- Island World: A History of Hawai'i and the United States
Gary Okihiro has pursued a unique and distinguished scholarly trajectory over the past three decades. Trained as an African historian, he is known primarily for his prolific writing, teaching, and institution building in Asian American studies. He has spent a considerable portion of his time pondering the role of Asian peoples in the construction of the United States national narrative, in influential essays, and in books like Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture (1994), The Columbia Guide to Asian American History (2001), and Common Ground: Reimagining American History (2001). Other Okihiro writings have sometimes gone off in creative directions, notably two volumes of iconic photographs about World War II-era Japanese American concentration camps for which Okihiro provided a narrative historical voice (Whispered Silences: Japanese Americans and World War II , with Joan Myers, and Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment , with Linda Gordon).
Now Okihiro's career seems to be reaching a crest, with the publication of the first volume of a promised trilogy that meditates on the culture and role in world history of his native home, Hawai'i. The second volume, Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones, has also already appeared (University of California Press, 2009). I say "meditate," because Okihiro's writing here is a matter of gesture and suggestion, rather than of proof or even of sustained argument. For example, he writes: "Life, too, can hardly be distinguished from its environments and from one body to another, whether plant or animal, fish or human . . . . Those arteries of animation are a Hawaiian insight, a systematics of the cosmos and all that dwell therein, unifying as well as ramifying as genealogies, which branch but also send roots that connect with deep pasts, distant places, and other bodies" (p. 44). This is magisterial prose, its general thrust vaguely reminiscent of Carl Jung's notion of archetypes, yet its specific meaning may puzzle many a reader, and Okihiro doesn't really offer any evidence in support of whatever it is that his contention might be.
Island World fits nicely into the University of California Press's world history series. Another notable volume in the series, David Christian's Maps of Time (2004), attempts to explode the conventional frames—primarily interlocking patterns of economic interactions—by which most world history writing has been bound heretofore. In Christian's [End Page 191] case, the intervention is conceptual: forget writing about humankind; concentrate instead on the most macro of histories, the story of the planet, beginning with the origins of the universe; let humans assume their rightful place as little more than a late footnote in the story of the planet. In Okihiro's case, the disruption of conventional narrative is different: he operates less on a different scale than from a different point of perspective. He locates himself in Hawai'i and attempts to rewrite the American narrative, putting Hawai'i at the center, as the motor that makes it all move. He writes, "Instead of the customary narrative of the United States acting upon Hawai'i, I present the Islands' press against the continent, causing it to move and endowing it, accordingly, with historical meaning" (p. 2).
It is a task of incredible audacity, and one with which it is easy to have sympathy, particularly for those of us who come from Hawai'i and have experienced the marginalization and exoticization that are thrust on island people by Americans from other places. Okihiro does not merely ask for Hawai'i and its peoples to be included in the American narrative, as some other writers have done. Rather, he goes further, to assert that Hawai'i has somehow been formative of that very narrative. That is such a bold assertion that perhaps it is inevitable that he should fall short of his goal.
Okihiro begins with a Christian-like account of the geoformation of...