By JEFF GERE, printed in STORIES (Spring ’95)
The Western Storytelling Newsletter
For the past five years I’ve been collecting and retelling supernatural tales told to me by Seniors on Oahu. When I tell these stories, I sketch the setting and the tellers and ‘become’ them in gait and speech, using the local pidgin dialect. The stories, both funny and scary, remain popular here in Hawaii with all ages and varieties of ethnic audiences.
On a 1994 tour of Los Angeles with blind Hawaiian teller Makia Malo (survivor of Hanson’s Disease, or leprosy) our set with the Long Beach Storytellers closed with a question-and-answer period where my right to tell these oral histories was questioned. A similar problem came up at the Pacific Islands Festival in Long Beach. At a Hawaiian Ho’olaulea Islander gathering at the Carson Civic Center, I stood backstage as Makia finished his set. The Hawaiian MC turned and said, “what you doin’ bruddah?” “I’m up next, gonna mo’olelo, tell stories.” “ Huh? You aint BROWN enough to talk here bruddah.” I was being held accountable for the grim white ‘haole’ history in Hawaii. Whites (me) came to Hawaii with our God, killed the whales, infected the people, grabbed the land and government, and got rich on sugar. I did that and I must face this history daily in Hawaii. Who else can be held accountable? I understood. Hurt and offended, I understood and sat down. It’s amazing I’m as welcome and celebrated as a storyteller in my home, but not on the mainland by some whites and some browns.
Do people who live in Germany, or speakers of German, tell Grimm Fairytales better? I’ve seen tellers reinvent Anansi tales gleaned from a book, while I, sharing Hawaii’s contemporary folk tales shared with me, am looked upon with suspicion. How else would you hear these stories? You would never hear the tales I tell from the original tellers: you’ve not earned the right.
Abby, an old woman in the Waimanalo Alu Like Meal Center told me a long story about a stone which changed its shape to prevent a murder. The context addresses cross-cultural love between a Hawaiian girl and a Japanese boy. Fascinating! While the woman spoke, I took a few notes. She noticed, asked, and I explained that these few words would help me remember her story. She paused, scowled, and finally said, “I no mind you tell da story, so long you tell ‘um right. Hell, da story gonna die wid me anyway- my kids no care- so you tell ‘um. But you gotta tell ‘um RIGHT.”
If it is not my place to tell these tales, if these stories were never meant to be told outside the family, then why do the Elders share them with me? I am not Hawaiian, but I feel part of Hawaii. I’ve spent twelve years of adult life here. My friends are here. My children have no other home. I’ve been taught the cultural contexts by asking and reading and asking more. I’ve worked to understand. And I accept the stories shared with me as gifts. They’re just too good NOT to tell them, exceptional drama. They’ve gripped me and my audiences for years. ‘Culture’ is not simple or fixed. It may be fixed in museums, but not on the streets. It is an active, breathing, living creation. I am proud to share these tales.
And yet, I am NOT Hawaiian. There is an aspect, sensibility and orientation that they have which I’ll never understand. I toured with Hawaiians for years, and I am fine with this. Still, it’s the STORIES, the STORIES are so good and they’re NOT being told! And there’s that nagging, gnawing little voice which all crossers of cultures come to know if they’re honest with themselves. It accuses me of trespassing, of putting on a grotesque parody, of being a superficial predator. I’m a shallow thief with a clever mouth. Well, after a month with this nagging voice, I decided to go find out if it’s true.
I returned to the Alu Like Native Hawaiian meal center, spoke of the Los Angeles trip, of the challenges to my telling, and that I‘d returned to get their opinion. I told them Abby’s tale, and she was there. When I finished, a heavy old Hawaiian man with a huge beard stood up. “I dunno about everybody else, but as for me… YYEEAAHH! You go, bruddah! Dat was GOOD!” The Center’s director, to applause, asked me to come back monthly. Old woman came up to give me leis. Abby beamed, stuck a paper with her phone number on it into my hand, and said, “I got A LOT o stories!” A frail, thin, white-bearded man took me outside and told me stories for an hour. After each tale, he made me repeat the tale and list the tales he’d told me earlier. Why? To make sure I tell ‘um right.
I cannot change history, but I can add to it my life’s tale. I celebrate the tales and tellers of Hawaii as performer, promoter, and public servant. You are welcome. Aloha.
NOTE: I discovered and reviewed this story in 2007. It was written in 1995. I made only minor changes. I still tell lots of true supernatural of Hawaii. I’m working on my 4th CD in the Haunted Hawaii Series.