I live in Honolulu now, having finally come to this distant island after living in Portland, Oregon for most of my adult life. There seems to be very little literary life here, as few authors make the trip across the ocean on their book tour or to give a talk at a lecture series. Barnes & Noble and Borders have a few stores in the area but as far as I can tell only one independent bookstore has managed to survive. I have been told there are a few local writers, but they are not well known to me, which is truly of no importance.
However, I recently learned that of three writers whose work I have read in The New Yorker magazine and on its blog, The Book Bench, spent their youth in Hawaii—Allegra Goodman, Ligaya Mishan, and Tara Bray Smith. We must also add Barack Obama who may very well be the most widely read author in the US and perhaps the world right now.
When I first came here, I worried that literature would disappear from my life, that I would run out of books to read or ideas to investigate. No, that has not happened in spite of all the warm sunny days and sandy beaches. To the contrary, I am learning what a remarkable place Hawaii is and ever so slowly coming to understand what it means to live in such a racially diverse community, one that is so widely different from anything I have known before.
In writing about how Obama’s Hawaiian experience might shape his presidency, as well as her own experiences growing up here, Allegra Goodman notes that she was also a student in the same school, Punahou, that Obama attended. She also says that her fifth grade teacher, Mrs Hefty, was the one Obama named as his favorite teacher “for her ability to make every single child feel special,” which to Goodman means “singular.”
She writes: “Mrs. Hefty’s students were Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, Korean, Tongan, white, and more often that that, hapa, a combination of many races and traditions. On the surface, our classroom looked like a melting pot. A girl with honey blond hair, café-au-lait skin, and green eyes might say proudly, “I’m part Hawaiian, part Portuguese, part Chinese, and part Irish.”
And then echoing a feeling I often experience here she writes: “What did it mean to live in Hawaii—especially for those of us who had no native Hawaiian ancestry? Were we immigrants? Invaders? Americans?” At times I do feel a bit out of place here until I realize, no one is really out of place here even though we all have to struggle to find just what that place is.
Later Goodman comments “To envision a world where racial identity is more fluid, where men and women are more mobile, and where segregation is a thing of the past is not to envision a post-racial world. Obama knows this, as anyone who has lived in Hawaii must.”
At the same time, she appreciates the considerable benefits that living in a community as complex and diverse as Honolulu can be to a leader in the contemporary world. As we have come to know him, it is clear that everything Obama has done and said reflects the experiences he had here.
Similarly, in interviewing Tara Bray Smith, Ligaya Misha asks how Obama’s Hawaiian experiences might influence the country during the course of his presidency. Smith replies:
“Obama embodies America at its best: a country where the concepts of native and foreigner, “pure” and “mixed,” black and white, hapa and hundred per cent are so complex that the claim of belonging because of blood quantum or family tree must be set against the argument that what defines an American is not the place of the circumstances of his birth but his allegiance to his country’s laws and ideas. Hawaii, by virtue of its exceptionally diverse population, is a place where these questions are explicit.”
What a refreshing change this will be if these questions are widely asked throughout this country. They are questions that I, for one, had not imagined giving much thought to once I moved here. Now they are unavoidable.