03 April 2009

Juliana Spahr

[from Juliana Spahr's The Transformations, Atelos, 2007]

[an excerpt from an excerpt first published in Zyzzyva Fall 2006]

As the months went by, they found themselves thinking with this new information in their bloodstream about how to negotiate things, about analogy, about the word we, about how to be in a place where they could not escape from being representative of the government that currently occupied the continent and the islands no matter how much they hated it. We was undeniably a contested word for them. They often felt too large in it, too large because there were three of them instead of two. But too large in other ways also. One of them had moved to the island in the middle of the Pacific to work at the university. At the orientation to their job at the university they were in a room full of people from afar of many different races and nationalities and all of them were told at this meeting that they had three options, they could be a haole, a stupid haole, or a stupid fucking haole. This was the first of many moments where it was pointed out to them that they were not from the island in the middle of the Pacific and that they were there on the island only because of a history of imperialism and colonialism that favored them.

The university cast a large shadow of the one or the other over all that happened there. Shortly after they arrived one of them went to a rally at the university that was protesting the latest round of budget cuts. On the island in the middle of the Pacific, the budget-cut protest, like most budget-cut protests, turned quickly from a budget-cut protest to a protest about other things. The protest became about the hiring practices of the university which hired almost exclusively people from various continents and very few people from any islands, not only few from the one on which the university was located but also few from any other islands in the Pacific. At the protest, a student leader who had genealogical ties to the island from before the whaling ships arrived gave a speech that began with the budget cuts but then concluded with an offer to buy any haole professor who wanted one a one-way ticket off the island. When they heard this speech, at first they cringed. They cringed not because they were angry. It was instead a cringe of recognition. A cringe that the university did not hire fairly and that they themselves had gotten their job because of the unfair hiring practices of the university. They cringed because they agreed and because they agreed they longed to follow after them and ask for their ticket back to someplace. But then they wondered to what place? What would be the proper destination for the ticket? Did they belong on the continent, where they had been born? But they were in some sense as new to the continent as they were to the island in the middle of the Pacific. They and their parents had been born on the continent, but none of their parents’ parents had been born there and the continent, too, had a history of arrival by people from afar who came and acted as if the place was theirs.

This was just one reminder among many. There were all sorts of pressures around writing and the island. And the pressure came from all over. When they had first decided to move to the island, a friend who lived on the continent had said to them that they hoped that they were not going to turn into this other person, a person who like them had come to the island from afar and now carried the prickly new cells in their body and as a result of the cells now worked hard to write about and publish the work of writers of the island because the prickly new cells infected them with a commitment to the ideas of the island.

But that sort of snide pressure not to write about the island was nothing next to what was said at times by those who had genealogical ties to the island from before the whaling ships arrived. Once, they went to a reading at the university by a poet with genealogical ties to the island from before the whaling ships arrived. The poet sang songs and played guitar and read poems that compared those from afar to greedy white pigs. In the middle of the reading the poet announced that they hated haoles, although they clarified, not as much as their brother, who really hated haoles and would not even talk to them. The poet admitted that they hated the university also. But, the poet added, the university was the only place that ever invited them to read and when they read at the university, mainly haoles showed up to listen, so there they were once again, the poet said with some resignation, reading to haoles. Then they read a poem that was about an acquired immune deficiency syndrome and in place of the words acquired immune deficiency syndrome they used the word haole. They did this, they explained, because it was haoles who brought the acquired immune deficiency syndrome to the island in the middle of the Pacific.

At other moments, they would find themselves in their office listening to a friend who was a student, a friend also like them from afar but from a small island nation with a long history of occupation by other nations, talk about how they would never fuck a haole. Haole pussy, they would declaim, was snapping turtle pussy or they would talk about how haoles looked sickly with their unattractive white skin.

At other times, they would go to meetings held at the university to discuss how to end the colonization of the island and someone often got up and said that haoles should not drive this anticolonial bus; haoles should sit at the back of the bus.

The Transformation (Atelos)


  1. Tracy Larrabee15:49

    How painful. I know there is a spectrum in terms of separatism. I once heard Israel Kamakawiwo'ole say before he sang Hawaii '78, "no matta what color you--yellow, black, pink, orange, purple, maroon--one race, brah, the human. Okay, oi, this song goes out to each and every one of you--to the generation coming up right now--this for you guys."

    He's just one man, but he was a voice for Hawaiian pride and separatism.

    It's a very sad song. Do you know it? I suspect this will be formatted terribly, but I will put it here:

    Ua mau, ke ea o ka aina, i ka pono, o Hawai'i
    Ua mau, ke ea o ka aina, i ka pono, o Hawai'i

    If just for a day our king and queen
    Would visit all these islands and saw everything
    How would they feel about the changes of our land

    Could you just imagine if they were around
    And saw highways on their sacred grounds
    How would they feel about this modern city life

    Tears would come from each others eyes
    As they would stop to realize
    That our people are in great great danger now
    How, would they feel, would their smiles be content, then cry

    Cry for the gods, cry for the people
    Cry for the land that was taken away
    And then yet you'll find, Hawai'i

    Could you just imagine they came back
    And saw traffic lights and railroad tracks
    How would they feel about this modern city life

    Tears would come from each others eyes
    As they would stop to realize
    That our land is in great great danger now

    All the fighting that the king had done
    To conquer all these islands now these condominiums
    How would he feel if he saw Hawai'i nei
    How, would he feel, would his smile be content, then cry

  2. Thanks for posting this, Tracy. I didn't know it.

  3. You should hear it. It's beautiful. Bruddah Iz could make anything beautiful, but I think this would be nice if others sang it too.

  4. oops: the url: