Volcanoes Palm Trees and Privilege

Barrelhouse Reviews: Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege: Essays on Hawaiʻi by Liz Prato

Review by Holly Pretsky


Overcup Press
$15.95 Paperback
224 pp
ISBN 978-1-732-61030-9

When you live full time on a vacation island like I do, you start to notice things about visitors. They wear new, sometimes matching clothes; they seem to eat ice cream with a sense of hope. They also argue in public. A lot. After moving to Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, I’ve come to realize that audible arguments are a telltale sign one lives in a tourist economy. The majority of people on vacation don’t have a private place to go. They’re in an unfamiliar environment with all sorts of new stressors, spending more time than usual with their immediate family. Plus, they have a sense of impunity and anonymity in an unfamiliar place. Altogether it’s a recipe for conflict. 

Reading Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege, a collection of essays by Liz Prato about her fraught experiences as a serial visitor to the Hawaiian Islands, feels somewhat like overhearing the loaded arguments of people far from home. The passion that drives these fights seems to extend far beyond the reaches of what is actually being said, and the origins of such disputes sometimes seem too intimate and bygone to be fully understood by the passing eavesdropper—or, in this case, reader. 

In these fourteen essays linked by short “Da Kine” reflections, Prato argues deeply and painfully with herself and her whiteness, scrutinizing her every motivation as she returns again and again as a tourist to the islands. She finds fault with both her own enjoyment of their beauty and culture and her colonial predecessors’ disregard for these elements. She argues with the past, boldly unpacking her own family’s manifold tragedies as she describes the side of the islands’ history marked by extraction and abuse. Often she argues from the honest tourist’s perspective, too, describing common inconveniences such as loud birds outside a hotel room window, waiting in lines, and the location of a resort’s lobby relative to the guests’ quarters. 

Prato also argues (a little futilely) against Joan Didion, another white woman writer who, beginning in the 1960s, fled to Hawaiʻi in search of respite from her own persistent malaise. One of Prato’s jibes at Didion’s work is particularly telling: “Most of her island essays recount her time at Waikīkī’s Royal Hawaiian hotel, a symbol of inclusion in a privileged class that she never apologized for being part of.” Indeed, it would not be a decent argument if an apology was not, at some exasperated moment, obliquely demanded. Prato too stayed at many expensive hotels, and her book apparently serves as her apology: 

Over the years my family and I have stayed in a minimum of forty-five shoreline hotel rooms and a dozen condos, the construction of which destroyed the natural habitats of Hawaiian monk seals, albatross, and green sea turtles, and took over beaches that used to belong to the locals—if not in title, then in heart.

Prato is reverent toward but distant from native Hawaiians, lending them a sense of untouchability that I’m not sure serves the work: “...despite orchid leis and papaya-orange sunsets and warm Pacific waves and tiki glasses of pineapple-adorned mai tais, a lot about Hawaiʻi is quite complex. A lot of it is divided. A lot about Hawaiʻi is hard to name.” She is meticulous in her representations, taking pains for example to explain the history of the written Hawaiian language (ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi), including the oft-omitted ʻokina (a glottal stop, designated with an apostrophe) that appears in words like Hawaiʻi. 

The essays are complex; parts of them are funny, while other parts are devastating. In “Return to the Kahala,” Prato finally gets up the courage to scatter her father’s ashes in the sea. Moments later, a young tourist couple asks if she can take a beach photo of them. 

As she describes the now-booming tourist economy and the rise of the mega-hotel, she weaves in stories from her own life: a troubled older brother, a father battling addiction and depression, the eventual loss of all of her immediate family, growing into adulthood. In “Bombs Away,” she remembers being a teenager vacationing on Maui, trying to kiss a boy on the beach while bombs exploded in the distance on the small island of Kahoʻolawe. The US military began bombing Kahoʻolawe as part of training exercises and war simulation after World War II, and didn’t cease until the 1990s. 

Prato’s choice to frame her teenaged tourist angst and obliviousness against a starkly violent backdrop is a successful one. In that case, blending her narrative and broader the Hawaiian one enhances both. Rapid oscillation between the personal and the historical, the present and the past, specifics and stereotypes, are what lend the book its sense of being overheard. The approach is not so successful in the collection’s title essay and its longest, “Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege: The Self-Contained Paradise of the Hawaiian Resort.” In it, Prato delivers a detailed description of several resorts. Her personal relationship to them is alluded to, but never fully realized. One is left attempting to put together the pieces after the essay’s end.

Though Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege is rich in detail and vulnerable in its disclosures, I often felt as though I was never able to follow a thread quite to its conclusion—catching only snippets of a much longer conversation. That perhaps is the inevitable result of Prato’s deep ambivalence about her relationship to Hawaiʻi. I think, despite her critiques, Prato shares much with Joan Didion: a love for the islands and a preoccupation with how they fit into the American story, a sensitivity to the shades of complexity that color American traditions like the tropical vacation, a deep, enduring need to put those inner conflicts and doubts to paper. 

Considered collectively, the essays hang together in a kind of mist, lightly blanketing the choppy landscape of joy, guilt, and pride that comes with feeling a connection to a place to which one has no true claim. For those who, like me, have never visited Hawaiʻi and did not grow up there, Prato’s work serves as an unusual but necessary introduction, relentless in its recursive self-reflection and interrogation about the moral weight of tourism.

Holly Pretsky is a reporter on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.