Finding a narrative voice

My true birth name is Nāmākeha‘okalani—no more and no less. But since 1840, when the legislature required our people to use two names, including a “Christian” name in the manner of the haoles, I have gone by “Benjamin” Nāmākeha‘okalani. It is no matter. What matters is that I am ali‘i; noble blood runs through my veins.

Once There Was Fire, copyright 2016 Stephen R. Shender

When I began writing Once There Was Fire, I wanted to tell the story of Kamehameha’s rise to power from a Hawaiian’s perspective. For that, I needed a contemporary of Kamehameha’s to tell the story. I found one in Benjamin Nāmākeha‘okalani, whom I came across in a genealogy of Big Island ali‘i posted on Benjamin was identified in the posting as the son of Kamehameha’s favorite brother. As a nephew of the great Kamehameha, he seemed the ideal candidate for the job — especially since the real Benjamin (or Bennett) Nāmākeha‘okalani — who in all probability was not Kamehameha’s nephew — lived until 1859 and would have been familiar with important events that followed Kamehameha’s death in 1819.

Choosing Benjamin as Once There Was Fire’s narrator was a beginning. But identifying him and his bona fides was not enough. Benjamin would have to embody a Hawaiian sensibility peculiar to his era, and more specifically, the sensibility of an ali’i (Hawaiian noble) of his time. And this required more of him than telling the reader that this or that happened or so-and-so said this or did that. Benjamin would have to sound like a Hawaiian noble of his time. Moreover, because he was telling his story in English from the later perspective of the mid 19th-century, Benjamin would have to sound like an educated ali’i of that time.

As it happened, by the time I found Benjamin, I had already discovered a book that was one of my first and perhaps most influential acquisitions in an ever-lengthening list of Hawaiiana that now numbers more than 25 volumes — Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii, by S.M. Kamakau (Kamehameha Schools Press, 1992). Kamakau (1815-1876) was 19th century Hawaii’s foremost native historian. His work initially appeared as a series of Hawaiian-language newspaper articles that were translated into English 85 years after Kamakau’s death. First published in 1961, Ruling Chiefs was compiled from excerpts drawn from Kamakau’s newspaper columns. The style of those Hawaiian-language columns has been described as “florid.” Translated into “readable,” mid-20th century English, Kamakau’s writing still comes across as a voice from another time, as in the following passage:

It was during the time of warfare among the chiefs of Hawaii which followed the death of Keawe, chief over the whole island that Kamehameha I was born. Moku was the ruling chief of Hilo, Hamakua, and a part of Puna; Ke’e-au-moku of Kona and Kohala. Alapa’i-nui, son of Ka-uana, was living at the time on Maui …. When Alapa’i heard that the chiefs were stirring up trouble, he went to war on Hawaii against these chiefs, was victorious in battle against them, slew them, and united the island under his own rule.

If Benjamin’s narrative sounds somewhat stilted to the modern ear, it’s because he’s channeling the voice of S.M. Kamakau — further streamlined for a 21st century readership.


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