WHY I TEACH EPELI HAU'OFA
Read Epeli Hau'ofa's "Our Sea of Islands" here. The essay appears alongside other essays, fiction, and poetry in We Are the Ocean: Selected Works (University of Hawai'i Press, 2008).
I teach Epe’li Hau’ofa. Since beginning my position as a lecturer in post-colonial and world literature at Northern Arizona University, coming out of a doctoral program at UC Santa Cruz, I have taught Hau’ofa almost every semester, sometimes in several of my classes. Time and time again, I find myself turning to Hau’ofa to help address the themes and problems explored in my classes. From courses on island literatures, globalization theory, trans-Pacific literature to diaspora, across undergraduate to grad student communities, if students have worked with me, they have probably read “Our Sea of Islands.”
In part, I teach Hau’ofa because Hau’ofa was taught to me. However unconventionally, I know that Hau’ofa’s “Sea of Islands” churns within my scholarly genealogy, my intellectual DNA. As one of the mostly widely circulating and discussed pieces of writing in my doctoral community, taught by many of my most important teachers, Hau’ofa’s vision of the “nation-shattering
expansiveness” (Rob Wilson) of “Oceania,” has had a profound influence on my education and on my life, helping to shape my dreams as a teacher and scholar – how might I be an ally in the project of realizing Hau’ofa’s vision, of that “world of difference” which erupted from Kilauea before his eyes in 1993? While I haven’t always known if I can do Hau’ofa, or his vision of Oceania, the justice they deserve, choosing to teach Hau’ofa time and time again has been a way to stay rooted to what I’ve learned and what I believe.
But, over the years, as I have taught Hau’ofa, I have often wondered: What do my students get from reading “Our Sea of Islands.” How are students in Arizona, on the continent, away from Oceania, reading Hau’ofa? What does it mean to them? What is the relevance of “Our Sea of Islands” beyond the early 1990’s context in which it first circulated, within our present, or even, in relation to the future?
Hau’ofa’s vision has been celebrated for its unique mix of expansiveness and inclusivity. His world of “oceania” is eminently capacious, seemingly open and free for its inhabitants. While the main focus of “Our Sea of Islands” are the communities of Pacific Islanders in the Pacific and throughout the world, the essay, in my view, also relates to readers who may not be Pacific Islanders. Insofar I have had numerous indigenous students in my classes from the Pacific, I hope that being asked to read Hau’ofa might be an empowering experience for them as they enlarge their horizons in college. After all, Pacific Island students going to school on “the mainland” are living embodiments of the “Sea of Islands” about which Hau’ofa dreams, living away from the islands and from home, yet expanding the networks of oceanic connection here in college on “the continent.” As Hau’ofa, himself, remarked, “Our Sea of Islands” was meant to inspire Pacific Islanders of the future: “In portraying this new Oceania I wanted to raise, especially among our emerging generations, the kind of consciousness that would help free us from the prevailing, externally generated deﬁnitions of our past, present, and future.” (qtd in Wilson 13). Perhaps reading Hau’ofa, even in Arizona, can contribute to building that new “consciousness” for Pacific Islanders students, for they are the ones to whom Hau’ofa bequeaths this new future: rooted in the present, but premised on a renewed apprehension of the past and that “elementary truth known by most native Islanders: that they plan for generations.” (“Our Sea of Islands” 159). While this may not sound like a science fiction, Hau’ofa’s is a futurism of epic proportions.
But thinking about Hau’ofa in relation to the future can also take on grave apprehensions, especially when considering questions of climate science. Then, “Our Sea of Islands” can be read less in terms of the utopian possibilities as dystopian realities: of indigenous peoples bearing the uneven costs of ecological devastation in the Pacific and across the world. While Hau’ofa would like to see the globalization of the world’s economy in the post-World War II era as having “liberated” the peoples of Oceania from the nationalist borders drawn by “nineteenth century imperialism,” arguably, the lingering traces of colonialism, coupled with ongoing neocolonial penetrations of global capital into the islands, have also precipitated new displacements and dispossessions. How can the islands be said to thrive if, as in the case of the Hawaiian islands, they become increasingly unaffordable for indigenous peoples? How can the indigenous revive and practice their ways if the land and sea they cherish is ruined by pollution and exploitation? Further, while Hau’ofa may seem to romanticize the sea, when considered within the context of climate change, the figure of oceans rising, and of islands and littoral lands submerged, should give the reading of Hau’ofa a new sense of urgency. That is why those who may not be Pacific Islanders must also read Hau’ofa, for he writes of a history and a future to which we also bear responsibility.
While Hau’ofa has sometimes been dismissed for his idealism, we must also learn to read the stark realism beneath the surface of his words, especially as the waters continue to rise: "If the Ocean is killed, through pollution, through global warming and so on, then we are finished” (Freeing the Ancestors 75) This realization, like the ocean, is both metaphorical and material. “The Ocean is not just a concept, it's not an airy fairy sort of thing: it's physically ‘out there,’ and anything that affects the Ocean and the environment affects us too.” In drawing our attention to the sea and to the ancient seafaring traditions of Oceania, Hau’ofa leaves us both with a model for survival and sustainability, but also a project that can only be accomplished collectively, by those who find the sea of islands in themselves and choose to protect it for the sake of the future.
timothy j. yamamura