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Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes: New Book Explains Hawaii and How the U.S. Became an Empire

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Tue, Mar 6, 2012 at 1:02 PM

click to enlarge BENNETT MILLER
  • Bennett Miller

Writer/radio commentator Sarah Vowell comes to town to sit down with Jeff Garlin and talk about her latest book, a funny and lively history of America's acquisition of Hawaii.

Here's our Q&A:

As in your earlier The Wordy Shipmates, you've made learning about history informative yet funny and entertaining. But why did you choose Hawaii?

Oh, the same reason anyone chooses Hawaii -- because its story offers a triple whammy of three of life's most lovable subjects -- whaling, President McKinley and overbearing Protestants. I wish I were kidding.

In nonfiction, we're always trying to organize chaos. In tracing the Americanization of Hawaii in the 19th century, there was something so compelling to me about the way these two groups of antithetical New Englanders -- the whalers and the missionaries -- changed the islands so radically.

Between 1819, when the first ships of New England Bible thumpers and whale hunters made a beeline for Hawaii, and 1898, when the missionary descendants who had overthrown the Hawaiian queen handed the place over to the United States, it's possible to witness an absolute revolution in the political, ecological and racial makeup of Hawaii. Whatever one thinks of that handful of white folks, they certainly made their mark. And the story is so small and contained and incestuous that the grandson of a couple of missionaries from the first boatload in 1819 becomes the architect of overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy in the 1890s.

Besides that, the way the U.S. acquired those islands in 1898 is part of another radical change, that being the United States becoming the empire we are now, essentially in one, war-mongering, colonizing summer.

You mentioned some Hawaiians who carried signs that read, "We Are Not Americans" at a parade for the 50th anniversary of its statehood. Have those types given you any feedback on your book?

Oh, yes. There's a pretty potent community of native activists there who have spent decades picketing and speaking out about Hawaiian sovereignty. To my delight, they have really embraced the book because someone with access to the American mass media is telling the story of how the United States took over their country and, in their opinion, wrecked it.

I also found those people to be an invaluable resource when I was researching the book. The nice thing about people who hold grudges is that they are exceedingly knowledgeable about the past and are more than happy to talk about it! One of the interviews I did with one of those protesters was supposed to be a half-hour lunch. It lasted six hours. I learned a lot.

You don't strike me as a surfer chick -- did you allow yourself to have some touristy fun while you were researching Unfamiliar Fishes?

My sister and nephew joined me on many of my research trips, so there was a lot of driving around looking at the ocean as my nephew made up songs whilst playing the ukulele I bought him. I remember the chorus of one of the catchier songs went, "Aunt Sarah, she says boring words that I can't understand."

Imperialistically speaking, what worries you most about where America is headed?

It is intriguing that all of our current problems having to do with the over-extension of our military abroad -- from our under-equipped and overworked troops in Afghanistan to the less controversial ongoing slog of protecting, say, Taiwan and South Korea -- harken back to the men in the government and military during the era of William McKinley and his successor, Theodore Roosevelt.

There was this active movement afoot by guys like Roosevelt to make America great. Great, as opposed to good. And to them, greatness meant empire. And empire meant a navy. And a real navy needs island colonies to use as naval bases. And we're still using the bases we acquired in 1898 for that same purpose, such as Guantanamo and Pearl Harbor. This mess we're in, that was Roosevelt's dream. Hawaii was part of that then and it still is, since Pearl Harbor is our military's HQ in the Pacific.

Does it bug you when people tell you what your next book should be about? And can it be about California? Can you tell us about your next book?

Yes. No. No.

You'll be speaking with Jeff Garlin, who's hosted Henry Rollins, Michael Moore, Larry David, Judd Apatow, John Waters... See a trend here? Apparently, you're the first woman he's found interesting enough to talk to. Could you ask him about that?

The trend I see is that Jeff Garlin has a thing for chatting up agitated smart-alecks -- or non-natives of Los Angeles -- unless that's redundant. Everyone on that list is either Midwestern or from the East Coast, Garlin included. Maybe Garlin is so sick of talking to happy-go-lucky, hippy-dippy, passive-aggressive Californians he yearns to listen to aggressive-aggressive provincials and New York Jews just to get a break from all that maddening West Coast optimism?

What will you do for fun while in L.A.?

On this trip, I'm pretty much a traveling salesman for my publisher. But in general, aside from spending time with my friends there, my two favorite things to do in Los Angeles are looking at architecture and eating tacos, preferably simultaneously.

Vowell will appear at Largo at the Coronet, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd.; Tues., March 13, 8 p.m.; $30. (310) 850-3110.

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