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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 12, 2006

Tayman misrepresents, stigmatizes Kalaupapa

By Keri A. Inglis

Father Damien's original grave was next to his church on Moloka'i's Kalaupapa Peninsula, where the Belgian priest lived, worked and died.


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Because of recent questions surrounding the amount of truth versus fiction in his memoir "A Million Little Pieces," author James Frey was not only confronted by talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, but also by an important issue involving the publication of nonfiction.

Now, that issue has found its place here in the Islands, as concerns and controversy grow over John Tayman's book, "The Colony," which tells of the history of the leprosy settlement on Moloka'i.

The concerns, from those who are knowledgeable about the history of leprosy in Hawai'i, or about Hawaiian history, or who know the residents of Kalaupapa, are many.

There are three that I would like to address: Concerns over the amount of artistic license used in a work of historical nonfiction; the use of the term "leper" in this or any history of the disease; and the use of current residents' life stories.

Authors and historians want people to read their work, to be compelled by the very stories that motivated their research. Being creative is an important, but delicate, part of the writing process and good storytelling is an important part of good history.

However, when that storytelling depicts a group of people (in this case those with leprosy) or a culture (in this case, Hawaiians) in such a manner that it reinforces stereotypes, stigmas and the colonizers' perspective(s), it is not only insensitive to the memory of those whose stories we have chosen to tell, but it is also irresponsible and disrespectful to that past.

The job of historian, whether writing or telling, comes with a sacred responsibility when reconstructing and representing the lives of any individual or group. No one will do it perfectly. But it should be approached with humility, sensitivity, reverence, and respect.

As much as his history is meant to tell the story of those who suffered from leprosy, the tone of Tayman's writing continually sensationalizes and stereotypes people and the disease and relies on sources who were known to sensationalize their accounts.

Certainly, each historian can look at the same sources and will have his or her own interpretation of the historical record. But many of Tayman's descriptions are loosely "based on" archival records, leaving his statements and conclusions speculative and misleading at best. Hopefully, readers will look to his footnotes in which some discrepancies, the use of secondhand accounts and the rearranging of chronology of events become evident.

Tayman is a writer, not a historian. His research seems thorough, but he privileges the accounts and voices of those who were in power, or had positions of power, without questioning their motivations or agendas.

His initial intentions and motivations may have been sincere when he began this project, but his work lacks scholarly analysis, and meaningful cultural and historical contextualization. His understanding of Hawaiian history is poor, he is dismissive of the role of kahuna, kokua, and Kanaka Maoli beliefs in this history, and his descriptions of the Hawaiian monarchy are appalling.

What disturbs me the most, however, is not so much Tayman's work as an individual, but what that work represents another presentation of an arrogant western attitude that allows a researcher to come to the Islands for a short juncture and then leave with the attitude (an attitude accepted by his publisher and audience) that he is an authoritative voice on this history, which is by no means "complete," as the jacket cover would have a reader believe.

Tayman and his publishers are essentially reinforcing a colonization process of the most dangerous kind, the colonization of the mind. Further, his reconstruction of this past only serves to objectify those individuals who had leprosy, marginalize Hawaiians and their history, and privilege the haole (foreign, western) perspective.

It also distresses me that he and his publisher are content with a citation style that leaves the careful reader questioning his research and accuracy. The casual reader will probably read the preface of his book in which he explains some of his methodology and reasons for using specific terminology. But it is unlikely that most will read his acknowledgments curiously placed between the photo credits and index in which he alludes to some of the controversy surrounding his use of sources, namely the objections by current residents of Kalaupapa who have spent their lives trying to educate people about leprosy.

Tayman does explain in his preface that he has chosen to use the term "leper" in its "historical context, or as part of a direct quote." I do not question his use of the term in direct quotation from historical documents. However, its use in "historical context" when the writer is putting history into his own words, is problematic. Words are powerful, and anyone who has researched this history should be sensitive to the particular power and pain of this word. Tayman could have used other descriptions to refer to those individuals with leprosy in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Its use, even when describing times during which the term was used freely, only serves to perpetuate the stigma and foster misunderstanding. For example, a quick glance at reader reviews on Web sites such as Amazon.com demonstrates that people are learning more about the history of leprosy in Hawai'i and are being moved by the stories told. That is good.

But the number of reviewers who chose to use the offensive terminology in their review also demonstrates that an understanding and sensitivity to the term and its use was not achieved by Tayman's readers.

I know many of the residents of Kalaupapa. It hurts me to hear that term used today because I know that it hurts them. It is irresponsible to perpetuate the use of such an offensive term, even in "historical context;" it dehumanizes and objectifies the sufferers of a disease.

Further, in his interview on NPR during which he mispronounced Hawaiian names and allowed his host to continue to use the term "leper" repeatedly, without taking the opportunity to clarify to her and the national audience the hurt associated with that term Tayman only reinforced his apparent insensitivity, disrespect, or arrogance toward Hawai'i, its history, and the history of the people of Kalaupapa.

Finally, three of the four individuals featured in the last part of Tayman's book residents of Kalaupapa and former patients asked Tayman and his publisher to remove them from his book before its publication. In one case, the individual had not given his permission to have his story told by this writer; the others objected to the title and the direction the written accounts had taken.

Legally, Tayman and his publisher have followed the rules to be able to use the stories of our friends at Kalaupapa. But to me, Hawaiian, local and Kalaupapa culture all dictate that these kupuna should be respected and have the final say as to who gets to tell their story.

In both word and action, Tayman has demonstrated that he does not understand he just doesn't get it.

The label of "nonfiction" gives the reader the notion that what is presented is "as it happened." Perhaps "based on true stories" would be a better description for Tayman's work, and less misleading to his readers. The public should be aware that this is not a complete history, that there is controversy surrounding it, and that his research, interpretations and conclusions are being challenged.

Meanwhile, there will always be more research to be done, other interpretations to offer and new books will be written. In other words, the process of "doing history" will continue on this very important subject, and let us hope we will all do a better job as we evolve in that process.