Sunday, July 17, 2022

A Sea Worry

Maxine Hong Kingston (b. 1940)
From Maxine Hong Kingston: The Woman Warrior, China Men, Tripmaster Monkey, Other Writings

Bodysurfers at Sandy Beach, 2018. Still from a video by Kala‘i Ellis for Kaha Nalu Hawaii.
In 1967, Maxine Hong Kingston and her husband Earll, upset by the Vietnam War, the growing tensions of the protests, and the increased drug use among their friends in Berkeley, decided to move to Japan. During the stopover in Honolulu, they noticed an apartment for rent above a grocery store in Kahalu‘u on the eastern shore of O‘ahu and decided to stay a while. They ended up living in Hawai‘i for seventeen years. “We never really made a decision to stay here,” she told an interviewer in 1980, two years after they bought a home on the island.

During her years in Honolulu, Kingston worked as a teacher of English at various schools before settling for seven years at Mid-Pacific Institute, a private college preparatory school, and later becoming a professor at the University of Hawaii. It was also during her “stopover” in Hawai‘i that Kingston wrote the two books for which she is famous: The Woman Warrior (1976), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and China Men (1980), which won the National Book Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

From 1977 to 1988, the Home section of The New York Times published a weekly feature "designed as a forum by writing by women" under the rubric “Hers.” Guest columnists, including such well-known authors as the literary critic Phyllis Rose, the historian Nell Irvin Painter, and the novelist Joyce Maynard, took on the responsibility of writing the articles for several consecutive weeks; Kingston was asked to write the column for three months in 1978. “I was finishing China Men in the summer when other people were vacationing,” she recalls. “So, for breaks, I wrote these pieces.” A decade later, she gathered the articles in Hawai‘i One Summer, which was released in a limited edition of 150 copies. It was reprinted, with a new introduction, by the University of Hawaii Press in 1998.

In the introduction, Kingston discusses the challenges facing an “outsider” writing about a place like Hawai‘i.
Well, it did not feel good to be a writer in a place that is not a writing culture, where written language is only a few hundred years old. The literary community in Hawai‘i argues over who owns the myths and stories, whether the local language and writings should be exported to the Mainland, whether or not so-and-so is authentic, is Hawaiian. For me, Hawai‘i was a good place for writing about California and China, and not for writing about Hawai‘i. I felt the kapu—these are not your stories to write; these myths are not your myths; the Hawaiians are not your people. You are haole. You are katonk.
She adds, “But though I did try to leave her out, Hawai‘i—people sing her and speak of her as Spirit—made her way into these essays.”

“A Sea Worry,” the final essay in the book, is about her son’s obsession with bodysurfing. Only months before Kingston wrote the article, champion surfer Eddie Aikau died at the age of 31. Ten years earlier, Honolulu city officials had hired Aikau as the first lifeguard at Waimea Bay on the North Shore of O‘ahu, an area that for years had been a notorious site for drownings. (“You’d have to find a crazy man to take the job,” said one fireman at the time.) Aikau eventually helped train a team of rescuers and became something of a local legend, in part for saving hundreds of swimmers—an uncountable number, really, since Aikau often did not file the required reports. Not one life was lost in Waimea Bay when he served as a lifeguard. In March 1978, he joined as a crew member aboard the Hōkūleʻa, a double-hulled canoe, in the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s second attempt to travel from Hawai‘i to Tahiti. Five hours into the journey, the canoe overturned in high winds. After a night during which the crew hung onto the hulls, Aikau volunteered to paddle his surfboard to the nearby island of Lānaʻi, less than fifteen miles away, to seek help. He was never seen again. The rest of the crew was rescued nine hours later after the capsized canoe was seen by a passing airliner. The incident, which dominated local news for weeks, was very much on Kingston’s mind when she and her husband accompanied their 15-year-old son to watch him surf the waves of Sandy Beach.

Notes: George Helm was a Native Hawaiian musician from the island of Molokaʻi; he was celebrated for his falsetto voice and intricate guitar playing. Both he and Kimo Mitchell, a National Park Service ranger, became activists in Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana, a group that opposed the Navy’s use of the island of Kahoʻolawe as a bombing range and as a base for live-fire training exercises. Both men disappeared at sea in March 1977. The Navy finally ended its activities on the island in 1990 and transferred control to the state in 1994.

“A Sea Worry” was slated to appear in the Times on Thursday, August 10, 1978—which was the first day of a three-month strike in New York that shut down all three of the city’s papers. The essay was finally published under the title “Captivated by a Magic Wave” on the front page of the Home section in the July 26, 1979, issue.

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This summer our son bodysurfs. He says it’s his “job” and rises each morning at 5:30 to catch the bus to Sandy Beach. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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