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Living in the Past 

America's quirky historian comes to town to talk Bible prudes and royal incest.

click to enlarge Sarah Vowell
  • Sarah Vowell

You know Sarah Vowell as an NPR contributor and the voice of Violet Parr in The Incredibles. But she’s also a pretty awesome writer. The author of Assassination Vacation and The Wordy Shipmates brings her mix of history and humor to Spokane this week as she reads from her new book, Unfamiliar Fishes, an exploration of Hawaii’s historical voyage from independent nation to 50th state.

Last week, from her home in New York, she spoke to The Inlander about the weird world of prudish Biblethumpers, drunken sailors and incestuous royals that she uncovered in the process.

INLANDER: What inspired you to write about the Americanization and annexation of Hawaii?

VOWELL: I went to Hawaii for the first time on a weekend to see Pearl Harbor, and I went to the old palace of the last Hawaiian monarch. To be at Pearl Harbor, it’s just so historically important to Americans, and especially coming from New York, and it wasn’t that long after 9/11. How Hawaii used to be a sovereign nation with its own kings and queens — we just don’t really think about it, ever. The two places —the [U.S.S.] Arizona Memorial and the palace — just seemed linked. Obviously, Pearl Harbor would never have been bombed for being a naval base if the U.S. had never taken over Hawaii.

You were familiar with the Puritans from your previous book, The Wordy Shipmates. Was there anything that surprised you about the Hawaiian missionaries?

They were trying to change the Hawaiian culture and kill it in a lot of ways, but, ironically, because the lightning-fast way they taught people to write and read so quickly . . . so much of what was about to disappear was chronicled. They taught the first generation of Hawaiian writers, and these were the people who started quickly chronicling all the old ways.

You tell these crazy stories about our schizophrenic country: our Puritan forebears, vacationing at presidential assassination museums. Has the subject matter made you crazy and schizophrenic?

Well, no. I would say, if anything, it makes me a little more open-hearted. I think, more and more, I’m just less interested in judging and more interested in understanding. Writing about the Americanization of Hawaii, it’s hard not to demonize the white sugar planters. They’re trying to become rich white guys, and it’s just the easiest thing in the world to condemn rich white guys for what rich white guys are going to do. There’s this board in New England that’s sending missionaries all over the world, and after they had been [in Hawaii] for nearly 40 years, they’re getting a letter saying “We’re cutting you off, you have to be self-sufficient.”

What are you going to do? It’s pretty obvious that they are going to turn to agriculture. These New England descendants are going to say “Hey, we could be making a lot more money if we just started growing sugar instead of the native crops, like taro. Cha-ching.”

I’m not saying I approve of the way those people took over the Hawaiian government, and a lot of what they did was just incredibly unfair and greedy and just plain gross. It’s just so much more interesting when you get in there and try to figure out why people do what they do.

Where haven’t you traveled that you’re interested in?

I’m kind of weirdly obsessed with the UNESCO World Heritage sites. In the last year, I’ve been to the Great Wall … [and] Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. I guess, in my leisure time, I like to go look at buildings, I’m not entirely sure why. I think part of it’s a non-verbal part.

Like, they don’t talk back?

They’re just markers of the people who were here before. I’m in my apartment [in New York] right now, and I’m looking at the Flatiron building. If I just stare at that one building, it’s from the first decade of the 20th century, it’s just like walking into the past. There’s something so reassuring about that. [Buildings like the Flatiron] kind of defeat death a little bit.

Sarah Vowell reads from Unfamiliar Fishes • Mon, Nov. 7, at 7 pm • Spokane Community College • Lair Student Center Auditorium • Discussion with Sarah Vowell “Finding the Superhero Within” • Tues, Nov. 8, at 9:30 am • Learning Resource Center • 1810 N. Greene St. • scc.spokane.edu • 533-7042
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