They called themselves an army. They set up camp on a private pot farm in central Oʻahu, locked out the legal owner of the property, and stayed there for nine months. They wore knockoff military uniforms. They carried rifles. In a lawsuit, the legal owner of the land described them as “squatters.” They described themselves as the rightful heirs of the land. They remained on the farm for nine months until they were arrested in July.
The radical tactics of Hawaiian sovereignty activists are familiar to residents of the islands—including novelist Hanya Yanagihara, who spent much of her childhood in Honolulu. Her novel To Paradise is split into three parts; “Lipo Wao Nahele,” the second section of the book, follows a Native Hawaiian father and son, both of whom are named Kawika. They are the descendents of Queen Lili‘uokalani—the last queen of Hawai‘i before its illegal annexation—and now they must live in the aftermath of her overthrow.
“Lipo Wao Nahele” is written as a letter from father to son, although it often sounds more like an extended apology than an epistle. Kawika chronicles his affair with a quixotic Hawaiian sovereignty activist named Edward. As Kawika and Edward grow closer, Edward’s definition of a “true Hawaiian” narrows: A true kānaka maoli speaks exclusively in ʻōlelo Hawai‘i (English is the language of the colonizer), does not pray to a Christian god (Christianity is the religion of the colonizer), and lives off the land (just as their ancestors did—before the colonizer came). Edward convinces Kawika and his young son to live with him in the woods of O‘ahu’s North Shore. The three live in a homeless camp for years. It is not unlike the real-life occupation of the O‘ahu farm from earlier this year.
It is easy to find criticism of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement in Hawai‘i. In the comment section under a Honolulu Civil Beat article chronicling the takeover of the O‘ahu pot farm, many dismiss the group’s call for separatism as a pipe dream for uneducated Hawaiians. “I get the vibe this is somehow more about marijuana?” one commenter posted. “Cue the Twilight Zone music,” another joked.
I understand where they’re coming from. When people trespass on private property, don military uniforms, and threaten law enforcement with guns, it’s easier to ridicule them than confront the root of the problem: Hawai‘i was, and still is, illegally occupied by the United States. People can condemn radicalism all they want, but at the end of the day, we need dialogue, not insults. We can’t denounce the behavior of sovereignty activists without acknowledging the reasons for their behavior.
Which is why Yanagihara’s interpretation of the sovereignty movement is refreshing. Kawika criticizes Edward’s radicalism, but he never rejects Edward for being “crazy,” as many residents of Hawai‘i would. As a direct descendent of Queen Lili‘uokalani, Kawika is uniquely positioned to see what sovereignty activists do not: That, while people rally around the restoration of the monarchy, they have never considered who their monarch would be. They do not know Kawika, nor do they know that he has no interest in being king, despite being next in line for the throne. The restoration of the monarchy is merely a symbol of freedom from the United States, a fantasy rather than a tangible goal.
In an attempt to fight for the rights of Native Hawaiians, the “activists” have dehumanized the very people they claim to uplift. At the end of “Lipo Wao Nahele,” the stress of Edward’s expectations causes Kawika’s mental breakdown. He is left blind, paralyzed, and living in a mental institution. His adult son, traumatized, cuts him off for good.
Yanagihara does what she does best: She takes a contentious social problem and shows us its miniature, the way an issue may affect one person, one family, one relationship. Colonialism is personal to the colonized and their descendants, and its reckoning should also be personal. Kawika disagrees with Edward, not because Edward’s frustration is wrong, but because Kawika feels personally misunderstood. The conflict of “Lipo Wao Nahele” relies on tension between the Native Hawaiian characters and thus, tension amongst the broader Hawaiian community. It is a conflict left unresolved.
Yanagihara presents the complexities of the sovereignty movement without discounting the pain of indigenous people. Although colonialism has caused generational trauma for her Hawaiian characters, the conflict is not one of good versus evil, colonized versus colonizers. She does not make a case for or against sovereignty; rather, she shines light on the intricacies of the movement itself. It’s an intentional move. In an interview with The Guardian, she explains, “I hope the book offers no moral judgment about a craving to return to this era in which things seemed simpler and more noble and respectful. It only says something about how hard it is to try to go back, when history is always in the way.”
Race further complicates Yanagihara’s narrative. Kawika cannot help but notice that, for all Edward’s talk about being a “true Hawaiian,” Edward passes as white. He wonders if Edward’s radicalism is a form of overcompensation for his lack of connection to his cultural identity. The story begs the question: If we are trying to establish a kingdom free from American—and therefore white—power, how can we trust a white person to do that?
But Yanagihara herself is not Native Hawaiian. She, like 57 percent of the people who live in Hawai‘i, is Asian American. She would likely argue that her race should not have any impact on her ability to tell a good story. (After she published A Little Life, people questioned her right to portray the intimacies of gay male relationships. In her interview with The Guardian, she stated, “I have the right to write about whatever I want. The only thing a reader can judge is whether I have done so well or not.”)
Still, when someone writes a story about a marginalized group, it is important to remember where that story comes from. Yanagihara and I are both Asian American. We both grew up in Honolulu. We both attended private high schools (rival high schools, in fact). I observed the way colonialism affected Native Hawaiians, but it never affected me directly. Proximity to an issue can foster sympathy, but not a complete understanding. Overtourism, military occupation, water shortages—I knew these things were objectively harmful, but I existed with them comfortably. It was not until my freshman year of college, when I moved to the mainland, that I realized most Americans don’t have to confront the fact that tourists are eating away at natural resources or that the Navy contaminated the drinking water of thousands of families. In other words, most Americans don’t think about the aftermath of living on stolen land.
I had accepted the aftershocks of colonialism, in part because I never knew anything different, but mostly because I had the privilege of ignoring them. So did Yanagihara. Maybe it’s wrong to project my own experiences onto her, but our experiences are so similar that it is difficult not to. I would not feel comfortable writing about what it means to be Hawaiian because I am not Hawaiian. Who is she to feel differently?
Which raises the central question: Do we dismiss Yanagihara’s writing solely based on her race? If we accept “Lipo Wao Nahele” at face value, we ingest a story about Native Hawaiians that was not written by a Native Hawaiian. The Hawaiian identity is central to the narrative. And all narrative, fictional or not, is a form of control. Everything—the protagonist of the story, the events that will occur, even the words used to describe those characters and events—is the author’s choice. As soon as one person, plot point, or idea is chosen over another, there is bias.
Authorial intent becomes negligible; whether she means to or not, Yanagihara is speaking on behalf of the Native Hawaiian community. Asian Americans already control much of the islands; by making the Hawaiian identity the main conflict of her story, Yanagihara now controls an identity that is not her own.
But if we reject the novel solely because Yanagihara is not Native Hawaiian, we argue that people are not allowed to think critically about activism unless they are part of the affected group. No, Yanagihara is not affected by colonialism as her characters are, but that does not automatically make her wrong. The points she raises about the sovereignty movement are worth considering. How can activism dehumanize the very people it is meant to help? What happens when members of a marginalized group cannot agree on their goals? We can feel frustrated, even angry, with Yanagihara for hijacking the narrative, but we can’t disregard all her observations solely because of identity politics.
We also should not expect Yanagihara alone to tell the story of Hawai‘i in modern literature. If we want to understand the legacy of colonialism in Hawai‘i, we cannot limit ourselves to one person. Lois-Ann Yamanaka, who has built her career on literature about Hawai‘i, often writes in pidgin; she paved the way for other local authors to write books meant for local readers. Kristiana Kahakauwila received widespread attention for her collection of linked short stories This Is Paradise, which touches on the class and racial struggles of Hawai‘i. Kawai Strong Washburn melds myth with reality in his novel Sharks in the Time of Saviors, which follows a working-class Native Hawaiian family. In the end, Yanagihara’s voice is just one in a larger conversation.
You may argue that, in writing “Lipo Wao Nahele,” Yanagihara is part of the problem. You may also argue that, in writing this criticism, I am too. And maybe this is what really draws me back to “Lipo Wao Nahele,” over and over again: wondering if she had the right to write this book, wondering if I have the right to tell her what’s right.
I never expected to see someone like Yanagihara, whose books have a national following, write so intimately about the discord of Hawai‘i. Sometimes, as I read her novel, I felt the same way I did when I read about the armed separatists on the O‘ahu farm. There is a rage in Hawai‘i that festers like a dormant volcano. It is not mine to claim, nor is it Yanagihara’s. But something about it will always be familiar.