Cross-cutting between territorial and contemporary Hawaii, Sydney Lehua Iaukea’s brilliant memoir/ historical expose provides a gripping and revelatory read, endowed with all the trappings of romance, melodrama and ghost story. There’s a mysterious old family portrait, two young heiresses robbed of their birthright growing up in poverty, and Iaukea’s discovery of uncovered chapters in Hawaiian history, in the long-forgotten papers of her great-great-grandfather, Curtis P. Iaukea, that her book brings to light. As the author plunges into her research, shades of the past–her ancestor and Queen Liliuokalani–come to dominate her own life in scenes worthy of Julie and Julia, Rebecca, or Great Expectations.
Athough her father was Curtis P. Iaukea III., a tremendously popular wrestler from a landed Hawaiian clan, Iaukea was raised in Lahaina public housing projects after her parents’ divorce. “It’s still there, Harbor Lights. My mom called it Harbor Fights,” Iaukea says. When they visited Oahu, the girls and ther mother would go to the lobby of the Queen Kapiolani Hotel in Waikiki and gaze up at a large oil portrait of a certain Colonel Curtis P. Iaukea. They knew nothing about him, but, judging by the splendor of his Hawaiian Kingdom uniform, his aristocratic mien, they thought he really must have been somebody important. As it turns out, he really was.
“I grew up landless, marginalized, and without a place or a voice in the contemporary world, but my great-great-grandfather held over forty appointed and elected positions during his career as a public servant in Hawai’i in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” Iaukea writes. Through the perusal of her great-great-grandfather’s papers, Iaukea makes the shocking discovery that Queen Lili’uokalani, late in life, was subjected to protracted insanity trials by her nephew Prince Kuhio, who challenged her capacity to establish the trust she established for Hawaiian orphans. Iaukea’s ancestor was one of the Queen’s trustees; she confesses her dread of discovering that he also may have conducted some shady dealings, but persists. In the end, she is able to conclude, “I am proud to be his descendant.”
Hawaiians and their geneology are tied to place, Iaukea explains. When their ancestral lands are wrenched away, as happened after the overthrow of their Kingdom, they are literally at a loss. They do not know themselves. “…once this loss of self, experienced as loss of land, is recognized, how do I fill the void?” Her book chronicles dispossession, disinheritance, betrayal, the heartache of a queen. Iaukea points out that it wasn’t only the haoles taking advantage of Hawaiians, but their own people. Like Iaukea, her sister and the Queen, some were betrayed and subjected to “emotional violence” by their own families.
“The Queen and I” searches through personal as well as political history. In the process, Iaukea faces and overcomes her childhood fears of speaking out in a family cowed by her father’s celebrity, and a cultural bias against strong, assertive women who are often attacked as “insane.” Iaukea found liberation in breaking waves–“Luckily, ke kai, the ocean, was close by and free”–and, ultimately, breaking the truth. While she may remain landless for now, she has claimed a greater inheritance: a space imbued with knowledge and understanding.