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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“You are not on the faculty,” I was told by one of the desk functionaries in a philistine’s who-might-you-be-little-man? tone. “You are not a student. You are not allowed to borrow these books.”

It made no difference that I am a writer, because apart from my library card—a UH Community Card that costs me $60 a year—I had no credibility at the university, even though my own 40-odd books occupy its library shelves. Books may matter, but a writer in Hawaii is little more than a screwball or an irritant, with no status.

Pondering this odd separation, I thought how the transformative effects of island existence are illustrated in humans as well as in plants, like the alula that had become cut off and vulnerable. Island life is a continuous process of isolation and endangerment. Native plants became hypersensitive and fragile, and many alien species have a tendency to assault and overwhelm this fragility. The transformation was perhaps true of people, too—that the very fact that a person was resident on an island, with no wish to leave, he or she was isolated in the precise etymological meaning of the word: “made into an island,” alone, separated, set apart.

In an archipelago of multiethnicity the trend to apartness is not a simple maneuver. To emphasize separation, the islander created his own metaphorical island, based on race, ethnicity, social class, religion, neighborhood, net worth and many other factors; islands upon islands. Over time I have begun to notice how little these separate entities interact, how closed they are, how little they overlap, how naturally suspicious and incurious they are, how each one seems to talk only to itself.

“I haven’t been there for 30 years,” people say about a part of the island ten miles away. I have met born-and-bred residents of Oahu who have been to perhaps one neighbor island, and many who have never been to any—though they may have been to Las Vegas.

“We sent a large group of musicians and dancers from Waianae to the Edinburgh Festival,” a civic-minded and philanthropic woman told me recently. “They were a huge hit.”

We were speaking in the upscale enclave of Kahala. The obvious irony was that it was possible, as I suggested to the woman, that the Waianae students who had gone across the world to sing had probably never sung in Kahala, or perhaps even been there. Nor do the well-heeled Kahala residents travel to hard-up Waianae.

It is as though living on the limited terra firma of an island inspires groups to recreate their own island-like space, as the Elks and the other clubs were exclusive islands in the segregated past. Each church, each valley, each ethnic group, each neighborhood is insular—not only Kahala, or the equally salubrious Diamond Head neighborhood, but the more modest ones too. Leeward Oahu, the community of Waianae, is like a remote and somewhat menacing island.

Each of these notional islands has a stereotypical identity; and so do the actual islands—a person from Kauai would insist that he or she is quite unlike someone from Maui, and could recite a lengthy genealogy to prove it. The military camps at Schofield and Kaneohe and Hickam and elsewhere exist as islands, and no one looks lonelier on a Hawaii beach than a jarhead, pale, reflective, perhaps contemplating yet another deployment to Afghanistan. When the George Clooney film The Descendants was shown on the mainland, it baffled some moviegoers because it did not depict the holiday Hawaii that most people recognize—and where were Waikiki and the surfers and the mai tais at sunset? But this film was easily understood by people in Hawaii as the story of old-timers here, so-called keiki o ka aina—children of the islands, and many of them haole, white. They have their metaphorical island—indeed, one keiki o ka aina family, the Robinsons, actually owns its own island, Niihau, off the coast of Kauai, with a small resident population of Hawaiians, where off-islanders are generally forbidden to go.

Even the water is circumscribed. Surfers are among the most territorial of Hawaii residents. Some of them deny this, and say that if certain deferential rules of politeness are observed (“You take dis wave, brah,” a recently arrived surfer calls out to humble himself in the lineup), it is possible to find a measure of mutual respect and coexistence. But much of this is basic primate behavior, and most of the surfers I have met roll their eyes and tell me that the usual response to a newcomer is, “Get off my wave!”


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