115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“This is not Michener’s Hawai‘i”: Critiques of Development in the Works of Mark Panek and Chris McKinney

John P. Rosa, University of Hawai'i, Manoa

The fiction and non-fiction works of Mark Panek (UH Hilo) and Chris McKinney (Honolulu Community College) portray a gritty, 21st-century Hawai ‘i vastly different from that found in Michener's best-selling Hawaii (1959). More than being stories of underworld crime, their works critique residential and commercial developments funded by outside investors that displace Native Hawaiian and other local residents.


     More than fifty years after its publication in the year of statehood, James Michener’s Hawaii: A Novel (1959) is sometimes the only reference point for mainstream readers on the continental U.S. who wish to read more about the islands. Local authors based in Hawai‘i have largely gone overlooked. In the 21st century, Mark Panek (University of Hawai‘i at Hilo) and Chris McKinney (Honolulu Community College) present contemporary island life as much less optimistic than the multiethnic success stories found in Michener’s Hawaii.
     Panek and McKinney do not shy away from writing about the gritty underworld of Hawai‘i. Masculinist in tone, their works feature characters who come of age in the 1990s and early 21st century. Panek’s Hawai‘i: A Novel (2013) is explicitly at odds with Michener’s epic of historical fiction filled with tales of Native Hawaiian-missionary contact and Horatio Alger stories of plantation immigrants and their children who finally gained a measure of political power by the post-World War II years. Instead, Panek’s Hawai‘i is filled with stories of illegal gambling on UH football and the violence that comes with crystal meth deals – a topic that Panek knows extremely well via research for his award-winning non-fiction book Big Happiness: The Life and Death of a Modern Hawaiian Warrior (2011).
     Chris McKinney’s Yakudoshi: Age of Calamity (2016) is similarly based on real-life accounts of illegal drug trafficking. But unlike Panek’s works, McKinney’s six works of fiction trace the development of unrelated characters over the course of two decades. The main character of Bruce Blanc has been released from federal prison shortly before his 41st birthday – his yakudoshi – that in local Japanese tradition, requires a huge celebration in order to ward off bad luck for that ominous year. Bruce is just a few years older than John Krill, the thirty-something main character in McKinney’s Mililani Mauka (2009) who has “made it” by purchasing a modest townhouse in the community of the novel’s name – only to feel stifled and driven mad by living a bland suburban life in West O‘ahu.
     In the backdrop to all four works are markers of “development” – often mentioned as asides through the name dropping of consumer goods that come with American and global popular culture. At the core of these works, however, is a contemporary Hawai‘i where island residents have less and less control over where they live, work, and play. Agriculture – whether it be Native Hawaiian kalo lo‘i or sugar and pineapple plantations tended to by immigrants from Asia – is no longer central to island life. As Panek and McKinney reveal, control over land is the ultimate key to economic power. When agricultural lands are rezoned for residential and commercial development they hold tremendous investment potential – but only for a global elite. Stories of the islands’ underworld drive the action in Panek and McKinney’s works. But in 21st-century Hawai‘i, the real villains are venture capitalists who develop luxury condos, resorts, and retail environments – all of which are marketed to outside investors and never to local residents who call the islands home.