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Sarah Vowell Chats About Unfamiliar Fishes

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 5, 2011 6:30PM

Any mention of Sarah Vowell’s work typically includes a few key words and phrases: NPR, snarky, history, cultural critic, deadpan sense of humor, smart, bestselling author, and, according to Vanity Fair “queen of the literary hipster nerds.”

Vowell specializes in investigating a piece of American history that we ignorant Americans tend to know very little to nothing about, then writing a book to enlighten us. In Assassination Vacation, it was assassinations of U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley and James Garfield. In The Wordy Shipmates, it was the 17th and 18th century Puritan colonists in Massachusetts. For her newest book, Unfamiliar Fishes, in which she outlines the history and annexation/attempt at Americanization of Hawaii, Vowell spent time both poring over archives and speaking with native islanders who continue to live the after effects of its history today. She includes all the juicy and oftentimes eyeball-opening details that are left out of grade school social studies books: the overthrowing of the Hawaiian queen, the relentless missionaries determined to bring God to the hearts of the natives (and who turned Hawaii into one of the most literate nations by teaching them to read the Bible), the sailors who felt they had a inherent right to prostitutes, and a lot of other stuff that you’ll have to read to find out more about.

Vowell is stopping through our humble area tomorrow evening, and we had the very special opportunity to speak with her and ask her a few questions about the book.

Chicagoist: Why do you think Americans know so little about the history of Hawaii?

Sarah Vowell: I don’t really find most Americans informed about most aspects of American history. There are a few highlights that people see to be informed about: the Revolutionary War, World War II, maybe the Kennedy assassination.

I do think while Americans are not that up on their Hawaiiana, Hawaiians are very well-informed about that history; it is ever present there. There are a lot of the issues having to do with who owns the land and how land is used and ecological concerns about water and how water is used, and the militarization of the islands. And there is a segment of people of native Hawaiian dissent who still hold a grudge about this stuff. The past is still very much present there.

Which made this book very much a privilege. There are so many people to talk to, and I’ve never had that before. I was going to Hawaii and talking about Hawaiian history with people who were so well informed.

C: Your tone has been described as deadpan, wry and witty. How did your voice mix with such a heavy subject?

SV: I’ve always written pieces that are like this book, it’s just even in the books I’ve written that have a lot of jokes, they are still ridden with murders and massacres and epidemics and babies being burned alive.... there’s a lot of that stuff in American history. It just seems like when people remember the books and talk about the books, they only remember the amusing parts. It’s kind of like child birth, people only remember the joy of the child, not the pain of the birth. It’s kind of like selective remembrance.

My tone changes depending on the story I’m telling. This one does have a slightly more sober tone, that just comes with the story. This story, because it is frequently serious, and because a lot of it is about injustice and greed, and so much of this story is gut wrenching, it seems that the tone should reflect that. Maybe with this story I have more empathy and tact. When I’m talking about the Americans, the New Englanders who came to Hawaii in particular, I’m perhaps more lighthearted and loosey goosey and having fun at their expense. There are still the odd smart alecky asides. I probably have more tact talking about native Hawaiian culture, and even parts that I don’t approve of, because that’s not my culture and it’s not appropriate. Especially considering the story I’m telling... it’s all about the bad luck that’s befallen these people, it’s not my place to kick them harder.

C: Kind of a blunt question here. You seem to have a very cynical view of missionaries. Would you say this is a group of people from history whom you hate?

SV: I don’t hate anyone I write about. There are some people I disapprove more than others. It’s harder and harder for me to really villainize anyone, even people I have disdain for as a writer. I used to be more judgmental and that may lead to more wisecracks, but when I am trying to understand a historical figure, it’s more my inclination is more to figure out why rather than dismiss them with a one liner. Maybe as I become a better person, that makes me less funny. Maybe I was funnier when I was bigger jerk.

The missionaries are the most comical characters, but also the most interesting. I’m fascinated by them. They are a people who really believe they are right and feel they have some bigger ideal to gather other people around to change the world, but so often for the worst. This is pretty early that these people are leaving New England and they are already setting sail for some colony to save souls. Do I believe that that’s a worthy goal? No, I think that’s ridiculous. But I admire that they gave up their friends, their family and their prosperity for this goal. And what the missionaries did in terms of education... There was no written language before they arrived, and then they taught the whole Hawaiian people to read within a generation. They might have the highest literacy rate in the world.

C: Can you talk a little bit about the cover design? All your books cover have a similar feel and theme.

SV: The photographer, David Levinthal is a pretty renowned photographer. He uses vintage toys. We originally heard about this guy who had taken a photo of a toy Abraham Lincoln. So we went to his studio and he found this photo, it was Lincoln at Antietam. The Lincoln was a little too ominous to use, so we flipped through his portfolio and we found that picture used on the cover of The Partly Cloudy Patriot from a series he did using old toys.

The reason I love his work and think it is so appropriate for my book covers is because they are obviously photographs of toys, so there is something inherently playful about that. And since they are vintage, there is something that speaks to books about historical subjects. And the way he lights these things and the background, there’s this ominous melancholy air that speaks to the books. There is this tone of the photos that matches what I’m trying to do.

Writers at Wright presents: Sarah Vowell discussing Unfamiliar Fishes tomorrow, April 6, at Unity Temple, 875 Lake St, Oak Park, April 6, 7 p.m., free