Alone in Iz world
facing future by DAN KOIS / A film critic for the Washington Post has just published a book about one of the seminal albums in Hawaiian music history. How was this East coast native, who lived in Honolulu for just one year a decade ago, able to get inside the world of Israel Kamakawiwoole, from hanabata days to the Makaha Sons of Niihau to the making of Facing Future? We spoke to Dan Kois last week about his version of Facing Future, on the eve of several appearances in Honolulu this week.
What’s your background in Hawaii?
We lived in Hawaii for a year after grad school, when my wife had a clerkship with [federal judge] David Ezra. We lived in ‘Alewa heights. I loved it. I had a pretty romanticized view of Hawaii that didn’t change much from living there for a year. But I did grow to love the Islands and especially what I viewed as the unique popular culture of the Islands.
Unique in what way?
Unlike anyplace else that I had lived, it seems like the dominant pop culture there was local. In North Carolina, for example, you have southern culture, but fundamentally, it’s American culture. In Hawaii, there’s obvious a lot of American pop culture, but people are talking mostly about what’s going on there. So I really liked that, that there was a unique strain of music and even TV, so much local programming and theater…it seemed like a vibrant culture, from high to low.
How did you discover Iz?
Right after we learned we were coming, the Post ran a piece about him. I read it and went right to Olsson’s in Dupont Circle. So my first interaction with Iz was almost exactly the same as every other mainlander’s: I saw a press hit and I went to the store and bought the one copy they had.
The book is remarkable in the sense that it’s an experience of localness and outsiderness at the same time.
I wanted to give mainland readers as well as island readers the sense that they were being gently immersed in this culture. My goal wasn’t to write in Pidgin, but I did want to give a flavor of the way that people talk and tell stories. I tried to keep it light in a way that would not make local readers feel like, “this guy is such a poser.” I wanted to make them feel at home in the book and also give mainland readers a way in.
Almost everyone I asked to interview for the book said yes. But at the same time, there was no way to get around that I was a white guy doing a book about a native Hawaiian legend and martyr. I had hoped that the book would reflect some of that tension.
Books written by outsiders are sometimes less-than-well received by the sources themselves. Have you encountered any of that?
Not yet. I’m very interested to see what happens when I come back [this] week, whether or not there will be negative reaction. The negative response I’ve gotten so far has been exclusively from Mountain Apple [Records]. I read that Jon de Mello called the book “annoying.” I thought my criticism of him was pretty mild.
Less mild than what he’s used to around here, probably. At the same time, his version of events is the only one that seems subject to cross-examination–most of your sources are presented as “hey, I remember it this way.”
A lot of the times when I’m relating someone’s memories, it’s a story I heard from others as well. With Jon it was a little different. From the day I landed, they were unbelievably helpful, very, very nice to me. But when I interviewed them, and Jon in particular, it was the only time I felt like I was being spun. I haven’t been to journalism school, but I do have a sense for when people are spinning me.
You’ve written what is maybe the seminal work on this seminal record in Hawaiian music history. Does it feel weird?
I don’t know if I’d say ‘seminal,’ but yes, it definitely feels weird. Just at the Hawaii Book and Music Festival alone, there are going to be a thousand people there who know him better than I do. I’m just someone who thought and talked about him a lot. But he was such a figure in the times that he lived, and he was such a character, I feel in the end that these things will be interesting to readers, regardless of who I am. This book is not going to drive the perception of Israel Kamakawiwoole in Hawaii. Hawaii already knows who Israel is. My hope is that people there will enjoy the book, and that mainlanders will find it interesting as well.