Newest professor in UH Hilo English department comes back home to teach Pacific Islander literature

A scholar in settler colonial studies, Leanne Day says whatever the medium, whether it is a book or slam poetry, she hopes her students will be inspired to engage in critical self-reflection.

By Leah Sherwood.

Leanne Day stands at the white board with many words such as womanhood, individual agency, sex/sexuality, gossip/storytelling, relationships, adultery, friendship, masculinity...
Leanne Day leads her students in a discussion about themes in Sia Figiel’s novel Where We Once Belonged.

Born and raised on O‘ahu, Leanne Day, the newest faculty member in the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo Department of English, says it is a dream to be back in Hawai‘i teaching contemporary Indigenous literatures of Oceania to the diverse student body at UH Hilo.

A scholar in settler colonial studies, Assistant Professor Day also is currently the inaugural Daniel K. Inouye postdoctoral fellow at UH Mānoa where she is co-hosted by the Department of Ethnic Studies and the Public Policy Center. She spent the past two years as a postdoc at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., where she helped build an Asian American and Pacific Islander studies program. “I was raising awareness of why these programs are important and trying to help students understand that API as a combined group needs to be questioned,” she says. “It was exciting to help students understand the different histories and the relationships to the nation state.”

Leanne Day
Leanne Day. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.

She explains that even though she grew up in Hawai‘i she did not realize until she was an undergraduate at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., that it was possible to study topics such as ethnic relations in Hawai‘i or the complexities packed into the word “local.”

“I met a professor from Arizona State who grew up in Hawai‘i and he had all these materials about Hawai‘i,” she explains. “I said, ‘Wait, you can study this?’ I had no idea because I had never seen it so I didn’t know you could do it.”

This semester she is teaching Pacific Islands Literature (ENG 430) to students from all over the Pacific region as well as Oklahoma and California. Day is especially interested in introducing her students to writers and poets from Oceania who use not only traditional writing but also multimedia posts on social media as a vehicle for social activism.

“In addition to reading novels, I’m incorporating folks who are using slam poetry and Instagram such as Samoan poet Terisa Siagatonu,” says Day. “If you use social media effectively, it really speaks to the students because the visual and multimedia components are so compelling and the sounds and alliteration come through so effectively.”

Another favorite is slam poet William Nu‘utupu Giles, who also is Samoan and grew up in Hawai‘i. “His work is not just poetry and not just literature; it is tied to social justice,” explains Day. This semester, Giles will address the class “live” via Skype, and next year Day hopes to bring him to campus in person.

Day notes that one commonality among contemporary Oceanic writers and artists is that they tend to link their work with climate change activism. “In many ways it is the melding of social media, climate change activism, and Pacific peoples,” says Day, adding “you cannot have a social movement without art.”

Day says that whatever the medium, whether it is a book or slam poetry, she hopes her students will be inspired to engage in critical self-reflection.

“Literature gives us a different approach to thinking about these larger social challenges and different ways of connecting. It gives students ways to understand things they are observing in their own communities. We ask questions like, what does the phrase ‘to be local’ mean in Hawai‘i? Who counts as Indigenous? Students here understand a lot of the concepts because they’re living them every day.”

Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University. 

Photos by Raiatea Arcuri, a professional photographer majoring in business administration with a concentration in finance at UH Hilo.  

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