The Descendants, by Kaui Hart Hemmings (2007), is a witty, funny, and roughly tender novel about an upper-class, hapa haole family living on O’ahu. The stark telling of the guilt and bad behavior surrounding around the coma and death of the mother in this family split me open. A flurry of reviews have already said this (a sample from the New York Times Book Review, UK’s Guardian, and Bookslut), and the buzz has even spurred a movie deal.
I’ve been thinking about this novel and what I’d like to say about it for a while now. So, here is my fair warning that I’m going be unfair, with a critique that is not about the book alone. Of course my view is that books are not (or should not be) produced in a vacuum, and I can’t think that my responses should be either. N.B., though, that my dissatisfaction is as much with how this book has been received as with some of Hemmings’ choices as an author.
Take for example, the opening line of Bookslut’s review:
“Perhaps most admirable about Kaui Hart Hemmings’s debut novel The Descendants is that she manages a compelling, serious story set in Hawaii without falling prey to schmaltzy descriptions of clueless tourists, cloudless skies, and smiling brown locals. It’s a rare feat, but Hemmings — one of the few nationally recognized contemporary fiction writers from Hawaii — succeeds with ease.”
Well, yes- it is high time writers from Hawai’i are recognized for their compelling, serious stories. But what is Hemmings really being compared to in this review? James Michener’s 1959 Hawaii? The reviewer’s acquaintance with the iconic images of Waikiki? The movie Angie likes to remind me about, Blue Crush? While perhaps it is only to be expected, it is the recurring surprise expressed by reviewers of The Descendants that authors from Hawai’i can and do write stories more complex than tourism brochures that unsettles me.
I agree with all of the reviews on the skilled, unsentimental portrayal of the struggling King family. Matt King, the narrator and so-called scion of a fictionalized royal Native Hawaiian family (very briefly sketched as part of his background), does not completely ignore issues of class and history. Yet his engagement with Native Hawaiian culture or politics is largely about his feelings of guilt: “My Polynesian ancestors would be disappointed in me, in all of us.” The ancestry, as it is repeatedly characterized, is a distant past, romanticized but now unattainable. For example, his young daughter Scottie pastes pictures of her ancestors Princess Kekipi and Edward King in her scrapbook. And in a climatic scene where Matt decides on the future of his family’s land holdings, he ambivalently ruminates on his apparently “more” Hawaiian cousins (“Their teeth are so white, their skin coloring like walnuts. What happened to me? Why am I not like them?”) and the legacy (in which Kamehameha Schools are described as “completely elitist, not to mention unconstitutional”):
But now I find myself not wanting to give it up- the land, the lush relic of our tribe, the dead…. Even though we don’t look Hawaiian, even though our constant recombining has erased the evidence of our ethnicity, sharpening our flat faces, straightening our kinky hair, even though we act like haoles, going to private schools and clubs and not having a good command of pidgin English, my girls and I are Hawaiian, and this land is ours.
I am convinced by Hemmings’ command of this character’s voice that this is an authentic reaction of a wealthy part-Hawaiian to his wealth, and I am even captivated by such a raw access to a irreverent view. I empathize too with much of the reflection on not looking Hawaiian, and not speaking pidgin well enough. But, here is also where the story (and its publicity) most rankles. “This land is ours”: while Matt King makes an attempt to save his landed heritage for Hawai’i’s posterity, the book’s strength- the broken, moving intimacy of this failing father, his maturing rebellious daughter and her precocious little sister, and all of their wry ambivalence- makes this move fall flat. “This land is ours” clings to the suffocating space of their little family, grasping for meaning in their lives. Instead of a reclamation for Native Hawaiians as a community or communities, in The Descendants, “this land is ours” sounds like an ominous repetition of plantation owners and missionaries, interested only in selective parts of their miscegenated Native Hawaiian heritage. “The cousins”- darker skinned and presumably more close to their contemporary Native Hawaiian culture- are not made out to be interesting, full characters.
I repeat: this is not really a fair critique. I am dangerously close to asking Hemmings for a “more authentic” book, or simply a book that has the characters reflecting the Hawai’i I know in it. Yet, that is not exactly it. I don’t think authors need to fulfill all the expectations or desires of the community it is portraying: how could any one book or person measure up to that infinite, Sisyphean task? Neither do narrators of novels need to be likeable, politically progressive, or politically correct.
The points I want to explore here are different, I think, or at least not simply about damning anyone. I am just thinking about what it means to write and market a book ‘about’ Hawai’i. What responsibilities do you have when you do this? Hemmings’ audience for this book was not primarily a local Hawaiian one (and especially not a Native Hawaiian one). Okay. One local review was glowing, one not so much. In the Honolulu Advertiser, Hemmings is interviewed, saying, “I haven’t read any Hawai’i literature and I don’t consider myself as a Hawai’i writer.” Okay. (Personally, I obviously would position myself differently here, but okay.) But the big-time reviews (“Filled with heart, paced by the strange beauty of the Hawaiian Islands,” says Stephen Elliott) and even the covers of her books (one showcases palm trees, another an old-timey woody surf car, and yet another an abstract, vaguely aboriginal design) reveal that her setting is a large part of her work’s appeal.
And I would buy her claim of not being a Hawai’i writer more if she had not brought in the ancestry, and called ironic attention to it by calling the book The Descendants. So, whether she has written a piece of Hawai’i literature or not, what worries me is the world is going to place it there anyway. And thereby the world will read Matt King’s ‘this land is ours’ without ever being interested in another view of it, having just consumed another (if refreshingly witty and wry!) version of Hawai’i that obscures the ongoing existence of Native Hawaiian communities who have a different relation to ‘this land is ours.’ In this sense, The Descendants is colonial literature (along the lines, I am thinking, of E.M. Forster or Kipling… “their skin the color of walnuts,” Hemmings writes), and I suppose it hurts me that this will never be recognized in any of the reviews. And I am worried more because it is going to be made into a movie, and there will be more of these reviews.
Is there anything to do about this? Probably not, in any immediate sense. There are many books ‘about’ Hawai’i (and many authors who do choose to identify with Hawai’i as their community) that will never make the same national and international splash, and that is not likely to change. But I am drawn to Barbara Jane Reyes’ ongoing Filipino-American literature bibliography as an example of what I would like to start compiling for a similar list on Hawai’i literature (including but not limited to Native Hawaiian literature… and if anyone knows of other bibliographies already done, I would love to see them). Although I am many years away from it, I would love to teach a literature class on Hawai’i or the Pacific. I know I have a lot still yet to read, and thus a bibliography would primarily benefit me first. Maybe I would still assign The Descendants, but I wouldn’t assign it alone.
This summer I also had the pleasure of reading R. Zamora Linmarck’s Rolling the Rs, a beautifully pieced together story about queer coming of age in Kalihi, Our Lady of the Mount, Charlie’s Angels, and Filipino-American culture. Indeed, in some ways, Rolling the Rs is an important counterpoint to The Descendants. Though Native Hawaiians aren’t featured in Rolling the Rs, neither did I come away feeling that our history had been poorly sketched or written over. Neither does its cover play up its Hawaiian setting. This one will definitely be in my future bibliography.