Author Interview: ku'ualoha ho'omanawanui

Published since 1989, The Contemporary Pacific has featured hundreds of authors from across disciplines and incorporated a wide range of genres, including peer-reviewed research articles, political reviews, resource essays, and dialogues covering issues of profound concern to the region and the world, as well as book reviews, art features, and even the occasional poem. All of these pieces have moved through a robust editorial process and reflect the authors' unique experiences in communicating their expertise and creative and critical scholarship to a broad audience. Launched in January 2020, this new section of our website features interviews, one per month, with the scholars and artists who have published in our pages.


INTERVIEW WITH ku'ualoha ho'omanawanui

Mililani Ganivet (MG): In the article “He Ahu Mo‘olelo: E Ho‘okahua i ka Paepae Mo‘olelo Palapala Hawai’i,” published in Palapala: A Journal for Hawaiian Language and Literature, you offer an impressive synthesis of Hawaiian literature, opening with a striking prefatory anecdote about a comment made by one of your professors, who asked, ‘‘What is there to possibly study in Hawaiian literature? Is that even a ‘thing’?” (hoʻomanawanui 2017, 51). I suppose it is also a good reminder of the long journey you have traveled already. Indeed, you are now teaching Hawaiian literature and the recent decades have witnessed a plethora of literary productions (still growing) by Kanaka ʻōiwi and Pacific Islanders alike, as well as growing interest in envisioning Hawaiian literature as a serious topic of scholarly engagement and inquiry. As an Indigenous woman and scholar, I suppose it has not been an easy journey—how do you take stock of it?

ku‘ualoha ho‘omanawanui (kh): It definitely was not an easy journey—it still isn’t—but everything worth doing is worth fighting for, and what I’ve learned over the years is that it can take a long time to make change happen. But in the end, change is continuing to happen through increased writing, teaching, and sharing of knowledge, and, I hope, through passion to read, appreciate, and create Kanaka Maoli literature.

MG: As you state in your article previously published in The Contemporary Pacific (TCP), poetry is a literary form deeply anchored in Hawaiian literary tradition (hoʻomawanui 2005). Poetry is also prevalent in other Pacific literary forms of expression, and it is very interesting as a genre situated at the intersection of orality and the written word. In addition to Hawaiian oli and mele, the poetry of resistance in the Buke Mele Lahui, Samoan fa’alupega, Tahitian paripari fenua, and the poetry of Queen Sālote of Tonga come to my mind as similar examples. Can you share your thoughts on this?

kh: Oli (chant) and mele (song), along with other performative art forms, such as hula, are our traditional artistic forms of expression and resonate deeply with our peoples. Because of our collective histories of colonial invasion and settler colonialism, the theme of resistance is also has also been strongly present in our oral and literary arts since first contact (I’m thinking here in particular of a song called “Killing the Teachers” from one of the Polynesian outlier islands, commemorating the death of missionaries trying to preach Christianity). Resistance to colonialism, however, is also an insistence of being who we are, an expression of strength and resilience anchored in our love for our lands and our ancestors. In such poetic expression, we are insisting on being who we are, who our ancestors were, and who we want our children and our future generations to be. I expect such poetic expression will continue to grow as I continue to see the intertwining of art and activism inspire and encourage our peoples.

MG: I like your use of the metaphor of the lei to describe Hawaiian poetry (ho'omanawanui 2005). The same metaphor could be reused to describe Pacific Island literature—a lei weaved with the different literary traditions and local experiences. As a literary scholar interested in and in contact with other Oceanian writers, how do you characterize Pacific Island literature? Do other Pacific Island literatures influence Hawaiian literature or inspire your own work?

kh: I love your extension of the lei metaphor to Pacific literature. For me, Pacific literature is characterized by stories by Indigenous Pacific people that express our thoughts and imagination about who we are, who we imagine ourselves to be, what we think about the world around us, and what we imagine we want it to be. Thinking about the book Inside Out, edited by Rob Wilson and Vilsoni Hereniko, it is insiders writing for other insiders, sometimes from the outside, with the outside as a secondary audience (1999). We aren’t interested in perpetuating their stereotypes or tropes about who outsiders imagine us to be. We express ourselves as ourselves, for ourselves. Thus, other Pacific Island literatures absolutely influence Hawaiian literature, and we are great fans of other Pacific writers, because we recognize ourselves and our experiences in the works of others, even when the specifics of place (island), culture, and language may be unique. I am greatly inspired by other writers and artists from all over Oceania and am a great fan as well, admiring how writers craft their narratives and represent their cultures and peoples.

MG: The journal has featured many interesting interviews and articles that delve into certain aspects of Pacific Island literature and Oceanian writers’ works. Can you share with us a piece that moved you?

kh: One of my recent favorites is Mārata Tamaira’s “Walls of Empowerment, Reading Public Murals in a Kanaka Maoli Context,” which resonates with the theme of art and resistance we’ve been discussing thus far (2017). While our Pacific artists don’t get enough recognition overall, it is probably even truer for public mural artists. Yet public murals are often much more visible and are seen by many more people on a daily basis, allowing for more public reflection on art and themes. There are themes of resistance as well as of hope, encouragement, and imagination that inspire all of us.

MG: TCP also provides the opportunity to its readers to discover contemporary, vibrant artists. TCP 31-2 features the work of the artist Natalie Robertson, who hails from Aotearoa. Do you remember any artist whose work in the journal struck you?

kh: I really love the inclusion of visual art in the journal, because our Pacific artists don’t get enough recognition overall. I greatly admire the selection of artists, and it’s hard to pick a favorite. But one who comes to mind is Māori (Ngati Kuri, Te Aupōuri) artist Selwyn Muru, whose art was featured in volume 29, issue 2 (see Nepia 2017). The pieces featured in this issue were from his 1970s series “Parihaka,” which demonstrates the theme of resistance you spoke of earlier and illustrates the weaving together of our arts, as resistance against colonialism is a theme in our poetry, prose, visual art, music, dance, all of it. I particularly love his painting of Māori poet Hone Tuwhare’s “Papatuanuku” poem, which I teach all the time. It is a beautiful example of the kinds of creative and inspirational cross-fertilization that happens across genres and mediums in our Indigenous art forms.

MG: In fact, TCP 22-2 features a beautiful acrylic painting you designed—can you walk us through its symbolism (hoʻomanawanui 2010a)? I am particularly interested in the intersection of writing and artwork, which reminds me of the artwork by Albert Wendt featured in an earlier issue of the journal (2006).

kh: My visual poem “Tatz” was inspired by a comment a coworker made one day, about how the youthful teen boys in her community wrote all over themselves “like no’mo pepa in da house” (like there’s no paper in the house to write on) (2010b, 286–287). It got me thinking about the long history of tātau across Polynesia (and beyond, really) and the importance of cultural symbols and communication. The painting features a young brown man from the back, and the garment on his waist can be interpreted as blue jeans or surf shorts or a lavalava. He has the word “HALOA” tattooed in Old English across his back, alluding to Hāloa, the first kalo (taro) plant and the first ancestor in Hawaiian cosmology, as well as to the idea of names written on gold bracelets made popular by Hawaiian aliʻi women such as Queen Lili‘uokalani, a tradition that started in the late nineteenth century that is still popular today. There is an image of a Hawaiian flag, representing our kingdom and sovereignty, as the first flag was designed by King Kamehameha, who wanted it to resemble the flags of the most powerful nation of his time, Great Britain. The tattoo symbols are meant to evoke both traditional symbols and the ancient practice, as well as contemporary interpretations of cultural expression and identity of our time. It’s one of my favorite pieces I’ve done. Everyone asks who the man in the painting in, and, really, I created him from my imagination; he is all of us, in a sense, all of our brothers and sons and grandsons and descendants, although some of the symbols will of course evolve in the future to reflect that time.

MG: In her book The Power of the Steel-tipped Pen (2017), ʻŌiwi scholar Noenoe Silva coined the term “mo’okuauhau consciousness,” and your own book, Voices of Fire: Reweaving the Literary Lei of Pele and Hi’iaka (2014), uses a similar approach, focusing on the intellectual genealogy of the mo’olelo of Pele and Hi’iaka and the history of its publication. Do you think this approach is suitable to think about Pacific Island literature?

kh: I would be very pleased to see how others might apply these culturally-centered ideas that Noenoe and I have formulated in the context of Hawaiian literature and to see how they might provide insights into other Pacific literary texts. At the same time, we’ve also been inspired by the writing of Pacific and other Indigenous writers in coming up with these and other thoughts and theories. For example, the concept of Mana Wahine first asserted by Māori women feminists in the 1980s has had a fruitful impact on contemporary Hawaiian culture and activism and Hawaiian women’s empowerment, and has also provided for new, insightful readings of Hawaiian literature and representations of Hawaiian women. The concept of Tā-Vā theory, brilliantly written about by Tongan anthropologists ‘Okusitino Māhina and Tēvita O Ka‘ili has also been very inspiring in reading Hawaiian and other Pacific literatures (eg, Ka‘ili 2017).

MG: Your name is always written in lowercase letters. I suppose there is a reason for that; we would be curious to know why.

kh: There have been many ways Indigenous and other peoples have resisted the confines of English, and noncapitalizing my name is one way to do that. First, the capitalized name asserts an importance that goes against Hawaiian culture, which advises humility. There is a traditional proverb that speaks about not raising one’s self above the clumps of grass, so that’s one way to assert a native Hawaiian aesthetic in writing, by resisting conventional grammar rules. I was also inspired by two of my favorite writers: African American feminist bell hooks and poet e. e. cummings. I also recall an incident in high school when a Hawaiian classmate was punished by our English teacher for not capitalizing his name on papers, so, in a way, I’m trying to rewrite the trauma of the Western classroom for native students. It’s a tiny step, but it has a huge impact—people always ask me about it (and it surprises me how many people are unaware of bell hooks or e. e. cummings, who have done this for decades). So it does have an impact, and it provides an opportunity for me to talk about the impacts of colonialism and how indigenizing English, a foreign, violently-imposed language, can be a visible marker of resistance—it is not just what we write about but can also be how we write.

MG: If I understood correctly, you are currently working on a new book. Can you share a bit about this project with us?

kh: Yes, I’m actually working on a couple of different projects. One is a scholarly edition and translation of a nineteenth-century Pele text that’s never been published in English, or republished in Hawaiian, since it first came out in 1899. I’m really excited to get the manuscript to the publisher in early 2020.


2006. About the Artist: Albert Wendt. The Contemporary Pacific 18 (1): vii; Hereniko, Vilsoni, and Rob Wilson, editors. 1999. Inside Out: Literature, Cultural Politics, and Identity in the New Pacific. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield; ho‘omanawanui, ku‘ualoha. 2005.  He Lei Ho‘oheno no nä Kau a Kau: Language, Performance, and Form in Hawaiian Poetry. The Contemporary Pacific 17(1): 29–81; ho‘omanawanui, ku‘ualoha. 2010a. He Aloha no Nā Kalo. The Contemporary Pacific 22 (2): 285; ho‘omanawanui, ku‘ualoha. 2010b. Tatz. The Contemporary Pacific 22 (2): 286–287; ho‘omanawanui, ku‘ualoha. 2014. Voices of Fire: Reweaving the Literary Lei of Pele and Hi‘iaka. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press; ho‘omanawanui, ku‘ualoha. 2017.  He Ahu Mo‘olelo: E Ho‘okahua i ka Paepae Mo‘olelo Palapala Hawai’i.  Palapala: A Journal for Hawaiian Language and Literature 1:51–100; Ka‘ili, Tēvita O. 2017. Marking Indigeneity: The Tongan Art of Sociospatial Relations. Tucson: University of Arizona Press; Nepia, Moana. 2017. About the Artist: Selwyn Maru. The Contemporary Pacific 29 (2): vii; Silva, Noenoe K. The Power of the Steel-tipped Pen: Reconstructing Native Hawaiian Intellectual History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press; Tamaira, Mārata. 2017. Walls of Empowerment, Reading Public Murals in a Kanaka Maoli Context. The Contemporary Pacific 29 (1): 1–36.