Hula by Jasmin ‘Iolani Hakes
Now that winter has finally arrived in Whatcom County, readers might enjoy a literary escape to warmer climes, and “Hula: a Novel” by Jasmin ‘Iolani Hakes is the ticket.
Set primarily in Hilo, Hawai’i, “Hula” conjures the glittering ocean, the sizzling sun and misty rain, and the fragrant and colorful hibiscus, jasmine and lehua of tourists’ daydreams. The story, however, is more about the local inhabitants of the Big Island, their heritage, their complicated history and their legacy.
With fair skin and red hair, Hi’i does not resemble her mother, nor any of her young brown Naupaka cousins who run half-naked along Puhi Bay, dashing among the waves and gobbling their grilled fish and rice. Years of being called “Haole girl” and “mosquito food” leave her feeling vulnerable, an outsider in her own family.
Hi’I doesn’t know her father — and her mother, Laka, has no explanation for why she fled Hilo that summer of 1966 or what happened during the two years she was on Maui. All Hi’I knows is that her mom was crowned Miss Aloha Hula at the Merrie Monarch Festival right before she left and that surely, Hi’I too could claim her birthright and dance hula. Hi’i’s journey of self-discovery and acceptance ultimately has her following in her mother’s footsteps, in a story that is both personal and relatable to a broader Hawaiian experience.
The author, Jasmin ‘Iolani Hakes, is careful to note on her website (jasminiolani.com) that, like Hi’I, she was born in Hawai’I to a dark-skinned mother, but is light skinned herself. Neither Hakes nor her mother have Native Hawaiian on their birth certificates, but may share this heritage even if it is not documented. She recognizes that her novel is controversial to some, who believe that she does not have a right to tell this story, which touches on sensitive issues related to race and cultural appropriation.
Hakes writes eloquently and critically of the blood quantum system, initially imposed by colonizers to limit citizenship, that continues to divide and exclude people. She addresses her own struggles feeling deeply connected to a place and culture without feeling able to legitimately claim the culture as her own.
“Hula” alternates between the stories of Hi’I, her mother Laka, and Laka’s mother Hulali, intermixed with commentary from an omniscient first-person plural narrator representing the community at-large. Dialogue is sprinkled with a fair amount of Hawaiian pidgin, left for the reader to decipher in context. Readers will gain a deeper understanding of the beauty and significance of hula and the history of the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement, while following the difficult and bittersweet relationships of three generations of women.
By all means, if you want to linger in the islands, revisit James Michener’s epic novel “Hawaii,” which came out in 1959, the year that Hawaii was granted statehood. Note the differences with Lakes’ more modern (and Native Hawaiian-centered) interpretation of history. You may also enjoy Kawai Strong Washburn’s “Sharks in the Time of Saviors” or Kaui Hart Hemmings’ “The Descendants.”
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System. Visit wcls.org to reserve a copy of “Hula” and to learn more about the power of sharing at the library.
(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Saturday, January 20, 2024.)