Bachelor Thesis, 2008
45 Pages, Grade: 2,0
2. Hawai’i Literary History
2.1 Literature and Ethnicity
2.2 The origins of Hawaiian Literature
2.3 Kirby Wright
3. The Novels
3.1 Punahou Blues
3.1.1 Fiction and Autobiography
3.2 Molokai Nui Ahina
3.2.1 Authentic Material
3.3 The importance of setting
3.3.1 The setting of Punahou Blues
184.108.40.206 Honolulu in
220.127.116.11 Re-Establishing the Kingdom
3.3.2 The setting of Molokai Nui Ahina
18.104.22.168 Brief History of Molokai
22.214.171.124 Molokai in
4. Coming of Age in the Novels
4.1 Definition of Coming-of-Age
4.2 Coming-of-Age in Punahou Blues
4.3 Coming-of-Age in Molokai Nui Ahina
“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 coming- of-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 19th 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. mainland1.
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
Looking at the first type, it is obviously greatly influenced and shaped by the culture and experiences of the immigrants from Asia, who settled on the Isles of Hawaii. Examples are Maxine Hong Kingston, who despite being born in California and then moving to Hawaii in 1962 with her husband and actor Earll Kingston, never lost touch with her Chinese roots and tried to come to terms with her exotic heritage in her various publications. Hong Kingston taught language, arts and creative writing at the Mid-Pacific Institute at Manoa, HI, the University of Hawaii at Honolulu, HI, and private schools for almost 17 years, a period in which
she published her first novels2.
American-Hawaiian literature can be characterized as very much influenced by the culture of the U.S. mainland and its literary tradition. Kirby Wright can be seen as an example for this type, with his half- hawaiian heritage and later life in California. Growing up in Honolulu, HI, and living in Oahu up until his graduation from Punahou High School and then moving on to the University of California, it especially are his Hawai’i experiences, his childhood in the city of Honolulu and the long summers with his brother and his grandmother Julia on the remote island of Molokai, which shape his work and his writing. Only in his collection of poetry Before the City, which was published 2 years before his debut novel Punahou Blues came out in the U.S.A., he effectively deals with his life in California and the themes and motives coming along with it. Instead, up to this date, he was most successful with his novels, which tell a half-fictional, half-biographical story of a childhood in a Hawaiian setting, a childhood that is marked by the clash of white and native culture. Still, his works are clearly distanced from Native Hawaiian literature. Even though he repeatedly makes use of Pidgin English, as well as the Hawaiian language, the impact the western culture as on him is omni-present and he vividly engages in western motives and themes.
In contrast, Native Hawaiian Literature usually involves a large number of words or phrases from the Hawaiian language or is written in Hawaiian completely. Traditional myths and fairytales, very often involving Hawai’i gods, are the main topoi and shape the natives’ everyday life as well as their literature and culture. One of the biggest problems, however, is finding a way to still write true hawai’i literature while at the same time being under the strong influence of Asian immigrants and under the reign of the U.S.A. Confer, for example, the following quote by Claudia Rapp, who dealt with Hawaiian Literature in her doctoral thesis A Paradise Lost: Mapping Contemporary Literature from Hawaii, 2004: “The task for postcolonial writers, especially poets, is finding authentic voices, voices which are essentially their own. The inherent problem in their quest is that there can be no return to an alleged untainted authenticity, a pre-contact purity.”3 A task almost impossible to fulfill, as it appears to be valid to say that there is no such thing as an “untainted authenticity” in Hawaii anymore; none of the islands has been left untouched by tourism and western civilization, not even the remotest areas and thus it seems rather difficult for a writer to remain unaffected by the other cultures. There are numerous examples for Native Hawaiian Literature, such as Oiwi, a journal dedicated to the preservation of the Hawaiian language and literature. Writers from Hawaii and also other parts of the world can submit prose and poetry, as well as photography, drawings and plays freely, with the choice of language, i.e. English, Pidgin, Hawaiian or mixed, is left to the authors4.
Despite the lack of a “real body of contemporary Hawaii literature”4, the editors claim that “the native eloquence of our people can be heard and seen all over these islands: in speeches, testimonies, prayers, conversations, music, dance, film, art.” A statement that speaks of Hawaiian literature in a very proud and confident way, making it obvious that the literary culture in this part of the world, even though on the way to a “paradise lost”5, is kept alive by many dedicated writers.
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 had been so large, so well-formed, or so bright-eyed as this one.6
Soon after growing up, Mau-i will experience that he is special and capable of shaping the world around him to his and his people’s needs. For example, he will later figure out a way to push up the sky, which was in earlier times hanging low over the humans heads, leaving little space to walk upright or for growth or plants and trees, which therefore had a very unique shape, “stretching their branches out sideways”7 and they stayed this way even after Mau-i had gained the energy to push up the sky with the help of one of the “Old Ones”. Stories like this, which describe the birth and life of gods and how they were chosen to serve their people, are very typical for literary works in Hawaii. Taking these tales, Hawaiians have always been able to explain the world around them in a way that was still very much connected to their everyday world. In many of these traditional stories, gods regularly walk among the humans, which is why Hawaiians have maintained such a strong bond to their “old ones” even nowadays: they are constantly surrounded by their spirit.
This tradition has always been vivid, still by he end of the 19th century, King David Kalakaua felt that there was the need for a “Hawaiian Renaissance”, as Claudia Rapp puts it: During King David Kalakaua’s reign (1874-1891) there had been a first ‘renaissance’ of native cultural practices to stem the influx of foreign values and customs and to rekindle national pride. The king himself had initiated it, contributing by compiling Hawaiian legends in a book and by sponsoring all kinds of traditional Hawaiian activities such as chant and hula performances, kahuna medicine, and ancient sports and games.8
This quote leads to the assumption that as soon as western explorers, such as Captain James Cook (1728-1779; killed by Natives after trying to take the reigning king hostage), had discovered Hawaii, it became gradually more difficult to preserve their heritage and culture, which had been there for so long. It might have been that Westerners attempted to christianize the native population, regarding their traditional culture as savage and uncivilized in terms of western standards, or the overwhelming experience of something very foreign coming from the lands beyond the horizon, a land which was believed to be populated by the gods and “old ones” only. Additionally, drastic measures by the new governments had a tragic impact too:
In the 1800s, the rate of literacy in Hawai‘i was higher than in any other part of the world and writings by Hawaiians appeared in numerous newspapers produced in the islands. But the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, the banning of the Hawaiian language from all public schools, the systematic disenfranchisement of Hawaiians from our land, and the decimation of the Hawaiian population through foreign disease nearly put an end to the Hawaiian people and culture.9
Measures, such as “banning the Hawaiian language” from schools and public institutions, directly affected the way natives would feel about their culture and believes, which were all closely interconnected with their native language, which had now become illegal in most parts of society. It is to assume that the production of literary texts at this point of time almost came to an end, even though I cannot give any textual proof for this assumption.
Whatever the reasons, these events certainly brought along a lot of changes which greatly affected the literary development as well. As mentioned in 02.1, immigration from other parts of the world soon became an issue and literary influences from Asia, Europa and America effectively shaped the character of Hawai’i literature.
One of the products of this process, which ultimately resulted in a varied, rich and colorful cultural landscape combining the best of all parts of the world, is author Kirby Wright, whom I am going to briefly introduce in the following chapter.
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. only, he still awaits his great international breakthrough but is already being compared to famous contemporary novelists such as Frank McCourt or Maxine Hong Kingston, who has publicially cherished Wright’s work: “I recognize Kirby Wright as one of my own people, the citizens of the Pacific Rim. His heart is in Hawaii and California, aina and querencia. His fresh new voice sings love and concern for the beings along the shores and in the parks and gardens-and in the cities.”12 Skillfully weaving fictional and autobiographical elements into a mixture of “novels cast as memoirs”, as Wright himself claims, he leaves it open to the reader to find out for himself how much of Jeff’s story, the protagonist in Punahou Blues and Molokai Nui Ahina, really is Kirby’s story and in return.
1 City Data. http://www.city-data.com/city/Honolulu-Hawaii.html. 07.08.2008
2 National Chiao Tung University Taiwan. http://www.cc.nctu.edu.tw/~pcfeng/CALF/ch1.htm. 03.08.2008
3 Rapp, Claudia. A Paradise Lost: Mapping Contemporary Literature from Hawaii. Dissertation zur Erlangung des akademischen Grades des Dr. Phil. 2004.
4 cf . Oiwi - A Native Hawaiian Journal. < http://www.hawaii.edu/oiwi/ >. 11.08.2008.
5 cf. Rapp 2004
6 Berkey, Helen L. (Publ.) 1968. “Son of Hi-Na.” From: Hawaiian Tales. Told-again tales from many lands. Colmbus,OH: Merril: p. 3
7 Berkey, H. L. 1968. “Trees with Flat Tops”, pp. 61-65.
8 Rapp 2004: pp. 76-77.
9 cf. Oiwi - A Native Hawaiian Journal. http://www.hawaii.edu/oiwi/. 11.08.2008
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.
12 Lemon Shark Press. http://www.lemonsharkpress.com. 02.08.2008.
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