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This is Jacket 14 - July 2001   |   # 14  Contents   |   Homepage   |

This issue of JACKET is a co-production with SALT magazine

Juliana Spahr reviews

Reimagining the American Pacific - From South Pacific to Bamboo Ridge and Beyond

by Rob Wilson


Paper ISBN 0-8223-2523-3 - USD$18.95
Published by Duke University Press, 2000
Telephone (919) 687-3650 - Fax (919) 688-4391 - email:

This piece is 1,600 words or about four printed pages long.

Rob Wilson’s Reimagining the American Pacific: From South Pacific to Bamboo Ridge and Beyond opens with Baywatch and its move to Hawaii but the main subject of this book is a supportive exploration of Hawai’i’s more locally rooted and resistant arts. The book concentrates on the contemporary. It explores the writers who publish on the fairly established local Asian-American press Bamboo Ridge and those who publish in smaller, more experimental journals such as Susan Schultz’s Tinfish, Lee Tonouchi’s Hybolics, and Joe Balaz’s now defunct Ramrod. It also points to how older Hawaiian works, such as "Shark Hula for Kalanio’pu’u," could do necessary and political work in contemporary debates over land and sovereignty issues.

book cover Wilson’s study is one of few to concentrate on Hawai’i’s locally rooted literatures (when he turns to the huge amount of literature written on Hawai’i by outsiders he tends to complain; he has some scorn for what he calls 747 poems such as those published by David Smith in the New Yorker after a week’s visit to Hawai’i). And it is an impressively researched one that reflects Wilson’s years of residence in Hawai’i and participation in its literary scene. The book not only negotiates the expected terrain of post-colonial and Pacific studies but it also quotes extensively from distinctly local publications such as articles in the Honolulu Advertiser (the daily paper) from years ago, points out writing that appeared in long defunct single issue journals with circulations of under two hundred, quotes from work that was published in the literary journal of the small Catholic school around the corner from my house, and refers to numerous unpublished seminar papers and Ph.D. dissertations. As an introduction to an exciting and emerging literary scene, a reader could not ask for a much more exhaustive survey. And as an academic book, this is one of the more interestingly written this year. In 1997 Wilson was a runner up in the "Bad Writing" contest awarded each year by Philosophy and Literature (notable leftist theorists tend to win; Fredric Jameson won that year; Judith Butler in 1998). Wilson, in other words, is not a restrained stylist; not a practitioner of craft’s sad restraint. His sentences are all over. And this book is all the better for it. They meander as this book meanders from source to source to suggest the richness and diverseness of a thriving localism.


Sia Figiel (Samoan writer)

But what is distinctive about Reimagining the American Pacific extends beyond its exposure of an often overlooked local literary scene. Studies of local or otherwise specific (such as ethnically or racially specific) literatures have been common for some time. Right now, if the advertisements in recent issues of the PMLA are any indication, one is more likely to find studies of some community’s literature and the relation between this literature and world building than attempts to propose and define a national "American" literature. This has been a fortunate change in U.S. literary studies and it has pointed to how often overlooked literatures and communities are essential to any consideration of U.S. literature.

Lee Tonouchi (editor of Hybolics)

Lee Tonouchi (editor of Hybolics)

Almost all of these studies are celebratory of these local literatures (and with good reason). But few studies investigate the potential limitations of localism. And too much attention to local specificities as sites of resistance without attention to larger processes of globalization risks a sort of parochialism of uniqueness. Reimagining the American Pacific is especially valuable for Wilson’s attention to the push and pull dynamic between the global and the local (one of many books that Wilson has co-edited in recent years is a collection of essays on the interrelation between the global and the local, Global/Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary). The early chapters of Reimagining the American Pacific where Wilson discusses the creation of the term/concept "Pacific Rim" (which overlooks Hawai’i and other islands in the Pacific Basin) are especially useful as studies of what gets left out of models of global interrelation.

While Wilson warns against too much optimism about the local, he also is optimistic enough to suggest that the relation between the global and the local can create "third spaces" of interaction which can intervene against the uneven spread of capital that globalization causes. He urges: "We can begin articulating a ’critical regionalism’ in the Asia-Pacific region, respectful of Asian and Pacific heritages, diasporas, and communities but wary of hegemonic designs on these diverse localities and groupings, as well as begin interlinking globally these local struggles" (50). This call for global interlinking is one that is especially valuable. (David Harvey urges similarly in Spaces of Hope which came out this year also.) And especially resonant as concerns local poetries.

Geoff White (Director of the East-West Center at the University) of Hawai’i; Grace Molisa

Geoff White (Director of the East-West Center at the University) of Hawai’i; Grace Molisa, (writer from Vanuatu)

Poets in the United States have since the 1950s gathered themselves into a series of locally grounded collectives that reflect various specific cultural, political, and aesthetic concerns. Hawai’i is lucky enough to have two thriving scenes serving its population of less than a million right now: an Asian-American scene (mainly centered around the press Bamboo Ridge) and a Hawaiian scene (which is just establishing itself as centered around the journal ’Oiwi). (A third scene that is cross-ethnically identified is emerging in journals such as Hybolics and Tinfish). The fracturing of United States poetry scenes has become even more intense as governmental support has decreased. Many writing collectives, for instance, have avoided (or found it too trying or impossible to create) larger alliances and audiences. So a call for global interlinking among local scenes seems very necessary if one believes, as I do, that these literatures can be a part of building other worlds, other political models, other social arrangements.

Laura Lyons (University of Hawai’i, Manoa, faculty member)

Laura Lyons
(University of Hawai’i, Manoa, faculty member)

Yet this interlinking might be more difficult than Wilson suggests. My one critique of Reimagining the American Pacific is that it skips too quickly over some of the controversies that have haunted the local literary scene in recent years. The community discussion, and at moment protest, about racism that surrounded Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging gets a mere footnote (despite there being a chapter on Yamanaka’s work). And similarly, the critique by some local writers that the Asian-American Bamboo Ridge has been guilty of neo-colonial privilege as it has not published any literature written by Hawaiians (Kanaka Maoli) could use some more attention. The localism, for instance, of many Bamboo Ridge authors has been criticised as yet another Micheneresque move by settlers to profit from and make claims on Hawai’i. Yet many Bamboo Ridge writers turned to their form of localism in resistance to writing by figures such as James Michener, James Jones, Jack London, and other figures. Wilson also barely addresses the unique influence that the sovereignty movement has had both in terms of creating an audience for and shaping the content and aesthetics of Hawaiian literature (or to the relation between Bamboo Ridge’s avoidance of sovereignty issues and their adherence to a fairly limited aesthetic). Hawai’i, in other words, remains, and will probably always remain, a uniquely contested space. But once one addresses these contestations, Wilson’s suggestion of alliance seems almost impossible among Hawai’i’s local literary scenes right now (despite journals like Hybolics’ and Tinfish’s attempts). While the details of the push and pull between race, colonialism, and neo-colonialism are unique to Hawai’i, the distinctiveness and often contradictory goals of various issues in local and specific literatures makes interlinking difficult. Wilson knows all this. And his model of how the local is shaped by the global (and vice versa) suggests new possible interlinked models even as it leaves out the specifics. At the end of his preface, Wilson states that "Hawai’i needs some different strategies and newer tactics of symbol making, needs a broader or more global vision of the local plight (’plight of the local’) as it were" (xviii). The manifesto of different strategies and newer tactics is what is missing from this book.

Darryl Keola Cabacungan

Hawaiian writer Darryl Keola Cabacungan

Instead of prescribing a future for Hawai’i’s local literary scenes, Wilson turns to the new symbol making that he himself did upon arrival in Hawai’i. In the ending of Reimagining the American Pacific, he tells his story of arriving in Hawai’i with his Italian/Scottish identity. He suggests that his arrival in Hawai’i is "a way across and out of American common sense" rather than being another example of Manifest Destiny (274). At one moment in this chapter he asks, "what kind of new ’pidgin cuisine’ identity-speak was I cooking up here - part Italian, part Taiwanese, part Korean, part Hawaiian" (280). This assertion of alliance with the local is one that has caused the most consternation among some fellow island-dwelling-mainland-haoles that have read Wilson’s book. Recently, when I was talking to a colleague’s creative writing class, she told me the class had just finished reading Reimagining the American Pacific and asked me what I thought of Wilson’s claim that he was a local writer (a claim which I admit I do not really see him making that explicitly). I said I could see both arguments. I could see an argument that a haole should never suggest (even in a question) that one could become local in an occupied land. And yet I also saw a usefulness in the claim (provided it was a claim that was at the same time anti-colonial - which Wilson’s is) as it suggests that the more recent residents of Hawai’i have responsibilities to and are part of Hawai’i’s bad history. At that moment I realized that I was willing in this instance to read Wilson’s question positively. If there is any place in the United States that the discourse of celebratory hybridity appears most false, it is in Hawai’i where one can never forget that one lives in stolen land and that the hybridity of Hawai’i has not necessarily been an equal choice for everyone. (It is not that the rest of the U.S. is not stolen; just that there aren’t as many reminders.) And yet Wilson’s desire for an anti-colonial mongrelism might be one way to negotiate between two contradictory realities of Hawai’i: the mixing of its cultures and the separate rights of its indigenous peoples.

Photo credits - thanks to Juliana Spahr of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa for supplying the photographs.

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This issue of Jacket is a co-production with SALT magazine,
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