ALAN v23n2 - Voices of Hawaii in Literature for Adolescents: Getting Past Pineapples and Paradise

Volume 23, Number 2
Winter 1996

Voices of Hawaii in Literature for Adolescents Getting Past Pineapples and Paradise

Janet E. Benton

Throughout my career as a language arts teacher on both the high-school and university levels, I have been concerned with providing multicultural literature experiences for my students. It has been my premise that, if public schools in the United States are composed of a variety of cultural perspectives, then classroom literature selections should reflect that richness of diversity, too. Currently, I teach students preparing to become middle- and secondary-school language arts teachers, and together we explore how adolescent and adult fiction can enhance literacy development while also immersing the reader in a wide array of cultural viewpoints.

My students and I discuss works by and about various cultural groups, mindful always of including those who have been historically omitted from the traditional Western canon. I thought I had been at least moderately successful in familiarizing my students with literature from different racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, sexual-preference, and gender-related perspectives; in fact, I had gotten to the point of patting myself on the back over what a good job I was doing. However, a trip to Hawaii made me realize I had not included all of the voices in the American cultural fabric.

This was my first trip to Hawaii, and I stayed on Oahu, where I was overwhelmed by the natural beauty but amazed by how little I actually knew about the cultural history of Hawaii. Prior to this visit, my mental images of Hawaii had been restricted to the resort hotels on Oahu and the golf courses on Maui, but even that knowledge was pitifully slim. As an educator with a commitment to issues of cultural diversity, I was personally and professionally disturbed by my ignorance. When my trip ended, I flew out of Honolulu International with souvenir tee-shirts, Kona coffee, and a goal -- to include literature about Hawaiian experiences in my future language arts courses.

Searching for the Voices of Hawaii
Hauling back bags of coffee and stacks of tee-shirts proved to be much easier than the task of identifying titles by and about those who live in Hawaii. As a bedazzled tourist, I first saw the Hawaiian Islands as a faerieland paradise, complete with surfing, pineapples, and perfect weather. But when I looked past this highly romanticized and obviously incomplete picture, I saw instead a broader society intricately woven with many threads -- some distinct, some blending, others broken and then retied. Further research back home helped me learn more about the key players in the sociocultural history of Hawaii.

To better determine what I meant by "the voices of Hawaii," I sketched for myself a brief outline of the major cultural groups who have become part of Hawaii. They include the Native Hawaiians, whose Polynesian ancestors were the first residents; then, in the late eighteenth through twentieth centuries, people from Britain, Europe, China, Japan, Portugal, Korea, Puerto Rico, Samoa, the Philippines, and the Mainland United States (first European Americans and later African Americans) came to these islands. Not only is there a wealth of cultural perspectives in Hawaii, but these perspectives have been communicated through a variety of linguistic codes: Hawaiian and English first interacted to form a pidgin, and subsequent social contact with speakers of other languages resulted in the emergence of Hawaiian pidgin/creole, a separate linguistic code still prevalent today, which has sometimes (but not always) displaced the use of the parent native languages.

The arrival of Calvinist missionaries from New England in the early nineteenth century marks the beginning of considerable cultural and economic changes in the social and political structure of the islands. Religious conversion may have been their primary intent, but the acquisition of Native Hawaiian lands was the ultimate outcome; some of the missionaries themselves, and to a greater extent their descendants, took possession of Native lands, introduced their own concept of private ownership, and prospered through the plantation systems and related businesses such as shipping. The Hawaiian government was overthrown in 1893 by a group of men involved with these business interests, and this act of political conspiracy was officially recognized one-hundred years later when President Clinton signed into law in 1993 a congressional joint resolution acknowledging the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Politically, ties to the West were strengthened in 1898 when the Hawaiian Islands became territorial property of the United States, and American business and military involvement increased, especially on Oahu. The bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 is significant in both American and Hawaiian history because of the destruction of property, deaths of military personnel, and the resulting effects on the lives of many Japanese-American residents of Hawaii. Statehood in 1959 and the burgeoning tourist industry brought more changes, and real estate development and economic shifts of the past twenty years have all but made extinct the mass production of plantation crops like sugar cane and pineapple. Added in recent years to the overall economic, social, and political climate is the growing Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, seeking to revive and celebrate traditional Hawaiian beliefs, practices, and autonomy.

Voices of Hawaii in Young Adult Literature
Faced with this multiplicity of voices and these intricacies of social interaction, I wondered how I would begin my search for the voices of Hawaii in adolescent literature. Because I did not believe I had the expertise or the right to determine cultural identity or legitimacy, I decided on my first selection criterion: I would look for fiction about Hawaii written by authors who lived in Hawaii; in doing so, I hoped to include rather than restrict cultural perspectives. Additionally, I chose to look for representations of life in Hawaii specifically in adolescent literature. I selected this second criterion because of the needs of my own university students. My students come from a strong English-department preparation where adolescent literature, if not outright devalued, is for the most part ignored, and I hoped that they might come to recognize, as Beach and Marshall assert, "that many young-adult novels are substantive enough to be `teachable'" (p. 349) .

A third selection criterion was what I called the "no-grass-huts" rule. By this I meant that I wanted to find adolescent literature that did not perpetuate stereotypes of any of the ethnic groups in Hawaii; books containing biased representations, such as the Hollywood image of Hawaiians living in "grass huts," would not be acceptable. I hope that my students, and consequently their students, will read literature with a critical stance. Hanna explains that "learning about one's own culture tends to give one a sense of identity, roots, and self-understanding. Learning about other cultures stretches the mind and can help dissolve prejudice" (p. 67) . Literature presenting stereotypes is counterproductive to these ends.

With a clear idea of what I wanted, I then embarked on my search for titles. I first went to sources that had served me well in past examinations of literature from non-Western perspectives for middle- and secondary-school readers. Redefining American Literary History (1990) , Social Issues in the English Classroom (1992) , Teaching Literature in the Secondary School (1991) , Teaching Multicultural Literature in Grades K-8 (1992) , and Understanding Others: Cultural and Cross-Cultural Studies and the Teaching of Literature (1992) are helpful texts that present titles and approaches to incorporating culturally diverse literature into classroom literacy experiences. While these immensely useful resources refer to ethnic groups who have come to be part of Hawaii's cultural make-up, none examines adolescent literature representing the lives of these people as they were interwoven, and subsequently transmuted, into strands of the broader Hawaiian society. Furthermore, none of these books mentions any works, either adult or adolescent, by and/or about Native Hawaiians.

I had what I considered to be well-defined selection criteria, but still no titles. If I were ever to stop treading water and get somewhere in my quest, I needed more knowledgeable assistance; and, on a second trip to Hawaii, I received such help at the Hawaii State Library. I introduced myself to a librarian in the Young Adult Section and explained my difficulties in finding adolescent literature about life in Hawaii written by authors who lived in Hawaii. As we talked, I stressed that my purpose was not to conduct an exhaustive search but to familiarize myself with several titles that I could later suggest to my university students. I followed her to the shelves as she pulled books she thought might fit my criteria, and she briefly explained the content of each while also telling me about the authors.

She pointed out several possibilities and highly recommended three titles: One Paddle, Two PaddleÉHawaiian Teenage Mystery and Suspense Stories (1983) by Miriam E. Rappolt , Blue Skin of the Sea (1992) by Graham Salisbury , and The Speed of Darkness (1988) by Rodney Morales . A fourth book, The Haole Substitute (1994) by Walt Novak , was a new acquisition which she showed me with reservation, explaining that she did not care for it because the author "made fun of the characters who speak pidgin." After later reading all four, I discovered that I shared the librarian's reactions to these books. Blue Skin of the Sea , The Speed of Darkness , and One Paddle, Two Paddle are all titles I would enthusiastically suggest to my students; however, The Haole Substitute , as the librarian told me, does indeed ridicule speakers of Hawaiian pidgin/creole. Furthermore, I thought that it demeaned everyone who was not Caucasian, elevating as the hero a young Caucasian surfer working as a substitute teacher in Oahu's public schools.

The Haole Substitute
I devote space in this article to The Haole Substitute only because I am astounded that in 1994 a book so irredeemably replete with cultural stereotypes was published. Judging from the cover notes about Walt Novak , the author, this novel is to a great extent autobiographical. Paul Kodak, the novel's protagonist, is a twenty-three-year-old champion surfer who came to Oahu to ride the big waves on island's North Shore and major in English at the University of Hawaii. To support his wife and son, he is employed as a substitute teacher. Kodak also frequently reminds the readers that he is blond and haole , a word originally meaning "foreigner" in Hawaiian, now used across ethnic groups to mean "Caucasian."

Race never seems to be far from the forefront of Kodak's narrative; and, had Novak /Kodak explored the context and social interactions that brought his own racial identity to a conscious level, this book might have provided unique cultural insights. Instead, Novak /Kodak presents a me-against-them scenario, where members of the working class, Japanese Americans, African Americans, Chinese Americans, Portuguese Americans, Native Hawaiians, Tahitians, and women (of all ethnic groups represented in the book) are denigrated. Actually, no character in this book escapes Novak's predilection toward stereotyping, not even the protagonist.

Kodak himself is a stereotype -- the powerful, indomitable, superior European-American male whose job it is to conquer all who challenge him by proving he is physically and intellectually more powerful. In a scene where Kodak is speaking to a Native Hawaiian eighth grader, Tansio Kaana, their discussion moves from surfing to the Hawaiian ali'i (royalty). Tansio asks Kodak, "The Hawaiian ali'is were very tall. So are you. Are you part Hawaiian, Mr. Kodak?" (p. 60). Kodak informs Tansio, along with all of the other students sitting in the class, that he is "pure Hawaiian albino. Kodakalani is my full name but we were defeated in the Kalakaua and Liliuokalani era. Our royal name was chopped in half for humiliation and we were banished from these islands" (p. 61). Kodak goes on to tell Tansio and the entire class a story of how the "albino Hawaiians" were banished to the Mainland United States; at no point does Kodak admit to the students that this is all untrue.

I found this scene significant for two reasons. First, not one student questions Kodak about the sheer absurdity of this story, a story Kodak says that Tansio believes completely. Kodak describes this school as situated in a community with a large Native Hawaiian population; are readers to believe that not one student in this class recognizes that this story is total fabrication? Admittedly, traditional Hawaiian beliefs and history have been deemphasized through Western interference; yet, does Kodak so trust his own superiority as to think he can pass off such a ridiculous lie as truth? Inherent in this scene is the underlying message that the Native Hawaiian students are sufficiently ignorant and gullible to accept this preposterous fabrication.

This book clearly violates my "no-grass-huts" selection criterion, denigrating not only Native Hawaiians but also every other character who is not haole . It is an exercise in cross-cultural insensitivity, as is illustrated through Novak's reliance on stereotypical characters. While Novak places race center stage throughout the novel, he does not explore the complexities of inter-racial relations; instead, he offers one-dimensional caricatures. This book is worthy of examination only because it illustrates that, while the number of cultural stereotypes in the pages of novels and text books published today may be declining, they have certainly not disappeared.

The other three books I will examine present more fully dimensionalized pictures of life in Hawaii.

One Paddle, Two Paddle…Hawaiian Teenage Mystery and Suspense Stories
In One Paddle, Two PaddleÉHawaiian Teenage Mystery and Suspense Stories , Miriam E. Rappolt uses traditional Hawaiian beliefs and history as a backdrop for her stories. In the preface, Rappolt writes that "after several years of teaching English in both public and private secondary schools" she began searching for "a collection of short stories which all readers could enjoy -- both fast and reluctant students"; also, she wanted to find stories that appealed to her students "living on an island thousands of miles from the Mainland" (p. vii). Rappolt began by asking her own students "to write spooky stories from personal experiences -- or they could relate one told to them by an older relative" (p. vii). As a model for her students' writing, Rappolt shared with them a story she had written, "Lauhala Lady." This story was well-received by her students and later in a Honolulu writing contest; so she was encouraged to write her own collection of stories.

Rappolt's stories, set in Oahu, Kauai, Hawaii, and Maui with adolescents as the main characters, draw heavily from Hawaiian beliefs; in nine of the eleven stories, elements of Hawaiian culture underlie the plots. As the title of the book indicates, these are mystery and suspense stories; the collection should not be taken as a definitive, comprehensive account of traditional Hawaiian beliefs, folklore, or practices. (Included at the end of this article are addresses for the Hawaii and Pacific Section of the Hawaii State Library and the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii; both can provide students and teachers with primary sources about Hawaiian history and culture.)

To familiarize the readers with the Hawaiian beliefs and traditions inherent in the stories, Rappolt prefaces each story with a brief explanation. Before beginning "Lauhala Lady," a story about the mysterious disappearance of camera film, Rappolt informs the readers that "traditionally, only Hawaiians of the ali'i rank, or those of high birth allowed themselves to be photographed" (p. 2). Anyone breaking this taboo often suffered some misfortune or found the negatives destroyed. We are also told that Madame Pele, goddess of volcanoes, "is said to appear almost anywhere, in any form Éshe makes no secret of her unhappiness about being photographed" (p. 2). This information is important to understand what happens to Eddie on the Big Island of Hawaii when he goes on an outing with his aunt and uncle.

Eddie's uncle is an avid photographer and cannot resist taking a picture of someone they encounter, a lovely, white-haired Hawaiian woman who is weaving lauhala bags. He snaps a shot of the quiet, beautiful woman before she can protest, but when he tries to take a second photo, she becomes upset, pulling "at the brim of her hat until her eyes were almost completely hidden" (p. 5). The next morning Eddie's uncle cannot find the film. Eddie helps his uncle search, but at the exact spot where it was placed the night before, he finds not the film but a lauhala bag, green and freshly woven -- just like the ones the lovely woman had been making.

The other stories follow a similar format. Hawaiian beliefs serve as the foundation for plots involving topics oriented to adolescents: riding around and socializing with friends, visiting a cemetery after dark, driving an automobile alone for the first time, participating in school sports, quarreling with friends and family, and defying adult authority. In "Makua Cave," David challenges authority and asserts his individuality by doing something many adolescents do -- he gets a tattoo. The only problem here is that David gets a tattoo of a shark, his family's aumakua . Rappolt explains that in the Hawaiian belief system the aumakua is "the traditional family spirit, the aumakua assumes a form such as a plover, an owl, or a shark, and also serves as a `guardian angel' to protect a particular family from evil" (p. 63). How David's family reacts to his tattoo and how it is finally removed make this an especially engaging story.

Blue Skin of the Sea
Blue Skin of the Sea by Graham Salisbury is another collection of short stories through which the author sensitively traces the coming-of-age experiences of the protagonist, Sonny Mendoza, on the Big Island in the 1950s and 1960s. Salisbury grew up on the Big Island and on Oahu and is described in the notes about the author as "a descendent of the Thurston and Andrews families, some of the first missionaries to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands"; he worked on the islands as "the skipper of a glass-bottom boat, as a deckhand on a deep-sea fishing boat, as a musicianÉand has also taught elementary school" (p. 216). The subjects of family, friends, the sea, fishing, tourism, and cultural identity are threaded into the stories about Sonny's transition from young boy to young man.

The stories are presented chronologically, and readers follow Sonny from 1953 to 1966, the year he is a high school senior. Sonny's mother died when he was a baby, and he went to live with his Aunty Pearl, Uncle Harley, and cousin Keo Mendoza. Through early exposition we learn that cultural boundaries are permeable, blending ethnicities within family units; in a description of his cousin, Sonny explains that Keo is Portuguese and Hawaiian "because his mother, Aunty Pearl, had Hawaiian blood. I was Portuguese-French" (p. 3). For Sonny, the concerns of culture, identity, and family are closely intertwined:

It always made Aunty Pearl cry when she thought of my mother. "She was one of my best friends," she'd often tell me. And though some people made a big deal out of what race you were, Aunty Pearl never cared that my mother was Caucasian, a haole . Aunty Pearl had a gentleness, something that came up and hugged you. (p. 31)
At the age of six, Sonny returns to his father's house to live; he and his father become a family, but Sonny remains an integral part of his cousin's household.

As Sonny and Keo grow up, we get a glimpse of what life was like for them on the Big Island during those two decades. Their experiences include facing school bullies, devising ways to earn spending money, resolving conflicts with friends and family, struggling through first loves, watching their island begin to change as the tourist business grows, and witnessing death and destruction when a series of tidal waves devastates the coastal areas of Hilo. Like the story about the tidal waves, another story, "The Old Man," is based on actual events that occurred on the Big Island during this time period. "The Old Man" is set in 1957 and begins with Sonny and Keo watching in muted disgust as a movie crew anchored offshore uses prop rather than real sharks to film scenes of an old fisherman fighting to bring home his catch. They think the reactions that the old actor has to these prop sharks will make the movie look "fake."

The boys decide this would be remedied if the old actor could see how a real shark behaves, so they hook a live shark and send this note to the film's star: "Dear old man, We are Keo and Sonny. We have a shark for you. Look for us at 5:30 in the night after you work. We will be standing by the fish scale" (p. 44). The boys manage to get this message to the actor; however, he doesn't have time to see them until days later. When they meet, Keo and Sonny tell him they had to let the shark go before it died, but Keo, undaunted, proceeds to offer some advice about how to act around sharks. Spencer Tracy listens patiently to these directions then replies, "You boys are okayÉ. Thanks for the tips, I'll give what you told me some thought" (p. 47). The boys return to their places on the dock and watch Tracy in the final scenes of "The Old Man and the Sea."

The Speed of Darkness
The Speed of Darkness by Rodney Morales is also a collection of short stories. All of the stories except one are set in Oahu, where Morales was born and raised and where he taught in Oahu's public schools and at the University of Hawaii. The stories represent a variety of ethnic groups and their experiences on Oahu, and although some stories are about younger adolescents, there are also stories focusing on characters in their late teens and early adult years. For example, the first story, "Ship of Dreams," centers on nineteen-year-old Takeshi, who has deferred his own dream of becoming a lawyer to work in his father's grocery store. The story is set in 1922, a time when "the glories of the Hawaiian monarchy were dimming" and when American democracy promised the "children of the plantations" that "the world, the century, was theirs to conquer" (p. 15). Takeshi's family is Japanese but his Honolulu neighborhood is multi-ethnic, and he must consider crossing cultural borders when he falls in love with a Puerto Rican girl.

Takeshi and his friends often go to a social hall on Saturday nights to watch the dancing and listen to the music from their vantage points in mango trees outside the building. Inside, "music thumped from the social hall on School Street where the Puerto Ricans congregated, along with some Portuguese, Hawaiians, a smattering of whites and Filipinos" (p. 17). Also inside the social hall is Linda, a girl Takeshi recognizes as a former classmate from McKinley High, but who now has a different effect on him. From a distance, Takeshi worries not only about whether she might reciprocate his love but also how both sets of parents would react if he and Linda dated:

Takeshi did not know the customs of Puerto Ricans, how they went about such things. But he understood one thing, one thing that cut through all beliefs and customs What he felt had to be dealt with. He could not keep his feelings hidden for long. He felt as if love had carved its way into his chest, and his entire being trembled from the feeling. (p. 21)
At the end of the story, Takeshi's presence in the mango tree is discovered by Manny, a Puerto Rican boy. Takeshi prepares himself for a fight with Manny; instead, Manny invites him to come into the social hall. As Takeshi enters and looks for Linda, he realizes "he had broken through some godawful barrier -- within himself" (p. 24).

"Daybreak Over Haleakala/Heartbreak Memories (A Two-Sided Hit)" is the only story not set exclusively in Oahu. The story begins in Oahu but takes place primarily on Kahoolawe, the Hawaiian island used by the United States military for bombing target practice. Three friends from the University of Hawaii plan a trip to Kahoolawe, and their experiences are told by the story's narrator. His friends, Bud and Kaeo, are both football players, and Kaeo, a member of Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, a Hawaiian activist group, convinces them to join some others going on a camping trip to Kahoolawe. Bud is described as an "obsessive body surferÉa Hawaii-born haole who had hard blue eyes and dark brown, slightly wavy hair"; the narrator explains that "Kaeo was part-Hawaiian yet full-on into the culture" (p. 88). After midterm exams, the three decide to take the trip but eventually realize that this journey involves much more than they had anticipated.

The story illustrates how it is not always possible to compartmentalize a person by a single ethnic identity and introduces the implications of addressing multiple cultures and histories. While walking through the remains of a Hawaiian burial ground on Kahoolawe, Bud "`flipped out' and had to be medevac'd to Maui" (p. 96). The narrator does not understand why Bud suffered an emotional breakdown and asks Kaeo if he has any ideas. Kaeo tells him something not many people know about Bud: "His grandfather was pure HawaiianÉhis great-grandfather was one of the Royalists who tried to put Queen Liliuokalani back on the throne" (p. 96). Bud had previously disregarded his Hawaiian heritage but confronted a part of his cultural history in this burial ground; there the group discovers human bones, surrounded by gun shells and apparently used for target practice, bones that crumbled in Bud's hands when he tried to hold them. The three young men, each in his own way, are left "wondering where being Hawaiian started and being American left off and how the two blended and why they mixed like water and oil sometimes" (p. 103).

Rappolt , Salisbury , and Morales skillfully explore the multi-dimensional nature of cultural identity and social interaction while incorporating themes cutting across all cultural groups. As Rudman explains, multiculturalism "consists of more than valuing diversity. It also brings with it the obligation to reject stereotyping. A study that highlights differences without helping people see commonalities is insufficient if the aim is to help people create unity from diversity" (p. 114). One Paddle, Two Paddle , Blue Skin of the Sea , and The Speed of Darkness succeed in rejecting stereotypes, but The Haole Substitute fails.

I have recounted my search not merely to share a traveler's log but to illustrate the difficulties involved with finding the voices of Hawaii in adolescent literature. Until I began looking for titles, I did not fully appreciate the degree to which experiences on the Hawaiian Islands, particularly those of Native Hawaiians, have been largely invisible in examinations of multicultural literature. This search, although not exhaustive, was profitable: One Paddle, Two Paddle , Blue Skin of the Sea , and The Speed of Darkness let me immerse myself in the lives of the characters -- and get past the images of pineapples and paradise on the glossy covers of tourist guidebooks. Nelms and Nelms maintain that "adolescent novels provide vicarious experience of diverse ethnic, geographical, and historical life styles and serious consideration of recurring moral dilemmas" (pp. 221-222) . As many of us have discovered, books like these can provide the means for such vicarious travel.

Beach, Richard, and James Marshall. Teaching Literature in the Secondary School . Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991.

Hanna, Judith Lynne. "Issues in Supporting School Diversity: Academics, Social Relations, and the Arts," Anthropology & Education Quarterly , March, 1994, p. 66.

Harris, Violet J., ed. Teaching Multicultural Literature in Grades K-8 . Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 1992.

Hurlbert, C. Mark, and Samuel Totten, eds. Social Issues in the English Classroom . NCTE, 1992.

Morales, Rodney. The Speed of Darkness . Bamboo Ridge Press, 1988.

Nelms, Elizabeth D., and Ben F. Nelms. "From Response to Responsibility: Recent Adolescent Novels in the Classroom" in Literature in the Classroom: Readers, Texts, and Contexts , Ben F. Nelms, ed. NCTE, 1988, pp. 213-234.

Novak, Walt. The Haole Substitute . Cypress House, 1994.

Rappolt, Miriam E. One Paddle, Two PaddleÉHawaiian Teenage Mystery and Suspense Stories . Press Pacifica, 1983.

Rudman, Masha Kabakow. "Multicultural Children's Literature: The Search for Universals" in Children's Literature: Resource for the Classroom . Masha Kabakow Rudman, ed. Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 1993, pp. 113-145.

Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown, and Jerry W. Ward, Jr., eds. Redefining American Literary History . Modern Language Association of America, 1990.

Salisbury, Graham. Blue Skin of the Sea . Delacorte Press, 1992.

Trimmer, Joseph, and Tilly Warnock, eds. Understanding Others: Cultural and Cross-Cultural Studies and the Teaching of Literature . NCTE, 1992.

Addresses for Additional Information about Hawaii
* Center for Hawaiian Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1890 East-West Road, Moore Hall 428, Honolulu, HI 96822.

* Hawaii State Library, Hawaii and Pacific Section, 478 King Street, Honolulu, HI 96813.

Janet Benton teaches literature for adolescents at Western Kentucky University.