Joan Didion’s Honolulu

Critics often assail Joan Didion with accusations of solipsism. At first glance, Didion’s writings regarding her time in Honolulu confirm such assertions. “I am a thirty four year old woman with long straight hair and an old bikini bathing suit and bad nerves sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific waiting for a Tidal Wave that will not come,” Didion wrote in 1969.[1] Yet travelogues often hinge on this sort of alien, even alienated in Didion’s case, viewpoint. The Atlantic’s Adrienne Lafrance recently summarized this reality: “Travel writing is traditionally concerned with the writer’s sense of belonging, or lack thereof—the spectacle of being somewhere new, the sense of displacement one feels.” With this premise agreed upon, revisiting essays from Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979) shows that Didion did reveal some profound truths about America—though admittedly to a far lesser extent about Hawaii.

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Before diving into her work on the city, we should discuss a couple of relevant points. No doubt, in some respects Didion falters; taken together her two essays – the first “Letter from Paradise, 21 19’ N., 157 52’ W.” and the second “In the Islands” – traverse more than a decade from 1966 to 1977. Throughout each, Didion failed to really illuminate native culture. While she does not completely ignore Hawaii’s racial and cultural complexity, it is only presented through the perceptions of whites. As we noted in our bibliography for the city, for mainland writers the islands function as means to discover who we are, rather than the archipelago’s own history. For better or worse, Didion perpetuates this tendency.

Some readers will argue her criticism of American consumerism feels rote. While it is true that reading critiques of mid century American consumerism from the twenty-first century feels more nostalgic than groundbreaking, this actually testifies to Didion’s power as a writer. Her dry but ruthless vision of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and its patrons defined the period so completely that watching the Season Six premiere of Mad Men, in which Don vacations at the Royal Hawaiian and pitches their director on a new ad campaign, feels cribbed from Didion’s account. In the end, two themes emerge: the power of tourism and the breadth of the military’s influence.

Tourist Trap

Unsurprisingly, Honolulu drew from Didion an almost ineffable response. “And so, now that it is on the line between us that I lack all temperament for paradise, real or facsimile, I am going to find it difficult to tell you precisely how and why Hawaii moves me, touches me, saddens and troubles and engages my imagination,” she confessed, “what it is in the air that will linger long after I have forgotten the smell of pikake and pineapple and the way the palms sound in the trade winds.”[2] For a writer who leaned toward skepticism and doubt for much of her life–as Eric Avila pointed out she rendered Los Angeles of the same period “the paranoid capital of the world”–this is no small feat.[3]

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The Royal Hawaiian, Ryan Reft, June 2017

Of course, even in such moments of appreciation, Didion clearly embodies the fish-out-of-water, stranger-in-the-land lens of the travelogue. For Didion, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel–a Waikiki landmark–is not just a place to lay one’s head, but “rather a social idea, one of the few extant clues to a certain kind of American life.” Of course, all great hotels, she concludes, operate as “flawless mirrors to the particular societies they service.”[4] The hotel’s opening in 1927 “made all things Hawaiian–leis, ukuleles, luaus, coconut leaf hats, and the singing of ‘I Wanna Learn to Speak Hawaiian’–a decade’s craze at country club dances across the United States,” she writes. The Royal, a haole creation, reflected Hawaii through an Anglo lens for an Anglo culture; a territorial influence cast across a continent an ocean away, but defined by American occupiers rather than native peoples.

From its establishment to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the hotel catered to a certain crowd. The kind of people who sunbathed behind the exclusive ropes of the hotel’s reserved beach space discovered that “their nieces roomed in Lungita at Stanford the same year, or that their best friends lunched together during the last Crosby.”[5] Midwestern newlyweds, Seattle Mayors, and San Diego magnates rub elbows with “Australian station owners, Ceylonese tea planters, [and] Cuban operators.”[6] This vision of Hawaii, more or less “a big rock candy mountain in the Pacific,” was conveyed to the mainland through newspaper photos of “well fed Lincoln Mercury dealers relaxing beside an outrigger….”[7] The tumult of the 1960s, according to Didion, never reached Honolulu shores: “the cataclysms of the larger society disturb it only as surface storms disturb the sea’s bottom, a long time later and in oblique ways.” This last statement rings false; the mid-1970s witnessed a resurgence of Hawaiian cultural pride and protest, which goes largely unmentioned in her work.

War and Peace

Though it remains unclear she would define it as such, Didion pushes out into the waters of American imperialism. Amidst the Vietnam War, the island’s ties to European and American imperial ambitions and global conflict seem overwhelming and obvious, but according to Didion, Hawaiians viewed war differently. WWII “cracked the spine” of the Big Five (a handful of families/companies that dominated Hawaiian business and social affairs), opened up a closed economy, and brought new people and new ideas from the mainland. “War is viewed with a curious ambivalence in Hawaii,” Didion noted, “because the largest part of its population interprets war, however unconsciously, as a force for good, an instrument of social progress.”[8]

The way Didion sees it, for Hawaiians the war released them from the bondage of sugar plantation feudalism and brought investment. It also opened up society in other ways. The elite Punahou School, once reserved for missionaries and their children’s children, now served a far broader swath of the population; nearly one third of its students came from Asian and Asian American homes. Chinn Ho, a local boy climbed his way up to millionaire status; he started at the bottom and worked his way into the power elite.

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Haoles prided themselves on the island’s cultural “melting pot”, though racism lay just beneath the surface. For example, when one woman informs Didion that some white Hawaiians did mingle with local Asians she framed it in less than noble terms. “The uncle of a friend of mine … has Chinn Ho to his house all the time,” the acquaintance confided; Didion characterized this as akin to saying “‘some of my best friends are Rothschilds.’” Even progressives used dodgy logic when one island teacher grabbed the arm of a pretty Chinese girl, exclaiming to Didion, “‘You wouldn’t have seen this here before the war. Look at those eyes.’” The truth is sugar cane brought diversity to the islands; the military brought a collision between Jim Crow America and its newly acquired territory, soon to become state.[9] “The Orientals are–well, discreet’s not really the word, but they aren’t like the Negroes and the Jews, they don’t push in where they’re not wanted,” another haole resident tells her.[10]

 

Decades after World War II, Didion returns to Schofield Barracks, the setting of James Jones’ classic novel From Here to Eternity, and records what has changed and what has persisted. For her, large parts of Honolulu belong to Jones, a sentiment that at first sounds inspiring but then condescending. For native Hawaiians, the idea that Jones, who spent time at Pearl Harbor during the war before shipping out to fight at Guadacanal, could ever “own” Hawaii must grate. Yet, Jones’s vision of Oahu’s various military installations – Pearl Harbor actually refers to a constellation of military bases – for boomers like Didion remains a somber, quasi-religious place. She visits the memorial and cries. “All I know about how other people respond is what I am told: that everyone is quiet at the Arizona.”

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Schofield Barracks Military Reservation, Wilikina Drive & Kunia Road, Wahiawa, Honolulu County, HI, circa 1938, photographer unknown created by David Franzen in 1996, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Honolulu’s Hotel Street had not changed, only the destination of its patrons. Young men barely out of their teens swarmed its bars and brothels: “And the sailors get drunk because they are no longer in Des Moines and not yet in Danang.”[11] Men in search of companionship, women in search of a dollar, and military police officers in search of infractions circle one another.

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Scene from film version of From Here to Eternity 

At the National Memorial Cemetery, a site more silent than the Arizona and home to over 19,000 dead from World War II through the Vietnam War, the dead from America’s engagement in Southeast Asia had begun to arrive. “The graves filled last week and the week before that and even last month do not yet have stones, only plastic identification cards, streaked by the mist and splattered with mud,” she wrote. “The earth is raw and trampled in that part of the crater, but the grass grows fast, up there in the rain cloud.” [12]

Graves devoted to Vietnam make up a fraction of the whole and are placed in the memorial’s outer rings, most often for “local boys.” However, many mainland families choose to bury their fallen in Honolulu. “A father or an uncle calls me from the Mainland and he says they’re bringing their boy here,” the superintendent of the memorial tells her. “I don’t ask why.” [13] She attends a burial service for one such soldier killed in action; a desultory event punctuated by the superintendent’s resigned admission: “Fill, cover, get the marker on. That’s the one thing I remember about my training.”[14]

Her opinions about war might have been better couched more specifically. She never really delves into Hawaiian attitudes toward Vietnam, her examples of war bringing change stem almost exclusively from the Second World War. She witnesses the military build up connected to Vietnam and related businesses dependent on such developments, but how natives and locals feel regarding American action in Southeast Asia never comes through. If one reads letters to Hawaii’s then congresswoman, Patsy Mink, residents opposing America’s involvement in Vietnam outnumber those in favor by large numbers. Later in the mid-1970s, Hawaiians protested the military’s use of the archipelago’s smallest island, Kaho’olawe as a bombing site. Though the military and U.S. aggression abroad continued to shape Hawaii – politically, economically, and even culturally – how it was viewed locally as the century progressed remains debatable.

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Representative Patsy Mink announces the formation of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus at a press conference, Laura Patterson, May 20, 1994, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Writing decades later and from a much different perspective, Lisa Lowe aptly describes the most glaring aspect of Honolulu, and broader Asian American life, that Didion missed. The collective memories of Asian American and Pacific Island culture demonstrates the fragmented nature of history and experience, as it is a past “always broken by war, occupation and displacement,” notes Lowe. “Asian American culture ‘re-members’ the past in and through the fragmentation, loss, and dispersal that constitutes the past.”[15]

When Didion notes that there is also a Hawaii that deals only with the “past and with loss,” she does so from the perspective of a missionary’s descendent; as someone from the kind of family that believed Hawaii had been in decline since economic development and tourism reached the islands, never mind the intrusion of the missionaries. To her credit, she seems aware of this, but she never fully breaks from its mindset.

Still, for all its failings, Didion’s reflections on Honolulu remain spellbinding, profound, fluid, and flawed all at once. Mid-century America, arguably the height of the middle class, drank deeply of consumerism, tourism, and war. The California writer captured this better than most.

 

[1] Joan Didion, “In the Islands,” The White Album, (New York: Farrar, Stroux, and Giroux, 1979), 135; See also Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise, 21 19’ N., 157 52’ W.”, in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, (New York: Farrar, Stroux, and Giroux, 1968), 187: “In an essay three years earlier also written from Honolulu, she traversed similar territory. “Because I had been tired too long and quarrelsome too much and too often frightened of migraine and failure and the days getting shorter, I was sent, a recalcitrant thirty one year old child, to Hawaii, where winter does not come and no one fails and the median age is twenty three.”

[2] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 188.

[3] Eric Avila, “Essaying Los Angeles” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin R. McNamara, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 184.

[4] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 137.

[5] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 137.

[6] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 138.

[7] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 189.

[8] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 198.

[9] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 209.

[10] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 202.

[11] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 194.

[12] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 193-194.

[13] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 141.

[14] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 144.

[15] Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 29.

 

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