Friday, May 5, 2023

Q&A with Jasmin 'Iolani Hakes




Jasmin 'Iolani Hakes is the author of the new novel Hula. She grew up in Hilo, Hawaii, and she lives in California.


Q: What inspired you to write Hula, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: In one way or another, hula has been a part of my life since I was born. So this was in large part homage to the profound impact and role hula continues to have on my community, my family, and the culture I was raised in.


But the deeper threads of the book were inspired by the insecurity I harbored for too long to admit about my fair skin and blue-gray eyes, in part because I looked nothing like my mother or wider family but also because I grew up in Keaukaha, where there was a fierce protectiveness of the area as well as an acute awareness of the often oblivious and occasionally disrespectful antics of tourists and those new to the area.


I noticed early on that I was treated differently by white store managers and hotel employees, and I was deeply ashamed and horrified by it.


The short version of what happened next is this: as I got older that insecurity grew and really did damage to my relationship with my home. So I left. Hula is the result of years of living anywhere else and trying to understand my cultural inheritance and the role I played within my family, as well as my connection to the land itself.


This book was my way of channeling all those complicated questions of belonging and identity that had haunted me all my life, while also being a public declaration of my love and deep appreciation for my roots and my hometown.


As for the cast of characters, they are mostly a conglomerate of historical figures, ancestors, family members, friends, and the people and mythological beings who populated the stories and memories I grew up hearing about.


I knew going in that the mainstream reader might not be as well-versed in the history of the Hawaiʻi as they needed to be to understand the problems and challenges facing the Naupaka ohana, so every generation is meant to represent a stage of the evolution of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement and Hawaiian cultural renaissance – what the predominant thinking at that time was, the cultural and politics events of that moment, and the context of the public and personal opinions that shaped the ever evolving cultural landscape of Hawaiʻi.


Q: The writer Qian Julie Wang said of the book, “Hula is an unforgettable ode to Hawaii, its people, and the power and pain of its history. Through one family and its fearless women, Jasmin ‘Iolani Hakes offers a profound examination of what it means to defy and to belong.” What do you think of that description, and how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: It’s a lovely description, and one I appreciate very much. In addition to being a love letter to my hometown, Hula was my way of exploring the intersectionality of personal identity and cultural inheritance as well as the concept of being Other. How are these definitions assigned? Who does the assigning, and what are the criteria? Is belonging just a feeling, or is it something more tangible?


One of the things I kept in mind throughout writing this was that there are a million ways to write a sentence, but there are an infinite amount of ways of reading one. There was no way to be certain exactly what readers would take away from this story, but it’s a powerful feeling when a reader connects to your work in some way.


As for the role of setting in my writing, I believe place provides context. And when youʻre writing about a place like Hawaiʻi – filled with its own social norms, pace, rhythm, and energies – it would be an injustice to not acknowledge it and give it its own voice.

For this book, that voice came in the form of a collective voice, one filled with elements of the ancestors, the diverse living community, the dieties, and the ʻāina (land) itself.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Hula was the title from the start, and there was never any question of changing it. That being said, it’s a bold choice. The chants and choreography of every hula are taught by cultural practitioners who have earned that role through years of study and apprenticeship.


As much as I wanted to write a story about a girl who dreamed of becoming the next Miss Aloha Hula (and all the complications that would accompany that ambition), I needed to be clear from page one that I am not an expert on the artform. This story is not a book that will teach you hula.


I steered clear even of making up choreography, and I made the protocols followed by the invented halau in the book based more on the general cultural protocols and manners of Hilo, where the story takes place.


Instead of a book about hula, I envision this story as a sort of literary hula. A hula can tell a story about a historical figure, a geological event, a myth – in short, a performative snapshot. I wanted to write an ode to my hometown of Hilo and, in particular, the neighborhood of Keaukaha where I spent so much of my youth. Which is why the story is divided into verses.


As for the multiple threads and storylines, Hilo is a town, but the word hilo also means to twist, braid, and spin, represented by the multiple threads that exist within the book, braided together into one.


Years ago during hula practice one evening, my kumu (hula teacher) said that what we were doing wasn’t learning hula – we were participating in the perpetuation of something bigger than ourselves. In oral traditions, the only way it stays alive is if it is learned and passed down.


No matter the complex challenges and differences facing the Naupaka family, the stakes are too high for any of them to not be acutely aware of what they stand to lose if they don’t figure out a way to come together.


Hula plays a central role in Hawaiian history and its culture, and Hilo’s contribution to its perpetuation is undeniable.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I wrote this during a writing residency at Hedgebrook. I had been working on a different book for about 10 years at that point, and had just decided to shelve it. When I got the invitation from Hedgebrook, I was almost tempted to decline, thinking I was done with writing, but my loved ones wouldn’t hear of it.


It takes a plane, a bus, and a ferry to get there, and it was during that journey that the first sentence came to me. I wrote it down. By the time I arrived, the pages of my notebook were full of scribbles.


I had been applying to Hedgebrook for about five years at that point and when I met the small group of women I would be sharing that special space with, I had major imposter syndrome. My life had also hit a really low point.


But I had never been offered something like this before – time and space and freedom to write – so every day there I kept telling myself that I couldn’t afford to waste a minute getting lost in my own head. I wrote until I cried. I wrote until my brain and fingers hurt. And the words somehow kept coming.


The first draft was messy and all over the place, but I didn’t let myself worry about that. It was only as the end of the residency got closer that the story too was drawing to an end, and frankly, it terrified me.


I was writing a story about the theft of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the evolution of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, the ramifications of blood quantum laws, and the long term impact of Hawaiʻi’s colonization and commercialization. There is no happy ending, nor a sad one because nothing has ended. The resistance continues.


Eventually I had to find some way to provide an ending that felt like the closing of a chapter, rather than a conclusion that neatly tied up all the threads. I focused my intention on leaving a reader with hope. It’s interesting – in the editing process much was changed, but the two things that never did was the very beginning and the very end. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have two projects in the works – one is a memoir that I have been working on for a long time that deals with my own personal relationship with Hawaiʻi. It tracks many things, including how I went from being a very young homeless single mother to traveling the world on my quest to find that enigmatic place called home. My second project is another novel that I’m not ready to talk about yet. It’s still very much a seedling.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Most of the historical events that happen in Hula are true. But I wouldn’t necessarily call my book historical fiction – these historical events are merely context for the current affairs happening in Hawaiʻi right now.


Sadly, the land grabs and exploitative politics continue. The fight to built yet another destructive telescope on the sacred ground of Mauna Kea, a rapidly growing homeless population, a drug epidemic, an endlessly skyrocketing cost of living, and an entire population of Native Hawaiians who don’t meet the United States blood quantum requirements to qualify for land rights... these are all issues that need to be addressed.


For anyone interested in getting involved or learning more about this and Hawaiʻi’s current cultural renaissance, I would encourage you to visit my website for more information and other resources.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment