Thursday, May 25, 2023

Jasmin Iolani Hakes

Jasmin Iolani Hakes was born and raised in Hilo, Hawai'i. Her essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee. She is the recipient of the Best Fiction award from the Southern California Writers Conference, a Squaw Valley LoJo Foundation Scholarship, a Writing by Writers Emerging Voices fellowship, and a Hedgebrook residency. Dance has always been central to Jasmin's life and creativity. She took her first hula class when she was four years old and danced for the esteemed Halau o Kekuhi and the Tahitian troupe Hei Tiare. She worked throughout college as a professional luau dancer. She lives in California.

Hula is her first novel.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

There was never a question of what the title was going to be for this book. Ancient Hawaiʻi was an oral culture full of epic poetry and performative arts. Hula and chants were ways to pass down the histories and explanations of various people, gods and goddesses, geological happenings like volcanic eruptions and valleys chronically full of mist, of flora and fauna, and of other ancient practices. I wanted to write a story about my hometown of Hilo that somehow captured the complexities of contemporary Hawaiʻi, its subtle cultural nuances, and present it in all its layered glory. So in that way, Hula is not a book about hula, it is a hula, in literary form. The word Hilo means to braid, so I laid out the book in verses and weaved the stories together to present a Hawaiʻi that not a lot of people might be familiar with.

What's in a name?

I struggled with names. I wanted local names, ones that felt true to me, but I also wanted to steer clear of overused Hawaiian names or ones people would struggle to read and visualize. In the end, I tied each of the main characters to Hawaiian mythology. Hiʻi is short for Hiʻiakaikapoliopele, younger sister of Pele and patron goddess of hula, chant, and medicine. Her mother Laka pays tribute to the goddess Laka, the goddess of forest growth and hula, in that Laka is said to be the inspiration and origin of a dancer’s movement. The word Hulali means a shining surface or a reflector of light. Her grandmother Ulu is names after ʻulu the breadfruit, which in Hawaiʻi is a symbol of resilience and security.

It is from Ulu that Hulali inherits the mission of her life, the cultural stories kept safe and hidden from years of missionaries and commercial exploitation. Hulali must reflect and shine a light on those stories and life ways, Laka must keep it alive by embodying the physicality of hula itself, and so on.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

Enormously surprised. During my senior year of high school I went to school in the mornings and worked as a book shelver at the Hilo Public Library in the afternoons. I usually figured out a way to shelve all my books in under thirty minutes, leaving the rest of my shift open to hide from the librarians and read. I read indiscriminately, but there was always a part of me that longed for a book that reflected the world I lived in, full of island concerns and challenges, people who spoke and thought like me, and set in my hometown. I was used to people only talking about Honolulu or Maui, and when Hawaii was ever depicted in the media, it was never representative of Hilo.

In many ways I wrote this for my teenage self. I think she would have loved it!

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Even with years of editing, the beginning of Hula is more or less exactly as it was from the very first draft. What felt impossible was the ending. The historical milestones that are covered in the story are still unresolved for the most part – we still have a sovereignty movement fighting for self determination and international acknowledgment that America is illegally occupying the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, we still have the definition of a Hawaiian being laid out by America that is subtractive and requiring of a blood quantum minimum for land, we still have land being leased for enormous profit without the permission of Native Hawaiians – so when I was drawing near to the ending when writing the first draft I was loathe to artificially tie up all the loose ends in a way that is satisfying and expected of fictional stories.

In general, I think endings are harder for me because I write with an idea and then see where it leads me. I have found it is rarely where I think I’ll end up. So I find myself writing to find out what happens next.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Hiʻi, Laka, and Hulali represent different generations, and that was done very deliberately. Our opinions are so influenced by our context – what is happening in the news, what is going on with our parents and community as we’re growing up – and this story introduces you to the evolution of both the Hawaiian sovereignty movement as well as its cultural renaissance. What I wanted was for a reader to see the hows and whys of what led us to the Hawaii of today.

So there was always that to consider, but primarily I would say that I approached these women, their characteristics, their strengths and flaws and mannerisms, very much in relation to each other. Who they were as mothers and daughters revealed nearly everything you needed to know about them. And that was definitely something I connected to personally. I was raised by my mother and was always surrounded by aunties. I had a strong, very smart grandmother. In my memories, it was the women running the show. The stories I was told when I was little more often than not featured a female ancestor who was very much her own person. That subconsciously trickled into the way I approached raising my daughters when they were little. My sometimes challenging relationship with my mother also played a role.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Hula, certainly. I started dancing when I was very little, and that form of storytelling stuck with me. So when I wrote Hula the book, I wrote very much by ear, relying on cadence and rhythm to show me the way forward. The sway of the islands and the sing song of pidgin also very much inspired the story’s musicality – I wanted a reader to feel like they were experiencing the pace and feel of my hometown while they were getting to know it through the Naupakas.
Visit Jasmin Iolani's website.

--Marshal Zeringue