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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I attended a hula performance. Allusive and sinuous, it cast a spell on me and on all the people watching, who were misty-eyed with admiration. When it was over I asked the kumu hula, the elder woman who had taught the dancers, if I could ask her some questions.

She said no. When I explained that I was writing about the process by which Hawaiian tradition was passed on, she merely shrugged. I persisted mildly and her last and scornful words to me were, “I don’t talk to writers.”

“You need an introduction,” I was told.

I secured an introduction from an important island figure, and I managed a few interviews. One sneeringly reminded me that she would not have bestirred herself to see me had it not been for the intervention of this prominent man. Another gave me truculent answers. Several expressed the wish to be paid for talking to me, and when I said it was out of the question they became stammeringly monosyllabic.

Observing protocol, I had turned up at each interview carrying a present—a large jar of honey from my own beehives on the North Shore of Oahu. No one expressed an interest in the origin of the honey (locally produced honey is unusually efficacious as a homeopathic remedy). No one asked where I was from or anything about me. It so happened that I had arrived from my house in Hawaii, but I might have come from Montana: No one asked or cared. They did not so much answer as endure my questions.

Much later, hearing that I had beehives, some Hawaiians about to set off on a canoe voyage asked if I would give them 60 pounds of my honey to use as presents on distant Pacific islands they planned to visit. I supplied the honey, mildly expressing a wish to board the canoe and perhaps accompany them on a day run. Silence was their stern reply: And I took this to mean that though my honey was local, I was not.

I was not dismayed: I was fascinated. I had never in my traveling or writing life come across people so unwilling to share their experiences. Here I was living in a place most people thought of as Happyland, when in fact it was an archipelago with a social structure that was more complex than any I had ever encountered—beyond Asiatic. One conclusion I reached was that in Hawaii, unlike any other place I had written about, people believed that their personal stories were their own, not to be shared, certainly not to be retold by someone else. Virtually everywhere else people were eager to share their stories, and their candor and hospitality had made it possible for me to live my life as a travel writer.

Obviously, the most circumscribed islanders are the Hawaiians, numerous because of the one-drop rule. Some people who regarded themselves before statehood, in 1959, as of Portuguese or Chinese or Filipino descent, identified themselves as Hawaiian when sovereignty became an issue in the later 1960s and ’70s and their drop of blood gave them access. But there are 40 or more contending Hawaiian sovereignty groups, from the most traditional, who worship deities such as Pele, “She-who-shapes-the-land,” goddess of volcanoes, through the Hawaiian hymn singers in the multitude of Christian churches, to the Hawaiian Mormons, who believe, contrary to all serious Pacific scholarship and the evidence of DNA testing, that mainlanders (proto-Polynesians) got to Hawaii from the coast of the Land of Joshua (now California) when Hagoth the Mormon voyager (Book of Mormon, Alma 63:5-8) sailed into the West Sea and peopled it.

But it wasn’t just native Hawaiians who denied me access or rebuffed me. I began to see that the whole of Hawaii is secretive and separated, socially, spacially, ethnically, philosophically, academically. Even the University of Hawaii is insular and uninviting, a place unto itself, with little influence in the wider community and no public voice—no commentator, explainer, nothing in the way of intellectual intervention or mediation. It is like a silent and rather forbidding island, and though it regularly puts on plays and occasionally a public lecture, it is in general an inward-looking institution, esteemed locally not for its scholarship but for its sports teams.

As a regular user of the UH library, researching my Tao of Travel I requested some essential books from the library system that happened to be located on a neighbor island.


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