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Maui, Pacific Literature, and the Aloha Spirit

The subject of Pacific Literature is an ever-growing body of letters as big as the Pacific itself, with narratives from the Philippines, Samoa, Hawaii, Fiji, Guam, New Zealand and hundreds of other islands, all the way from northern Australia into Eastern Asia, up to Siberia, Alaska and back down to Los Angeles. I went to Maui for a week and found tremendous inspiration in both the geography and local culture. Based on both its geographic location and its diverse culture, Hawaii assumes a central position in Pacific Literature, epitomizing the bridge between East and West in more ways than one. This week L.A. Letters celebrates Maui's diverse topography, two Hawaiian poetry publishers, and the Hawaiian writer's central role in Pacific Literature.

Shortly after arriving in Maui I was driving a rental car to our friend's home in the UpCountry area of the island. "Relax, this ain't the Mainland," read the bumper sticker on the car ahead of us as I awaited the red light. The wise words reminded me I was out of L.A. and it was time to drive slower and enjoy the drive. Commonly known as "the Aloha Spirit," the idea is so deeply engrained in Hawaiian culture that there is an actual law on the Hawaii state books. The law reads in part, "the Aloha Spirit" is the coordination of mind and heart within each person. It brings each person to the self. Each person must think and emote good feelings to others." The Aloha Spirit is the antithesis of the fast-paced urban lifestyle. Like the bumper sticker read, this ain't the mainland. Locals look at fast drivers and think they must be from the Mainland, or more specifically they think, "Look at the haole!"

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A popular etymology discussed in Hawaii is that "haole"-- the word used to describe mainland Americans -- literally means, "no breath." The implication is that haoles are "breathless"; without breath or lacking spirit. It is easy to see how the locals came to this conclusion. The Aloha Spirit renews the breath by opposing the caffeinated speed and anxiety pervasive in big cities and urban areas.

Makawao, Hawaii | Photo: Bret Arnett/flickr/Creative Commons


We stayed in a small town called Makawao in the UpCountry region of the island, on the northeastern slope of the 10,000 foot dormant volcano Haleakala National Park. Haleakala means, the "House of the Sun." Known as one of the largest dormant volcanoes on the planet, the Hawaiian archipelago is itself a product of volcanic activity. Eruption after eruption of the many volcanoes in the area over time has shaped, carved, and cut the hundreds of islands that make up its rich ecology of flora and fauna. We soaked up the rainforest, warm ocean water and family vibes with old friends.

Geckos, Hibiscus, eucalyptus, flowers, lava rocks, frogs louder than tractors, microclimates, rainbows over the volcano, vineyards on the hillside, sprinkles through patchy clouds, waterfalls, one-lane bridges, hairpin switchbacks, Dakine Surf-Racks, Technicolor sunsets, fields of sugarcane, mud and gravel roads, warm trade winds.
Maui is less crowded than Oahu and smaller in size than the Big Island. It remains a blend of uncut nature with some development, but still not overrun with large hotels and golf courses. There are two mountains on Maui over a mile high including Haleakala. Before returning to Maui's microclimates and pristine landscape, I want to salute the growing body of Hawaiian poets.

One of the epicenters of Hawaiian poetry is Bamboo Ridge Press. Dating back to the 1970s, Bamboo Ridge has published dozens of Hawaiian poets like Lee Tonouchi and Lois-Ann Yamanaka, when the burgeoning Hawaiian Renaissance and the emergence of Ethnic Studies empowered Hawaiian writers. Bamboo Ridge fostered this movement from the beginning and continues to this day. Their 1998 anthology "Growing Up Local" includes poetry and prose from the previously mentioned authors, along with almost 30 other writers like Eric Chock, Wing Tek Lum, Gary Pak, Cathy Song and Darrell Lum.

51m1VNrneNL.jpgOver the last few centuries Euro-American writers like Jack London, Mark Twain, and James Michener had presented an idea of Hawaii that was seen through the imperialistic lens and considered problematic to natives. The pro-local stance of Bamboo Ridge Press has answered this charge by having authentic Hawaiian native scribes write about the islands. Furthermore many of the Bamboo Press authors wrote their work in Pidgin, otherwise known as Hawaii Creole English. The important Bamboo Press writer Darrell Lum writes in the Introduction in the anthology mentioned above that, "Not only does the use of Pidgin promote a sense of community, it challenges our assumption about language and culture. Pidgin serves to unify local culture and to critique the dominant one."

A brief aside that further puts Hawaiian poets' use of Pidgin in perspective is offered by the field of Caribbean poets. Many of the same sociopolitical forces that have shaped Hawaii also happened in the Caribbean. The Caribbean archipelago is a 2,000 mile arc of over 7,000 islands, extending from Florida to South America among 31 nations. Beginning with the first European occupation, French, English, Dutch, and Spanish colonizers started the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, committed genocide of the indigenous population, and implemented the colonial/mercantilist Triangle Trade system. This set of shattered histories and three centuries of colonialism triggered an exceptional body of alternative word-culture by Caribbean writers. Two Caribbean poets, Kamau Braithwaite and Linton Kwesi Johnson, among many others, write their work in patois as a way of rejecting traditional Western verse, reclaiming language and making postcolonial commentary.

Hawaiian poets writing in Pidgin are similar to Braithwaite and Johnson in how they deconstruct traditional western verse by creating their own innovative poetic combinations. The poetry in the Caribbean and Hawaii are also highly oral forms and they sound quite musical. Some formalist critics have denounced both Caribbean and Hawaiian poets for their orality, vernacular use, and nontraditional form of poetry, but many literary scholars have come to recognize the music, meaning and verisimilitude of these alternative poetics. The popularity of Reggae Music alone attests to this.

Tinfish Press is another important poetry publisher in Hawaii. Their roots date back to the mid-1990s, and they have published Hawaiian poets like Lee Tonouchi and other Asian-American writers. Their new anthology, "Jack London is Dead: Contemporary Euro-American Poetry of Hawaii" represents a more enlightened 21st Century collection of work from Euro-American writers in Hawaii. These writers write about Hawaii with a more sensitive perspective, inhabiting the position as more of a minority rather than from an authoritative place or dominant point of view like writers from the past, such as Jack London or Mark Twain. Meg Withers writes,

Living in Hawaii made me feel the immense importance of keeping myself 'clean' spiritually. I learned about what some of my contemporaries call instant karma, in some really tough ways -- my ancestor's part in the history of this once-elegant place, the folly of thinking I was more special than anyone else, the absolute reality of death.

A few sentences later Withers writes, "There is no way to live in the islands without developing a profound sense of humility."

As the above mentioned book signifies, there's a new generation of Euro-American writers in Hawaii that come from a new perspective. Heyday Books author and Los Angeles Southwest College Professor Mariah Young grew up on Maui. She writes:

Growing up on Maui was special in a way that I didn't appreciate until I was older and had moved to the mainland for college. I grew up around so many different people and lifestyles, and I couldn't help but absorb that sense of diversity. It wasn't just racial or ethnic diversity, but these different experiences all compressed into one place. There were people who have lived in the islands for generations, snowbirds, vagabonds, and visitors who came to the island for vacation and never left. That mishmash of people and histories was visible and compelling to me, even when I was a kid, and it's something that is still a touchstone for me as a writer.

The diverse landscape gives multiple perspectives for local writers to reference.

Book store in Hanapepe, Hawaii | Photo: Tom Bridge/flickr/Creative Commons


Two other influential authors from Hawaii are Ronald Takaki and Jeff Chang. Both grew up on Oahu, though a few generations apart. Takaki is an important scholar, considered the father of Multicultural Studies and an author of several books, including "Plantation Life & Labor in Hawaii," published by the University of Hawaii Press in 1984. As a grandson of immigrant plantation laborers from Japan, Takaki had his own deep roots in Hawaii. Jeff Chang is known for being one of the founders of Solesides Records and for his award-winning 2005 book "Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation." Considered one of the most prominent hip-hop scholars, Chang's next book is titled "Who We Be: The Colorization of America." Similar to Takaki, Chang's Hawaiian roots give him extra insight into multicultural America. Moreover since Takaki passed in 2009, Chang carries on Takaki's legacy and his important work covering multicultural studies.

As these writers know, Hawaii and Maui are breathtaking on so many levels. The juxtaposition of picturesque waterfalls and rainforests in deep valleys below towering volcanoes epitomizes the range and depth within the landscape of Hawaii. Fragile beauty and destructive power have always coexisted together in the archipelago. There is much to learn from Hawaii. The idea of the Aloha Spirit is something everyone can learn from, whether or not you are in Hawaii. You can open a door, or let someone over. Aloha Spirit is about breathing and being. There's no need to honk horns and break bones. Instead, drive slow and get home. Furthermore the idea is contagious and spreads goodwill.

There's so much more to say about Hawaii, the Aloha Spirit and Pacific Literature that goes beyond the scope of this article, more will be written in the future. I am thankful for the opportunity to see the landscape and learn about the history. Salute to all the Hawaiian authors capturing the beauty, destruction and everything in between that characterizes the islands. Hawaii is fortunate to have the writers from Bamboo Ridge and Tinfish Press, along with Mariah Young, Ronald Takaki, and Jeff Chang pushing the envelope of Pacific Literature. The breathtaking Hawaiian landscape and the veracity of these writers are why Hawaii plays such a central role in the topography of Pacific Letters.

Top: keristars/flickr/Creative Commons

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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