Once, on the Big Island, Pele struck me blind. She didn't want me to look at her, nor to write about her. I could here her say, "So you call yourself Woman Warrior, do you? Take that." I feel fear even now as I write her name. And I could hear the Hawaiians: "You have taken our land. Don't take our stories." Maxine Hong Kingston, Hawai'i One Summer, xii
The book is slim with a green cover and a photo of an entry way strewn with hats and ti leaf leis. It's closer to a chapbook of essays than a full-length book. Kingston writes about living in Hawaii during the height of the Vietnam War, her struggles with writing, with belonging.
I would publish these humble pieces in New York, and bypass Hawai'i. I mean to honor kapu, not touch kapu things at all. But though I did try to leave her out, Hawai'i--people sing her and speak of her as Spirit--made her way into these essays...Now a dozen years after leaving her, I realize a way free to tell a story of Hawai'i.
I tried to write about Hawai'i too, over the course of a dozen years, a couple of decades after Kingston. I managed one good essay and a handfull of false starts. You'd think I'd give up on writing about Hawai'i. If Pele had struck me blind too, wouldn't it be better to just accept the darkness rather than struggle for the light?
I don't think she struck me blind when I lived there. No, but Pele perhaps shoved me off the island. Pushed me right back to the Northwest where the volcanoes are more patient, more familiar with my feet. Kulshan, Shuksan, Wyeast, Klickitat, all of them did not seem to mind my wandering, my questions. Perhaps it's because Loowitlatkla is known for her patience and kindness... at least in legend. She did blow her top, after all, in 1980.
No one means to anger an Old One, especially a Firey One, and perhaps that's why she shoved me off and didn't blind me. No matter. What's done is done. If I get a chance to try again, I'll send a message first or ask the Old Ones here to speak to her and let me come in peace.
But back to Kingston... It took her a dozen years to write about Hawai'i and it's been about that long for me too. I'd say, it was only in the last couple of years I could speak about Hawai'i without feeling a terrible weight on my heart, a shudder on my spine, and brief but persistent panic in my throat. But I realized, I was still talking about Hawai'i, still wanted to write about Hawai'i. That persistence of story is why I don't think I was struck blind, so much as body-checked.
Like most of the Hawai'i story, I meant it to be different. Meant to have a different life there, but how can we be different than who we are? I think the thought ran that I'm genetically tied to islands - the Philippines first, Fukien Island on one branch of my tree. I'm mistaken for Hawaiian almost as often as I'm mistaken for Salish or Nez Perce. I should have been able to handle the heat, the sun, the ocean all around. I was moving to paradise, the place people vacation to get away from it all, go someplace completely different from where they live. It all made sense that I could and would survive and thrive there.
The Light was too strong and too predictable. In summer, the sun went down before 7pm when I felt it should be up until 9pm. In the winter, the sun was up as late as 6pm when I needed it to be dark by 4pm. The quality of light was yellow not green-blue. The foliage was yellow-green, not blue-green. Plumeria on one side of the street bloomed while on the other side it was shedding leaves. Worst of all, I sunburned right through my brown skin, like the magnolia trees they nickname "tourist trees" in Hawai'i because they peel in the sun.
The ocean was no help. I got vertigo every time I went to the shoreline. I needed to see an island or peninsula, anything to tell me that there was something other than the vast ocean to swallow me up. I was looking for the edge of the lake, the edge of a pool, the rim of a bathtub. Anything I could latch onto if I fell. The waves pulled on my ankles but did not cool me off. The hot sun burned my feet worse than the sands thrown into dunes by the Snake River.
And the mountains. The mountains were young and scraggled and sharp. Clouds raked across their knuckles and I imagined their fingers grasping the seafloor to keep from floating away. We were warned not to venture too far into the jungle. It was too wild there, too many creatures whose language we did not know, who did not mind eating us bit by bit, or tricking us into falling down a cliff. This was not about mischievous menehuenes. This was about Hawai'i, wild and predatory.
I thought I could learn the language of the islands easily, because of my heritage, because I knew the land would have a language at all. I could sit a the top of Moscow Mountain or Steptoe Butte and hear the wind across the Palouse bringing stories down from Canada. The waves of the rivers licked my bare toes, the melted glacial water chilling me on hot summer days. The salt and pepper beaches were old and patient, happy to be noticed, willing to tell me the short stories woven in sea grass and bullhead seaweed. These familiar things made me arrogant when I stepped on Hawaiian shores. I knew enough to know I did not know pidgin, but didn't know enough to realize that Pele's language would be so indecipherable as to render me deaf and numb.
How long does it take to recover from the touch of an Old One? Apparently 12 years. From then to now I've been haunted by the story by day, nightmares of half-remembered things by night.
But here is this - I know Pele loves my child for being born there. I know she calls to her still. She may hold a grudge or at least a judgement against me, but perhaps my child will lead me back, open my ears and eyes and skin gently, teach me the language of her blood. That gives me a bit of hope, enough, I think, to finally write about it all.