Meeting Hawaii’s Next Generation Authors? (…and How I Handle Criticism)

A young man sitting in the back row tentatively raised his hand. I was talking to a group of history students and their teachers at Kamehameha Schools last week about my book, Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure, published by Grove/Atlantic earlier this year. “How do you deal with criticism as an author?” he asked.

A dialogue with journalism students

That was a very good question. Lost Kingdom has gotten good reviews in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere.  There are 62 reader reviews on Amazon and the vast majority of the reviewers gave it four or five stars. But some in Hawai’i have criticized me for not having used more Hawaiian-language source materials, perhaps not realizing that most of the Kingdom of Hawaii’s correspondence as well as the royal family’s private letters and diaries — in other words, the key primary source materials — were written in English. Their basic argument is that someone who can’t read the Hawaiian language newspapers of the 19th century can’t write a thorough history of the kingdom.

So how do I handle such criticism? In answering the student that day, I started off by joking that after nearly three decades as a reporter, writing for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and BusinessWeek magazine, my skin had grown pretty thick and that helped me separate professional criticism from my personal feelings. I also told him that I care very deeply about getting things right. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve enlisted the help of scholars and friends to help me make corrections for the paperback version of Lost Kingdom, which will be out in January of 2013.

A few of the students at Hawaiian language school

In a 110,000-word book, there will be mistakes — and checking and correcting for them was one of the first lessons I learned as a new fact-checker at the American Lawyer magazine, straight out of college. If you find one, own up to it and make sure it gets fixed. The story and both your and the publication’s reputation are more important than a dented ego.  In terms of Hawaiian cultural values, the goal is to be pono – which, roughly translated, means do the right thing. That’s why I’m taking so much care in correcting and updating the new edition of the book. Most of the changes are very small, but it’s important to make them.

Later that same day, I got an earful from a University of Hawai’i scholar at an event at the Bishop Museum. She pointed out things she didn’t like about it – ranging from my description of a Hawaiian laborer in a sugar mill (she thought I had sexualized him) to her contention that human sacrifices

were never made to the goddess Pele. I’m checking out what she said and will fix what’s wrong. But I think she didn’t understand that my goal was never to write an academic history: my goal was to write a popular history, for the non-academic reader. And the reason I included more than 800 endnotes, documenting my source materials, was that so that others could come along and build on my work – telling the story from their own perspectives.

Maybe some of the students I spoke to last week might some day write their own histories of Hawaii. Likewise, I hope the scholars who don’t like my book will write their own. I suspect they’ll find it’s a lot easier to criticize than to create. And because of efforts such as Awaiaulu Project, led by University of Hawaii Professor Puakea Nogelmeier, they’ll have even more source materials to work with through the Hawaiian language newspapers now being translated. There are also many newly available materials in English from the Judd and Forbes collections.

I felt lucky to have had the opportunity to meet so many different kinds of people last week. I was visiting Kamehameha Schools as part of a community dialogue set up by Jamie Conway, founder of the Distinctive Women in Hawaiian History program, an event which took place on Saturday, September 15th, at Mission Memorial Auditorium in downtown Honolulu. I am grateful to Jamie for arranging what turned out to be a truly unforgettable series of events, taking me places that I’d otherwise probably never have gone on my own.

Nalei Akina of the Lunalilo Home, author Julia Flynn Siler, and Jamie Conway of Distinctive Women in Hawaiian History

I went to the Lunalilo Home, the Bishop Museum (in conversation with “Uncle Ish” Ishmael Stanger, who has a new book out about Hula Kumu (hula teachers,) Kapi’olani Community College, and, most memorably, 150 students and teachers from the Kula Kaiapuni ‘o Ānuenue, a Hawaiian Language Immersion School in Honolulu’s Palolo Valley.  These were all volunteer efforts on my part—my small attempt to give back to the community.

Have I planted any seeds? Might any of those kids think more seriously about becoming  writers or historians, so they can tell stories from their own perspectives, using the newspapers that only now are being translated into English? I do hope so. As I learned from the kids at the immersion school, a key value in Hawaiian culture is Ke Kuleana (to take responsibility.) That’s what I’m doing by making corrections to the new version of my book. Mahalo to all the teachers who are helping me with this task – and also to the teachers such as Thelma Kam, who invited me to join her at dawn for a Hiuwai Ceremony at Moana Beach in Waikiki on Sunday morning, which seemed a perfect way to reflect on my recent trip to  O’ahu.

Here’s the chant that Thelma led us in, which is by Edith Kanakaole

E Ho Mai

E ho mai ka ike mai luna mai e

O na mea huna no’eau o na mele e

E ho mai, e ho mai, e ho mai e

 

Give forth knowledge from above

Every little bit of wisdom contained in song

Give forth, give forth, do give forth

Comments

  1. I am inspired by you Julia and appreciate how much you’re trying to give back. I’m so glad that people had the opportunity to meet and talk with you about your wonderful book. 🙂

  2. Hi,
    I see your comment that you care very deeply about getting things right, but I don’t understand how you can possibly get it right if you don’t understand the language of the time. How can you tell if you’ve gotten it right or if the people you are talking to now are telling you things that are right? How can you fact-check any statements from other individuals if you have no way to understand what was written at the time? One wouldn’t attempt to tell the story of the French Revolution without speaking French, would they? Why, then, is it acceptable to do essentially the same thing for a different monarchy? Is it because it is a Polynesian monarchy? On the other hand, what is a non-academic history? Are you saying this book is intended to be a Hawaiian History for Dummies?

    • Julia Flynn Siler says:

      Randy,
      Thank you for your comment. The vast majority of the Kingdom of Hawaii’s official correspondence was in both English as well as in Hawaiian from the 1870s onward. Likewise, English was the language that Queen Lili’uokalani used for most of her letters, her diaries, and her official correspondence. These are the primary sources that are the backbone of my research and I relied on translations of Hawaiian-language documents done by the Hawai’i State Archives.
      The secondary sources from the period — the Hawaiian language newspapers of the nineteenth century — are only now being translated. My point in the blog posting was that future scholars and writers will have new material to work with in writing their own histories of this period.
      I had the good fortune of having access to two new collections of primary materials — the Judd and the Forbes collections — which provide additional insights into the Kingdom that were not available to previous researchers. Lost Kingdom is a serious history that is intended for a non-academic audience. My book is available at most libraries, so if you choose to look into this further, please refer to my extensive note on sources and language at the end of the book for more information. It deals extensively with the issue of how I could write a history of nineteenth century Hawai’i without reading Hawaiian.

      Sincerely,
      Julia

  3. Aloha kaua (Greetings from me to you) e Ms. Siler,

    As I am reading your blog I want to mahalo (thank you) for your sincere effort to write a mo’olelo (history) of the lost Hawaiian Kingdom. One day i hope my keiki (children) and mo’opuna (grandchildren) will read your book. I am thinking however about what my kupuna wahine (grandmother,) or my kupuna kuakahi (great-great grandmother,) fluent speakers of Hawaiian language would think if they were to read your blog.

    I think that they would say you cast yourself in a bad light when you write— on the one-hand that the work in ‘ōlelo Hawai’i (Hawaiian language) that school children labor over and that Dr. Nogelmeier continues to produce is very valuable—while on the other hand, claiming to teach us, (since you say, we do not know….) that “the key primary source materials were written in English.” Ms. Siler, how would you be able to evaluate whether or not there are valuable primary sources in Hawaiian, if you cannot read them? And because you cannot read them, you never considered consulting them?

    I know that many people on your book tour last week informed you of the vastness of the Hawaiian language sources, and yet you act as if the largest cache of sources in a native language in all of America is something to be casually dismissed!

    Perhaps you have not heard of the immersion schools? They do more than save language! They are there to save culture, and history, and lahui and a way of seeing and living in the world. Do you think that the children at the Hawaiian language immersion schools that you visited are going to need to translate those documents, if they can read them? The “lost” kingdom that you wrote about—–do you have any idea about how to write about what was lost to Hawaiian people, since you have not accorded those people beyond Ka Mo’i ‘o Lili’uokalani (Queen Liliʻuokalani) any space in your “serious history.”

    Is the time past perhaps when writers such as yourself——illiterate in the tongue of the people whose nation was lost, whose history you lay claim to writing—–can proclaim proudly, “Have I planted seeds in their childrenʻs minds?” and “they can build on MY work?” This blog post above, where you keep talking about Hawaiian children, in order to sell more of your “serious history” books, are you the latest in a long series of haole mothers to bequeath to us our own history from your perspective?

    I think that you should hold yourself to a higher standard and give your readers the best possible history you can. If a journalist is supposed to seek the truth, shouldn’t that journalist be able to journey across the barrier of language? Hawaiian language seems to be the work of children according to your blog, so it must be easy for someone as skilled at you in writing to simply pick up.

    Your blog raises an interesting problem: Does the truth only speak in English? While Hawaiians who speak ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) are incapable of telling the truth, because they can only tell their “perspective.”

    mahalo nui loa (thank you very much,)
    Lihau’ula

    ps: Kanaka Maoli does not mean full blodded Hawaiian. The word “blood” does not appear in that phrase, and its usage in newspapers pre-dates the imposition of blood quantum upon Hawaiians.

  4. Julia Flynn Siler says:

    Aloha e Lihau’ula,
    Thank you for your very thoughtful comments. I appreciate the time you took in writing to me. I apologize for not making it clear to you that I also consulted Hawaiian-language sources, albeit ones that had been translated by the Hawai’i State Archives, Dr. Nogelmeier, or others. I did my best to incorporate these sources into my book, as well, and did not only rely on English-language documents. In fact, I am very grateful to Professor Osorio for providing me with a newly translated English-language edition of a biography of Joseph Nawahi, who played such an important role in the Kingdom during that period.
    I’d also like to clarify that students in the Hawaiian-language immersion schools will be able to do research that I was not able to do — and undoubtedly they will approach the history in a different way than I did. I was privileged to visit one of these schools on my visit to Oahu last week and was deeply touched by the living proof of the rebirth of the Hawaiian language. Again, mahalo nui loa for writing to me and sharing your perspective.

    Julia

  5. Mahalo nui loa e Ms. Siler,

    For your quick reply regarding my comment above.

    I spoke with my makuahine (mother) this morning to ask her (mana’o) thoughts/opinions about your book, and she suggested that you share some of the profits that you are receiving from your Lost Kingdom effort, which presents your perspective on the overthrow of the Kingdom in 1893—–to support these excellent programs that you were privileged to visit, or the work of amazing scholars who are struggling to bring the Hawaiian language documents within reach of a wider audience.

    Perhaps you will consider helping some of these students further their education by funding scholarships, so that they too may receive a journalism degree and become an excellent fact checker, researcher, and author like yourself.

    Your efforts will indeed then plant seeds for the future generation of authors, as a writer who covers the economy you know all too well, that it is money that stands as a barrier to accessing higher education and the raw materials to impart knowledge—-and not curiosity, drive, or intelligence that is lacking.

    ‘o au me ke aloha ‘o ia i’o, (I am with sincere affection)
    Lihau’ula

    • Julia Flynn Siler says:

      Aloha e Lihau’ula,
      I have begun making financial gifts to some institutions supporting Hawaiian scholarship but, alas, have not yet made a profit on my book. I also volunteered my time with the schools and the Distinctive Women in Hawaiian History gathering last week. am glad you and your mother suggest this, though, because I have decided that I will give 10% of my profits on the books to groups and institutions that nurture the next generation of Hawaiian scholars. Mahalo nui loa for reaching out to me.

      Julia

  6. Frances Dinkelspiel says:

    These discussions are very interesting. I just want to ask Lihau’ula if she has read Siler’s book yet. I have a sense she is offering a philosophical objection, not one based on the merits of the book.

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