Fans of This American Life probably recognize Sarah Vowell from her droll, quirky observations on history, Americana, and pop culture, a talent that’s carried over into a pair of stellar essay collections, Take The Cannoli and The Partly Cloudy Patriot, and her year-of-listening-to-radio chronicle, Radio On. She’s now three books deep into the next phase of her career: long-form historical narratives. Having already tackled presidential assassinations (Assassination Vacation) and Puritan settlers (The Wordy Shipmates), she now turns her attention westward to Hawaii in her newest book, Unfamiliar Fishes. In a way, Fishes picks up where Shipmates left off, chronicling the adventures of Puritan missionaries as they make their way further out to the Hawaiian Islands in an attempt to Christianize—and later, annex—the islands for the United States in 1898. Tracking their progress, Vowell analyzes their approach while taking time to compare it to the other imperial land grabs made by the U.S. in 1898 (Guam, Puerto Rico) but makes what would otherwise be a dry history vibrant with comical observations and wisecracking, pop-culture-infused asides that provide context without distracting—or detracting—from the narrative. Vowell recently chatted to The A.V. Club about her tangents, what meddling busybodies Americans can be, and not being a jerk in her writing.
The A.V. Club: For Unfamiliar Fishes, what led you to write not just about Hawaii, but about this specific period, up to the annexation in 1898?
Sarah Vowell: I’m really a sucker for churchy New Englanders, so those decades leading up to 1898, starting in 1820, when the first New England missionaries arrived in Hawaii, it’s almost like a sequel to my last book about 17th-century Puritans [The Wordy Shipmates], just because you got the boat trip and the stuck-up killjoys arriving on what they see as wilderness and interacting with the natives. There’s this very long, drawn-out process of Americanization that you can’t really say is true of all of the other island colonies we acquired in 1898, like Puerto Rico, Guam, or the Philippines. Americans had been meddling in Hawaiian affairs for so long before Hawaii became an American territory.
The story fascinated me, considering it’s such a straight line from the arrival of the missionaries to their offspring, who stick around Hawaii and found the sugar plantations, which sort of turned Hawaii into what it is now—this multi-ethnic archipelago—because they had to import such massive quantities of labor from all over Asia and Portugal, and to a lesser extent, Norway. They brought in all of these foreigners to work the plantations, and those guys, the ones who founded the plantations, and then their contemporaries, the other businessmen and lawyers in Honolulu, also missionary children and grandchildren, they’re the ones who staged the coup d’état against the Hawaiian queen and handed the island over to the United States. So it’s this very discreet little circle from the arrival of the first missionaries to the moment those missionaries’ children and grandchildren hand over Hawaii to the Americans. In terms of the storytelling, it had this very exciting vector-like quality of cause and effect.
AVC: The Wordy Shipmates and Unfamiliar Fishes actually have the same Puritan figurine on the covers.
AVC: You refer to yourself as a “big old heathen” in the book, but this is two books in a row about religion, and you’ve written about it before in essays. Is there a particular draw to religion, or are you just interested in the way religion is so tightly woven into the fabric of American history?
SV: I would say both. I’m fascinated by religion—not just as a writer, as a traveler, too. I’m trying to work my way through UNESCO World Heritage sites, and I’m a very staunchly democratic atheist. [Laughs.] But all the sites I want to go to seem to be temples, palaces, and cathedrals. So if you’re interested in human endeavor, religion is going to come up. I don’t have any interest in having religion, but I seem to need to think about it in other people, and certainly in terms of the history of the United States. I think it’s pretty key in understanding who we are, and not just in terms of what a generally religious people we are, but how certain obsessions of Christianity in general and Protestantism in particular feed into who we are, just what a bunch of meddling busybodies we are. That’s biblical.
One of the favorite verses that the Hawaiian missionaries were fond of bringing up pertains to the dream of the apostle Paul. He had this vision of this Macedonian thing: “Come over into Macedonia and help us.” And when the New England Puritans settled into Massachusetts, the official seal of the Massachusetts Bay colony was an Indian saying, “Come over and help us.” So this idea, “We’re here to help” is a major component of our interaction with other peoples throughout our history, whether it’s with the Massachusetts natives and Hawaiians or Vietnamese, or how we’re helping the Afghan people right now. [Laughs.] The image of ourselves as inherently helpful, and that other people are dying for our help, is just inherent in Christianity, and I think that quality filters out into the rest of the culture.
AVC: You still have a lot of empathy for some of these missionaries, particularly Lucy Thurston.
SV: She’s my favorite missionary.
SV: Let me think… yeah. Screw Paul! No, among the ones in Hawaii, because I don’t believe in what she’s leaving her home and family for, to travel 6,000 miles to go teach to the Hawaiians. I don’t believe the cosmology of that. But I do have a lot of admiration for her idealism and her pluck. She was one tough lady. Those missionaries, their lives were hard. I became especially fascinated with the missionaries’ wives, because they had to do all the normal 19th-century wife drudgery: birth and raise children, take care of washing, cooking, and all that. And on top of that, they had to teach an entire generation of Hawaiians to read and do all the missionary stuff too. So I guess I really prize hard work and hard workers, and she really put up with a lot without complaining.
I’m fascinated by idealists, and part of that is that the idealists have caused the most damage in the history of the world. When I was writing about Emma Goldman and presidential assassinations, I came across this part of her memoir—this is what she was thinking about when she was losing her virginity to the guy who shot Henry Frick—she was asking the question, “Can idealists be cruel?” That was a major life moment for me, when I realized, “Oh my God, yes!” And not only can they be cruel, they’re the cruelest monsters in the history of mankind. They’re the ones who had some bright idea that they were working toward. Any time someone is really idealistic, especially historical figures, I’m always drawn to writing about them, because they’re the ones with the possibility of inflicting a lot of damage when someone has some big idea that means something to them.
These women were just so brave. She was so young. It was 1819 when they left, and to be that brave—she married some guy she barely knew and went off to the Sandwich Islands, and the main thing that people knew about the Sandwich Islands at the time was that Captain Cook had been killed by the Sandwich islanders. So to want to help your fellow man, which was the main point of their mission, to try and save as many Hawaiians from the flames of hell as possible… Whatever I think about that as a goal, it is kind of selfless. It’s also incredibly condescending to show up to this foreign country and say, “Guess what? You’re wrong, and we’re here to set you straight.” But the idea behind it, wanting to give up all of your own personal comforts and luxuries and your hometown and everything to travel halfway around the world to this dangerous place to help people—it’s still admirable, even if it’s also ridiculous.
AVC: What was the most engaging aspect of the research that went into the book?
SV: I did spend a lot of time in the archives, especially the Mission Houses Museum, which is the site of the first mission house in Honolulu. They have a pretty extensive archive of missionary writings from mission stations from all of the islands. I spent a lot of time reading those letters and diaries. But I spent most of the time in the state archives of Hawaii. Maybe the most engaging bit of research were the letters from people called the missionary boys, the missionary offspring who overthrew the queen and handed Hawaii over to the United States. They’re the ones whose parents and grandparents were missionaries. They all went to this one school in Honolulu, the Punahou School, which is where President Obama went to school. They all grew up with each other, and then after the overthrow, some of them go to Washington D.C. immediately, like that night, to start lobbying for annexation. They would send each other letters back and forth from Honolulu to Washington D.C. Those letters are very engaging, first of all because these guys all grew up together, so they talk to each other in a way that I talk to my friends. There’s a kind of candor and informality. But then some of the things they say, because these are Gilded Age white guys in power, are just appalling. And it’s all there, it’s all in the archive.
Maybe my favorite, by which I mean least favorite, letter in the whole bunch is one of them whose grandparents had been in the first company of missionaries. This guy writes a letter back to his friend in Honolulu who’s the president of the provisional government there. When Grover Cleveland wouldn’t annex Hawaii, they had to wait around for a new administration, and so they decided, “Okay, we need to make a more permanent government until we can be annexed to the U.S.” So they have to frame a constitution. This one missionary boy writes back to his old buddy in Honolulu this long list of how to disenfranchise as many Hawaiians as possible, saying, “Oh, you should look at this new state constitution in Mississippi,” this Jim Crow masterpiece, and see how Mississippians have figured out how to deny the right to vote to black people. “You look at that, but we could build on this.” Just thinking of new ways to exclude as many people from this government as possible. In the same letter, the guy is saying, “Well, we need a name for this country, and it should have ‘Republic’ in it.” So at the very moment that he’s writing this whole detailed list of how they can refuse the right to vote of pretty much everyone except them and their friends, he’s saying “And it should be called a republic,” which is a representative form of government.
The whole thing to me, all of those letters, it’s just like… I kept hearing like piano twinkling, because it was like listening to Randy Newman’s greatest hits. You know those guys, the narrators of his songs, who are just like, “It’s lonely at the top. My life is good!” Like a powerful white jerk, and the way that’s so appalling, but also just a wee bit beguiling, because who would ever be that self-absorbed and entitled? There’s just something so bald and human and disgusting about it that it’s kind of—I won’t say funny, but kind of amusing. It’s like reading the inner thoughts of the Monopoly man. They’re just so baldly powerful rich-white-guy thoughts. And because it’s a letter to a childhood friend, it’s just so candid and frank.
AVC: The Trail Of Tears has come up in your writing before. It pops up in this book, and you’ve mentioned your own familial connections to it. Do you have any plans about exploring that topic as part of a larger work?
SV: Probably not. I wrote a long essay about it that’s in one of the books. But no. [Laughs.] The idea of spending three years on that is pretty depressing. I don’t really flinch from depressing, but that one is particularly grueling to think about. With this one, it made sense to bring up just because it’s the exact same missionary organization that Christianized and Westernized the Cherokee. It’s those same exact people who Christianized and Westernized the Hawaiians. In fact, the first Hawaiian-Christians were taught at this one school in Connecticut, which happened to be where the Cherokee sent some of their young men to go to school, and those are the ones who sold out the tribe, giving the U.S. government the legal pretext for the Trail Of Tears, so it was a pretty concrete connection this time.
There are other parallels, too. The first Hawaiian-Christian, this kid who went to that school in Connecticut and died before he could go back to Hawaii to minister to his people, the missionaries published this book of his story and used that as a way to drum up support and donations and volunteers to pay for and staff the Sandwich Island mission. There was a similar thing they did with their mission to the Cherokee, their Cherokee “success story,” this girl who was engaged in preaching to her people and teaching. She died, too, and they published a book and used that to drum up support for their work among the Cherokee. It’s basically this one organization based in Boston that not only Christianized the Cherokee and the Hawaiians, but also other Indian tribes, and sent missions all over the world to places that no longer exist, like Ceylon and Palestine. They were everywhere, and pretty successful. When they went among the Cherokee, their goal was to make the Cherokee English in appearance and English in thought. They pretty much succeeded. In the case of this story, there were pretty clear connections.
But I guess that event does come up in my writing partly because I’m more of an American mutt, and the Trail Of Tears isn’t some Swedish ancestors who came by the Statue Of Liberty. The rest of my background is pretty murky, like most Americans. That’s one strain of my heritage, and one date, and one event that’s very clear to me and very concrete. One day they’re living in Georgia, and then the next day, boom, it’s Oklahoma. But it’s also such a vivid story, I think. I’ve grown up hearing about it my whole life. It’s probably the family story that gets the most play, just because it’s the most dramatic and the most world-historical. But it also has always informed my thinking about the country. It’s a pretty dastardly event, and it’s a case in which presidential policy overruled the Supreme Court ruling that said the Cherokee were a sovereign nation. It’s a little episode that’s the failure of the Constitution, besides being a failure of human compassion. I definitely grew up in the “Rah rah, America” era of study of American history, but that was always kind of a little footnote in my heart in the whole patriotic parade of American history I learned about in school.
AVC: Your writing also features these tangents that circulate back around to the main thesis and manage to fit well in the context of the larger topic. When you’re writing, do you craft these tangents consciously, or do they come about naturally in the way you write?
SV: Both. When I went to Hawaii, I had never seen a banyan tree before. A banyan tree is this tree that starts with one trunk, and then when the branches branch off, little tendrils sprout off the branches and eventually grow down to the ground and take root and become another trunk, and more and more branches and tendrils develop off of that, so each banyan tree becomes its own monster-looking forest. And when I first saw one of those trees, I thought, “That is how I think.” Little thoughts just sprout off and drip down and take root, and then they end up supporting more and more tendrils of thought, until it all coheres into one thing, but it’s still rickety-looking and spooky. I like to think that my tangents have a point. I do love a tangent. I think part of it is inherent within the discipline of non-fiction.
I always found that when I was a college student and researching my papers always the night before—and this was before the Internet—I’d be in the library and I’d find one thing, and see something else and want to follow that, which now is how the Internet has taught us to think, to click on link after link after link. But there is something inherent in research that fosters that way of thinking, and then there’s this other interesting thing, and that builds and builds. When I’m writing, I have all these index cards, and I sit on my living-room rug and move them around until they make sense. When I’m talking, it’s just the unedited me. Anyway, there are just sometimes asides, some of them are just about the joy of fact. I find facts fun, and sometimes I’ll just put something in if I think it’s interesting, even though it’s not going anywhere.
AVC: In a similar vein, the pop-culture aspect of your writing makes it fresh and unusual in terms of historical narratives. There are a lot of references to Hawaiian pop culture. The singer, ukulele player—
SV: Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.
AVC: Yes, the “Over The Rainbow” cover. There’s a Hawaii Five-O mention, and you also drop in references like Footloose and Bon Jovi. Like with the tangents, is that just the way your brain works?
SV: Yeah. To me, it’s not pop culture, it’s just culture. That’s my culture. When I brought up Footloose, I was talking about the moment of contact when the missionaries got to Hawaii, and then they’re horrified by Hawaiian dress, or lack thereof. They want to clothe these people up to the neck. The missionaries are aghast at the hula and think that that’s satanic. And then when I mentioned Footloose, it’s as a way of saying it’s easy to think of these encounters as a lame prequel to Footloose, but really, the Hawaiian culture is not a culture of liberties. It’s just as conservative and traditional a culture as the missionaries. It’s just different. Hula is this kind of sacred, religious, academic pursuit. All of the mores and customs, it’s a very regulated, very hierarchical traditional culture that’s just as conservative, just in different ways. That was just a shorthand for making the reader notice what’s going on here, that it’s not just buttoned-up Puritans meeting a bunch of island libertines, because the Hawaiians are not that. They’re just as rigid in their ways as the Puritans are in theirs. So that just popped in my head as a very clear image of things, saying “That isn’t this. This is something else.”
But Hawaii Five-O, that wasn’t a metaphor. I actually rented an apartment in that building that Jack Lord stands on in the opening credits. [Laughs.] It was actually the first high-rise condominium in the Hawaiian Islands. It’s seen better days, so it was quite an affordable place for me to stay. I was born in 1969, so I saw that show pretty much every week of my childhood. I saw that building, and him and his hair standing on top of that building. So it was kind of eerie and also delightful to me, too, to look out my window and see that same view he saw, just as a way of telling myself how far I’ve come from the tiny, dusty Oklahoma town where I first saw that image. But also, that building, it’s part of the history of Hawaii, not just because it was the first high-rise condominium, but because it was built by a son of Chinese immigrants who was one of the first millionaires of Asian descent in Hawaii. His name was Chin Ho, and the detective Chin Ho Kelly on Hawaii Five-O was named after this guy, this developer who started out, I think, selling can openers door to door, and eventually became the head of the Honolulu Stock Exchange. So it was a very Hawaiian, very American story, the story of that building. I like lore, but I also like layers of lore. I’m a lore archaeologist.
AVC: So much of that permeates your work in general.
SV: I love a fun fact.
AVC: Are there any aspects of the culture in general right now that you find particularly appealing? Bands, writers, television shows?
SV: Sure. Let’s see. I love Anthony Bourdain’s show on the Travel Channel. He’s funny. I guess I like how caustic he is. And then there are those moments when… There was the episode where he went to Korea, and every so often, he has to have an actual emotion. It’s just so raw and real, and it’s kind of like those moments when David Letterman cries. You have this caustic, sarcastic guy having a real, like almost on the brink of tears. There’s something just so believable about those moments. On the Korea episode, he met this old man from North Korea who talked about if he could ever go back to North Korea, all he wants to do is see his parents’ grave. It was just this moment of such emotion. You have this New York City smart-aleck have to take it all in. Just the way… his adventurous spirit. But he’s adventurous without being all googly-eyed about stuff.
I just saw The Book Of Mormon in previews on Broadway, which is the new musical about Mormons by the South Park guys. I haven’t been that excited about any cultural artifact in years. I was so bedazzled by it, and it’s just so funny, I think I got motion sickness, because I was laughing so hard for so long. Pretty much the entire time. The jokes are great, but the story of it is these missionary kids from Utah go on a Mormon mission to Uganda. All of the historical asides are very informative and kind of doled out in the most casual, beguiling way. You leave learning things about Brigham Young and Joseph Smith and the history of Mormonism, but in a toe-tapping way.
The whole thing is incredibly profane. There is this one number using an expletive and a deity that I’m sure is going to ruffle some feathers. But it’s such an old-fashioned classical musical, with impeccable choreography and real songs. If you didn’t speak English, you would think it’s Guys And Dolls or something. It’s only when you are listening to what they’re saying that it’s shocking, and wonderfully so. But part of the humor of it comes from how happy Mormons are. In a way, even though it basically ridicules all of their most fundamental beliefs, there’s a real kind of affection for actual Mormons and their happy-go-lucky pluck, and how genuinely sprightly people they are. The whole thing was really sophisticated. I haven’t been that excited about anything in I can’t remember how long.
AVC: That was one of the big accolades about the South Park movie, was what a tremendous musical it was. It was the best musical Hollywood had produced in years.
SV: Yeah. It’s just really rigorous in terms of the song-and-dance numbers. Some of the dance numbers are so Busby Berkeley, complex and satisfying. And then there are also tons of random dumb jokes, which are always my favorite. [Laughs.] There’s this one warlord who’s always pulling his sunglasses off, and he has an eyepatch. There’s just something inherently, stupidly funny about a guy pulling his sunglasses off and he only has one eye. I don’t know why that’s funny, but it is. And they’re in Africa, so it deals with all of these complicated, grueling sociopolitical issues like genital mutilation, warlords, violence, and AIDS, all of these things that are part of life in certain African villages, that it does not shy away from. Not only does it confront these issues, it does so in a way that is pretty true and real, but also is so funny. You can’t imagine how those things could be funny, but they are.
There are real, true performances, and very emotional, but also there’s this whole political context. Then you have all these historical reenactments, too. There’s one song, I think it’s probably called “Turn It Off.” It’s sung by a chorus of Mormon missionaries, and it’s talking about unfortunate feelings. One kid is gay, and the song is how you’re just supposed to learn how to turn off those feelings. Not even bury them, just turn them off. It’s just such a great exposé on that human tendency, in certain humans. “I’m just going to turn this off. All of these misgivings or the things about my life I should think about changing, I’m just going to turn it off. Put on a happy face!” In a way, it’s the happiest number in the musical, but what it’s describing is the saddest idea in the world. It’s a happy-go-lucky number about a kid who has decided to live a lie. It was all handled with such lightness and such deftness, just so incredibly hilarious. But really smart and critical, and at the same time, affectionate.
AVC: Are there any bands that have caught your ear lately?
SV: Not really.
AVC: The way you said that sounds so depressing.
SV: I know. I think I mostly listen to news when I used to listen to music. I like the new Mellencamp. I love Parks And Recreation. It’s so funny. The thing I love most about it is, that main character loves her job and is good at it. I love that her passion for her vocation is a source of humor, but the fact that she is damn good at her job, I find so delightful. She has tons of foibles, obviously, but the fact that she loves her job and is good at it is at the center of the show. And all the other characters on the show.
AVC: There was a stir recently about the blog Cats that look like Ron Swanson.
SV: I heard about that. I haven’t looked at it. I was just laughing this morning about that moment when Ron Swanson’s girlfriend is moving back home to Canada, and she asks him if he would move back to Canada with her. All he does is just start giggling relentlessly, like the very idea of that is so hilarious, he can’t even take it seriously.
AVC: “You had me at meat tornado” is often quoted. Someone actually went through with Nick Offerman and asked him to comment on some of the cats that look like Ron Swanson on the blog.
SV: I love especially all the murals in City Hall.
AVC: There was a similar mural at a museum in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. It had a large, deadly fire the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, and the painting depicted the event in awful, gory detail, horses and townspeople on fire diving into the river.
SV: Well, in Chicago on the Michigan Avenue bridge, there’s that little marker for the Fort Dearborn Massacre, where the Michigan Avenue bridge is. They’ve outlined where some of the fort was in the sidewalk. I think, if I remember correctly, there’s a relief carved of white people being hatcheted.
AVC: From your essay, “Michigan And Wacker.”
SV: Yeah. That’s one of those pile-ups of lore, that bridge. Oh, man, I could say things about that bridge.
AVC: As you’ve moved to more long-form writing, consider the topics you cover: presidential assassinations, the Puritans, and now the annexation of Hawaii. Those aren’t exactly the happiest topics.
SV: [Laughs.] What they all have in common is that they sound terrible. They all sound like, “Ugh! Who would want to read a book about that?” I will say that these topics hone my salesmanship skills. They’re definitely books I have to talk people into reading. And when I’m telling people about the new book, I don’t say it’s about the annexation of Hawaii. I say, “It’s about Hawaii.” Because I’ve learned people have inherently positive feelings about Hawaii, and if I just say “Hawaii,” they think of whatever their idea of Hawaii is. Which is something like the last book, when I was saying, “It’s about Puritans,” and then their faces frown up immediately. I’m sort of basking in working on this topic. It’s something at least people think they like. When they think Hawaii, I don’t think they think missionaries and whale-butchers and coups d’état. That’s only after they bought it and got it home. That’s out of my hands.
AVC: How difficult is it to maintain a balance, being light-hearted at times, but with gravity when necessary?
SV: I would hope it comes from not being a total jerk. You could tell when there’s a moment to be lighthearted about something, and then there are other moments, when somebody’s husband has just gotten shot. You could act appropriately. But I will say, one way to solve that, I find, is to write about things that happened a long time ago. When I wrote about presidential assassinations, I only wrote about the first three—Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. I didn’t write about Kennedy. There are various reasons for that, but one of them is, when I was writing that, his brother was still alive, his daughter is still alive, and people are still mourning him. There’s just more constraint there, the constraint of tact. I can be tactful.
And I would say in this Hawaiian book, because I’m writing about a culture not my own, I think I probably flex my tact muscle more than usual. I’m much more flippant about making fun of churchy white guys. When I’m writing about, say, incest amongst Hawaiian royals, I feel like I’m way more tactful about that. Like when I write about the Oneida community, the 19th-century Biblical sex cult, I was probably a little more freewheeling in my jokey jokes, because that’s my own race and culture. There’s no formula or anything, but if you’re not a complete and total jerk, you know when to be more respectful and when it’s permissible to be irreverent. I’m probably less respectful than, say, more august chroniclers of the past, but even I draw lines.
Sometimes it’s just part of telling a better story. When I was writing about presidential assassinations, the parts where I’m dealing with the wives of the presidents, the widows, I think those parts are pretty sad, and I have a lot of empathy for those women and what they went through. Sometimes researching that, I was really confronted in a very visceral way with their pain, like when I went to President Garfield’s farm. After he got shot, it took him weeks and weeks to die, and they had his death mask there. You could see photos of what he looked like when he was alive, and he was healthy and portly. But then his death mask is gaunt and skeletal. In that moment, you could see what his wife had to go through, watching him waste away. It’s not merely tactful to be respectful of those poor women and what they went through. It’s also part of the story, and makes it a much better story. President McKinley’s wife, she kind of went off the deep end, sat in a rocking chair and knitted bedroom slippers until the day she died. Just sat there rocking, and she put a photo of her dead husband in her sewing bag, so she saw his face every time she reached for a new ball of yarn. It’s not just me being polite talking about her plight, it’s also part of the story. While it’s sad, it’s definitely pretty gripping, thinking about this poor woman sitting in a rocking chair the rest of her life in mourning, just knitting one pair of slippers after another. Generally, when a story takes a turn like that, I just follow it.
It seems to me, talking to people who read my books, they remember the funny bits, and they don’t really talk about those moments when we’re sitting there in mourning with Mrs. McKinley, or the real sad parts. But the books are actually full of real grim moments. I guess I just have an attention problem or something. What I am is moody; I can’t stay in a jokey mood forever, and I can’t stay in a sad mood forever. I’m just constantly… I’m the weather.