- Of Blood and of the Heart:An Interview with Georgia Ka'apuni McMillen
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In June of 2004, I interviewed Georgia Ka'apuni McMillen, a Native Hawaiian writer whose work has appeared in Bamboo Ridge: The Hawaii Writers' Quarterly, and who has published a novel, School for Hawaiian Girls. Initially published in 2002 and still available through 1st Books (Bloomington, Indiana), School for Hawaiian Girls will be re-released by Permanent Press, a publishing house in New York City, in September 2005. We met at the Kula Sandalwood Restaurant, located at an elevation of approximately 3,000 feet on the slope of Haleakalā on the island of Maui. The transcript of the interview that follows contains a discussion that weaves in and out of the specifics of her novel, a dialogic dynamic that allowed us to connect ideas of what Hawaiian identities are, the use of pidgin and the local literary scene, and the travails of publishing (including self-publication), to McMillen's novel and her experiences as a writer.
School for Hawaiian Girls tells the story of several generations of a single Hawaiian family, the Kaluhis, whose members are both plagued and intrigued by the memory of the murder of Lydie, sister to Sam and Bernie. With narrative planes reaching from 1920s Kohala, Hawai'i, to 1980s Honolulu, O'ahu, the novel features multiple narrators, including Sam and Bernie—both belonging to the older generation of the Kaluhi family—and Moani, Sam's grandniece and Bernie's granddaughter. McMillen further enriches the complexity of her narrative structure by incorporating the point of view of Sarah Christian, the daughter of a missionary, who is a contemporary of Sam and Bernie's. Central to the novel is the place named in the title: the school for Hawaiian girls that both Lydie and Bernie attend and at which Sarah teaches in the 1920s. On this earlier narrative plane, Lydie figures as a magnetic character possessing a sexual and cultural [End Page 387] allure that draws other Hawaiians and the Christian children, Sarah and her brother Daniel, to her. Because of this allure, Lydie suffers a violent and tragic death that, as time passes, creates a memory that Sam and Bernie seek to repress, that Sarah ultimately embraces, and that Moani, in the novel's present (the 1980s), desperately tries to uncover. In the novel's present, the school has long since been abandoned, and Moani wants to purchase the property and turn it into a hotel. Unable to cope with the memories of his boyhood, including his sister's death, which are inextricably bound to the school, Sam buys the property out from under Moani and has it demolished.
Due in large part to a decolonizing impulse, critical discussions of the literatures of Hawai'i now draw much needed attention to the fact that Hawai'i's literary tradition does not adequately reflect Hawai'i from a non-haole perspective. Critically speaking, McMillen's novel fulfills a crucial role in the contexts of Hawai'i's literary tradition by challenging what Richard Hamasaki has referred to as the body of "observer" literature that has long represented Hawai'i and its inhabitants (1993, 193). Only twenty-five years ago, Tony Quagliano, like other prominent critical voices before him such as A.Grove Day, advocated the dominance of this "observer" perspective in his promotion of a literature that has "a style informed by a variety of external, extrainsular influences, and not bound by localness either in landscape, seascape, or localness of ethnic political issues, exclusively" (1979/1980, 7). Deemed by this view as too parochial to matter, literatures about Hawai'i from Hawai'i (and, arguably, by Native Hawaiians) occupy a secondary or tertiary status when compared to the canon established in the nineteenth century by the likes of Melville and Twain and continued through the twentieth century by Michener and others. As Paul Lyons argued (1997), for too long this view has trumpeted "observer" literature as the valued and valuable literature about Hawai'i.
However, School for Hawaiian...