Sarah Vowell / Sarah Vowell is a New York Times bestseller and author of five non-fiction books on American history and culture, but her most recent book–Unfamiliar Fishes–dares to take on Hawaii’s property and politics, including voting rights, forced statehood and water rights. The Weekly’s Food & Drink editor, Martha Cheng, asks Vowell about her book, The Trail of Tears, plate lunches and the complicated illusion of paradise.
What was your experience in writing Unfamiliar Fishes? In your interviews did you encounter any hostility or resistance or were people generally helpful?
Hostility? What do you mean?
Well, were people distant to you as an outsider, especially when you’re inquiring about something as sensitive as Hawaii’s annexation?
No, I didn’t meet any resistance. I was met with, I would say, hospitality. Maybe I wasn’t meeting the proper Hawaiian toughs, but I found because my book is really about the Americans in Hawaii and Americanization, it seemed to me that most people in Hawaii were quite forthcoming and willing and even excited to talk about that history. Everyone is still so preoccupied with it and it’s not entirely history there. And there’s so much passion and knowledge about the subject that it was kind of an embarrassment of riches, really. I write books about American history and normally that is a pretty lonesome preoccupation ‘cause Americans don’t really care about American history…So when I would go to Hawaii, it was really the first time I’ve ever worked on a project where the population at large is fairly knowledgeable on the subject. And not just that: they still care about it, they still get worked up about it. And so for me, as a writer, that was a completely new experience, and a lovely one…Though the story was fairly dark, it was actually a really pleasant experience.
Unfamiliar Fishes doesn’t seem afraid of offending anyone, which is refreshing here.
I don’t want to be offensive in general. But basically I try not to get caught up in what other people think, or will think, too much…Some of my ancestors were on the Trail of Tears, and the Cherokee tribe, because they were in the American southeast in the early 19th century, they practiced, some of them, large-scale agriculture, and they owned slaves. And so, some of them brought their slaves on the Trail of Tears. They were people. Even though they got a raw deal, they were downtrodden Indians…I try not to be a jerk, but nothing is really sacred to me.
My only real allegiance is to the truth…Everyone, no matter what color they are–commoner or royal, my neighbor or someone who’s been dead for 500 years–I don’t care, they’re still a person. Which means I would probably give them a basic amount of respect, but I don’t need to treat any person or subject–including myself–with any kind of overt reverence. Because I’m an inherently irreverent person. I spent enough time in Hawaii to know that’s not the Hawaiian way. There is a kind of reverence at the core of Hawaiian culture that I find quite lovely. I just don’t identify with it…And so I’ll write about a king the same way I’ll write about myself or a next door neighbor.
…I bring up some of his [Kalakaua’s] human foibles, some of his drinking and gambling, some of his corruption…yeah, the guy had his faults, with fairly disastrous consequences for his people, but he’s not only his faults. He’s perhaps not God’s gift to monarchy as a political leader, but as a cultural leader, he was pretty impressive and important. Some of the classical Hawaiian traditions that he supported, especially the hula, he was pretty spot-on…That’s why he’s interesting to me…Often, the thing that is the source of someone’s downfall is also the source of their greatness. Even Kalakaua, his joie de vivre and his good-time-Charlie attitude, that’s what made him. [Love of] the hula is also perhaps what made him drink and gamble too much.
In one of your This American Life broadcasts, the Trail of Tears, you asked, “what are we supposed to do with this grizzly past?” I was wondering if you had any new insights on this question, especially with this book?
Within my lifetime and yours, the United States became the world’s only superpower. It seemed more and more dangerous the fact that we’re the most powerful nation in the world and we’re one of those cultures with the least understanding of its own past. Especially in the last decade or so, the way this country behaves in the world sometimes as if it’s–as President Reagan called it, “the shining city on a hill.”…And it seems like there’s a lack of awareness that we are an empire. We don’t talk about ourselves as an empire, we don’t think of ourselves as an empire, but we’ve been an empire since 1898. I mean the Hawaiian history is just a little part of that, but it’s part of who we are, how we took over those islands. I don’t know what to do with it…I haven’t resolved that question, obviously. I don’t get too caught up with what these books are supposed to do. My main concern is as a writer and the writing. I want to tell stories with clarity and I guess a certain artfulness and I just want to find the drama and the humor and the ideas in stories from the past. I still haven’t quite worked what history is for, what we’re supposed to do with it.
So…plate lunches? You wrote that you liked them–any particular favorite places or combinations?
I liked the idea of plate lunch more than actual plate lunch…I guess Rainbow Drive-Inn was always my go-to. I love hybrids and disconnects, you know. I just like the first time you get one of those and you open up your box or tray and there’s the macaroni salad. It’s just this gloppy question mark, like, what is that doing there? …There’s something so exciting about, you know, when macaroni salad meets teriyaki, even though the story as we know in Hawaii isn’t always–or even most of the time–isn’t a happy story…The whole reason why this country and [Hawaii] are able to be these polyglot paradises is because of the destruction of the original inhabitants. You can’t forget that. It’s just part of the story.