WOMEN HOLD UP HALF THE SKY
(AND JUST A BIT MORE)
It’s early. Across the water, the sun is creeping slowly, languorously, sinuously up the flanks of the Kahikinui Forest Preserve on Maui’s southeast side, like a luminescent tsunami that has become perversely caught in a widget hole of slo-mo Hawaiian time and space. From the vantage of my hale’s lanai (my house’s deck) across the Pailolo Channel, it gradually illuminates Maui in a haloed aura of brilliance as I glance down into the cheap tourist kine ceramic coffee cup that contains my sacred fluid of renewed consciousness.
The cup is dreadfully decorated with a pattern of white Honu (Sea Turtle, regarded by the ancient Hawaiians as a sacred ancestral spirit) glyphs, modeled by some Far Eastern artisan on the ancient Hawaiian pictograph for this ancient and revered resident of the ocean. Draining the last bitter dregs of black fluid from it, I flip it over briefly, curious to determine what tacky commercial enterprise is responsible for producing this kitschy artifactual souvenir of tourist dreck. “Made in China” certainly comes as no surprise, since everything in the entire world now seems to have been manufactured in China—even my recent paramour, Ming, who was produced by her parents in Szechuan Province, a number of decades earlier.
As the last trickle of coffee slides down my hiatally herniated esophagus, I am reminded that much earlier in my life, perhaps as early as my 20s, I used to maintain that the three best and most satisfying things in life were, in order, 1) a good cup of strong Viennese Roast, 2) a hot shower, and 3) a healthy shit. To my vast amusement, I still feel that way today. Sex, formerly somewhere nearer the top of the list, now falls a bit further off the proximal slope of selfish pleasures, since it typically comes so heavily loaded with emotional baggage these days. After all, you don’t run into women in the 40-and-above group who haven’t already been married several times, borne numerous ungrateful children, and suffered the whole range of depressing uncertainties that seem to go hand in hand with being a female vessel of mortal human receptivity. No one, it seems, is spared the perpetual angst of gender specific cultural chaos that characterises interactive life in the islands these days.
The sun, now nearly cresting Maui’s prominence, peeks coyly out from behind the island’s bulk, taking just a few further moments to blaze into its full, undeniable evidence everywhere about. Out in the channel, the waves are strangely smooth, with none of the usual white capped crispness on their peaks bestowed upon them by the trades. It is a stillness that portends a day of sullen mugginess, with air so palpably thick one can almost feel its husky presence resting uneasily upon shaded, exposed skin. Mindful of the heat that shall soon descend on the baked shores, I find myself unconsciously shrugging the thought off. Perhaps it is a reflexive surrender to the forces of unhappy ennui that so thoroughly complicate the lives of those of us trying to live on these pyroclastic peaks that rise so abruptly above the cool, blue Pacific waters.
My Ilio (dogs), who have been snoozing fitfully at my feet since I arose, glance up alertly to read the expression on my face, doubtlessly hoping that my body language will reveal a decision to put on their leads and take them out to walk along the shore. Looking at their delightfully wolfish muzzles (a mistake, since that hits the ball back into their court), tongues hanging out and both ‘smiling’ hugely, I am reminded that it is indeed their time, the first walk of the day being a daily ritual they have come to expect as much as I have my first cup of coffee on the lanai, each morning. It amuses me to see both furry husky tails wagging intermittently in that half-hearted motion that signifies uncertain but irrepressible doggy hopefulness that a walk is forthcoming; but with some reluctance, I recognise that I am caught up in reflections that won’t stand being put aside for the moment. Walkies shall therefore have to wait a bit longer, but keenly intuitive observers of people that they are, the unconscious confirmation of my decision has already registered in their little brains and they drop their muzzles back to the floor, patiently awaiting further developments. An absurd thought flickers dimly within my head as I ponder all this, that if only women could communicate as effectively as my dogs do, non-verbally, life would be so much less effort-intensive…and so much more peaceful.
As I have noted so many times before, I am by birth a haole, one of those white-skinned carpet-baggers that the more radical kanaka maoli (native locals) love to hate so much and blame so vehemently for all their present difficulties. It might come as a surprise to those who know me only vaguely that I wish it had been otherwise, that I had been born a native Hawaiian, or Chinese, or Japanese, or anything other than simply another garden variety white. If those dark-skinned brothers who give whites the finger could only know that none of this (being white) has been any of my doing, it probably wouldn’t make much difference even then, since color lines are the most distinctive catalyst of racial anger and exert a far stronger effect than any more subtle racial dynamic of interaction among peoples. This inherent and ineradicable ‘belonging’ to a predominantly oppressive class in the islands has always stuck in my craw like a dissolved Aspirin tablet that just won’t wash down. Even Aspirin tablets will finally dissolve, and disappear, but white skins remain white forever.
As a descendent of French and Irish ancestors with a Normandine and Celtic patina of whiteness that no amount of ultraviolet light abuse will ever change, I have long since learned that the very real risks of contracting Melanoma far outweigh my intense desire to turn my skin a darker shade through artifice. Today, that dark, stained mahogany patina I acquired in Saudi Arabia over a 10 year period has fled with all the determination of a penal colony felon who has forged a key to his cell’s lock with the help of a bar of soap. In a region where the color of one’s skin is the principal key for unlocking and opening most experiential doors (or not), it is a sad awareness indeed, since I shall forever be lumped into that despised class of people known by the native locals as ‘the f***ing haoles’.
Sadly, my intensely partisan feelings for this adopted land I now reside in count for nothing, most of the time, except among those few to whom I am closest here, those few hoalohas (close friends) and neighbors to whom I have personally demonstrated my sincere acknowledgement of appropriate, local ‘Aloha spirit’ principles. Sitting here, on the lanai, kitschy ‘Honu’ cup in hand, it all settles in on me again for the millionth time: a large and amorphously fuzzy sense of regretfulness that no amount of thought or melancholic reflectivity can ever fully eradicate. At such moments, I slump resignedly into a self-imposed morass of sentimentality and spiritual weakness that is distasteful to me personally and shameful for anyone else to even know about (although it’s safe enough to reveal this failing in a blog, since few who are out there are connected personally to me and I am far removed enough from any possible anonymous expression of disdain such an admission might generate to effectively be impervious to it).
Perhaps this sense of not belonging to a 'more interesting' culture is the source of my life-long, vast range of interests in other peoples? It certainly is a possibility that hasn’t eluded my many ruminative moments of reflection on this subject. I often suspect, in going over this self-identification anomaly in my life yet again, that life would be somewhat different for me in terms of unexplored potentials if I had been the result of the sort of cross-pollenated, cross-cultural relationship I have always thought to be so uniquely and inherently valuable for furthering the collective genetic pool of the species. I refer to the sort of inter-racial relationships that have predominated (largely out of convenience) in Hawaii since the first malihini set foot on the islands and that now draws so many different races together in the remarkably heterogeneous culture of human poi-dogs (in Hawaiian, literally ‘mutts’) that characterises the Hawaiian demographic today.
Mindful of all the above, I find some fragments of a plausible explanation for my strong interests first in Asian, then Arab, and now the Hawaiian peoples. Despite my quite inadvertent personal ties to Hawaii formed early in life, when my parents died and I was taken in to live with relatives on Oahu, it wasn’t until long after that time that I started to focus, really focus, on life and culture in the islands. That strong interest in Hawaii gained further impetus when I acquired my small property on Molokai, after years of visiting this most ‘befoh time’ refuge of the old culture in the island chain, and now it continues to captivate me in a manner I would imagine Papillon’s dreams of freedom consumed that storied character in Henri Charričre’s book of the same name. Toward that end, and fully in keeping with my standing as a bibliophile of bookaholic proportions, I read voluminously, absorbing everything I can get my hands upon in terms of both characterizations and explanations of what existed before the malihini (outsider) cultural contamination of Hawaii began in 1820 and more subsequent cultural frozen sections of life in more recent decades.
Among the books I have been particularly drawn to are those of author Kiana Davenport, one of the most well known, outspoken modern proponents of restitution of cultural and political autonomy to ‘native Hawaiians’. Davenport’s books, which include Shark Dialogues, Song of the Exile, and more recently, House of Many Gods, together comprise a strident exposition in furtherance of what has become the native islander movement to restore Hawaii to the Hawaiians (a movement based upon the correct belief that Hawaii was wrongfully ceded to the United States through force and treacherous deceit). Davenport is a frightfully bright woman, a status already something of a liability for women in our still thoroughly chauvinistic world, but she uses the asiduously articulate, refined knowledge of language that she has mastered to weave complex, substantially non-esoteric stories that simply reek of idealistic female angst and stridently genderised, romantic intellectualism of the wahine kanaka maoli (native local Hawaiian woman) variety.
Davenport’s principal utility for me is found in her contextual explorations of Hawaiian culture, all carefully researched to lend support to her arguments in favor of both Hawaiian women’s rights and cultural and political autonomy for the islands. With her impressive academic accomplishments and literary bona fides, Davenport’s literary backgrounding is of particular interest to me, for there are so few books or even studies available that have ever taken a close and careful look into the effects of all the cross-culturalism that have so convoluted modern Hawaiian life. Although she is a skillful weaver of stories, the incessant and irrepressible thread of strident intellectual idealism that permeates her books comes pounding up the center lane of the race track with an inertial force worthy of a speeding Ferrari Formula-1 car, for Davenport is (as already mentioned) the product of a cross-cultural marriage herself.
Davenport is one of those hybrid women of modern Hawaii who combine and attempt to internally harmonise two very different and highly contrasting animating social origins, that of her haole (white) side and those of her kanaka (native) aspect. As is so often the case, she seizes exclusively upon one over the other to forcefully develop her arguments and structure her sentiments to the extent that it quickly becomes apparent in her writing that her sympathies lie almost exclusively with that part of her ancestral inheritance that is commonly identified as being culturally oppressed (e.g. the native Hawaiian aspect).
Davenport is inarguably, at least from all my observations, an inherently bright ‘hapa’ (“half”, a Hawaiian term connoting the product of a cross-cultural marriage who is half of one race and half or another) woman who sees herself as a representative proponent of women’s rights: a feminist clearly, but also an outspoken champion of that unique Hawaiian female personae known as a ‘tita’ (tough minded, strong willed and determined Hawaiian local woman). In her most recent book (House of Many Gods), she focuses on a kanaka maoli (native local) woman who is born on the western shore region of Oahu’s Wai'anae Coast.
One of the most interesting aspects of the character development to be found in this book is that this part of Oahu is where Hawaiian water-woman Rell Kapolioka'ehukai Sunn was born, that exemplar of the ancient Hawaiian aloha spirit, who together with Duke Kahanamoku and Eddie Aikau, is regarded today as almost a virtual Hawaiian saint. Although Rell came from the small beach community known as Makaha (famed throughout the world as one of the premier Hawaiian surfing venues of the 50s and 60s), the communities of Nanakuli and Wai'anae, where the early part of the book centers, are just slightly south of Rell’s birthplace (only about 5 to 10 miles, or so).
It is perhaps helpful (necessary, really) to provide a bit of background context within which to understand both Davenport’s modus in this book and the violently polar cultural forces that tend to tear Hawaii apart today, forming a key part of her story. The Wai’anae Coast of Oahu has for decades been known as a wild, tough region, populated by a ‘local’ mix of people who over the past 100 years intermarried so exhaustively that most are today what Hawaiians would (somewhat disparagingly) call ‘mutts’ (poi-dogs). The families of this western part of Oahu are predominantly comprised of the indigenous native locals (kanaka maoli, or original, full blooded Hawaiians) who have gradually intermarried with the imported Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese plantation workers that were brought to the islands in the early 20th century. Over all this time, that part of the western coast of Oahu has developed into a broad underclass of people living on the ragged fringes of the economy and existing for the most part on welfare and state subsidies. Without wealth (generally), largely deprived of any significant property and land holdings, and clustered about in loosely connected, tumbledown kauhales (family communities of related individuals), the many years of joblessness and abject poverty, combined with a propensity for having large families (encouraged by the languid local atmosphere) and an almost complete disregard for contraceptive prophylaxis of any kind, have created a rough social environment wherein any attempts to individually achieve and rise above the norm are almost completely submerged in the oppressive banalities of peer pressure to conform. ‘Gang’ activity called hui (local groups) arose commonly in this area out of the pressures both to identify, to self-protect, and to belong. They are motivations that are uniformly common to most ‘gang’ dynamics, anywhere.
Not much further up Oahu’s western edge at the Makua Valley area, the military has for decades occupied large tracts on this part of Oahu’s coast for use as a military reserve and closed ordinance testing grounds. Beginning with a fairly simple defensive gun emplacement installed there in the early WWII period, that American military presence continued to expand throughout the war and afterwards to include much acreage on this part of the island, with many traditional land-holding groups and local families having been uprooted and removed elsewhere in the interests of ‘national security’. On an island already inundated with a significant American military presence (Pearl Harbor and all of its numerous Oahu satellite facilities), the strong original hostility towards all military personnel that developed there remains palpable throughout the entire west coast area of Oahu today.
In her book House of Many Gods, Davenport highlights the nature and character of daily life that was (and largely still is) to be found in the west Oahu coastal communities of Nanakuli, Wai’anae, and Makaha. Although some of her characterizations seem a bit extreme or exaggerated to someone not well versed in the in-your-face reality of ‘local’ (read: non-touristy) Hawaii, they are essentially valid and provide more than a little insight into problems concerned with substance abuse and violence that still perpetuate themselves quite insidiously there. Those familiar with surfer Rell Sunn’s life and her admirable accomplishments will perhaps recall her strong efforts to draw local Wai’anae Coast children out the destructive drug riddled neighborhood environment they were enveloped within to embrace the soul-cleansing ideals of surfing, before her demise in 1998 from terminally advanced breast cancer. It was a brilliant and unquely wonderful inspiration on her part, given the economic hopelessness and social destructiveness that otherwise has so severely opressed the Wai’anae area and made it difficult for children to escape those terrible circumstances.
Incidentally and most interestingly (to me at least), Davenport’s explorations of this area’s ‘real local’ culture (superficial as they might seem in the overall larger context of her story) also help one to understand much more about Rell’s unique combination of personal assets (water skills, beauty, strength, and character) as a Hawaiian woman of undeniable substance, but most particularly about that hidden and underlying ‘toughness’ that enabled Rell to rise above all the dead-ended attitudes existing in that part of the Wai’anae area she came from; a toughness that empowered her to achieve spectacular things, both for herself and for the many others whose lives she helped improve through her living expression of the spirit of aloha.
While most non-Hawaiians (read: tourists) have little if any knowledge of this dark ‘other side’ of local Hawaiian culture, it is important to remember that despite all the happy face, tourist-aimed propaganda that steadily spews forth from the State of Hawaii’s public relations machine, racism is literally an internalized institution in the islands. Long before the ‘haole’ became the popular target for expiation of local vitriol, each of the other major Asian cultures was regarded with disapprobation and loathing in their turn, with the Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, and Filipinos all receiving a proportionate share of violent popular bias. Eventually, and mostly due to the fact that the racial admixture of darker shaded skin colors was so diffuse by then, the racism process instead became almost exclusively one of ‘locals versus outsiders’. Finally, although racial bias still obtains broadly to some degree or another in Hawaii, the resurgent rise of Hawaiian nationalist sentiment (such as advocated by Davenport in her books) has resulted in skin color becoming the single most important determinant factor in the modern islands social/racial hierarchy (the functional 'movement' qualifier being ‘the darker your skin, the more acceptance’ and the lighter, the less acceptance). Of course, while there are still many haole malihini (white outsiders) from the highest predominating socio-economic classes who persist in regarding their pure, all-white racially privileged caste as being superior to all others, individuals like Kiana Davenport and others of ‘hapa’ caste are dedicated to dispelling that mythic misperception in no uncertain terms.
One aspect of Davenport’s highly intellectualized personal activism that strikes me as uniquely noteworthy is the fact that it is often the fringe person (or as we might disparagingly state it back in the American West, the ‘half-breed’), who is the most stridently outspoken champion of his or her preferred culture. In this sense, Davenport, who is herself possessed of near-equal parts of both the white and the indigenous Hawaiian cultures, is somewhat of an anomaly: a very gifted woman of high intelligence, who, caught between the polar vortices of two highly diametric cultures, has chosen to align herself with the underdog. While that device is certainly acceptable, her protagonist character in House of Many Gods reflects Davenport’s own unusual and atypical qualities, rather than those of the more common cultural half of herself that she has ‘adopted’ (albeit legitimately). Thus, falling into that timeless trap of the highly idealistic intellectual author, she has created a hopelessly superior and morally super-human (ironically, by virtue of its imperfect human aspects) individual in her book’s protagonist who has about as much in common with the average Hawaiian woman today as Lance Armstrong has with a banana slug. This is definitely not the Hawaiian ‘everywoman’ model in evidence, but a highly optimized symbol of erudite Hawaiian female resistance to the prevailing gender, racial, and political status quo.
Davenport’s characters are (in my opinion) all far too much of everything…too unrequited, too bright, too creatively aware, too intelligent, too talented, too strong, too resolved, too complex, too beautiful and too tragic to be ultimately believable, but that hardly detracts from the emotional pervasiveness of her literary arguments for a return of Hawaiian social, political and economic autonomy to the Hawaiians. Regrettably, that same so-called ‘Hawaiian culture’ has now become such a mass of cross-culturally mixed-up poi-dogs that the term ‘native Hawaiian’ has lost nearly all of its traditional, formal meaning, since the percentage of those inhabitants of the islands who retain the 100% full-blooded native bloodline is rather small. Consequently, any attempt to recognise, separate out, and establish rightful entitlement of individuals to the official status of ‘Native Hawaiian’ is therefore hopelessly complicated and almost impossible to even imagine being simply carried out.
Having by now read several of Kiana Davenport’s fascinating (if highly intellectualized) novels on the theme of Hawaiian cultural and political undercurrents, I am made ever more mindful of how easy it is to forge literary stereotypes that most conveniently suit the narrative’s convenience, rather than reflect any strong thread of real life they may derive from that may more aptly legitimizes the narrator’s writing activity. The occasionally upsetting glimpses into the darker side of negligent Hawaiian local ‘ohana family life that Davenport’s story formidably draws forth certainly belies most touristy concepts of what ‘traditional Hawaii’ is actually made from. Few tourist visitors to Hawaii have the foggiest bottom clue about the miseries of Hawaii’s continuing, rampant economic deprivation, the infinitely alluring anaesthesia of drugs and alcohol that promises to dull the hurt of a bleak existence in the indigenous underclass, the emotional neglect and naivety of irresponsible, perhaps youthfully immature parents, and those sensitive souls who lack the basic emotional and physical strength to survive a daily onslaught of hopelessness. When such events come to their awareness, usually accidentally, or indirectly, they are shocked to think such scabrous tumors exist on an otherwise healthy and exotic ‘corpus’ of traditional Pacific islands beauty.
While one of Davenport’s most commendable accomplishments is to draw outside reflective scrutiny to all of these ‘hidden’ aspects of the Hawaiian islands culture, her chief excess seems to me to be that she takes considerable liberty in basing the protagonist in her novels on her own uniquely gifted self in most of her novels (e.g. the hopelessly bright and idealistic woman who takes on the entire world single-handedly, manages to rise successfully above all the arduous challenges by virtue of her own exhaustive efforts, and in the end sits bravely alone on the mountain summit to contemplate the ultimate futility and inevitability of all human affairs). Such women are rare indeed and although I agree with Davenport that women are unique in all the world as what Davenport calls ‘the bridge’ that allows life to tiptoe past the uncertain chasm that typifies human existence, these are ultimately just the respective cards that the gods deal us in our collective game of karmic Texas Hold‘em, and we must all play the hands we’re given...good or bad.
Mindful of that, as a specific gender group, my opinion is that women do indeed tend to suffer generally more in life than do men. Of course, simply being human is a tragedy enough in itself in the view of some, irrespective of any gender related roles that we are deligated to play in our lives by fate. As child-bearers and nurturers out of biological necessity, the greater burdens of our existence certainly do fall disproportionately on women without any doubt, for contrary to Chairman Mao’s famous revolutionary pronouncement that ‘women hold up half the skies’, women actually hold up about two-thirds of the virtual firmament of human existence.
For my part, I’ve always enjoyed and respected exceptional strength of intellect and will in women, for they are qualities that have most often been traditionally regarded by men as a threat to their own self-perceived identity, and I’ve frequently stated my belief that women are ultimately the most capable of enduring amongst our species . The fact that men have used their greater strength and aggressive nature to obviate the nature of their lesser status is simply disingenuous irony, to my way of thinking. However that may be and regardless of whatever opinion one has on this subject, Davenport’s novels are important in far more ways than one may imagine and I highly recommend them both as much for their literary artistry as for their specific cultural insights into modern Hawaii.
One final area of focus Davenport provides is intelligent analysis of the chaotic deceptions that conventional religions frequently offer as a sop to inherent human spiritual weakness. Specifically, and in the context of House of Many Gods, she has some of the family kupuna (elders) giving evidence of the spiritual confusion that multiple religions bring with them, as ‘aunties’ resort in a time of crisis first to their recently adopted Christian beliefs, then in the same moment to the original, traditional beliefs in deities venerated by their ancient ‘befoh time’ Hawaiian ancestors. As wonderfully sculpted in this book, the superficial nature of turning to alternate deified sources of ‘salvation’ and higher understanding for solutions to secular problems is satisfyingly highlighted by Davenport, who while not necessarily a believer in so-called ‘pagan’ gods herself, is clearly not someone who has been sucked into western religious mumbo-jumbo (read: Christianity), either.
And now, it’s apparently time to take the pups out to sniff and squirt, since they seem to have innately sensed my determination to end this diatribe here and not perpetuate your reading frustrations further. Their tails are already wagging in a display of keen anticipation that the muggy nature of the day’s lack of a breeze will simply not deter their chief delights and I have no doubt that I shall shortly be vastly entertained by their endless jockeying for just the right position in which to let loose a righteous squirt upon whatever odoriferous object catches their attention. Not infrequently, in his haste to baptize whatever target has been selected, one will impatiently let loose a whole stream on the other’s nose, since neither has a concept of what ‘fair play’ and turn-waiting consists of in their hasty all's-fair competition to mark turf. Ah, the simple joys of instinctual dogdom (as some wag once famously remarked: "If you can't eat it or screw it, piss on it!")! As I said earlier, how wonderful things would be if male/female interactions were that simple and straight-forward, eh, but no such luck!
Aloha mai e!