There’s a scene about a third of the way into Kiana Davenport’s new novel House of Many Gods in which a hundred Native Hawaiian anti-war activists try to protest U.S. military bombings and maneuvers on Oahu’s Wai’anae coast. Led by a partially crippled Vietnam vet named Lopaka, the demonstrators attempt to unfurl huge banners saying “NO MORE MILITARY BOMBING” and “GET OFF OUR SACRED LANDS” while bombs explode in the nearby Makua Valley. The cops who start cracking their heads are Hawaiian, too.
“You’re a brother,” the main character Ana asks one of the indifferent cops. “How can you do this?”
This Machiavellian pitting of Hawaiian against Hawaiian while American troops practice invasion tactics in the background is a brutal indictment of U.S. rule over Hawai’i—which has always been pretty much been low-key violent from the 1893 overthrow to the present. That the scene takes place in a lush work of romantic fiction is stunning. Complex and unforgiving, tragic and yet still hopeful, House of Many Gods is also one of the sharpest and most articulate arguments yet made against the U.S. military’s running roughshod over Hawai’i.
It’s not completely hyperbolic to say there are a million things going on in Davenport’s novel, her third after the critically acclaimed Shark Dialogues in 1994 and Song of the Exile in 1999. Ostensibly the tale of a fiery Hawaiian woman and her estranged mother, the story has interludes on the conflict between Native Hawaiian culture with western religions, Russian environmental degradation, San Francisco, illegitimate children, cancer, traditional Hawaiian childbirth techniques, 1950’s nuclear testing, crime, Wai’anae poverty, the Moscow Circus, the horrors of a teaching hospital’s emergency room, Vietnam vets who turn against war, anger management and Hurricane ‘Iniki.
Any one of those ideas could easily fill House of Many God’s 330 pages. Most are touched on briefly, but running consistently throughout the story is struggle against the American military’s often heavy-handed presence.
Davenport’s bitterness at the Pentagon is sometimes as heavy-handed as the Army’s exploding bombs.
“These lands are our lands,” Lopaka, lectures an army guard at one point. “You stole them from us. You’re storing nuclear weapons here. You’re testing bombs up the highway at Makua. You think we’re stupid? We don’t know?… You think this is what I fought for? To watch my homelands blown to bits?”
A hapa-haole from Oahu, Davenport is an internationally bestselling novelist. Currently in the middle of a nationwide book tour, on Feb. 19 she signed copies of House of Many Gods at Borders Bookstore in Kahului for dozens of fans.
Though a novel, Davenport insists that everything in her book is based on fact. In fact, she says her Oahu cousins have been demonstrating against the military in Makua Valley for years.
“Just this week, I was looking at the papers—they want more live fire training,” she told me. “And more landfills. They’re just dumping things out there—where the poorest and least educated Hawaiians live. It just infuriates me. Five percent of the population, but they get 95 percent of the dumpsites. I know we do need to be alert, but Jesus—they’re supposed to be protecting the people. What’s going on in certain areas is not advantageous to the people.”
Actually, it’s more than just certain areas. Military weapons training and maneuvers run throughout the Hawaiian Islands. On the Big Island, the U.S. Army wants a huge swath of territory to train crews in using new “Stryker” armored vehicles. The U.S. Navy has a missile test range at Barking Sands, Kauai. The U.S. Navy’s been gone from Kaho’olawe for a while now, but their presence—in the form of tons of unexploded ordinance—will most likely remain for many decades to come.
Shattered bombs and spent depleted uranium bullets litter much of the Hawaiian chain (see the sidebar “Depleted Uranium” on how you can learn more about the toxic effects of this wonder weapon on Hawai’i).
Not a new phenomenon. We now know, for example, that in the mid-1940’s the U.S. Army dumped tens of thousands of bombs—totalling perhaps 15 million pounds—containing mustard gas and other chemical weapons into the water barely five miles off the Wai’anae Coast.
Exactly where all the warheads are, and their present state, remains a mystery. Apparently, military records concerning weapons dumpings are pretty much non-existent, or so the Pentagon claims. In fact, because of recent pressure from Oahu’s U.S. Congressman Neil Abercrombie (D, 1st District) and U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka (D, Hawai’i), the Pentagon is only now studying the long-term health and environmental effects of the gas warhead dumpings.
At various times in House of Many Gods, characters talk of nuclear weapons stored in the Makua Valley. The Red Hill ordinance depot on Oahu has also long been a rumored home to worst weapons in the U.S. arsenal. Because of the understandable paranoia that grips the U.S. Government concerning nuclear weapons, the presence of such weapons remains a matter of conjecture.
In fact, it’s the stated policy of the U.S. Government—most recently articulated in a Feb. 6, 2006 memo from Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Vice Admiral J. G. Morgan, Jr. (obtained and made by public by the Federation of American Scientists)—that no one in the armed forces is to tell anywhere where we keep our nukes.
“It is the policy of the U.S. Government to neither confirm nor deny the presence or absence of nuclear weapons at any general or specific location,” is how any member of the military is to answer any question regarding the alleged storage of nuclear weapons at any U.S. military base.
The reason is National Security—we don’t want our enemies to have any advantage in finding our doomsday weapons. The logic is inescapable. But in the rush to “protect” the American people, health and environmental security for those who live near those weapons ends up getting sacrificed.
“Cancer seems to be rampant on the Wainaie Coast, along with respiratory diseases,” Davenport said. Indeed, her novel is filled with gripping instances of people dealing with “da Big C.”
For a love story, death is a constant throughout House of Many Gods. Characters come and go, but always in the background, army bombs go off. Indeed, drama seems to ebb and flow, depending on whether the army is training for amphibious warfare.
“The book took longer than it should have,” Davenport said, adding that the book went through 24 drafts. “What stopped me cold was 9/11—I lost four friends in that. I was in hospitals looking for them for weeks. I didn’t write for a year.
“With all that’s happening in the world, you wonder why you write fiction,” she continued. “Do you know what I mean? Why does anybody bother writing fiction anymore? The world seems so unbelievable.” MTW