- Finding Meaning: Kaona and Contemporary Hawaiian Literature by Brandy Nālani McDougall
According to the Hawaiian political scientist Noenoe Silva, when Queen Lili'uokalani was imprisoned in 1896, she received messages smuggled to her in newspapers that were used to wrap flowers. She would smuggle messages out in return. These messages were publically printed despite the fact that the usurping Republic of Hawai'i officials were capable of reading Hawaiian and used this fluency to censor newspapers at this time. However, the communiqués between the queen and her supporters were hidden in kaona, "a practice of layering and veiling meaning as well as of finding meaning" (5). So while her captors could grasp the literal meaning of the printed words, the deeper political meaning, consisting of messages that the queen and her supporters had not given up on each other, eluded them.
McDougall's Finding Meaning: Kaona and Contemporary Hawaiian Literature is a major contribution to an understudied field. There is a large and growing canon of Hawaiian literature, but there is as yet very little in the way of criticism of this body of work. McDougall's contribution to the lexicon of Hawai'i literary criticism is "kaona connectivity [that] describes how kaona, as a practice, requires us to connect with our kūpuna [elders] as well as with each other" (5). It has been said that it takes a large amount of history to create a small amount of literature. The historical basis of McDougall's analysis is impressive and she shows care in reciting the genealogies of Hawaiian chiefs and gods. She is committed to a colonial/decolonial analysis, which is not at all uncommon for radical Pacific Island writers. But in Hawai'i, it is worth noting, this is not the only analysis prevalent among activists and activist-scholars. An occupation/deoccupation analysis has supplanted the colonial analysis in some quarters. McDougall continually refers to Hawai'i's "colonial" history, but later in the book, she references "occupation." For me as a political scientist, these terms seem mutually exclusive, although Hawaiian scholars positioned differently might disagree, such as J Kēhaulani Kauanui in her 2016 article "Traversing the Hawaiian Nationalist Political Gulf" (Hūlili: Multidisciplinary Research on Hawaiian Values 10:83–100). However, it is not clear whether the frame at all affects a literary analysis such as this.
McDougall's choice of works is interesting in that it makes no real [End Page 387] distinction between established writers, such as Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl—whose play Ka Wai Ola is adeptly dissected—and slam poets, in some cases still in their teens. Perhaps no such distinction exists, and it is encouraging that this young generation can embed kaona in their works. McDougall's analysis of Kneubuhl's play accentuates its theme that Hawaiians (even those who are highly flawed, like the character Uncle Liko) can retain a sense of connectivity to 'āina [the land] and a certain dignified wisdom despite the ravages of colonialism. McDougall's analysis of the poems of Jamaica Osorio leads to an examination of He Kumulipo, the foundational mytho-poetic Hawaiian work that needs more such analysis. In this sense also, Finding Meaning is a welcome contribution. McDougall does draw a sharp distinction between Kanaka Maoli and non–Kanaka-authored texts on Hawaiian topics. She draws on Mary Kawena Pukui's debate with a foreign linguist to make a compelling case that privileges a Kanaka view in the interpretation of kaona and meaning making (29–31).
An issue with works of this sort—about a local topic, but published by a continental press—is that of audience. At times the book wavers between ideas that would be well known to Hawai'i readers but difficult for outsiders, as well as some that would challenge even local readers. One wonders how foreign readers will apprehend this material, interspersed as it is with Hawaiian words. But this is not...