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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 21, 2006

Kalaupapa book engaging but annoyingly inaccurate

 •  Moloka'i book criticized as unethical, inaccurate
 •  'Colony' shines light for all stigmatized groups

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Staff Writer

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Editor's note: Island Life ran a feature story on "The Colony" on Jan. 30 and a review on Feb. 19.

On reading John Tayman's controversial Kalaupapa book, "The Colony" (Scribner, $27.50) I was reminded of another writer's observation that so much of Pacific history is written by people who showed up and started writing.

And as a result, they got so much wrong.

James A. Michener and A. Grove Day credited the classic South Seas author of a century ago, Louis Becke, with being the opposite: someone who first spent a lifetime in the Pacific, and then understanding the place began writing. Becke's work is made up of spare, harsh, compelling tales about real life rather than preconceptions and fantasies conjured up by writers whose imagination filled in for missing facts.

Tayman, a fine wordsmith with a magazine-writing background, showed up from the Mainland, researched extensively, and produced a book. It's interesting reading, and reviewers on the Mainland seem to like it. But for a seasoned Islander, it is full of annoying diversions, sections that are slightly off, and outright errors.

The difficulty starts on the cover, which shows a reversed and stretched image of Italian cliffs, meant to represent Moloka'i's cliffs though this is probably the publisher's fault, not Tayman's. Tayman's own flaws appear quickly.

On Page 1, he says "For 103 years, beginning in 1866, the Hawaiian and then American governments forcibly removed more than eight thousand people to a remote and inaccessible peninsula on the Hawaiian island of Molokai ..."

Well, first there is the issue of how inaccessible it could be if 8,000 people went there. Kalaupapa has always been accessible by canoe and boat, later by trail, and for decades, also by use of its airport. Second, forcible exile ended in 1949 that's 83 years, not 103.

Often the errors are simple, like saying that 'okolehao is made from the leaves of the ti plant. They call the stuff ti-root liquor for a reason.

He starts a chapter writing about a year in which the Islands' most popular song was "a nonsensical tune called 'My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii.' " There's nothing in the least nonsensical about that hapa-haole ditty. The English lyrics are plain and clear, and the Hawaiian lyrics, according to University of Hawai'i Hawaiian studies professor Carlos Andrade, are correctly used.

Tayman writes of the "terrifying" place found by the first exiles. Hansen's disease researcher Anwei Law, who has lived and worked at Kalaupapa, says the letters written by those first patients appear to contradict that.

"Early letters from the first group do not reflect this 'terror.' They received help from the kama'aina already living at Waikolu, Makanalua and Kalaupapa. In their early letters they ask only for things like a pot and calabash to carry water and even a newspaper," said Law, a critic of Tayman's book.

I guess I wish Tayman had spent more time listening to the patients themselves. He did talk to a few, but when they saw or learned about how Tayman was portraying the story of Kalaupapa, several patients asked to be removed from the book. He refused.

"I recognize that they do not agree with the editorial decisions I have made, and they do not endorse the book," he wrote. But he used his version of their lives anyway.

I wrote Tayman for comment on the book, and he first denied a series of errors I pointed out. Then he said he had documentation, but failed to provide it. Finally, he refused to let me quote from his denials.

The sense I have with Tayman is that he gathered an incredibly complex bunch of information, and without spending enough time to gain either perspective or context, started writing it down. In some ways, it's like his own critique of Jack London's "Koolau the Leper," which he says, "while veering greatly from the facts, is both sensationalistic and engaging."

That's why you won't find Tayman's book for sale in the Kalaupapa bookstore. Folks there prefer that their historical fiction be so labeled.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.