Paul Theroux’s Quest to Define Hawaii

For this renowned travel writer, no place has proved harder to decipher than his home for the past 22 years

The Hawaiian islands, from left to right, Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe, Maui and the Big Island. (Jacques Descloitres / Modis Land Rapid Response Team / NASA GSFC)
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“They will break your boat!” an islander howled at me in Samoa, when I met him on a path near the beach and told him I had paddled there. “Or the boys will steal it!”

“Why would they do that?”

“Because you’re a palangi and you’re alone. You have no family here. Let’s go—I’ll help you.”

It was true: A gang of boys was lurking near my kayak drawn up on the beach, looking eager (and the man confirmed this) to kick it to pieces. Because I didn’t belong there, because I had no connection, no friend, except this man who took pity on me and volunteered to warn me to go away.

At the time I assumed I was one against the many, and that the islanders were unified, with a common consciousness that caused them to oppose the arrival of a palangi. Perhaps this was so, though Robert Louis Stevenson, resident in Samoa, wrote a whole book about Samoan civil war, A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa. I was well aware when writing a travel book about Pacific islands that, because I had no friends or relations on shore, I was never truly welcomed in any set of islands. At best, the islanders were simply putting up with me, waiting for me to paddle away.

These were mostly islands with a single culture and language. They were not xenophobic but rather suspicious or lacking in interest. Hawaii is another story, a set of islands with a highly diverse ethnicity, ranging from the Hawaiians who refer to themselves as kanaka maoli (original people), whose ancestry goes back 1,500 years (some say 2,000), to people who arrived just the other day. But the mainland United States can be described that way, too—many Native Americans can claim a pedigree of 10,000 years.

I have lived in Hawaii for 22 years, and in this time have also traveled the world, writing books and articles about Africa, Asia, South America, the Mediterranean, India and elsewhere. Though I have written a number of fictional pieces, including a novel, Hotel Honolulu, set in Hawaii, I have struggled as though against monster surf to write nonfiction about the islands. I seldom read anything that accurately portrayed in an analytical way the place in which I have chosen to live. I have been in Hawaii longer than anywhere else in my life. I’d hate to die here, I murmured to myself in Africa, Asia and Britain. But I wouldn’t mind dying in Hawaii, which means I like living here.

Some years ago, I spent six months attempting to write an in-depth piece for a magazine describing how Hawaiian culture is passed from one generation to the other. I wrote the story, after a fashion, but the real tale was how difficult it was to get anyone to talk to me. I went to a charter school on the Big Island, in which the Hawaiian language was used exclusively, though everyone at the place was bilingual. Aware of the protocol, I gained an introduction from the headmaster of the adjoining school. After witnessing the morning assembly where a chant was offered, and a prayer, and a stirring song, I approached a teacher and asked if she would share with me a translation of the Hawaiian words I had just heard. She said she’d have to ask a higher authority. Never mind the translation, I said; couldn’t she just write down the Hawaiian versions?

“We have to go through the proper channels,” she said.

That was fine with me, but in the end permission to know the words was refused. I appealed to a Hawaiian language specialist, Hawaiian himself, who had been instrumental in the establishment of such Hawaiian language immersion schools. He did not answer my calls or messages, and in the end, when I pressed him, he left me with a testy, not to say xenophobic, reply.


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