Talking Hawai’i’s Story: Oral Histories of an Island People
By Michi Kodama-Nishimoto, Warren S. Nishimoto, and Cynthia A. Oshiro
UH Press; 312 pages.
It’s not often that what everyday people say is accepted as so-called historical truth. But oral histories of people integral to twentieth century Hawai’i culture represent a past way of life that resonates today. And that’s what the thirty narratives included in “Talking Hawai’i’s Story” capture, revealing diverse experiences, values, and feelings of men and women born between 1900-1930, which in turn illuminate not only their lives, but their parents’ and grandparents’, and through that lens, prominent events in territorial and state history.
The entries were culled from nearly seventy oral histories previously published in the narrowly distributed University of Hawai’i Center for Oral History newsletter, though the editors regrettably don’t explain criteria for inclusion or add substantial information about their conduction of some original interviews.
Each narrative is fronted with a brief and helpful contextual biography, paired with personal photos that bring people and memories to life, and is arranged alphabetically. It’s remarkable, then, that apart from some expected repetition about plantation life, the collection has a natural flow and innate variety that provides easy momentum. Though the subject matter occurred in the last century, these kinds of personal details centered on everyday routines like chores, school, and work, are seldom recorded in print, and thus feel original and rare.
Together, the rich narratives present an interconnected patchwork of values and themes such as hard work and independence evidenced in Robert Kahele’s belief that “[r]aising taro is one way of expressing my freedom.” They also offer a wide swath of perspectives from neighborhoods throughout the islands, as well as ages, jobs, ethnicity, and experiences, such as Abigail Burgess and Lillian Cameron, two sisters who sold flower and seed lei at their father’s airport stand, which they called “an honest way to make a living by using your own hands.”
The bombing of Pearl Harbor and resulting internment is a cynosure of many lives, as well as immigration, plantation labor, sugar, pineapple and tourism. And through their intimate experiences with these events and work in these sectors, the texture of life in Hawaii can be witnessed.
Martina Kekuewa Fuentevilla captivatingly describes her birth in a pili grass house, upbringing as the hanai daughter of her grandparents, and life in Kona from poi pounding to sneaking drinks of sweet potato liquor. Ernest Golden tells the seldom-discussed details of what it was like to be an African American in Hawaii after the war. Alice Saito Gouveia’s touching tale of carving out her own success as owner of Maui’s Economy Store underscores the perseverance of Hawaii’s entrepreneurial spirit. And Lemon “Rusty” Holt, a member of the Waikiki Stonewall Gang whose father was a member of Queen Lili’uokalani’s mounted patrol men, whose grandmother was close friends with the Queen and knew just what type of coconut she liked, who himself regularly surfed with Prince Kuhio, is one of the collection’s vibrant, kolohe voices.
Many of the people here have since passed, but “Talking Hawai’i’s Story” preserves their life portraits and allows their wisdom to live on. It also resurrects past lessons that remain relevant today, not least of which is what Moses W. “Moke” Kealoha’s parents smartly reminded him, that “[w]e [were] wealthy because Hawaii had everything we needed and more.”
Reviewed by CHRISTINE THOMAS
Originally published 11/8/09 in the Honolulu Advertiser