Don't Look Back: Hawaiian Myths Made New

Edited by Christine Thomas. 2011. Honolulu: Watermark Publishing. 172 pages. ISBN: 978-1-9356901-4-6 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Angeline Shaka, University of California, Los Angeles

[Review length: 1225 words • Review posted on November 7, 2012]

It’s often said that inspiration strikes suddenly and unexpectedly. Such was the case with editor and contributor Christine Thomas’s motivation for compiling this delightfully varied anthology of Hawaiian myths. Thomas spins the origin story for this volume in her introduction recounting how, one rainy London evening, she stumbled across a tale that was “eerily” similar to one she was already writing. Coupling her own fascination with the enduring quality of myths for “maintaining our appetite for narrative” (1), and inspired by UK publisher Canongate’s popular collection of myths, Thomas was galvanized to convince sixteen of Hawai'i’s storytellers to rewrite one of their favorite Hawaiian legends.

For those readers who may not be acquainted with Hawaiian myths, Dr. Puakea Nogelmeier’s foreword makes a cogent argument for the centrality of myth and story-telling in Hawaiian society across time. Hawaiian myths, Nogelmeier reminds us, are born of an oral tradition. They function as archives of ancestral knowledge and contain within them keys for transmitting cultural values and social histories—keys that are activated in a multitude of ways: through hula performance, casual “talk-story” conversations, and, in the case of this text, in having authors re-imagine these tales for today’s audiences. “The myths, in their ‘classical’ forms, connect the common roots of human society from times ancient to today,” he writes, “while the re-castings make the longevity of those attitudes, principles, and ethics immediately apparent” (ix). In this collection each new myth is preceded by a summary of its original, and a “why I chose this story” statement by the author. This structure retains the source myth’s integrity while establishing a narrative kinship with its updated version. Instead of presenting the reader with seventeen new myths, Thomas and her contributors ostensibly offer us twice that number of stories, old and new. The book is divided into four thematic sections, “Fierce Battles and Close Encounters,” “Lessons Learned,” “Love and Family,” and “Heroes and Villains,” suggesting one possible strategy for how a reader might approach the stories in this volume.

For folklorists and a general readership alike it is the thoughtful way the contributors, through the juxtaposition of “old” preceding “new” myth, endeavor to reveal our contemporary world to us that will be of greatest interest. In this collection we are presented with a snapshot of the issues that plague and excite us, that meditates on ways we are able to forge connections to one another as well as to our ancestral past in an increasingly digital and global world; that reminds us of our responsibilities to one another and the potentially dire consequences of forgetting that responsibility; and that inspires us to imagine new stories, new possibilities for constructing our world. As expected in an edited collection, some re-tellings are more compelling than others. Overall, however, the volume is highly engaging, and I found myself drawn in again and again, taken with the authors’ imaginations, curious to discover what this collection tells us about our present cultural historical moment. While there are too many contributors to cover in this space, I present a small selection of the stories in order to provide a sense of the volume and its contents.

In “No Look Back,” the text’s presumptive title story, the author riffs on the mythic tale of how a family fishing expedition (with demi-god Maui and his brothers) and an ignored warning resulted in Hawai'i’s emerging from the sea as a chain of islands, instead of as the new continent it could have been (a brother’s backward look causes the fishing line to break and the partially exposed continent to sink). Updating this family affair Timothy Dyke writes a modern urban tale about two long-time friends that touches on the difficulties of breaking free from addiction and the tenuousness of living clean. In Dyke’s capable hands attaining and maintaining sobriety is as tremendous a task as attempting to pull an entire continent out of the ocean—and can seem equally impossible. The lesson we learn by reading Dyke’s tale through the legend of Maui the fisherman, is that neither task can be accomplished without support, and that both can easily be derailed, simply by “looking” back (and falling off the wagon).

A perennial favorite in Hawaiian lore is Pele, the volcano goddess, and her family, the subject of five of the volume’s stories. She appears in the book’s very first myth, “SPF 50,” written by Ian MacMillan, inspired by the legend of Pa'u o Hi'iaka, and then again in Darien Gee’s “Pele in Therapy,” a tale based on the legend of Pele’s exile. A.A. Attanasio, meanwhile, writes in the voice of Pele’s sister Kapo, who delivers a tale about the time she detached and threw her vagina from Hawai'i Island to O'ahu as a means of helping Pele escape from being ravaged by the Pig God Kamapua'a—and how that action created Koko crater. In “Rock of Ages” Christopher Kelsey mines the curse associated with removing rocks from Pele’s volcano, while weaving a poignant story about losing one’s belief and ho'oponopono, the Native Hawaiian ritual for righting a wrong. Finally, Marion Lyman-Mersereau’s “Ahiwela” explores Pele’s jealous nature as she writes about the extent to which the goddess will go, once she has set her heart on someone, regardless of the cost to another.

Macmillan retains the broad strokes of the myth’s original narrative: Pele leaves her little sister Hi'iaka in the care of two babysitters as she searches for a safe place to live shortly after arriving in Hawai'i. She then expresses her gratitude by bestowing a name on one when she returns to collect Hi'iaka. Trading on our contemporary obsession with celebrity, Pele’s goddess becomes, in Macmillan’s adept hand, a beautiful hot-headed movie star, hounded by paparazzi and rumors of bad behavior. The two babysitters, originally a shrub and a vine, are here envisioned as two unknown actresses, one in desperate need of self-confidence—which Pele confers upon her in the form of a memorable stage name. Gee, meanwhile, envisions a different kind of Pele encounter: in “Pele in Therapy,” a series of therapy sessions between a frustrated goddess enables/requires a lovelorn therapist to move on after being betrayed by an unfaithful husband. If these first two imaginings of Pele focus on her unpredictable benevolence, Kelsey’s and Lyman-Mersereau’s versions concentrate on Pele’s fiery destructive qualities. Taken together, we are presented with a dynamic portrait of this powerful and changeable force whose moods impact the Islands’ residents and visitors alike on a daily basis.

Thomas’s collection belongs to a continuum of interventions that have been taking place in Hawai'i since the Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the 1960s initiated a broad revitalization of traditional cultural practices, while empowering its cultural practitioners—musicians, hula dancers, historians, folklorists, and writers alike—to re-claim Hawaiian knowledge practices. The stories Thomas collects here provide important links to the oral tradition that are at the foundation of a Hawaiian worldview, but whose innovations make them relevant for today’s urban Island populace. It is an imaginative process that refuses an ahistorical treatment of Hawai'i’s rich mythic heritage: “Thus do traditions continue and thrive” (viii).

In addition to the authors I’ve mentioned above, other contributors to the anthology include Alan Brennert, Ku'ualoha Ho'omanawanui, Maxine Hong Kingston, Wayne Moniz, J. Freen, Gary Pak, Christine Thomas, Victoria Nalani Kneubel, Robert Barclay, J. Arthur Rath III, and W.S. Merwin.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.