Friday, July 12, 2013

The Poor Side of Paradise

Kristiana Kahakauwila, This Is Paradise: Stories

When the last story in Kristiana Kahakauwila’s debut collection described a rancher coming to grips with his sexuality, I had the same thought you probably did: “Brokeback Mountain!” Just as Annie Proulx’s collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories ended with that classic novella, Kahakauwila caps her book with a similar (but not identical) long story. Kahakauwila clearly aims to be Hawai’i’s Annie Proulx.

It’s a noble goal, one she mostly accomplishes. Hawai’i has a flavor distinct from Wyoming, more diverse, less laconic, but a character uniquely Hawaiian nonetheless, and Kahakauwila brings it out. Early stories wobble slightly as she apparently attempts to please too broad an audience, but she finds her feet, and depicts not only contemporary Hawai’i’s complex culture, but the different strata within that culture.

Like most Native Hawaiians, Kahakauwila was born elsewhere. In racially stratified Hawai’i, Natives live at the very bottom, and few can afford the islands’ astronomical prices. Most leave for better work and affordable housing elsewhere. But like Irish expats or Rastafaris longing for homeland, Kahakauwila returned and lived in her homeland for some time. She just couldn’t stay.

These six stories reflect Kahakauwila’s struggles with insidership and identity. Her homeland’s most prosperous residents were overwhelmingly born elsewhere, and those born locally often must leave “paradise” to gain marketable skills; too many never return. Pidgin, the islands’ distinctive musical patois, is a proud identity marker, but also a badge of poverty. Unlike Indians, Native Hawaiians don’t even have reservations to call their own.

“Wanle,” the story of a mixed-race Maui woman’s strained relationship with her own people, probably plays this most explicitly. The title character wants revenge for her father, a cockfighter who challenged his subculture’s leadership and paid with his life. But Wanle also romances “The Indian,” a Native American philosopher who tries to guide her out of that life. Wanle can’t be herself and her father at the same time.

“The Road to Hana” features a couple driving to one of Maui’s most fabled ancient sites. He’s white, but was born in Honolulu; she’s Native, but born in Nevada. Their complex, committedly non-confrontational banter conceals a subtext of feud over which gets to call themselves “real” Hawaiian. Their conflict boils over when they rescue a stray “poi dog,” only to discover it’s filthy with fleas.

Kahakauwila’s title story features a panoply of voices, self-identified only as “we,” the women of Waikiki. Hotel maids, hard-bitten surfers, professional women, the unseen people whose sacrifices make the legendary tourist paradise possible. A naive white woman’s attempts to fit in lead only to catastrophe, forcing the locals to re-evaluate what makes them insiders, and why they keep certain people out.

This creates a strange dynamic, where powerlessness becomes a badge of honor, and we belong to our people because outsiders have made us foreigners on our homeland. Such stories comprise a major share of contemporary American literature. Whether Cormac McCarthy’s tales of Western alienation or Sherman Alexie’s reservation life epics, American literature today is primarily a story of division between power and identity.

Each story uses its own terms to investigate the same basic questions from new angles: what makes somebody “really” Hawaiian? Who stayed truest to themselves, those who remained in Hawai’i, or those who left? What does “local” citizenship mean in a state where the best land and best jobs belong to off-island corporations? What price do locals pay for their long-held cynicism, the only tool that keeps them together?

And perhaps most important, what language do you use to write a book like this? The working-class Hawaiians populating Kahakauwila’s stories speak Pidgin, a creole of every language that ever did business in Hawai’i. It has its own grammar and vocabulary, often incomprehensible to outsiders, with audible traces of English, Japanese, Portuguese, and Hawaiian, among many influences.

Other writers have attempted poetry and prose in Pidgin—Lois-Ann Yamanaka comes to mind. Always, authors must decide whether to go whole-hog with Pidgin’s musical insularity, or strip it down for English-speaking audiences. Kahakauwila chooses the bilingual route, writing dialog in Pidgin and exposition in English. She’s chosen an outsider audience for her stories of insidership, and thus serves as her own translator.

Mark Twain said every American town should have a novelist to record the distinct and unique language of each place. Kristiana Kahakauwila, an outsider in her homeland, highlights that language, in that arrangement, is almost an afterthought. Every place deserves its own novelist to record the exclusive patterns of thought which only language makes visible.

No comments:

Post a Comment