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boundary 2 31.3 (2004) 75-100

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Connected Disconnection and Localized Globalism in Pacific Multilingual Literature


Five years ago, I moved to the island of Oahu to take a job at the University of Hawaiʿi at Mānoa. Oahu is one island among 132 in the earth's longest island chain. The surrounding Pacific Ocean spans over one-third of the earth's surface and contains 25,000 islands (more than all the other oceans on the earth combined). Soon after I arrived, I began reading the literature of the Pacific. I had read none of it in the undergraduate college and the graduate school university I had attended on the East Coast. No classes in Pacific literature were ever offered, nor was it included in general survey courses. When people talked about the Pacific, they talked about the rim, not the basin.

As I read, I realized that my understanding of the Pacific was shaping into two contradictory visions. As Epeli Hauʿofa notes in "Our Sea of [End Page 75] Islands," there is a Pacific of disconnection and a Pacific of connection. The difference lies in seeing Pacific geography and culture as, in Hauʿofa's words, "islands in a far sea" (tiny dots of land separated by wide expanses of ocean) or seeing it as "a sea of islands" (tiny dots joined by an ocean). The second model, one of hope, sees travel, trade, and migration as prominent parts of Pacific life, a life of movement, canoes, and jets.1

The literature of the Pacific is about both Pacifics. Like Hauʿofa, I am more interested in connection. I am especially interested in literature that argues forcefully for local concerns as an important part of, even if often resistant to, global systems. Yet, whenever I read the literature of Hawaiʿi's multivalenced and multicultural traditions, I see embedded within its inclusions numerous moments of separation and disjunction in which boundaries or limits are reestablished rather than broken down.

An example of this negotiation between connection and disconnection: although much, but by no means all, Pacific literature is written primarily in English, a great deal of it includes other languages that might be known only to some portion of the readership. This placement of languages, and thus cultures, beside one another points to the ways languages and cultures interrelate, especially in the Pacific.2 Yet, this gesture is typically not [End Page 76] used to illustrate a happy multiculturalism. It is instead one of resistance to colonialism and is often used to highlight the always present relationships of power between languages and cultures that are especially intense in colonial situations. The work of Hawaiian sovereignty activist, poet, and essayist Haunani-Kay Trask is, for instance, notorious for its intensity. Poetry is one arena in which she explores Hawaiian struggles to regain land.3 Her work frequently criticizes the cliché of Hawaiʿi as a multicultural paradise full of racial equality and points out how Hawaiʿi is still a colonized nation. Trask's books of poems are written in English and include Hawaiian, yet she always italicizes the Hawaiian words so as to indicate their distinctiveness.4 In her work, italics mark not a foreignness but an emphasis on the history of how the Hawaiian language was outlawed in Hawaiʿi from 1896 to 1970.

There is a lot to be said in defense of connection. But one thing Trask's work is clear on is that such connection is meaningless if it is figured as hybridity or syncretism. Undeniably, Hawaiʿi has a long history of ideas meeting to produce new ideas. A partial list would include Pidgin (linguistically [End Page 77] known as Hawaiʿi Creole English, or HCE), the ukulele, the slack key guitar, the paniolo, and the plate lunch. These cultural mixings are all worth celebrating. Yet as critics such as Aijaz Ahmad, E. San Juan, and others point out, the simplistic celebration of hybridity risks sliding into an uncritical, if unintentional, support of colonialism because it so often fails...


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pp. 75-100
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Archived 2004
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