Poet and scholar Jamaica Osorio draws on the intricate framework of Native Hawaiian relationships to construct more inclusive ways of activism and being.
Text by Matthew Dekneef
Images by John Hook
Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio jokes that she peaked at 18 years old when she was invited to read a poem at the White House.
It was for the first-ever Poetry Jam in 2009, and she performed a piece titled “Kumulipo,” a searing lamentation for her Hawaiian roots, to a standing-room-only crowd.
“There is a culture, a people somewhere beneath my skin that I’ve been searching for,” she recited, as Barack and Michelle Obama and their two daughters, Malia and Sasha, watched on in spellbound silence.
In its final verses, she recited her native lineage in that successive style of a storytelling tradition which gives credit to each generation prior, an outpouring of ancestral names in Hawaiian echoing within the walls of the White House, that iconic and complicated symbol of America.
Honoring Native Storytelling
In the decade since, Jamaica has continued to honor those names with rigor and creativity. Indigenous epistemology, generational trauma, and cultural resilience have also remained themes in her work. Her intellectual energies revolved around researching the story of Hi‘iakaikapoliopele, an epic pan-island journey of the sister of the goddess Pele.
Through it, Jamaica examined the heroine’s relationship to another female character, her lover, Hōpoe. It culminated in an intersectional doctoral dissertation for which she coined the term “‘upena of intimacy” (‘upena meaning net or web).
Her study calls for a radical decolonial future in how to acknowledge relationships to one another and the land, where “intimacy is many bodied and overflowing,” she writes.
It is a poetic rebuke of “settler logics” of heterosexism, cis-hetero-partriarchy, and heteronormativity, and in its construction shows how weaving together the values of a pre-colonial Hawaiian world can simultaneously dismantle the systemic inequities of the current order.
There is an original version of the story and everything else is a deviation after that.
Like the women in the stories she recounts, Jamaica has many dimensions: poet, scholar, author, doctor, paddler, activist.
In an office at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, where she is an associate professor of political science, she spoke with Lei about relationships of all kinds—to writing, to family, and to new methodologies for exploring identity through literature.
I loved that you opened your dissertation, ”(Re)membering ‘Upena of Intimacies: A Kanaka Maoli Mo‘olelo Beyond Queer Theory,” with a poem.
Originally, I thought I was going to write a creative dissertation, which is just a fancy way of saying a book of poetry. It was going to be a translation of the Hi‘iakaikapoliopele mo‘olelo (story) through a series of poems from Hi‘iaka to Hōpoe, and telling that story. Then it became clear early on that while the poetry part was important, that’s not all I wanted to do. That opening poem [“He Mele No Hōpoe: A Dedication”] is the first I wrote for that series, which I wrote during my honors thesis at Stanford. It just seemed like the most genuine way to acknowledge where this project started; it began because I love poetry, because I fell in love with Hi‘iaka and Hōpoe. It just made sense. It’s the genesis.
Do you always start exploring topics through poetry?
I don’t necessarily think about something first through poetry and then have it change into this more “critical work.” The poetry in this sense just speaks to the fact that one of the most important things I think we do with the Hi‘iakaikapoliopele story is continue to tell it in new ways. One of the things I really struggled with while I was working on the dissertation is when people would ask me what it’s about. I didn’t have a clear sense about almost anything until I was done writing it.
I didn’t have a clear sense about almost anything until I was done writing it.
That’s what made it so unique to me. It doesn’t have the sense of trying to argue a point. You also interweave vignettes about your family, growing up in Pālolo, your father. It’s like you hold those personal memories as equal to the academic research.
One of the big arguments I’m making about Hawaiian literature—and it’s not even really my argument, I’m just reassessing the argument we’ve been talking about in Hawai‘i for a while—is the need to understand the multiple versions of our stories and not reduce them to a single idea of fact or history. I didn’t want to write a dissertation that said, “This is the only way you can think about it.” I wanted to write a book that says, “This is one brilliant, beautiful way we can think about this, it’s a part of our larger story, and there are so many other stories a part of said larger story I’m hoping you will go look into.”
That’s really the call towards the end of the dissertation, that so much of our concept of who we are as Hawaiians, especially when we talk about sovereignty and governance, is based in our Kingdom history. Our Kingdom history is really interesting and vibrant and powerful, but it’s such a short period of time and such a small part of our people’s narrative. I hope by the end it gets the reader to think, “This showed me a method of investigation through literature that I find valuable, and now I’m going to do my own investigation of mo‘olelo that I am in love with and see what lessons are there for us.”
You utilize memory in an interesting way in your work, almost like a strategy or a weapon.
I think of the act of remembering and insisting on remembering in the face of the way that colonialism systematically works to make us forget is an act of resistance. Everything that we come to remember, even if they contradict each other, is valuable in the struggle against erasure and the struggle against forgetting. In that way, I use memory as a weapon, for sure.
There was a verse in the poem that caught me off guard: “writing us into stillness.” That resonated with me, as someone who places a certain weight on Hawaiian texts in regard to education. There’s also the side of me completely aware of honoring oral histories. Did you grapple at all with this—of taking this sprawling, shifting mode of storytelling, and then locking it into a text?
Oh, man, you’ve just pointed out all my insecurities. One of the things our kūpuna grappled with, and we continue to, is how do we tell these oral stories in a way that can do different things when you’re speaking them, but in a written form. How do we still honor the movement of the tale and the movement of the story on the page? I think I’m going to be figuring that out for the rest of my life, how to tell a story in a way that leaves room for the story to not just transform the reader, but transform itself. In the poem, “writing us into stillness” is followed by “into silence / how it seems through them, we have been forgotten.” That’s a response not to the Hawaiians writing about the mo‘olelo, but these guys like Emerson, Thrum, and Westervelt who basically took these stories and wrote them in their own tradition and fixed people like Hi‘iaka, Hōpoe, and Pele into these one-dimensional caricatures. I think a lot of our work today is trying to undo and unlearn that.
What challenges do you face in accomplishing that?
Accessing our mo‘olelo is complicated because of the relationship between colonialism and the erasure of our language—that most Native Hawaiians don’t speak Hawaiian. The ultimate goal is that we continue to learn our language and continue to access the Hawaiian written by our ancestors. We’re also lucky enough that we have newer translations of these texts that we can read instead of these haole (foreign) people who really didn’t understand the story that they were telling. I’m not going to have my students’ first exposure to a story come from someone on the outside looking at us.
That’s something I’ve had to reckon with too, when it involves Hawaiian stories—the idea of an authoritative story.
Because we’re taught to think about stories in that way. As this linear thing. That there is an original version of the story and everything else is a deviation after that. I was working through that even at my time at Stanford—trying to separate the thinking of what is the most authoritative version of the story versus what is each version of a story trying to teach me based off of when and where it was published, who authored it. There’s a reason the stories are different. There’s a reason they have different focuses. If you can make space for that, the world opens up in a really beautiful way.
You’re from a family of storytellers. What was that upbringing like?
I tell people I hit the jackpot with my parents. My gender expression was always different. It was always a point of contention for other people. But I grew up in this family that was not just open-minded—they really fiercely celebrated different ways to think about love. That said, it was still hard to face the fact that I was going to love differently than what society expected of me. Most gay kids hope that their parents will accept them and still love them, but my parents celebrated it.
I often wonder about the stories our parents tell us in our youth, and how those stories shape us. Your dad, Jonathan Osorio, has such a noteworthy intellect. What stories were you being told as a child that most affected you?
The most meaningful and transformative story I grew up with was the mo‘olelo of the illegal overthrow of Hawai‘i. That characterized my childhood and it came to form the center of my identity: I’m Native Hawaiian, I’ve been wronged by the United States; I see a relationship between this violence and the trauma that my people continue to go through, and therefore I am an activist. That was the story I was told over and over, and believed—I make it sound like I was indoctrinated—but really that’s what I was surrounded with at a Hawaiian immersion school, and then at home. The interesting thing is my dad is this professor and musician and an activist, but I don’t actually remember him feeding me those lines. My dad was just there to answer questions. I was really lucky that as I was growing up, he also treated me like a peer. That started to shape my identity as a Hawaiian, as someone who seeks sovereignty in Hawai‘i.
The other thing about my dad is how he allowed me to figure things out for myself, while providing support on the way. By virtue of who made up the sovereignty movement, my dad put me in a position to see a lot of really powerful women, to grow up around Haunani-Kay Trask, Mililani Trask, Terri Keko‘olani, Moanike‘ala Akaka, and Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa, to see them being fierce. My dad was a giant to me, and yet these women somehow seemed even larger than this giant.
What’s your sense of where the next generation of Hawaiians are, as a people?
I think we’re brewing a revolution. I imagine the way that I feel to be similar to folks who were involved in the Protect Kaho‘olawe movement. The opportunity and the pain and the privilege of being in that moment. And I say that not to say that I feel as instrumental in change as those folks felt, but like I wonder what they saw when they looked around in that time, 1975, 1976, in this reawakening. Because I look around here, and I hear the way students are talking, I see people speaking Hawaiian out in the streets—when I grew up, you only spoke Hawaiian at your immersion school. That’s the only place you could speak. But now I hear it walking around campus. We’re in this really powerful moment, and Maunakea and the conflict against the Thirty Meter Telescope is going to characterize my generation in the same way that Kaho‘olawe characterized my father’s generation. This is our struggle and it is important, not just because Maunakea is important, but because it symbolizes our struggle and this moment. That is equally important for us.
A Poem for Moving Water
Give her a name for every morning you wake up thinking of her smile
for the way she seems to put stars in every single one of your skies
for the ways she makes you wish you were more of a woman
for the way she can burn and inch of you with her gaze and her silence
for how see seems to have given life to everything around you
for how you’d travel all the islands to find her
because you have heard of her beauty and you trust it
Take every moʻolelo you have ever read or heard
and find a place for it on the breath between your bodies
learn its purpose through her kiss
because you know now that this kind of memory is embodied
and when you are sure
call her Hiʻiaka
hold her in your chest
make sure she is the one you will keep
the one who will stay
When you run out of names
call her something heavier
call her Vaihere
for the parts of her that always move you
When you re-introduce her to your father
use the pronoun ku’u
because it fits
tell him that she is every moon you have carved on your skin
and you are every tide that follows
she is the morning you’ve been waiting to name
that most nights you are kept awake just by the thought of your lips on her temple
and that somehow
you found every single one of your gods
in the melody of her breath
tell him that she is real
and that you are ready
that she is Hiʻiaka
and you are Hōpoe
writing poems for every part of her body
about how you would burn under the weight of her mistakes
while planting songs in the form of yellow lehua trees
that the salt water between you
might grow something worthy of your love