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

Imperial Dis-ease: Normative Constructions of Race, Health, and Otherness in Jack London’s “Koolau the Leper”

Michael Oishi, Leeward Community College

This paper examines Jack London’s short story “Koolau the Leper” against a history and cultural politics of U.S. imperialism that transforms the story from a simplistic, naturalist romance into a revelatory biopolitical allegory concerning the colonial management of Native Hawaiians on the eve of the U.S.’s overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Proposal: 

This essay investigates the colonialist logics informing the short story “Koolau the Leper” (1912), Jack London’s fictionalized account of the armed resistance of Kaluaiko‘olau, the Native Hawaiian paniolo (cowboy) stricken by Hansen’s Disease who, in 1892, violently opposed the American provisional government’s attempts to exile him to the famed Kalaupapa “leper colony” on the island of Moloka‘i.  Though frequently interpreted as a simplistic, naturalist romance chronicling Ko‘olau’s vain attempt to maintain his individual liberties in the face of an emergent and irrepressible western modernity, this paper argues that “Koolau the Leper” must also be read against a history and cultural politics of U.S. imperialism that transforms his story from a stock archetypal fiction into a revelatory biopolitical allegory concerning the colonial management and disciplinary organization of racialized subjects in Hawai‘i on the eve of the U.S.’s overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

As an important colonial acquisition with a uniquely heterogeneous racial, ethnic, and national population, Hawai‘i emerged as an important test site for U.S. cultural strategies of imperial disavowal, colonial containment, and diversity management in the nineteenth century.  Key to these strategies was the rewriting of Hawai‘i’s social and literary history—histories that writers such as Jack London would attempt to recast, through his influential short story “Koolau the Leper,” in ways that would attempt to justify the genocide and dispossession of Native Hawaiians by figuring them as antithetical to normative constructions of subjectivity and health in the U.S.  Juxtaposing London’s fictional narrative with Pi‘ilani Kaluaiko‘olau’s first-person account of her husband’s resistance, this paper explores how contagion, in the form of Hansen’s Disease, emerged as a literal and symbolic site for the application of U.S. governmentality and state racism—the result of what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben refers to as a “state of exception,” where questions of citizenship and individual rights are diminished, superseded and rejected under claims to state emergencies.  In this way, “Koolau the Leper” underscores the complex cultural technologies used to maintain, reproduce, and contest U.S. imperialism, reminding us of the symbolically central position of Hawai‘i in discussions of colonialism, imperialism, and globalization.