Kailua / We talk a lot about voice in Hawaii. It’s partly a legacy of our oral traditions and partly emergent from our awareness of our differences, but in general, we are as aware of the teller as we are of the tale, and our listening shifts accordingly.
It is difficult to imagine a book of any kind, let alone a contemporary history of Kailua, being any more playful with voice and authenticity and narrative than in the extraordinary new release Kailua, a product of the Kailua Historical Society.
The first voices we read here, beginning with the design of the book itself, are rooted in neither text nor sound. Barbara Pope’s gorgeous work on Kailua is some of her best, and a reminder that design is inseparable from excellence in publishing. Warm, ‘ilima-hued interludes mark and delineate between clean, flowing sections rich with Mahele-era maps and archival and more recent photographs. Pope’s choice of Charles Leander Weed’s 1865 photograph of Olomana for the cover is inspired–it is the earliest surviving photo of Kailua, and its glowing tones prepare the reader for the book’s internal magic.
Much of that magic, though by no means all of it, lies in the book’s extraordinary photographic record of Kailua. That place, it should be noted, refers here to the area from roughly present-day Enchanted Lakes to the Oneawa hills west of modern Kailua town–the formal traditional boundaries are expressed in Davianna Pomaikai McGregor’s introduction–and of course from mountain peaks to outer reefs. These places are captured in a stunning photographic record, and also in the work of Mark Hamasaki and Kapulani Landgraf, who are known collectively as Piliamoo. We see Pake laborers descending from the Nuuanu pali in 1886 alongside kanaka paniolo from the 1920s and haole military officers from the World War II era, woven together as a visual narrative of Kailua’s history.
The book is worth its price even for readers who never get past those first two elements, but Kailua’s true power lies in its narratives. Narratives, because while there is a general lurch toward modernity here, this is not a a story, but a collection of many competing and sometimes even conflicting stories about the history and development of Kailua. The book lists 11 text contributors–from Kahikina De Silva, a Hawaiian language scholar and teacher who is a native of Kaohao (Lanikai) to relative malihini Paul Brennan, an anthropologist who has been living in and researching Maunawili for more than a quarter-century–but is home to a dizzying range of voices from Kailua’s past. Old mele, letters and contracts written a century ago, interviews with Kailua kupuna and other archival sources provide a diversity of perspectives not often encountered in histories written for a general audience. In some ways, Kailua leaves the realm of history and becomes a work of historiography–the exhumation of testimony in the 1895 water-rights case Wong Leong et al. v. W.G. Irwin, in which an aging Hawaiian woman named Hikaalani spoke of the history and nature of the waters of Maunawili, is but one example .
Unlike so many books of place, Kailua is not quite a celebration of a community so much as it is a testament to one. The voices of generations ring through clearly here, across time and in an increasingly uncertain future. Kailua residents–and more to the point, Oahu developers and planners–would do well to listen closely to the voices contained here. The rest of us, too.