to be found in Kirby Wright’s fictional works is endless. A California resident with Hawaiian blood, growing up in Honolulu, HI, and attending Punahou School, a private school with such exquisite graduates like presidential candidate and governor Barack Obama, winning short story and poetry contests in his teenage years and then publishing two successful novels later on, Wright lived his dream coming out of a world that was caught in between cultures, which could not be any different. Experiences that directly translated into his works, with the protagonists Jeffrey and Ben Gill roaming the islands of Hawaii, always searching for a way to unite both worlds and free themselves of the stigma of being a hapa haole. The present paper focusses on the fictional work of Kirby Wright, including the novels Punahou Blues and Molokai Nui Ahina, and explores the way Hawaiian culture and the topic of “coming-of-age” in a multicultural society are integrated and used. A brief introduction to Hawaiian literature and cultural history, including a portrait of author Kirby Wright, will be followed by a summary of both novels and a look into to what extent the setting of a novel is crucial to its interpretation, before I will then explore the way in which Wright presented the comingof-age of the protagonist in his work and in how far this was connected to Hawaiian culture and traditions.
In order to provide some background for the interpretation of the two novels Punahou Blues and Molokai Nui Ahina, I will proceed by giving a brief outline of the literary history of Hawaii.
Hawaii, regardless of its status as an independent kingdom or a state of the United States of America, has always been a place of a diverse culture and a huge variety of ethnicities due to its central location between the American and Asian continent and its past as a large grower and exporter of sugar and pineapples from the late 19 th century on. Today, Hawaii has the highest percentage of Asian residents in all of the United States, with 41.6%. While the Chinese were the first immigrants to Hawaii from Asia, they have nowadays been outnumbered by the Japanese, which form the largest group of immigrants, followed by the Filipino, Chinese and Korean. This huge Asian influence is recognizable in all of Hawaii, with buddhist religious sites, typical food markets and Asian traditional customs all over the isles. Native Hawaiians only form a minor group of 6.8% these days, only one third of the number of white non-hispanics (18.7%), of whom most have emigrated from the U.S. mainland 1 .
This ethnic diversity directly evolved into an as diverse and rich literary culture, which is characterized by all of these influences coming from very different parts of the world. Thus, Hawai’i literature can be divided into three main channels or types:
• Asian-Hawaiian Literature
• American-Hawaiian Literature
• Native Hawaiian Literature
1 City Data. http://www.city-data.com/city/Honolulu-Hawaii.html. 07.08.2008
With many travelling authors picking Hawaii to be a worthwile place to stay for a while and write about during the past ca. 200 years, including famous writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Grove Day and Mark Twain, who spend a sufficient amount of time on the Hawaiian Isles while travelling the world, literature has always been of great importance in this part of the world.
In a time, often referred to by scholars as the “pre-contact” time, when Native Hawaiians were left untouched by western civilization and were almost completely isolated from any influences from the outside of their island world, storytelling was mostly oral. Traditional tales, in forms of short poems, simple stories or songs, were transported from generation to generation forming a common knowledge of Hawaii, its gods and its history, which is still regularly referred to today. What is special about the Isles of Hawaii in this respect, is the fact that even today, with geological, archeological and biological scientific knowledge readily available everywhere, this tradition still maintains a high status in Hawai’i society. According to traditional belief, all of Hawaii has its origin and cause in the old Gods. A view not uncommon to native populations all over the world; still, what makes Hawai’i belief stand out, is the relationship of humans and gods described in many stories and tales. In contrast to many cultures and religions, e.g. Buddhism, which promote a rather distanced relationship between gods and men, Hawai’i gods have always been said to be among and with the people not untouchably superior to them. Confer, for example, the stories of Mau-i, the patron of the Island of Maui, which was born as one of the common people and then ascended to the world of the gods: When he First People lived in Hawaii, the hero Mau-i as one of their Great Ones. But when Mau-i was a child, his own mother didn’t want him. Before Mau-i was born, Hi-na, his mother, had been told that her next baby would be no ordinary child. Afterwards she saw that this was true. None of her other babies
Reflecting one’s childhood and turbulent youth in short stories, novels and poems and thereby giving an account of Hawaii’s rich culture and colorful society throughout the past decades - Kirby Wright’s work leaves a lasting impression, even though still small with only two novels and a collection of poetry published. Born and raised in Honolulu, HI, with his brother Barry (53) and his sister Julie (43), he claims to be a “well-adjusted middle-kid” 10 . He directly experienced the ups and downs of a life as a hapa haole, i.e. a person of mixed blood, half white and half hawaiian, in a Hawaiian setting in the 1960s and 70s, a time when the state of Hawaii was still in a phase of adjustment to a new government, a new identity and thus a new and ever-changing culture. Today Wright (52), who graduated from the University of California at San Diego and San Francisco State University in the 1980s, receiving an MFA in Creative Writing, lives in Vista, CA, with his wife Darcy, his cats Baby and Dodo Bird and a dozen of red ear slider turtles, whom he keeps in memory of Hawaii’s exotic sea turtles. Making a life out of writing and giving readings in the entire country, he has also founded a business called Molokai Paradise, which serves to rent out his family’s old beach house and cottage on Molokai as vacation rentals. Throughout the years, starting off with smaller poetry slams and competitions, gradually making a name for himself in the literary scene of California and Hawaii, he won several prices including the San Diego Book Award, the Ann Fields Poetry Prize and the Academy of American Poets Award, while he prides himself of an extensive list of publications in more than 100 magazines and literary journals. He published two novels, Punahou Blues and Molokai Nui Ahina, and a poetry book called Before the City, in which he experiments “with everything from dramatic monologue to free verse with couplets/tercets/quatraines to sudden fictions to prose poetry” 11 . All books published in the U.S.A.
10 Wright, Kirby. 2008. firstname.lastname@example.org “Punahou Blues + Molokai Nui Ahina”. 06. Aug. Personal e-mail.
11 Wright, Kirby. 2008. email@example.com “Punahou Blues + Molokai Nui Ahina”. 06. Aug. Personal e-mail.
Two novels, published in 2005 and 2007, and one book of poetry, published in 2003, are on Kirby Wright’s record up to this date and they all share one thing: They have been very successfull and widely read even beyond the borders of the State of Hawaii. On the following pages I will introduce these two novels, give summaries and analyze the main characters, as well as the importance of the different settings.
Kirby Wright’s first novel, which was published by Lemon Shark Press, a company that has dedicated itself to supporting young and upcoming writers and has, up until this point, produced works by Wright exclusively, in 2005, introduces us to the life and times of Jeff and Ben Gill over a period of about five years. Both novels come with a Hawaiian dictionary in the appendix to make it easier for the reader to work his way through the more or less extensive set of Hawaiian words used in parts of the books.
Even though the protagonist Jeff and author Kirby Wright share a lot of common qualities and characteristics, such as graduating from Punahou School, the largest private school in the United States with famous graduates such as presidential candidate Barack Obama, growing up in Honolulu and facing the struggles of a life as a hapa haole, Wright openly admits that despite its autobiographical streaks and features, Punahou Blues is a fictional work and “any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is coincidental”, as
he states in an introductory note. 13 Instead he prefers to refer to his style of writing as between the “2 genres of novel and memoir” 14 and compares it to the recent bestselling novel The Kite Runner by Afghan author Khaled Hosseini, which is said to employ a similar approach and style. As to why he decided to move along this special path and refrain from writing an entirely autobiographical novel exposing his personal life and childhood in every detail and only take certain pieces out of it and integrate them into this semi-fictional work, Kirby Wright states: I need to write about real people in my life, to grasp the essence of character, and then apply a fictive slant in places to enhance the storyline. 2
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