Two Voices of Stories and Stones from the Pacific

“Black footed Albatross taking off.” by Alan Vernon via CC BY 2.0


Two Voices of Stories and Stones from the Pacific

by Lyz Soto and Bryan Kuwada

Why start a blog? When there is an overwhelming amount of internet chatter about everything from the important to the trivial, why start a blog? Or more to the point, why start a blog when ocean levels are rising, people are dying violently (through natural disasters, or man made horror), natural resources are being depleted, pollution and trash are overwhelming our ecosystems, and homelands are disappearing forever? Why sit down and write? Why write when we can go out and do something? Why start a blog?

Because there is power in being part of stories, in sharing stories, in telling them, in listening to them, in putting them out into the world. So we’re starting a blog. Not because our stories are the best, nor because we know the most, rather this is how we show our love, how we reach out to others in the struggle.

The work we all do can really grind you down, and we all need stories that bring us hope or remind us of the fire inside us or ask us to carry a communal burden. There are eleven of us here, writing this blog, who believe in the power of stories and shared struggle. We do what we can in the streets or at the capitol or on the land or in the sea, but after, we talk story, we support each other with our words and our thoughts, we let each other know that we are there. We can’t always stand with you on the land you are fighting for, but we hope our voices do carry. We are starting today with two perspectives on why it’s so important to put our collective voices on the wind, to seed the world with our stories. A inā paʻē mai ka leo, e ō mai. We always welcome your voice to the story as well!


A Feast of Rubble

We live in a world bent on eating itself. Globalizing structures like imperialism and corporatization have made it so easy for us to participate in our own cannibalistic destruction.

Do you have the latest iPhone?

Do you have a 100 inch television?

Did you try that new restaurant?

Have you watched the trendiest this?

Have you tried the funkiest that?

Why yes, yes I have.

And yes, I actually have. I wish I could reduce this to just-a-rhetorical-strategy, but it is so easy to fill my in-between moments with internet chatter. It’s even easier to come home after a long day, turn on the television, and immerse myself in someone elseʻs story—a story that encourages me to sit more, eat more, watch more, consume more.

Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano once wrote, “Culture for the masses…manipulates consciousness, conceals reality, and stifles the creative imagination. Naturally it does not lead to a revelation of identity but is rather a means of erasing or distorting it…” And yet this is the imposed reality in which we live and where we must deliberately seek out ways to nourish ourselves, rather than filling up on empty calories. We must support the selves that sit beyond the reach of assimilating societal forces. We must work to unknot our stories from those who would feed us with lead spoons.

It is so easy to lose ourselves in the morass of binge media. They make it shiny and delicious. The stories we feed on are selected and shaped by a western media built on legacies of eating the cultures of “others” and regurgitating them as tropes and characters to fit their own narrative desires. We become the consumer and the consumed. And funny how those stories about “others” often read a lot like western cultures shit-talking about everyone else, because those characters rarely resemble the people we see when we look at our friends or our family. This is not who we see in the mirror. So that’s where our stories come in – not so we can shit-talk western cultures, but so we can write the definitions filed next to our own names, definitions that have been molded for far too long by the hands of strangers. Imagine googling Hawaiʻi, Sāmoa, Aotearoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, Guahan, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, or Tahiti and finding stories we would love to tell our children, rather than those crafted by or for visitors who barely glance upon our shores. Imagine harvesting a feast of words meant for our ears, for our eyes, for our sustenance.

Sounds fabulous, right? And why wouldn’t people want to hear stories of the Pacific as told by people of the Pacific? Consider that in 1975 Papua New Guinea playwright Bernard M. Narokobi said, “Today we have little to be proud of and much to be ashamed of when we realize that we know more about foreign artists than we know about our own. True, the appreciation of art is a universal quality and we should be free to appreciate other art. But our art must be, at the very least, as meaningful to us as the foreign art” (221). Forty years later, our schools are still better at teaching us how to appreciate stories set in places like New York City and London that are told from Eurocentric points of view than they are about letting in stories of the recognizable-to-us. It was not until I had long entered adult life that I was introduced to stories written by people who shared histories similar to my own. I grew up taking it for granted that the books I read, the movies I watched, the plays I saw were not meant to be recognizable to me or people like me. As a youth, it didn’t even occur to me to ask about our stories, because I was taught that our perspectives were not the ones that mattered. But some of us know all along what to ask, which is why our stories survive and proliferate through the hearts and hands of people like, Haunani-Kay Trask, Nora-Vagi Brash, Albert Wendt, Robert Sullivan, Epeli Hauʻofa, Joseph Veramu, and Konai Helu Thaman to name but a very very few. So when I was visiting a university in Papua New Guinea, I was both gratified and saddened when an impassioned student–asking better questions than my younger-self–demanded of his professors, “Where are our stories? Where can we read about us?” So while Pacific stories told by Pacific people abound, we still need to get better at making sure they are heard—not by our imperial visitors—by each other.

And this need cannot be relegated to a culture expression genre box once again dictated by the needs of faraway corporations, because as we move farther into the 21st century, it becomes clearer that the “American Consumer Way”, so assiduously packaged and sold to us, is an eroding path filled with scarcity that will soon be overrun by the oncoming tide. Democratic ideals have succumbed to the idea of the market. Even human rights are talked about in economic terms, so we are left to pick at monetary bones thrown down by organizations like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.

Says random government official A, “We need to stabilize the _________ region to protect the global markets and continued access to oil, copper, gold, gas, rare earth metals, coal, etc. etc. etc. This will ensure sustained economic growth, which will help build our communities…”

Yeah, I made that up. It could have been government official Z or corporate CEO beta. They all start to sound the same. They talk a good story about providing for communities, but what do they actually provide? And how often is it with an eye towards long term sustainable living? And why are government officials A through Z and corporate CEOs alpha omega usually so invested in our stories sounding a lot like their stories? When they come into our lives and offer educational investments, why does that equate to us reading about daffodils and Plymouth Rock? When they come to our homes and offer “progress,” why does “progress” transform the Kakaʻako skyline into that of Hong Kong?

In a recent article in The Nation, Toni Morrison wrote, “Dictators and tyrants routinely begin their reigns and sustain their power with the deliberate and calculated destruction of art: the censorship and book-burning of unpoliced prose, the harassment and detention of painters, journalists, poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists.” Maybe this is why they want their stories to be our stories. Because those who see everything in terms of economic packaging know that our stories are powerful. Our stories remind us that it is possible and desirable to live a life untethered to cars, microwaves, televisions, and the latest “it” thing.

So why should we listen? Why should we tell each other our stories? If we listen, if we love, if we learn, and if we act we might just be able to stop our world eating itself to dust.

–Lyz Soto

lei and opening_011a

ʻO ka Hua ka Hua e Hua ai

At a film screening and panel this week that investigated the connections between food sovereignty and land struggles, two young and helpful haole men got up and commented, the first saying that he was making a film about Hawai‘i to show the world the secret to sustainable living, and the second wanting to spread the word about his bicycle tour through Europe visiting the eco-villages and squats of various anarchist groups, letting the rest of the audience know that people have won land struggles before. In response to these two haole men, a farmer in the back got up and scolded them, telling them that rather than wasting time just making a film or talking about what other people are doing, their time would be better spent actually farming.

Even though it is entertaining to see privileged and naive outsiders get their comeuppance, and even though we all need to continue acknowledging and exploring our connections to the land (and to be fair, it did sound like the two haole guys weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty), it is worrisome to see the power of storytelling and sharing dismissed so casually in favor of “actual work.” We have a saying here: “huli ka lima i luna, make; huli ka lima i lalo, ola” [‘if the hands turn up, death; if the hands turn down, life’]. It means that if you turn your hands up, as if asking for something, when there is work to be done, you and your family and maybe even your community will die. But if you instead turn your hands down, to the work that has to be done, there is life there. The point of this post is that sharing our stories actually is an act of turning our hands to the work, of staving off death.

In traditional Hawaiian stories, when someone came to you with something to say, you would often ask, “He aha ka hua i ka umauma?” It often gets translated as “What is the word/thought in your heart?” But what is interesting to me is that the word for “word” is hua, which also means fruit or a seed. So by asking “he aha ka hua i ka umauma?” you are not just asking what is on that person’s mind, but recognizing that those words that will spill from her heart are seeds that will cause change and, hopefully, growth. Hua can feed you, sustain you.

We sometimes forget the importance of our hua, our words, our seeds, when we are engaged in land and water struggles, standing up against political ineptitude, fighting for social justice, and protesting the further militarization of the islands. We often feel that it is not our stories that are needed in these actions, it is our feet on the pavement, our butts in the chairs, our voices in the air. And it’s true. These actions can all seem much more immediately urgent than making sure we have our hua on the page or screen to share with other people as stories, poems, and essays. But, as the Cherokee author Thomas King says, “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous” (9).  Long-time translation scholar and activist Mona Baker expands on this, saying:

undermining existing patterns of domination cannot be achieved with concrete forms of activism alone (such as demonstrations, sit-ins, and civil disobedience) but must involve a direct challenge to the stories that sustain these patterns. (30)

In this way, we should see writing and sharing stories with each other as resistant, activist acts. Sometimes words need to live only in the moment, serving their immediate purpose before coming to live only in our memories. But sometimes our hua need to travel as well. Need to be shared with our community. Need to feed our allies. Need to give hope to others who are struggling.

In the midst of writing what would become one of the most authoritative accounts of Hawaiian history, Samuel Mānaiakalani Kamakau wrote in the October 16, 1865 issue of Ke Au Okoa that “aole na ka malihini e ao iaʻu i ka mooolelo o koʻu lahui, naʻu e ao aku i ka moolelo i ka malihini,” which translates into something like “it is not for the malihini to teach me the moʻolelo of my people; it is for me to teach the moʻolelo to the malihini.” And that is the crux of the issue today. Far too often, we are not the ones telling our own moʻolelo, our histories and stories. Stories are about us, not by or for us, so the stories that we do know are the ones that maintain the narratives of Hawaiians and other Pacific peoples as semi-reformed savages who have become happy but unhealthy little consumers of the global American Way.

The ease with which we accept these damaging stories becomes a problem because the Hawaiian word for a version of a story or a retelling of a mo‘olelo is “mana,” recognizing the fact that the more a story gets told and retold, the more it gains in mana. And while it is sometimes hard to believe when we are surrounded by our beautiful community who are farming the land and restoring fishponds and insisting on the presence of our culture and our language, these damaging narratives are the stories that often still have the most mana.

How deeply rooted these stories must be today that makes people think that corporate interests trump all, and the iwi of our ancestors are not worthy of reverence and respect. How powerful these stories must be to make people think that man has dominion over the earth and that the tops of mountains are only good for telescopes. How insistent these stories must be to trick our imaginations into thinking that the highest and best use of ʻāina is to put a tall building on it. How seductive these stories must be to make people ignore and despise those who need care and shelter. These hua are planted and nourished every minute of every day, through books, movies, news stories, Facebook posts, advertisements, laws, tshirts, verbal declarations, etc., constructing a tale in which we are not the main characters, merely the backdrop. Our bodies the foundations of condominiums, our language the decoration for shop windows, our culture the soundtrack for tour buses.

Yet who’s to say that we can’t take a page from hegemonic Western culture’s playbook, and use their own sneaky tricks against them? For the people opposing our movements and struggles for independence and freedom from oppression, the foundational stories that they often unconsciously rely on to make their decisions are not indigenous stories. I am not so naive as to believe that once these people are tricked into hearing our stories as told by us that they will automatically see the error of their ways and repent, but as the journalist, writer, and cultural critic Eduardo Galeano once said in relation to writing (and I think it holds true for stories as well): “To claim that literature on its own is going to change reality would be an act of madness or arrogance. It seems to me no less foolish to deny that it can aid in making this change” (177).

So even if we do not think we are writers or storytellers, it is worth it for all of us to overcome our fears and pick up our pens or peck away at our keyboards or just open our mouths so we can seed our stories all over. Hua always find a way, growing past the defenses of those who stubbornly oppose our lāhui, replacing or revising their stories so that the narratives that they turn to when making their decisions are ones that we’ve had a hand in crafting. So that when they try to make statements dismissing the value that Hawaiians place on the resting places of our ancestors, they have the story of Hoapili hiding Kamehameha’s bones whispering in their ear. When they try to say our culture has no place in this modern world, they will hear Jamaica Osorio schooling their president about the power of genealogy. When they talk about making huge wind farms on the outer islands to feed O‘ahu’s unrestrained energy consumption, they will have Kūapaka‘a telling them that the wind is not theirs to control. When they try to refuse to take action on climate change, they will see Serena Ngaio Simmons’ bleak future vision of the blank ocean where her home used to be. When they say that our language has no place, no power, the keiki ho‘opāpā Kalapana will be shouting at them, “Mō ke kī lā make!” Whenever they are making decisions about anything, even what to eat for dinner, I want them to feel one of our stories looming behind them, breathing on their necks, peeking over their shoulders, feeding them with their fruits, unable to be dismissed.

–Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada


Works Cited

Baker, Mona. “Translation and Activism: Emerging Patterns of Narrative Community.” Translation, Resistance, Activism. Ed. Maria Tymoczko. Boston: U of Massachusetts P. 2010. 23–41. Print.

Galeano, Eduardo. “In Defense of the Word.” Days and Nights of Love and War. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000. 167–178. Print.

King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008. Print.

Morrison, Toni. “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear.” The Nation 23 March 2015: n.p. Web.

Narokobi, Bernard M. “Art and Nationalism.” Voices of Independence: New Black Writing from Papua New Guinea. Ulli Beier, ed. University of Queensland Press, 1980. Print.

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