On behalf of The Reader Organisation, novelist and Get Into Reading project worker, Mary Weston sends her congratulations to President Elect Obama and to the American people.
Here’s a picture from my 1977 High School Yearbook. Yes, my claim to fame is that I went to the same school as Barack Obama in Hawaii (middle row, third from left)! Punahou was founded in 1841 by Congregational missionaries from New England – the same religious tradition that Marilynne Robinson belongs to (and also, I assume, the character John Ames, in Gilead). Many of the essays in her book The Death of Adam challenge the lazy caricature of a oppressive, joyless Calvinism. In fact it was extraordinarily liberal, promoting an ethic of service and support for the weakest members of a community. I feel I can trace that tradition in the education I received, and see it reflected in Barack Obama’s values and oratorical style.
Hawaii was an interesting place to be in the seventies. It wasn’t a paradise of racial harmony as it was sometimes portrayed, but at least every group there was a minority. The Chinese were, per capita, the wealthiest ethnic group. The Japanese had a hegemony in the dominant Democratic party (you may remember Senator Dan Inouye, who chaired the Iran-Contra investigation. Well, you will if you’re old enough!). Kanaka Maoli, the Native Hawaiian people, who had been reduced to a small minority by the same kind of cultural near-genocide that was unleashed on Native Americans, were just beginning to fight back. Nainoa Thompson, another Punahou graduate, was successfully navigating a replica of a Polynesian voyaging canoe across the Pacific, without instruments, using the stars and traditional knowledge of winds and currents. Other activists risked (and lost) their lives challenging military occupation of the islands. (I was playing slack key guitar for a University of Hawaii production of Twelfth Night, rewritten in the local pidgin dialect. No, seriously! ‘Da bugga was Excellent’).
The fusion of Hawaiian and Asian values produces a very different style of relating, much less brash and assertive than the general picture of the loud American. Individualism is tempered by the importance of the extended family, ‘ohana, which is perceived as extending forwards and backwards in time, connecting us, via our ancestors, with guardian spirits and Ke Akua, God. It is actually quite close to the way many African people see family. And the land, a’ina is seen as a living person, a chief to be served, not exploited. A leader’s dignity was measured in his humility.
Most of all, the Hawaiian value of Lokahi, achieving harmony through working righteously in conflict, shines out in Obama’s victory speech:
As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours: “We are not enemies, but friends… though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”
And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn – I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too.
And it was wonderful to hear this echoed by McCain, and even George W. Bush. Something wonderful has happened to America.
Mary Weston’s short novel The Junction is currently being serialised in The Reader magazine. Part one, published in issue 31 ‘Relative Time’, will be available to download from The Reader Organisation website in mid-November. Part-two will be available to read in The Reader 32 (available mid-November).