Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Colony by John Tayman

All authors have an agenda. Some are more successful than others at balancing out their presentation of their material but slant is inevitable and unavoidable.

Reading The Colony on the heels of Moloka'i places the differing perspectives of the two authors in stark juxtaposition. Alan Brennert tells a story that downplays the hardships faced by the exiles on Molokai. John Tayman details a history of the settlement fraught with suffering.

Neither is necessarily inaccurate.

Tayman is clearly trying to make a point. He is attacking a system, inspired by fear and ignorance, which segregated innocent victims of a disfiguring disease. In chapter after chapter, he provides graphic examples of the wrongheadedness of the policy of segregation. His is an indictment of the system which dehumanized those infected with the leprosy germ.

In order to accomplish this end, he highlights the sensational accounts of the time which inspired fear in the general population. He repeats the contemporary descriptions which often use terminology now seen as highly insulting and offensive. He describes how Jack London was used in an attempt by those trying to encourage Hawaiian tourism to publish a white-washed portrayal of Kalaupapa.

And yet, even while focusing on the horrors, Tayman manages to also tell an inspiring tale of survival, perseverance and even hope by spotlighting individuals' stories. Rather than simply presenting the data and facts regarding the settlement, Tayman wisely brings us the stories of a number of the people affected by the Hawaiian government's misguided attempt to halt the spread of the disease. Tayman introduces us to people who faced outrageous circumstances with grace, humor and faith. I came away with a feeling of deep admiration for these individuals.

Due to Tayman's agenda, The Colony has inspired some controversy. Three of the individuals portrayed in the book, two of whom had been cooperating with the author, have denounced the book in no uncertain terms. Tayman briefly mentions these issues in his Notes and Acknowledgements and a little internet research brings up newspaper articles with more specifics.

I can't imagine, though, that any writer of recent history can possibly please all those affected by the history being presented. It appeared to me that the complaints were based on an inability to separate Tayman's criticisms of the policies from his admiration for the majority of the residents of Kalaupapa.

There is additional criticism of Tayman and his publisher due to their choices for the cover photography on both the hardcover and paperback editions. The hardcover edition featured a photograph of Italian cliffs while the paperback edition, while at least using a photograph of the cliffs of Molokai, flips the photo and (at least according to this website) doesn't credit the correct photographer.

I find these issues troubling in that, in my opinion, lack of attention to these sorts of details are likely to be indicative of a further lack of attention to detail. Attention to detail is important in a well-researched historical work.

Tayman does an admirable job of accomplishing his purpose in a way that is readable and engrossing. Moloka'i presented a rose colored glasses view of the settlement and The Colony provides a view which reminds the reader that while it's a beautiful place and the residents don't want to leave, they didn't originally go there willingly either.

If I am able to visit Kaluapapa as hoped, I will be careful with references to The Colony. The bookstore there does not carry the book, bowing to the wishes of the remaining residents.

No comments: