Hawai'i, the Book Islands
By Marie Carvalho
Special to The Advertiser
By Marie Carvalho
Hawai'i is known more for Spam musubi than sonnets, for Kona coffee, not novels by Kona writers. Seven million tourists cram Hawai'i's beaches annually; for most, finding a great local bookstore or attending a reading isn't on the agenda.
And for the nearly 1 in 5 adults in Hawai'i who, according to Hawai'i Literacy, are functionally illiterate, reading isn't even on the radar.
It's no revelation when Benjamin "Buddy" Bess of Bess Press observes, "Hawai'i's not really known as a book-publishing mecca."
Yet the buzz is that the Islands are a book haven. According to Bess, Hawai'i is a regional publishing powerhouse: More books are published here, per capita, than in any other region nationally. It's fifth in book sales per dollar of retail square footage, says Blair Collis of Hawai'i Book Publishers Association. And in the past 25 years, O'ahu novelist and festival participant Ian MacMillan claims, "Hawai'i has had an explosion of good literary writing."
The inaugural Hawai'i Book & Music Festival has set out to spread that good word and to raise literacy awareness. What's on tap looks to be a tall glass of water for thirsty Island book lovers.
On Saturday and Sunday, the Honolulu Hale grounds will transform into a full-scale book fair. Tents will house readings by authors, panel discussions, slam poetry and children's theater performances, storytelling sessions, publisher booths, and — since it's Hawai'i — food and music.
Literary headliners include internationally renowned author Maxine Hong Kingston (of "Woman Warrior" fame), "Broken Trust" author Randall Roth, Kiana Davenport (whose "House of Many Gods" is a local best-seller), slam poet Steve "Kealoha" Wong, Lois-Ann Yamanaka and best-selling suspense writer John Saul.
MacMillan will participate in a panel discussion, "The Great Hawai'i Novel," which, he says, will "speculate on what that might be — it's certainly not James Michener's 'Hawaii.' It would have to be something that's written by someone who truly understands life here."
The festival's cooking and music tents will feature demos from the likes of Sam Choy, and performances by Brother Noland, Nathan Aweau, the angel-voiced Makana and others.
A Hawaiian cultural pavilion will offer "a theater of ideas about the Hawaiian cultural renaissance," says Roger Jellinek, a literary agent and festival programming chairman.
Bess likens the fledgling festival to its more seasoned counterparts in New York and Los Angeles. Book fairs have skyrocketed in popularity, successfully raising a community's literary pulse.
Locally, the idea floated around for years — some say decades. As Bennett Hymer of Mutual Publishing remarks, "It's overdue."
So why did it materialize now?
With the local economy on an upswing, and regional publishing blossoming (thanks partly, speculates Bess, to the Internet), Hawai'i was ripe for such an event.
As luck would have it, so were organizers. In 2004, two groups — whose leaders included Bess, Blair Collis of the Hawai'i Book Publishers Association, and Brian Melzack of Bestsellers Books & Music — converged to spearhead the project.
"Somehow, the ideas really clicked," says Bess.
Organizers took cues especially from Miami's book fair, which incorporates dance, music and food to highlight the region's multicultural mix. Initially, the decision to include music — an oral tradition — divided the festival board.
Collis, the board chairman, admits, "It was a close vote."
Several members expressed concern that adding major elements such as music would dilute the festival's literacy message.
Others fretted that books alone would be a less dramatic draw — and compromise the festival's success. That dire outcome would be unlikely, argues Bess, whose publishing experience suggests that the many literary genres widen books' appeal.
To advocates, music was a culturally appropriate way to broaden the festival's context. Hymer muses, "Here, we have Hawaiian music. There's no such thing as 'New York music' or 'L.A. music.' ... It just seemed natural."
Kathy Chen of Hawai'i Literacy, a festival beneficiary (along with Read to Me International), also notes that music and writing are entwined in Hawaiian song lyrics.
Bess concedes, "The music will attract more people, and that'll be good for the books."
According to Collis, festival bylaws limit music to between 25 percent and 40 percent of total programming. Mostly, he says, the event aims to "convey something about being human that goes beyond books and music — we're all storytellers."
Ultimately, the festival's goal is literacy. Almost 20 percent of adults in Hawai'i can't perform basic tasks such as writing a check and filling out a job application. That deficiency, says Collis, "affects every aspect of our community," from crime to drug use to health.
People often assume that Hawai'i's illiteracy problem stems from immigration. Not so, says Chen; the highest rate is among native English speakers. And illiteracy is not an equal opportunity offender, affecting 1 in 3 Native Hawaiians.
Social stigma is one of illiteracy's strongest allies. Chen reflects, "It's a hard thing to admit to ... there's a huge shame factor."
That reality can hit surprisingly close to home. After training to become an adult tutor, one Hawai'i Literacy volunteer learned that her sister was illiterate (the volunteer's commitment to the issue had prompted her sister to come forward).
Organizers hope the festival will inspire others to do the same.
"The context is Hawai'i," said Collis, "at the heart of it, we want to celebrate our traditions."