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Image: photo by james okemura

Sydney Iaukea talks about breaking the silence--and making history

Your book alternates between sessions in dusty library archives and the surf. Did you get in the water today?

Yes. Only for about twenty minutes, but…yes!

The story’s emotional center is the connection that evolves between your great-great-grandfather and you. Why the title, ‘The Queen and I?’

There are two “I’s,” really. Much of the book is told in my great-great-grandfather’s voice, in excerpts from his diaries. I always put his words first, in the foreground. It’s about his relationship to Queen Liliuokalani, but I feel as though I’ve come to know her a little, too.

How did you feel as a child standing before the state portrait of Curtis P. Iaukea the first?

A sense of pride. When you don’t feel like you’re being seen, at least somebody from your family…but when I first started researching, I think I was ready for him to be a bad guy.

How did you embark on the search?

When I was volunteering at the Queen’s Trust, I saw a trust deed [bearing the Iaukea name] that talked about the Lele of Hano Hano, and I knew there was a connection, because Lele was the name I’ve always called my sister, Lesley.

Can you elaborate on the section of your book that talks about how the Hawaiian people, like all of us, were to a great extent socially controlled, yet also bear responsibility as individuals?

I want to be clear that America may have created these problems that Hawaiians had to navigate, but we also had a choice. They were friends and intermarried with the occupiers. It’s not to say they were good or bad, but even though we’re affected by all of this, we still have agency. Prince Kuhio’s trying to actually prove the Queen insane–it was violent. We’re supposed to have ties to ka aina, akua–where was that?

And your father’s family?

I understand familially and socially why they act the way they do, why they tried to, and did, keep us away from my father’s deathbed and his funeral. But ultimately they didn’t have to make these choices.

It’s shocking to read that your father predicted teen pregnancy and drug addiction for your sister and yourself. Might he have been moved by your book?

My dad wanted my sister and me to be big [laughs, makes a circle with her hands out from her belly.] He had his own demons, alcohol and drugs, being in the limelight–my parents originally moved to Maui from Oahu to escape his fans. He was a showman, and when people asked me ‘are you related?’ I always dropped the subject. But he knew about my book, and I heard through the grapevine that he was proud of us.

Your great-great grandfather opposed the Hawaiian Homelands Act because he saw it as benefitting the sugar planters and holding Hawaiians to a stigmatizing blood quantum.

I question the need to make any racial designation. I’m wary of calling myself native Hawaiian because it’s a term imposed by the US.

What do you hope your book can mean for others?

I just think the stories of so many young Hawaiians have been suppressed, growing up in “paradise” when you can’t even buy food. When I was speaking to a group of Maui high school students, I told them I never thought I was going to get a Ph.D. I didn’t want to go to Kamehameha School as a boarder, and I was really homesick there for years, but my mom knew I had to go. You don’t have to stay in the ghetto. It’s almost like you have to re-own your space.

Your great-great grandfather’s papers were seized by the territorial government and not returned until after his death. What’s it feel like to have broken the silence for him and yourself?

It’s almost like the freedom we don’t feel like we get here. I just wanted to say what I wanted to say without feeling censored, which was a new feeling! I’m really happy the book is done.