Books

Behind ‘Moana’: 5 of the Best Books About Hawaii

Chocolate-covered Macadamia nuts, tiki bars, Magnum P.I., “Here today, gone to Maui” t-shirts.

Traditionally, depictions of Polynesia relied on some of its most tepid, if ubiquitous, exports. The creators of the new Disney feature “Moana” were terrified of relying on the same clichés in their portrayal of a headstrong Polynesian princess — so worried, in fact, that they assembled a so-called Oceanic Trust of scholars, choreographers, artists, and linguists to ensure their film was as culturally sensitive, nuanced, and accurate as possible.

So, for example, the demi-god Maui, who in original depictions was bald, now boasts a crown of curly hair in the style of Hawaiian football player Troy Polamalu, since hair is considered a source of power in Polynesian myth. The attention to detail paid off: “Moana” is well on its way to breaking box office records, while critics are praising Disney, which doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to depictions of other cultures, for finally getting a clue.

Of course, one animated children’s film can’t erase centuries of misconceptions. For some of the best books about Hawaii, and to learn more about the islands that serve as location for the film, check out these novels and memoirs of Polynesia.

Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree by Albert WendtFlying Fox in a Freedom Tree by Albert Wendt

The Pacific Islands have a long and rich oral storytelling tradition, but up until recently, written accounts of their lands and peoples were largely the province of white, male writers who traveled to the islands in search of romantic adventures on white beaches with brown natives. One of the region’s best-known indigenous writers is Samoan novelist Wendt, whose novels and story collections describe the clash of cultures between Pacific Islanders and the forces of modernity. In this collection, he writes about families struggling with internal strife, shifting cultural identity, and the encroachment of the 21st century.

Typee, Omoo, and Mardi by Herman MelvilleTypee, Omoo, and Mardi by Herman Melville

Before he told the tale of a man obsessed with an elusive whale named Moby Dick, Melville spent time on a whaling ship in the South Seas before deserting ship to live in Honolulu and Tahiti, then returning to Boston, where he wrote of his adventures in the South Pacific in these three books. While readers may blanch at his depiction of Polynesian ‘savages’ and the writer’s stereotypical description of island life, these stories reveal how much of the rest of the world viewed Polynesia for most of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Tales of the South Pacific by James MichenerTales of the South Pacific by James Michener

Like Melville, Michener was a white man writing about an indigenous culture whose fictionalize accounts hugely influenced popular conception of a people and place. This book, the first by the writer of historical family sagas, was the basis for the hit musical and film South Pacific. Set on the eve of World War II, the story does include an interracial romance and condemnation of prejudice, as well as ample history of the islands from ancient times.

The Descendants by Kaui Hart HemmingsThe Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings

In this novel by Hawaiian-born Hemmings, the prosperous descendant of a missionary and a Hawaiian princess must decide whether or not to sell the family’s land, lucrative property developers would love to turn into a resort. Hemmings limns the lingering tensions from the islands’ legacy of missionary reformers, and the indigenous culture they despoiled.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah VowellUnfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Vowell is a frequent public radio contributor and author of irreverent books on American history. Here, she goes to Hawaii, where she blends research on the history of the islands with an examination of some of the most pervasive myths about the islands, and explores how both locals and outsiders perpetuate these inaccuracies. Well aware of her own interloper status, Vowell sifts through what makes Hawaii, birthplace of the current president, uniquely American, while still a world unto itself.