Author Jasmin ‘Iolani Hakes.

Jasmin ‘Iolani Hakes Takes Hawaiian Culture Out from under Glass

She came of age in Hawai’i, but is she allowed to write a book about it? This author's debut novel, "Hula," asks the tough questions about identity, culture, and home.

Author Jasmin ‘Iolani Hakes.

Courtesy of Jasmin ‘Iolani Hakes

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I have a long complicated history with Hawai’i. Not just the usual complication of American colonialism and annexation. But that of my family. My family history, on the Japanese side, goes back four generations in Hawai’i, to before the islands became a state. But I’ve never been sure how much “aloha” I can claim for myself, despite the fact that my cousins, aunties, and uncles are actively involved in their communities and in the cultures they grew up with.

So when Hula, a coming-of-age novel set in Hawai’i, came my way, I wasn’t sure how to feel. Hula presents the complications of growing up and finding your identity with the complications of Hawai’i's own history. Complicating things even more is the identity of author, Jasmin ‘Iolani Hakes. Hakes looks phenotypically and stereotypically all-American. If she grew up in America, she’d be the girl next door. But growing up in Hilo, she always felt like an outsider. Especially since her own family is Filipino, Portuguese, and very possibly, Native Hawaiian.

I spoke with Hakes via Zoom about her debut novel, and just what type of story she wanted to tell about her hometown.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Melissa Slaughter: What is your personal connection to the story in Hula?
Jasmin ‘Iolani Hakes: It was initially inspired by a couple of things. One being what I look like and the concept of not having a clear blood-ethnic breakdown of who I was. That's kind of the currency of who you are and where you fit. I grew up in [Hilo], where [the story] is based. I danced hula. And my middle name is ‘Iolani, after a revered hula dancer. And so I think all those elements of growing up, dancing, and wondering what my place was—as far as not looking like a hula dancer, not looking like the rest of my family—that led to those big unanswerable questions: who belongs, who gets a say, what is home, and what makes it? And then another simpler answer was just after years of being away from Hawai'i, I wanted a story that reflected where I was from.

MS: Can you describe your ethnic background (which is important to the book)?
JIH: [My appearance] wasn't a point of contention, but it was certainly something that always was remarked upon by my family. They're all very dark. The running joke was I was lucky to have been born at home because if not, my mom never would have brought me home from the hospital.

When I would ask my mother [what I was], she would say I'm cosmopolitan, basically “of the world.” And she didn't put anything on my birth certificate. My grandpa would always say we were Hawaiian. But at some point, it wasn't something that was seen as an asset to put on a birth certificate. It was more advantageous to put Portuguese, which we were also. So what I've explained to people is I'm a sugarcane mutt. All the peoples that came to Hawai'i in the mid-1800s to work in sugarcane—Filipino, Portuguese, Puerto Rican—then a bunch of other things like Native American and and possibly Hawaiian.

MS: That makes a lot of sense to me. I grew up in Oklahoma, where we have the Roll. And basically a list of families who came via the Trail of Tears. Historically, people would take themselves off because it was looked down upon. And so I grew up with kids who are like, “Oh, I'm like 1/16 Native American. But I can’t prove it 'cause I’m not on the roll.” And so, I can understand how that would be a thing in Hawaiian history as well.
JIH: Very much so. And you know, we didn't know Hawaiian history. We were taught the year Hawai'i became a state when I was in school. That's it. So I never really had a notion or understanding of what blood quantum was or why we use the language of “I'm a quarter this and I'm an eighth this,” until really getting into the book. And the heartbreaking thing is my cousin was able to trace enough where they found [out] my great, great, great grandmother was born in this tiny little town in North Kohala on the Big Island. At that time it was mostly Hawaiians. So my cousin is just like, “How can we be from [there] and not be Hawaiian?”

It also made me really angry to think about how arbitrary that blood quantum thing is. It got me started down this rabbit hole of reading about other Pacific Islander cultures and a lot of other Indigenous cultures around the world. America is the only one that still thinks of it in blood quantum terms. Like Māori—there's a lot of literature now that says that was the most destructive thing for Māori culture. Because it was like a genocide because it instilled this doubt of “am I enough to know the culture, am I enough to claim it, am I enough to learn about where I'm from?” And when they removed blood quantum from it, yes, there was still a tracing of the history and your lineage. But it got rid of that notion of “how much?” And so people stopped apologizing like, “I'm only a sliver.”

It was like a genocide because it instilled this doubt of “am I enough to know the culture, am I enough to claim it, am I enough to learn about where I'm from?” And when they removed blood quantum from it, yes, there was still a tracing of the history and your lineage.

MS: How do you approach different ways to explore Native Hawaiian ancestry, Native Hawaiian culture, and non-Native Hawaiian residency? How did you explore those different points of view and how did you want to balance them out?
JIH: I think those three generations were important to quantify and define the evolution of the sovereignty movement. So each generation represented the collective awareness at the time. That to me was demonstrative of how the notion of identity can evolve over time. And so on top of those three generations, we have the “we,” which is that collective voice that weaves in and out of the story. And the “we” to me was that presence of the tribe. I don't mean Native Hawaiians versus the residents who came. It was more the 'āina itself, the land itself—since it's so alive and present—as well as the ancestors.

It was less about representing the different voices between [residential] Hawaiians versus Native Hawaiians, because I couldn't speak for anybody outside of what I knew. A lot of the stories were given to me. I have various uncles who aren't blood Hawaiian, who are part of the sovereignty movement. I have Hawaiian uncles and aunts who are part of homelands movements. What I tried to do instead was focus on the preservation of culture. And that was why I ended up in the halau. I started hula when I was very, very young. And I dance for a very traditional halau. But when they teach you to dance, at least in this halau, they're not teaching you moves. What they're teaching you is your relationship with Hawai'i. They're teaching you the language and the ways we harvest things and the chants that we have to do. And what this god is and what this goddess is, and how do we acknowledge their presence and how do we stay safe and how do we survive? And so it's that passing on of that ancient knowledge. I very much internalized that concept of “I'm not here to claim anything.” What I'm here to do is learn this enough to make sure it survives to the next generation. And we have to keep that alive. The problem becomes, if you impose a qualification on who knows, who studies the language and the culture, then there's an end date.

MS: Absolutely.
JIH: As my kumu said, “I don't want Hawaiian ways to be put under glass.” And so when looking at “representing” these different generations and stuff, I tried to come to it—even though it felt very scary and vulnerable and everything—come to it from just that perspective of, “Well, if not for the occupation, I would be a Hawaiian citizen, I would be a citizen of the kingdom. My family came way before the occupation and that is my responsibility to my culture as a citizen.” Same as if I was living in Japan or anywhere else that had a distinct culture and language.

MS: It's interesting you bring up Japan because they don’t have birthright citizenship. So there are non-Asian people who might be born there, might live most of their lives there, might culturally identify. But they’ll never be Japanese, legally. I'm of the diaspora, but they're never going to acknowledge me as a Japanese citizen.
JIH: I didn't even think of that. That's interesting that you say that. I guess it's very similar in that I have heard from a lot of Hawaiians who were born on the continent and never lived in Hawai'i that say, “Thank you because I feel ashamed to claim it. I feel like I'm not qualified to claim this.” And then you have people who were born there and whose parents were born there and who will never be Native Hawaiian.

MS: Well, that's the other thing I wanted to talk to you about. Like I said, I'm mixed-Japanese, but a huge chunk of my Japanese American family has also been in Hawai'i since before statehood. But when I went, the thing that stood out for me was how ingrained my family history was with Hawai'i. Everywhere we went, not only was Hawaiian history there, but my family history was there. And so I'm now actively thinking about how to balance out my own family history and the cultural history we have with Hawai'i, along with that of Native Hawaiian culture, Native Hawaiian sovereignty, and the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hawai'i that I'm not a part of. What were the conversations you were having while writing this book, with both Native Hawaiians and Hawaiian residents, to try and work through those complications and distill them?
JIH: At first it had nothing to do with being Hawaiian and not being Hawaiian. And it was more of, “Can this girl dance hula and can she do this thing that her mother does and her grandmother does? Even though her birth certificate doesn't say that she is this thing that gives her maybe a pass?” I spoke to a lot of people that I grew up dancing hula with who were kumus and very well-respected. And I got a variety of answers or insights that only continued to make things more complicated. I spoke to somebody who was always much more advanced in the halau and is a kumu. But he is not Hawaiian. And he actually shared with me, “I would have been a lot easier if I was [Native Hawaiian]. But he said, “The only time I don't feel that divide is when I'm inside the halau.” And to me, that felt like it is the culture that matters. It is the culture we're serving. We're not claiming anything. We're serving it. We're serving Hawai'i.

Published on October 23, 2023

Words by Melissa Slaughter

Melissa Slaughter has lived in all four time zones in the continental United States. She is a podcast producer based in Brooklyn, New York. You can hear her work on her independent podcast We're Not All Ninjas (with co-host Alex Chester), as well as on shows from Pineapple Street Studios, Netflix, and HBO.