Paradise lost

On the plumeria-scented beaches of Hawaii, Tara Bray Smith grew up with a heroin-addicted mother, a broken family and the weight of colonial history.


Priya Jain
November 1, 2004 4:09PM (UTC)

Karen Morgan is a fifth-generation Hawaiian, a descendant of Mayflower settlers and once-wealthy sugar plantation owners, and a junkie. Turning her back on her aristocratic heritage, she spent her life struggling with a heroin addiction while raising her daughters in various boyfriends' houses, at friends' places, and sometimes in her car. In 2002, Morgan disappeared, and Tara Bray Smith, her second daughter, left her life in New York to look for her. She found her mother living homeless in a park in downtown Honolulu.

"West of Then" is Smith's memoir of her search for her mother -- both literally and metaphorically. The story jumps through time, from 2002, when Smith returned to her childhood home to urge Morgan to get into rehab, back to the 1970s, when she went to live with her father and stepmother, both of whom worked in the hotel industry. (Smith has three sisters, all by different fathers; two grew up with their mother, and one was put up for adoption when Morgan was 18.)

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Behind the memoir looms the history of Hawaii, from the first Polynesian settlements, through Captain Cook's arrival in 1778 (bringing diseases that wiped out 90 percent of the native population within 100 years), to the rise of King Sugar in the mid-19th century, when Smith's great-great-grandfather "drained a swamp and spun into money a particularly carbohydrate-rich member of the grass family." By the time Smith is growing up, a sense of white guilt plagues the youth culture of Hawaii, the post-colonial backlash expressed in the schoolyards through a racial hierarchy in which dark skin means you are a local and white skin means you're not. At the same time, Smith's grandmother clings to the family's bourgeois background.

Smith left Hawaii to go to Dartmouth and then Columbia, where she received her MFA, always keeping an eye on her home state from the mainland. Hawaii, or Hah-vy-ee, as Smith pronounces it, comes out in "West of Then" as the most schizophrenic of places. It is paradise, but in it lurks the rot of post-colonialism: endemic drug abuse and homelessness. From her home in Brooklyn, Smith, 34, talked to Salon by phone about her family, her book, and what it's like to be from the westernmost part of the world.

Now that the book is out, how is your family dealing with it?

It ranges. I just talked to my dad last night, and he's very proud and very excited and lets me know that it's big in Hawaii at the moment. There's a bestseller list they put out for Hawaii only, and many books on it are Hawaii-centric. People there like to read about themselves, because Hawaii doesn't make the national news very often.

My mom, to her credit, the last time I spoke to her, said, "I'm very proud of you, you're my daughter, I'm glad you did what you needed to do." My grandmother is confused and frustrated. I think the person that it's hardest for is my youngest sister, who's living there right now. She's my sister, and she wants to be on my side and wants to be proud of me, but I think it's difficult to get attention that you didn't ask for.

How's your mom doing now?

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She's OK. She checks in here and there.

Is she still in treatment?

No, she's not. She really struggles. I have a tremendous amount of concern, and probably guilt, because I worry that this [book] will just make things worse. You write a book and you think the truth has the capacity to transform situations. And even now I think maybe this will make things better. I don't know what else to do.

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How is Hawaii intrinsic to the story of your family?

You know, the No. 1 book on the bestseller list in Hawaii is Barack Obama's "Dreams From My Father," because he grew up there. And I remember from the last "American Idol" there was a girl from Hawaii named Jasmine. People from Hawaii would call in. They had a representative there -- [Hawaii] had broken through the national consciousness. People don't even think about, or at least, people in culture-making centers don't think about Hawaii -- unless it's to exoticize it.

The insularity of Hawaii is very interesting to grow up in, and very interesting to leave and look in on. I was trying to look at that insularity and how it worked itself through my family, and also this idea of -- it's very subtle in the book -- but this idea of how far you can go, what a personal investigation of Manifest Destiny is. That's where I went thematically, that's the largest story in the book, and it has to do with Hawaii explicitly. Because this place where my family had their plantation was the furthest west you could get, other than the Aleutian Islands. So I think the two stories are really inseparable.

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You mention the idea of Manifest Destiny in relation to both Hawaii and your family. Can you explain that?

I had heard that term in history class, and I had this sense growing up that our relation to the mainland was so strange. We're the 50th state, we're certainly American, we're patriotic, Pearl Harbor happened there, and there's a huge military presence in Hawaii. And yet it's also really very distant, both literally and also in seeing yourself replicated in media. I'd watch "Sesame Street" and wonder, who are those people? It didn't represent anything in my experience.

My great-grandmother turned 100 about 10 days before the centennial of Hawaii's annexation, so I started putting a lot of this stuff together. I ran across this guy who coined the term "Manifest Destiny" in the 1840s [New York journalist John O'Sullivan], who said that America's future [spreading democracy] was not only perfect and unstained and angelic and God-blessed, it was also conceivable that you could actually see it. Not only was it your fate, you could actually grasp it.

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[That connects to] the way Americans want to always have a new beginning. They don't want to get to the end of something -- they continuously have this bright optimism about the future. With my mom, I wanted to talk about what happens when you get to the end of a certain road and have to deal with what you've created and what you've wrought in history. And when I was writing the book, I realized that I myself had been sustained by ideas of renewal and promise. Those aren't bad ideas, but they're not always possible. Experiencing what it was like to watch my mom fall apart -- at a certain point, you have to deal with what's there. There's hope, but it's maybe a more realistic hope.

You write that on an island, "One feels to be at the center of something -- all that ocean around, like a frame." But there's such a sense of isolation in the book; even current events seem to be happening outside the frame.

There is a sense that we're separate. On the one hand we were at the center of this very important mission militarily [the ballistic missile defense program, or "Star Wars"], and also the place functions as this paradise for a lot of Americans. You're both weirdly important and not at all. In that particular statement, "all that ocean around, like a frame," I was thinking of personal mythmaking and the sense of protection we create for ourselves. From my mom's family I heard this kind of mythmaking of "we're very important," and "back in the old days." To leave [is to] realize how not important it all is -- not only this story and this family, but this whole place.

The subtitle of your book is "A Mother, a Daughter, and a Journey Past Paradise." If you can pinpoint one moment, when did Hawaii begin moving into post-paradise mode?

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The whole point there is to acknowledge that trope of paradise. That's in everything you read about Hawaii.

But it also suggests that at some point, everything went wrong.

Yeah, and I think that was my idea of it when I started the book. Where did it all go wrong? The first thing that comes to mind is Pearl Harbor, certainly, but it has to be before that too, because to Native Hawaiians, the moment that Captain Cook came over the horizon, that was the beginning of their [population] decline. In the whole formulation of paradise, there's the question, where did it end? And I think through the writing of the book I began to think, is there such as thing [as paradise]? Is there a place out of time, when you're going to absolve all your cares? I don't think that exists.

Although you don't talk about it in exactly these terms, there's a sense of karma to your mother's and Hawaii's decline.

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I definitely think I believe that. You know, to grow up with hippie parents going "oh man, my karma" your whole life, you really start to believe it! There were times when I thought there was a curse on us because of what we did on the sugar plantations [exploiting local labor] and whatnot. But I've been questioning my own thinking about that kind of thing. In this world, where for instance the debate over Iraq is placed in nearly religious terms, it's really tempting to believe that somehow we're going to get control over [the Middle East] and that it's our destiny. You know, that all comes from that idea of Manifest Destiny, that we're the chosen people to lead the world into the next iteration. And I think we're seeing how devastating the other side of that is, too.

There are some tough moments in the book, like when your mother can't be admitted to the hospital for treatment because she knows her own name, and so therefore she's not psychotic enough. The social welfare system seems to be quite bankrupt. Do you feel that the state let down your mother?

It's so funny, because my father just read me a review [of my book] from this paper in Hawaii called the Maui News, and the writer said, there are 43 million people in America who don't have health insurance, and yet Karen Morgan is one who does, out of your taxpayer's money!

My mom is so lucky that Hawaii has state health insurance. I can see how inundated [the state is] with people like my mom, who are a real drain on the resources. But it's a really tricky situation there. You have [homeless] people literally coming to Hawaii because it's warm and it's much more of a humane place to be living on the street.

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Do I think she was let down? Sure, I definitely do. I wish I could find her a nice room where she could clean out and get her life back. [But it's only] when you get to the lowest rung where even your family can't deal with you, that's when the state steps in, or a private organization, and says, we'll take you. But she has family who want to know her whereabouts and want to help.

It's still so recent that it all happened. At the very beginning of these things, you think it can all change. It's been two years now that she's been homeless, and the more it goes on, it's like being chipped away at. I wish I could go to some efficient person behind a steel desk and say, please help me.

You're pretty restrained in your treatment of tourists in the book, but it must have been strange growing up in a place where most people only come to visit, and where all this stuff with your mom is happening in the background of other people's vacations.

There was nothing worse than a tourist! And we were kids, so tourists were easy targets because they just looked so... [Laughs.] In the book I say that tourists come and go as they please, they fall off cliffs, and get horrible sunburns and you pay as little attention to them as possible. That's obviously a total overstatement. The main industry in Hawaii is tourism and that's specifically geared toward making people have a good experience. And they do. Seven million of them a year have the time of their lives.

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When I was a kid, I think it actually made me feel better to have all these tourists coming and going, because at least I belonged to a certain extent. At least I was born there. That was a big deal growing up, where you were born, and I was born there in a small hospital in the country, and I felt, well, at least I have that. My mom has that, too. Feeling you're from a place is very comforting.

Even though you're haole [white]?

Even though I am haole, yeah. That was part of the journey of my book, too, because you do wonder if you [legitimately] get to be from there when you're white. And writing the book made me feel at least a tiny bit that I did, because it was a total love letter to the place where I grew up.

I always thought that, in touristy locations, the cultural things offered to tourists as authentic weren't really part of life in that place -- in Barcelona, for example, no one actually drinks sangria. But you write about leis and aloha shirts worn by locals. Are these authentically Hawaiian, or are they things spilling back from the tourist trade into the local culture?

You know, there are whole dissertations written on that subject, the commodification of Native Hawaiian culture and how that affects Native Hawaiians themselves. Hawaii is such a great place because there's all this layering of cultures. Leis as we know them now, with orchids and plumerias, which didn't even exist in Hawaii before Europeans arrived -- orchids maybe, but not plumerias -- that's part of the amalgam. But stringing flowers together and making leaf arrangements did [exist]. Hawaii has this special feeling about it, that there's this rich layering of experience. A place like New York is enriched in its own way, but its indigenous past has been almost totally wiped out except for a few pockets here and there.

Does that amalgamation extend to the language as well? You write, for instance, "Many names in Hawaii were made up by real estate developers."

Language there is a particularly complex issue, because it is something that Hawaiians felt had been taken away from them. They weren't encouraged to learn Hawaiian, they weren't encouraged to speak it, up until a certain point. The language was used only by old people and people in Nihau [a private island reserved for Native Hawaiians], for years. But recently it's had an incredible renaissance. There are Hawaiian immersion schools where some of the first graduates have now graduated, having started in kindergarten, and who speak fluent Hawaiian. It's so hard, because you don't want to fetishize nativism, but you also want to protect it. It's hard to see this diverse, rich, idiosyncratic culture get swallowed by America.

You say Hawaii is a "wing-nut state." Can you explain that?

Somebody said that to me in a bar once. I think it sort of means eccentric, not indicative of the main. But also being a wing, it defines one side of the debate, or one end of the spectrum. [Hawaii] is very deeply American. It's tolerant and ethnically mixed and historically minded. With also the insularity we talked about. It's constantly renewing itself in a certain way, while constantly keeping an eye on the past.


Priya Jain

Priya Jain is a freelance writer in New York.

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