The Contemporary Pacific 15.1 (2003) 219-221
Reimagining the American Pacific: From South Pacific to Bamboo Ridge and Beyond, by Rob Wilson.Durham: Duke University Press, 2000. ISBN0-8223-2523-3; xix + 295 pages, notes, index. Paper, US$18.95.
That Rob Wilson's magisterial survey of Hawai'i's literature and culture is at once revolutionary and out-of-date is testimony to the volatility and strength of contemporary literature in this state. At the center of Wilson's book is a sympathetic history of the Bamboo Ridge group of writers, foremost among them Eric Chock and Lois-Ann Yamanaka. He argues that their brand of "local" literature resists the economic and cultural globalization so evident to anyone setting foot in Waikiki or Taipei (Wilson's other Pacific "center"). Wilson's theoretical imagining posits a "mongrel" poetics that unifies writers in Hawai'i against the outside forces of American imperialism, especially the US military. Where "regionalism" has often been considered a limitation in literature, Wilson points to the way in which Hawai'i regionalism is one that resists the larger forces that impinge on it, in literary and economic terms. That he puts himself in the mix, as a poet and critic, especially in his poetic chapter, "Postmodern X: Honolulu Traces," means that this book is as much autobiography as it is theory or history. This is the autobiography of a white critic's conversion into the local, if not his full acceptance into it. The book also partakes of fantasy; Wilson consciously imagines a world that is not local or global, but glocal (his neologism). Wilson's imagined community (echo of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities) does not exist, but it aims to put pressure on communities that do exist to blur their boundaries, if not into a melting pot, then into what Wing Tek Lum refers to as a cultural soup. Or, as Wilson writes: "Adhering to the nexus of locality at Bamboo Ridge [a place before it was a local literary journal] posits a way of reimagining relationship among region, nation, and globe in which difference is not negated nor reified but constructed, negotiated, and affirmed. In effect, the local has materialized into alternative narratives and counterclaims on the 'American Pacific'" (179).
What strikes me as most remarkable about this book is its range: Wilson is at once a formidable cultural critic, equally at home with the morning newspaper and literary theory, and a reader of poetry (unusual among students of cultural studies, who tend to value narrative over poetry). He bobs and weaves between the lingos of transnational capital and pidgin poetry, the travel narratives of Herman Melville and Paul Theroux and films that take place in (one might say "take the place of") Hawai'i. Wilson offers critiques of James Michener, even as he slings the arrows of Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek. In Hawai'i letters, Wilson stands nearly alone in his ability to navigate such fluid sources, to write in so many discourses. His sometimes self-indulgent writing style is always striking and personal, in the way that much literary criticism is not. It holds the reader's attention.
While Wilson's cultural critiques point toward the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty, his literary critiques concentrate on Asian-American work such as that found in the journal, Bamboo Ridge. Wilson acknowledges that Eric Chock and Lois-Ann Yamanaka have been held to the fire for their perhaps willful ignorance of Hawaiian issues and for Yamanaka's creation of a stereotypical Filipino character in Blu's Hanging, but he still uses their work as his primary examples of resistance to the global. When he does treat Hawaiian literature, he uses a "little Hawaiian shark hula chant for Ka-lani-o-pu'u," rather than any contemporary instances of literature by native Hawaiians. Part of the fault for this imbalance lies in Wilson's timing; when he started writing the book in the early 1990s, as he most certainly did, the Bamboo Ridge group was a central force; by the late 1990s, when the book was going into publication, that group was under fire and journals like 'Oiwi were printing more Hawaiian literature. Still...