You either are a beach-and-palms tourist or you are not. I sometimes wish I were, but my idea of a good time is pacing through grimy Saint Petersburg, (the Russian one), following in the steps of Feodor Dostoyevsky’s murderering Raskolnikov, or re-enacting James Joyce’s Ulysses in Dublin. I am a cultural tourist, often using books as a way to get inside a place.
So while preparing to visit family in Hawaii, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the gross inaccuracy of my Elvis-movie-abetted notions of the state. Several substantial writers – the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Theroux, Joan Didion, Mark Twain and Jack London – have travelled here and described their encounters. There is also a long history of locals writing with passion and knowledge. And these observant visitors and residents can take the curious traveller well beyond Waikiki’s pristine beaches, right into the thick of things.
On a hill overlooking downtown Honolulu, I meet up with the state’s most successful author, Kaui Hart Hemmings, whose 2007 bestseller, The Descendants, was turned into a movie starring George Clooney. She’s just back from delivering the keynote speech at a major literary conference on Maui – the event’s existence just one of many signs of the flourishing literary scene here. The descendants referenced in her title are those who, like herself, have a dual heritage: Their ancestors are the New England missionaries who came here in the early 19th century and often married Hawaiian aristocrats. It’s specific on the sights and sounds of Hawaii, but she reveals that she wrote the bulk of the novel while living in San Francisco (she grew up on Oahu and has now returned to live in Hawaii).
“I didn’t need to see those places while writing,” she tells me as she waits on the plush grounds of her (and Barack Obama's) alma mater, Punahou, for her daughter’s dance lesson to finish. “They are all with me, every detail inside.”
She suggests I visit Prima, a restaurant in Kailua, the town in which she lives on the other side of the island. I know it’s one of those towns, because some of the well-heeled characters in Joan Didion’s Democracy live there. I duly make my way there: It is pretty and posh, and the food – Italian-Hawaiian fusion, featuring local produce and seafood – does not disappoint.
Later, I drive my rental car – nicknamed Oahu, after what Mark Twain called the long-suffering horse he rode all over the island to get material for a California newspaper – to another one of Hemmings’s recommendations, the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, named for its deceased patroness, a Hawaiian princess whose family was also part indigenous royal and part haole (the local word for, roughly, gringo – pronounced “howlee”).
The highlight of the museum is a multi-tiered, wood-panelled atrium with a traditional grass hut at its centre and a sperm-whale skeleton hanging from its ceiling. In glass cases, mixed in with traditional jewellery made from animal teeth and sleds used to hurtle down volcanic rock spurs, are the first Hawaiian-English dictionary (created by the missionaries) and a gorgeously bound, jewel-encrusted Bible translated into Hawaiian.
The royals made extensive use of their missionary-encouraged literacy. One recorded the oral-myth cycles for posterity; Liliuokalani, the last queen, documented her travails during the U.S. takeover of the islands in a still-in-print memoir, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen. Today, the Hawaiian language that the preachers took such pains to document and learn remains a living thing, its words present in every conversation with locals.