Dance for the Land by Clemence McLaren

This isn’t going to be the post about this book that I want it to be, but since I’ve already renewed the book twice and somehow it hasn’t left my car so that I can pick out the passages I wanted to explicitly point out, this post will have to do.  Hopefully before I actually return the book (which was due yesterday and is still in the back of my car), I will pull out the passages, but I’m not holding my breath and I’m tired of depriving other library patrons from reading the book.

So, onto the book.  This book was published in 1999, one year after the 100th anniversary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy, and one year after Clinton’s “Apology Resolution”.  In all honesty, I didn’t have high hopes for this book.  Here is a brief summary I snagged from a UK Website, but which I suspect is on the jacket of the book:

Kate misses the window seat in her house in California, her favorite place in the whole world. She misses the wonderful dog-smell of her Labrador retriever, Boggs. She misses her white oak canopy bed, pancakes on Saturday mornings, and ballet classes with her best friend, Sara. But most of all, Kate misses feeling like she belongs.

When her father decides the Kahele family should move to Hawai’i, all Kate can think about is the life she is leaving behind. As her father studies for the state Bar exam so he can work for a Hawaiian rights organization and her dark-skinned brother, David, happily hits the beaches with his surfer friends, Kate is tormented by her classmates for being a hapa haole, or “half-white” girl, because of her freckled skin and sun-streaked hair, inherited from her mother. It seems everyone is telling her to “toughen up” and “fight back,” but Hawai’i is supposed to be the land of aloha, of love, welcome, and homecoming, and never before has Kate had to dfend her white heritage.

But then she discovers hula dancing, and gradually learns to feel the rhythms of the land, the moon, and the palm trees. And Kathryn Maluhia Kahele begins to feel the other half of her heritage and, finally the meaning ofher middle name: peace.

When I first read the description I felt a variety of emotions.  I was excited about the book addressing hapa kids.  Especially ones born in the diaspora.  I was excited about the book addressing some of the political issues involved with the overthrow of the government, the current fight for sovereignty, and the current climate between Kanakas and non-Kanakas.  But then I got to that last sentence.  When it all seemed to fall apart and slip back into stereotypes.  Hula as her only means of connection to her culture.  The exoticization of hula as making you connected.  And her name, Maluhia.  Of course it means peace.  Because that’s what she’s bringing – peace between the white world and the brown world.  peace between her family.  gag me with a spoon.

Those were my first impressions.  When I actually started reading the book, I thought it was interesting the approach they took.  One of the reasons the family moves is that Kate’s older brother, David, is experiencing racial discrimination at school due to his dark brown skin color.  Kate, on the other hand, has white skin and dirty blonde hair, just like her mother.  Throughout the book, Kate cannot relate to David’s experience because she attends a white, privileged private school in Pasadena, where she is popular and dances ballet and has a white best friend.  The move devastates Kate and she spends the majority of the book abhoring Hawaii.  She abhors her brown family.  She abhors the small apartment they have to live in.  And she abhors the racial discrimination she now feels.

She describes her feelings towards her family in much of the book as “an outcast”.  She feels that they don’t treat her the same as her brother and that they virtually ignore her.  Arguments between her father and uncle over political issues are their main characteristics, and she seems to take on the burden as the white black sheep of the family.  When she begins experiencing racial discrimination in school, her brother tells her to toughen up.  Part of it starts when the teacher asks her if she wants to go by her English name or her Hawaiian name, a question she’d probably never been asked before, and the children begin making fun of her – telling her she’s not Kanak, she’s haole, and start terrorizing her as children do.  What I appreciated about these scenes was that they explained the children’s behavior.  They didn’t excuse it – because racial discrimination is always bad – but, they explained it.  The main boy who was terrorizing Kate had a father in jail due to drugs and a single mother.  He was from a rough neighborhood and a victim of all the things that have gone wrong with Hawaiians – low education rates, poverty, lack of resources as a whole.  All he could do was act out against the culprit – The white man.  He does so blindly because he doesn’t understand that not all white people did this to him.  That not all white people are bad.  That not all white people are ONLY white.

I infer a lot with this child’s actions because I know the history and I know what’s wrong and I know why he’s angry.  McLaren tries to convey all this through a variety of brown people’s actions, using separate examples to make a while view of the climate in Hawai’i.  What I was not particularly fond of was the demonization of Kate’s Soverignty-Wielding uncle throughout much of the book.  Kate’s uncle is seen as a radical – someone who wants something that cannot be attained and will do anything he can to get it.  Someone who is not rational and someone who is obsessed with being Kanaka (Kate gets yelled at by her uncle for saying that she is Hawaiian – He tells her that she is Kanaka, that Hawaiian is a Western classification of their people which should not be used).  In contrast to Kate’s uncle is her father, who is kind of a white-washed lawyer, fighting for Hawaiian rights under the model of Native American reservations.  Her father is seen as more level-headed, rational, fighting for the Hawaiian cause, but embracing their current situation as well and working within the US legal limits.

Personally, I don’t appreciate the demonization of Kate’s uncle.  I believe in the Hawaiian right to their land that was unrightfully taken away.  And I do not believe that all people who support the sovereignty movement are nuts or crazy or obsessive.  There are people of all education backgrounds, racial statuses, and socio-economic classes who support the sovereignty movement.  There are also MANY different groups with MANY different ideas and philosophies on how sovereignty might be carried out.  McLaren doesn’t address this.  She portrays it as an either – or situation.  Either you work with the government or you work against it.  Either you’re rational and a normal human, or you’re irrational and crazy.  Kate’s uncle is on the extreme side of the sovereignty movement, but his actions and claims should not be invalidated just because they do not follow western law or western ideals.

While much time is spent on the sovereignty movement and the political climate in Hawaii, I do not feel it is necessarily a true representation and kind of glosses over the issues.  When the overthrow is discussed, it is really only seen as truly horrible by the crazy uncle.  The rational father does not approve, but he also doesn’t outwardly go against what happened to the Hawaiian people.  He says he wanted to help his people, and that’s why he came back.  He realized the error of his ways kind of situation by turning his back on his family.  He apologizes to his crazy brother for turning his back on him and on his people, but I don’t think he feels the pain and loss of Hawaiian pride under American rule.

Kate’s journey was kind of infuriating.  She did nothing but bad mouth Hawai’i, Hawaiians, and her family.  In all of the Hawaiian families I know, her ass would have had the negativity beat out of her in one way or another.  She would have been taught the respect her elders are warranted.  Her struggle is understandable.  She is, for all intensive purposes, a little white girl from California.  Not a pidgin speaking Kanaka.  She hadn’t spent much time Hawai’i, so she was unfamiliar with the customs and foods.  She’s only 9 and she’s torn away from her dog, so it’s understandable she’s miserable and moody.

It’s also understandable that she’d be interested in hula.  McLaren sets it up from the beginning – Kate is in the top of her ballet class in California, and when she gets to Hawaii, she doesn’t have a ballet school already set up.  Some girls in Kate’s class decide to dance a hula for the school talent show.  They practice during class and Kate is mesmerized by their grace and beauty.  She becomes interested and they invite her to dance with them.  She joins a halau (i’m guessing – the word halau is never actually used and the validity of the kumu is never really addresses except by the crazy uncle) and is not chosen to perform the pro-sovereignty dance because she doesn’t have the mana and only knows the motions.

I feel like the treatment of hula is a fine line in general.  Mana is important – but usually only spoken about in terms like that by non-Hawaiians.  Hula is a beautiful art.  But it is also a way of life.  It is a connection to our ancestry, and it is probably the #1 thing that is more stereotyped, most subjected to kitsche, and most easily fucked up by outsiders.  As a whole throughout the book, I didn’t see too much stereotyping of Hawaiians or the culture.  I thought it was quite informative and gave perspectives on issues most people have no idea about.  But I was disappointed in the treatment of hula.  Of the author constantly discussing the beauty of it.  Forget the training that goes along with hula.  The pain that is endured to make your body do things not natural (at least in my halau).  Forget the politics that go along with hula itself.  All hula is portrayed as in this book is a vehicle for beauty and the most accessible outlet for culture.  Anyone can do it. Anyone can be Hawaiian through it.  And this is how the book ends.  Through hula, Kate rises above all the shit and makes a grand speech about Hawaiians being stripped of their land and their rights.  In the end, it takes a little white girl from California who loves hula to make the point about the plight of Hawaiians and the beauty that was lost and to show the people lamenting.  The speech was supposed to be a speech of hope for the future of the Hawaiian people.  Which it is to a point.  The hardcore Hawaiians need to recognize us half-breeds and our contributions to the Hawaiian community.  But at the same time, how come it has to be the white side that gets the job done for the brown side?

I think that this inner fight is important to diaspora-born hapa-haole Hawaiians.  We are forced to make a choice between being white and being Hawaiian.  But, like I discussed in my previous post, this is not a choice I have chosen to make.  I have chosen to embrace both sides the best that I can.  Even if it means I can love and hate this book at the same time.  I love the things it discusses and what it does.  But I hate that I don’t approve of the savior in the book being a little girl who is like me – belonging in both worlds and stuck in the middle.  Maybe if the author had written the final scene differently I would’ve felt differently about Kate being the savior in the end.  But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t.

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One thought on “Dance for the Land by Clemence McLaren

  1. Pingback: Quotes from “Dance for the Land” « Lessa Librarian

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