Sarah Vowell on Hawaii, monarchy and Unfamiliar Fishes

At 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sarah Vowell will sign copies of her latest tome, Unfamiliar Fishes, at the Tattered Cover LoDo, 1628 16th Street. We caught up with Vowell about her inspiration for the book, what she learned and how this book fits into her previous body of work.

Westword: What was the inspiration for Unfamiliar Fishes? Sarah Vowell: Well, honestly, I'm kind of preoccupied with the Spanish-American War era, and the year 1898 is a crucial year in American history. It's the year we annexed Hawaii. We kind of became a world power essentially in a summer, and Hawaii is part of that. It was this intentional movement to become a world power, to become an empire. And one reason we started acquiring islands was so we could build naval bases at them, like the one at Pearl Harbor and the one at Guantanamo, as a way of having these places away from our shores to park and refuel our battleships. And so there's that.

But then, Hawaii to me, of all of those island acquisitions from that year, is the most interesting one, and it's also the only one of those islands that became a state. And I think part of that has to do with the story I tell in this book of the decades leading up to 1898 and the story of Americans in Hawaii, starting with the arrival of the New England missionaries and whalers in 1820 and then the impact those missionaries and their children and grandchildren had on those islands. It was the missionary offspring who founded the sugar plantations and overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy and handed Hawaii over to the United States in 1898.

WW: Did you learn anything about Hawaiian history or culture that surprised you? SV: Coming into it, I knew next to nothing about Hawaiian history and Hawaiian culture. So I learned a lot. I mean, I think there's a kind of wrong-headed and sort of facile vision of the Hawaiians as these happy-go-lucky surfing hula dancers. But I think spending time there and reading up on the cultural traditions there, I was sort of constantly reminded of how conservative and traditional that culture could be. It would be the easiest thing in the world to just write about the moment that the first New England missionaries encountered their first Hawaiians and were horrified by how scantily clad they were and scandalized by the hula, which they thought of as Satanic smut. It would be easy to just think of the islanders as a bunch of freewheeling libertines. And while most people are freewheeling libertines compared to New England missionaries circa 1820, the culture has a long deep history and is very hierarchical in structure.

It was a monarchy, and before that the islands were a series of interconnected feudal chiefdoms. And even the hula -- when Americans think of hula at all it's probably those bobbing dashboard dancers, but it's actually a very rigorous, ancient religious tradition of scholarship and study. And the hula that most scandalized the missionaries were the chants and dances devoted to singing the praises of the genitalia of the chiefs and kings -- and when I first heard about this, I, of course, giggled.

But the more I learned about the Hawaiian past, even these dances that were, to me, completely entertaining -- because there are these chants comparing a chief's private parts to a bald horse or something, which sounds so much more titillating than missionary culture -- it struck me later as a profoundly Hawaiian art form, because it's all about not the titillating nature of sex, but about venerating the aristocrats, the chiefs and the kings, and talking about their reproductive organs as a way of celebrating a tradition and the idea of continuing a royal lineage. It's all about the continuation of the status quo, and the status quo is social stratification, the hierarchy in which chiefs are a higher class than commoners. So there's that aspect of it.

And that was actually kind of tricky sometimes because, for instance, the last Hawaiian queen, Queen Liliuokalani, she is still widely venerated in Hawaii, and for good reason. She was a pretty impressive person besides being the queen. She was a pretty accomplished songwriter, she wrong the song "Aloha 'Oe," she wrote a memoir called Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen, which she used as a way to argue against American annexation. So I respect a lot of things about her and I respect her as a person, but I'm still an American and she's still a monarch, and as an American, I won't even say I have misgivings about monarchy: I have nothing but disdain for that form of government.

Besides venerating their past and traditions and their love for her and other monarchs and aristocrats, that part of Hawaiian society was hard for me to even understand on a basic level, and not just because I have the Declaration of Independence in my heart. It's just unfair. That form of government is basically unfair. Not that any other form of government doesn't have its unfairness. But the first king of Hawaii, King Kamehameha the Great, he's still beloved there, and they have an annual holiday in his honor, parades, people gather at the statue and civic groups will donate lei, the Honolulu fire department will drape the statue with dozens of lei from around the island, and the king is still so present in their minds and still so beloved. So the lingering effects and lingering respect and affection, even, for the old monarchy was... it's deeply Hawaiian and also sometimes alienating to me. But it's not just a veneration of monarchy, it's a nostalgia for a sovereign Hawaii. So there are a lot of things that are a little anti-American about it.

WW: How does Unfamiliar Fishes fit into your previous body of work? SV: Well, it certainly builds on the previous two books. It's kind of a sequel in some ways to The Wordy Shipmates, about the massachusets bay colony by English puritans, because it has to do with their literal descendants and spiritual descendants, the missionaries who came from New England and arrived in 1820. It's hard to overestimate the impact that they had on the Hawaiian Islands, and they had some of the same concerns as their forbears. Not just spreading Protestantism, but also sharing that puritanical love of learning and education and literacy.

I mean, there's a real deep tradition of the literary way of life in New England that those missionaries brought with them to Hawaii. They had to invent a written language for Hawaiian, and they taught almost everyone in Hawaii to read within a generation. They translated the Bible into Hawaiian, they brought printing presses and millions of pages of writing, almost all of it in Hawaiian and for Gawaiian readers.

And the book before that, Assassination Vacation, I wrote about the first three presidential assassinations, including the assassination of William McKinley. That was the Spanish-American War era, and McKinley was the president who presided over the annexation of Hawaii. There's a statue of him in Honolulu. I think this book certainly speaks to those first two, and the last one about Puritans was also about the invention of American exceptionalism, the idea of New England and then, later, America, as a city upon a hill.

I do mention certain people and things in just about all of the books. Theodore Roosevelt has made an appearance in the last four books to varying degrees. He's just someone I'm kind of fixated on. The Magna Carta gets a little bit of play in the last couple of books. The idea of that as a kind of foundation of freedoms in the English-speaking world, the idea that the king is not above the law of the land, the idea that everyone should have access to the due process of the law, that's something that is kind of, to me, one of my pet subjects.

Call 303-436-1070 or visit www.tatteredcover.com to learn more about Vowell's book-signing.

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