Our Islands, Our Future

Brandy Nālani McDougall recently took part in the W.S. Merwin Maui Conservancy Green Room Series. Led by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo and six other Pacific Islander poets, the event celebrated National Poetry Month. McDougall is now an established author who has deep Maui roots: originally from Kula, she graduated from Kalama Intermediate School in Makawao, and later Kamehameha Schools. Her most recent book, ‘Finding Meaning: Kaona and Contemporary Hawaiian Literature’ is the first extensive study of contemporary Hawaiian literature. It recently won the Beatrice Medicine Award for Scholarship in American Studies. Currently, McDougall is a University of Hawaii associate professor of Indigenous American Studies.

“In ‘Finding Meaning’, I examined a selection of fiction, poetry and drama by emerging and established Hawaiian authors,” McDougall said. “At the center of the analysis is kaona, the reference to a person, place or thing in a common experience and the intellectual practice of finding meaning that encompasses the symbolic and the figurative. I interpreted examples of kaona, by guiding readers through olelo no’eau (proverbs); mo’olelo (literature and histories); and mo’okū’auhau (genealogies). Kaona and indigenous stories connect the past to the present by unveiling complex layers of Hawaiian identity, culture, history, and ecology.”

Aside from her scholarship and poetry, McDougall is the co-founder of Ala Press, an independent press dedicated to publishing creative works by indigenous Pacific islanders. In addition, she currently serves on the board of managing editors of the American Quarterly, as well as the board of the Pacific Writers’ Connection. Her current research focuses on the aesthetics of indigenous women’s activist fashion within land and water protection movements.

“I am researching the role of visual arts in Hawaiian culture in addition to literature and theater,” McDougall explained. “Fashion in land and water movements plays a vital role in making a meaningful statement. For example, silk-screen t-shirts, hand-made printed shawls and other items made in Hawaii, make a difference. Fashion is sometimes seen as superficial; however, it puts Hawaiian women in the place of being educators in the community. Fashion is a way of carrying an important message about the āina.”

Understanding kaona in Hawaiian literature is a journey to find meaning in the lives of others, as well as the commonalities we share as humans in different cultures.

Brandy Nālani McDougall, University of Hawaii Associate Professor, Indigenous American Studies