May 13, 2009
In Hawaii, Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl is known for January 1893, a five-act, nineteen-scene, fifteen-hour play inspired by the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Since the mid-1980s, the Native Hawaiian-Samoan author and playwright has been a political and cultural voice for islands that outsiders mainly know for their sparkling waters and active volcanoes.
This week, Kneubuhl will participant in the Smithsonian’s celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Tonight at 6:30 at the National Museum of the American Indian, she reads from and discusses her latest works “Hawai’i Nei,” an anthology of three plays, and “Murder Casts a Shadow,” a mystery set in 1930s Honolulu. This weekend, the Native Theater will perform Kneubuhl’s play about Christian missionaries and indigenous Hawaiian women, The Conversion of Ka’ahumanu. The performances will take place Friday, May 15, at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, May 16, at 2:00 p.m., also at the American Indian Museum.
Kneubuhl describes her work as being about the influence of the past on the present. I asked her more about what it’s like to be a literary ambassador.
The Smithsonian is a hotspot for cultural exchange, a theme in The Conversion of Ka’ahumanu. What’s your ideal for cross-cultural exchange?
In the context of my play, I think what would be ideal is that our work is shared with people from Hawaii as well as people outside our culture. One of the great things about bringing work from the islands to an outside community is that we get to showcase our culture and people get to learn about us through plays and literature and even performance.
What makes a play or book uniquely Hawaiian?
There are all kinds of books that are set Hawaii. But just because something is set in the islands, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s Hawaiian. I think literature that’s really Hawaiian is grounded in the history and culture of our community. Being from Hawaii, you can tell, when you read something, whether it has that authenticity.
One of the themes of the month has been the collision of multiple identities. When you write, which identities are you writing from?
It’s interesting. I’m super mixed. I’m part Hawaiian, part Samoan, my mother’s a bit Tahitian and I have lots of European strains too. I’m writing as myself and I’m all of those thing. I find it difficult to divide myself as a piece of pie and then point to one piece and say that piece is me.
I feel extremely grounded in the Pacific and the island cultures of Hawaii and Samoa. I have big families there. That influences everything I do and who I am.
Any Hawaiian writers you think should get more recognition?
One I can think of is Mahealani Perez-Wendt. She’s a native Hawaiian poet and fabulously sensitive. Also Brandy McDougall, who is another wonderful native Hawaiian poet.
And final thoughts about being at the Smithsonian during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month?
I’m excited to be here. I hope when people see or read my work that they’re interested in learning more about our island history and culture and that they see things from a different perspective.
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