‘Localism’ is settler colonialism: Leanne Day, Empire’s Imagination: Race, Settler Colonialism, and Indigeneity in ‘Local’ Hawaiʻi Narratives, PhD Dissertation, University of Washington, 2017


Abstract: My dissertation, “Empire’s Imagination: Race, Settler Colonialism, and Indigeneity in ʻLocal’ Hawaiʻi Narratives,” addresses the history of U.S. empire in Hawaiʻi, arguing that empire persists into the present through the structuring of contemporary literary representations of Asian migrants and Kanaka Maoli, the Indigenous population. This project intervenes into postcolonial studies, American studies, and ethnic studies as I rely on the optic of U.S. empire to reveal the concurrent processes of Asian and Indigenous racialization historically and in cultural memory. Through a comparative approach to Asian American studies and Indigenous studies, I demonstrate how Hawaiʻi operates as an opportunity to reckon with the determinative force of U.S. empire in the imaginative realm of aesthetic production. Contrary to the belief that contemporary literature’s imaginative force can transcend or repair the violence of U.S. empire restoring voice to those whom empire violated, I theorize the desire for literary representation as a legacy of empire. Furthermore, I argue for a more contradictory understanding of contemporary literature, one in which the history of U.S. empire remains coercive and determinative. By examining narratives about and by Hawaiʻi based writers, commonly referred to as “local” writing, I argue that “local” writing often functions as a “resolution” to the past. While it makes visible the history of empire through the stories it tells, “local” writing often positions itself as evidence of contemporary Hawaiʻi as a multicultural paradise of universal belonging. Yet, I demonstrate how “local” writing can only “resolve” the violence of empire by perpetuating the erasure of Kanaka Maoli colonization in the present. I argue the genre of “local” writing both critiques and perpetuates the violence of Indigenous dispossession and liberal racial formation. This leads me to also argue for the limitations of literary narrative to reconcile or resist the violences of U.S. empire. Thus, “local” writing produces Asian migrants as “local” subjects, substitutes for Kanaka Maoli, in order to maintain U.S. settler colonial hegemony. My dissertation examines specific flashpoints of U.S. empire in Hawaiʻi in the 19th and 20th century with post-2000 literary and cultural production that reimagines these moments. Together, these cultural texts demonstrate the possibilities and limitations of “local” fiction to reckon with the history of colonization and its legacies in the colonial present. Thus, in order to resist the paradigm of U.S. empire and to reimagine alternatives to colonized spaces, I propose the possibility of a material politics that accounts for how imperial epistemologies constitute the realm of the historical and literary imaginaries. In refusing to collapse Kanaka Maoli and Asian settler into a false political and racial equivalence, I instead argue for the necessity of reorienting the figure of the “local” Asian settler reveals the continuation of U.S. nationalist and imperialist knowledge production in the present. This relationality between history and narrative conveys how imaginative practices undergo continual colonization. This situates my project at the juncture of settler colonialism, racial capitalism, and ethnic studies where my theoretical interventions identify how Hawaiʻi’s history and literary production reveals the limits of current Asian American and postcolonial studies. Thus, my project calls for alternative strategies of decolonization where the aesthetic imagination becomes a material site of decolonizing politics. As such, I theorize how this form of decolonial and anti-imperial politics needs to account for how the imaginative realm is structured by the history of U.S. empire.

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