The poet Muriel Rukeyser memorably said, "The universe is made of stories, not atoms." We remember things better in the context of an entertaining tale because the human brain has evolved around the sharing of stories. For the ancient Hawaiians, stories were essential to their way of life. History, genealogy, and social values were all passed down through strong oral tradition.
As long as there have been people around to tell them, stories have brought people together. Hawaiʻi plantation workers overcame language and racial barriers with two powerful common human denominators--the communion of food and story. Stories are powerful. They both shape and reflect our society, and Hawaiʻi has a very rich history as one of the most literate places in the world. Nearly all of 19th Century adult kānaka could read and write in both English and Hawaiian. They published numerous books and articles to record their songs, legends and customs. Not to mention editorials, political essays, cultural dissertations and much more.
We're fortunate to have an active literary community and a group of passionate local publishers. They are both crucial to the health and continuation of our unique literary heritage. However, there are a few misconceptions about Hawaiʻi books that need to be addressed. Here are the top five, debunked.
Most of the books are marketed toward tourists.
This is mainly perpetuated by two things, Misconception #2 (see below), and the limited variety of books available visible in big box stores. Visit the publisher's websites or peruse their catalogs and you'll find that the breadth of what they have to offer is under represented on the shelves. Better yet, shop at one of the independent bookstores like Native Books in Ward Warehouse or Basically Books in Hilo to get a better idea of what's really available from local authors and publishers.
Hawaii publishers mostly print cookbooks, tour books or coffee table photo-books.
It's actually about half and half, but it's understandable how it might seem like the majority. It's hard not to crack a joke or two about how many books there are on what "Maui likes to eat."
Cookbooks, guidebooks and photo books sell pretty well, to tourists and locals alike. It's the sale of these books that give publishers the monetary leeway to print books with a smaller niche.
The quality of local books is poor compared to those that are nationally published.
This misconception is mostly attached to keiki books but children's literature in Hawaiʻi has come a long way in the last 10 years. Publishers are spending more money and production hours to improve our keiki books, with stunning results. Books like Moon Mangoes by Lindy Shapiro with beautiful illustrations and exceptional writing are winning national book awards. Kamehameha Publishing creates keiki books that teach the Hawaiian language to children as early as three years of age. BeachHouse Publishing introduces children to local cultural quirks with creative board books. Where else will our keiki get to read about haupia pie and saimin?
Local fiction consists mostly of romances and mysteries.
Aside from keiki books there isn't a lot of fiction coming from our local publishers. But the fiction that is produced by publishers like Bamboo Ridge Press and Koa Books, are literary works with subjects and themes relevant to our lives and experiences in the islands and greater Pacific. Larger local publisher's like Mutual Publishing and University of Hawaiʻi Press also put out fiction that reflects the complex nature of our social and political environment--issues of race, gender and economics. For example, Mark Panek's new book Hawaiʻi skillfully destroys the stereotypes perpetuated by Michener's Hawaii as the token "book about the islands."
There aren't as many literary events.
The likelihood of J.K Rowling or Stephen King appearing for a book signing is pretty manini. But there are events happening every week across all the major islands. Local book stores host readings and discussions, and the Hawaii State Public Library System works hard to provide free programs for the community on a continuous basis. Writing organizations and book clubs meet regularly. In addition to weekly sales at different branches, the Friends of the Library of Hawaiʻi organizes one of the biggest and oldest book sales in the entire United States. There are A LOT of exciting things going on, they're just not necessarily on the front page or trending on Twitter. Check out HawaiiReads.com for a statewide calendar of literary events.
Our stories aren't just on the shelves, they're everywhere, waiting to be told and waiting to be read. With love, drama, triumphs and tribulations, they are stories of our aunties and uncles, our neighbors and friends. They are the best stories. So, the next time you're itching for something to read remember to "Read Local" and "Shaka for Books!"