Old legends, new voices
Many years ago, before Pele took Kalapana, I went there on an excursion with some mainland friends. One scooped up some black sand to take back to his kids.
I refused to get into the car. They thought I was nuts.
I’m not Hawaiian. My religious beliefs do not extend to the Hawaiian pantheon of gods and demigods. And besides, I’ve heard the rumors about how taking rocks from the volcano or sand from the beach was a story made up by rangers trying to protect the environment–how it’s not even Hawaiian.
Still, I wouldn’t get into the car. They relented. I’m sure they still think I’m nuts.
But this is what it is to be an Islander, if not a Hawaiian. Some things, you don’t mess with. Some things, you tell only at a beach campfire, in the gloaming, in whispers. Everybody has a Red Lady story or White Lady story or a hag-who-turned-into-a-young-woman story. Or they did when I was young.
In Don’t Look Back: Hawaiian Myths Made New, edited by writer-teacher Christine Thomas, a hui of some of the Islands’ most skilled writers have done exactly what the title suggests they not do. They looked back, for inspiration if not direction. They’ve projected, from Island moolelo, into today. Or into conventional contemporary literary forms, even if the setting isn’t the present.
The project was itself inspired–by a mythology retold series from British book publisher, Cannongate. The collection proves Cannongate’s original premise: These stories, true or not–no matter–are told for a reason. And retold. And remade. They provoke thought, emotion, sometimes stillness and peace, sometimes uncomfortable unease.
Among the writers Thomas recruited are names that themselves resonate: the late Ian MacMillan, poet W. S. Merwin, contemporary Island writers Robert Barclay, Wayne Moniz and A.A. Attanasio, playwright Victoria Nalani Knebuhl, international bestseller Maxine Hong Kingston.
Some stories are literal retellings, reset, with the kind of detailed characterization that traditional mythology often only communicates in elusive hints. Some go off in hilarious, ironic parody. Some are warm. Some are chilling.
Dear to my heart as a writer is Attanasio’s aside in his story of a geophysicist who is, it just happens, a goddess and sister to an even more troublesome goddess: “Writing is the most wonderful sorcery I’ve ever known.” Pololei! (Right!)
To chronicle each one, sum them up each in a sentence, is tedious. I will say just this: If you have ever refused to go over the Pali with pork. If you have ever stopped by a trailside, wrapped a stone in a ti leaf and left it as a hopeful plea for safekeeping on a hike. If you have ever seen a White Lady . . . you need to read these stories.
Some stories work better than others do. Some are a bit too literal and some try too hard at irony. But moments of bright truth shine in each one.
When J. Freen describes a character as wearing “a bland aloha shirt and neatly pressed slacks — the uniform of the local businessman,” you know the guy. You’ve seen him on Bishop Street.
When Kneubuhl inhabits the world of a mourning woman who is brought back to life against her will, separated from her love who has passed before her, you understand, you ache with loss. “Let me tell you, being brought back to life is not the way it sounds in stories. I don’t recommend it to anyone.” You are happy, and tear up a bit, when she dies again, passes through desolate Milo (Hawaii’s version of purgatory) and is rejoined with her lover, walking through the light to her, bearing a lei of welcome.
These stories are sophisticated enough to provoke thought in adults (excellent book club material), and told simply enough for middle schoolers, who will like the heroes and and battles, but respond, too, to the pieces about love and family. The stories open questions: What do you believe? What might you have done? Why does the story end as it does?
I am fortunate, as a journalist, to receive many books from local authors — to review, or just to celebrate, as with the birth of a new child. Many pass through my hands. This one? On my bookshelf.
Watermark, 2011 172 pages $17.95