A web of themes, shaped by the angst of acculturation or assimilation, or by intergenerational conflict, or by a legacy of colonialism, or by continuing resistance to economic and cultural oppression, threads its way through the tapestry of much English-language literature written by Pacific Islanders.
Creative writing in English by Pacific Island writers, immigrants, and children of immigrants has been around since the islands had substantial contact with English-speaking people of the West. Evolution of themes over time in English-language Pacific Island writing points to significant development of attitudes and perspectives; fundamental themes, however, are remarkably similar.
Assimilation into Western ways and intergenerational conflict, for example, are old themes in literature of the Pacific Islands. James Chun’s short story “In the Camp” (1920) is one of the few accounts available concerning plantation life for early Chinese immigrants. Bessie Lai’s Ah Ya, I Still Remember (1976), recounts the experiences of Chinese immigrants after their arrival in Hawaii in 1859.
Much literature about Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia was written by outsiders. Among the seminal literary works published by Pacific Islanders, however, is Florence Frisbe’s Miss Ulysses of Puka (1948), an autobiographical story of a girl and her life with her grandfather on the island of Pukapuka. The first novel may be Makutu (1960), by Tom Davis and Lydia Davis. For the most part, however, poetry, fiction, and drama written in English by indigenous writers did not start to emerge until the 1960’s and 1970’s. This literature is part of the process of decolonization and the cultural revival taking place in the region. It was inspired by anticolonial struggles in Ireland, Africa, the Caribbean, and India, the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the international student protest movement, and the opposition to the Vietnam War.
In Hawaii, there is a literary history in English. Hawaiian literature is lively and vibrant and concerns itself with making a contemporary Asian American life in Hawaii. There are tales of settlers, generations, and languages. Western and Eastern traditions have blended in Hawaii, as have peoples of different ethnic provenance. A significant number of works, written since the 1920’s, is readily accessible in various literary journals and collections.
Pacific writing’s coming into its own was signaled by three events: the appearance of Albert Wendt’s anthology Lali: A Pacific Anthology (1980), a representative selection of prose and poetry in English from the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Samoa; the critical study South Pacific Literature: From Myth to Fabulation (1985), and the award-winning novel The Bone People (1985), by Keri Hulme. Works usually identified as marking the beginnings of an authentic Pacific literature also include Albert Masori Kiki’s autobiography, Kiki: Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime (1968); Vincent Eri’s novel The Crocodile (1970); Witi Ihimaera’s and Patricia Grace’s short story collections Pounamu, Pounamu (1972) and Waiariki (1975); and Wendt’s novel Sons for the...
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