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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All this was a novelty to me, and a lesson in that nebulous genre known as travel writing. As a traveler, I had become used to strolling confidently into the oddest places—approaching a village, a district, a slum, a shantytown, a neighborhood—and, observing the dress code, the niceties, the protocol, asking frank questions. I might be inquiring about a person’s job, or lack of employment, their children, their family, their income; I nearly always got a polite answer. Recently in Africa I made a tour of the townships of Cape Town, not just the bungalows, the dusty dwellings, the temporary shelters and hostels, but the shacks and squatter camps, too. My questions were answered: It is how the traveler acquires information for the narrative.

In the worst slum in India, the meanest street in Thailand or Cambodia, chances are that a smile will make you welcome; and if you have a smattering of Portuguese or Spanish, you will probably have your questions answered in a Brazilian favela or an Angolan musseque, or an Ecuadorean barrio, in each case a shantytown.

So why are islands so different, and why is a place like Hawaii—one of the 50 United States—so uncooperative, so complex in its division? This, after all, is a state in which following the attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 3,000 men from Hawaii, all of Japanese ancestry, volunteered to fight, and their unit, the 442nd Infantry, became the most decorated regiment in U.S. history, with 21 Medals of Honor. But that was the Army, and that was in Europe.

First of all, what looks in Hawaii like hostility is justifiable wariness, with an underlying intention to keep the peace. Confrontation is traumatic in any island society, because, while there is enough room for mutual coexistence, there is not enough space for all-out war. Just such a disruptive conflict got out of hand and destroyed the serenity of Easter Island, reducing its population, upending its brooding statues and leaving a legacy of blood feud among the clans. Fiji went to war with itself, so did Cyprus, with disastrous results. Hawaii, to its credit, and its survival, tends to value the obliqueness and nonconfrontation and suspension of disbelief that is embodied in the simple word “aloha,” a greeting for gently keeping people mellow. (What I am doing now, taking an unmellow look at Hawaii, is regarded locally as heresy.)

So perhaps a reason for Hawaii’s tendency to live in specific zones is a conscious survival strategy as well as a mode of pacification. Fearing disharmony, knowing how conflict would sink the islands, Hawaiians cling to the mollifying concept of aloha, a Hawaiian word that suggests the breath of love and peace.

In spite of its divisions, Hawaii is united, and perhaps more like-minded than any islander admits. Each self-regarding metaphorical island has an unselfish love for the larger island, as well as a pride in its brilliant weather, its sports, its local heroes (musicians, athletes, actors). Another unifier is the transcending style of hula—danced by kanaka maoli and haole alike; and hula is aloha in action. Just about everyone in Hawaii agrees that if the spirit of aloha remains the prevailing philosophy, it will bring harmony. “Aloha” is not a hug, it is meant to disarm. More and more I have come to see this subtle greeting, a word uttered with a floating ambiguous smile, as less a word of welcome than a means of propitiating a stranger. But perhaps all words of welcome perform that function.

As for the fanciful assertion of largeness, it is reassuring for an islander to know that the Big Island is big, as well as multidimensional, and to maintain the belief that much of Hawaii is hidden and undiscovered. It helps, if you want to cherish the idea of distance and mystery, that you do not stray far from home, your very own metaphorical island.

Further defining the zones of separation is the bumpy and jagged topography of a volcanic island, its steep valleys, its bays and cliffs and plains, its many elevations. In Hawaii there’s also a palpable difference in weather from one place to another, the existence of microclimates that underline the character of a place. I can drive 20 miles in one direction to a much drier part of the island, 20 miles in another to a place where it is probably raining, and in between it might be 12 degrees cooler. The people in those spots seem different, too, taking on the mood of their microclimate.

Nevermind that Hawaii is seven inhabited islands; even on relatively smallish Oahu—about 50 miles across—there are many places that are considered remote. This whimsy of distance enlarges the island and inspires the illusion of a vast hinterland, as well as the promise of later discovery. I am bemused by the writer from the mainland who, after five days of gallivanting and gourmandizing, is able to sum up Hawaii in a sentence or two. I was that person once. These days, I am still trying to make sense of it all, but the longer I live here the more the mystery deepens.


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