It did not feel good,” Maxine Hong Kingston wrote in Hawai‘i One Summer, “To be a writer in a place that is not a writing culture, where written language is only a few hundred years old.”
The rich oral traditions are lost to our Western world. We’ve made false idols of the written word. We assumed that what was written carried a weight, that what was spoken did not.
I am a writer. I massage, pleasure in, and lavish affection on the written word - but I do not idealize or idolize it. It is not my god. I do not believe that which is bound in leather (or cardboard) is therefore true or authentic. I know better.
I know, too, what has been lost from the rich subtle shadings of the spoken word. It is as if we have broken a leg - we limp to one side. Academics: At the cost of our own knowing. Words on the page: At the cost of the words written on our soul. When we hear, “Oral tradition,” we think, “Unreliable.” But the indigenous Hawaiians knew another way. The oral transmission was anything but haphazard. It was exact.
In every family, and to every generation, there was a child born to be the carrier of the chants - the history. They were those ordained to remember - and repeat - the genealogy. It took that child half a lifetime to acquire the transmission; the remainder of his or her life, to pass it on. She embraced the skills of memory and the gifts of living oratory.
‘Iokepa said: “When the written word came, the aboriginal culture ended. The aboriginals saw it for what it was: In ‘black and white’—hard and fast—it no longer changed in a breath. It was no longer alive, and true in this moment.”
It marked the devaluation of living experience. We no longer depended on community for transmission. We could be alone with our book–we no longer needed our grandmothers.
In deifying the written word, we give ourselves away to others - to their greater knowing. We make gods of human invention, so as to take God away from our own human heart.