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Sarah Vowell's Conversational History Lessons

Mar. 7, 2012
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Sarah Vowell's droll humor, unmistakable voice and knack for simultaneously wry and poignant storytelling has made her one of the star contributors to public radio's "This American Life," but in her recent books Vowell has traded intimate, David Sedaris-styled essays for something much more ambitious. She's reinvented herself as an amateur historian, piecing together stories about America's past through her travels to historical landmarks. Her 2006 travelogue Assassination Vacation was an often-irreverent tour of presidential assassinations. Her new book, Unfamiliar Fishes, is loftier, telling the sometimes-tragicomic—but usually just plain tragic—story of America's 1898 annexation of Hawaii. It's the most delicate subject matter Vowell has ever broached, but she retains her usual chatty voice, filling the narrative with sardonic asides and pop-culture analogies. Vowell spoke with the Shepherd Express in advance of her appearance at Boswell Book Co. on Friday, March 9, at 7 p.m.

What drew you to write a book about the Americanization of Hawaii?

To me, it's not only a fascinating story of how Americans changed this place and took it over, but because it's about this group of islands in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific, it's also a story that's incredibly outlined. If you drew it on a map, it would be a straight line. It starts in 1820, when not only the first New England missionaries, but also the first New England whalers, came to Hawaii, and you could see how this small group of saints and sinners from the Boston area completely changed this group of islands that was this sovereign country. They and their descendants just completely changed that place, for better or for worse—Hawaiians would say definitely for the worse. The story was just so blatantly chronological. Basically the time period I cover, between 1820 when those New Englanders arrive and 1898 when the islands become a U.S. territory, has such a small and such a fascinating group of characters that it just kind of laid itself out as a story. It's rare in history when you can have just an obvious chain of cause and effect. And even though we don't really think about it in the mainland, the story is also tied up in who we are as a country, and how we became a military empire. All the decisions that were made in that one year, 1898, still have an enormous effect on who we are as an empire.

When you write these books, do you give yourself complete freedom to chase the ideas and tangents that interest you most, or do you feel a responsibility to present the big picture?

Well, I never cared about that until I had to write this book. I write in the first person a lot, so my books are pretty personal and slanted in general, but with this story, so much of the history that has been written came from strong points of view, either from the missionary descendant point of view, or the native Hawaiian point of view. So for this book, even though you don't find writers more subjective than me usually, it seemed like as an outsider the most subjective way to tell the story was to try to be objective, to try to suss out the different factions and what their motives are. I have to say, probably the people that influenced me the most were a lot of the native Hawaiian activists, just because I spent some time with them and got to know them, and their point of view was so strong, it just made me think about the responsibility to the subjects of the story way more than I ever do. Like, when I was writing about President Garfield, I didn't feel a huge onus to present the story from his point of view. But with this story, sometimes the native Hawaiians that I hung out with just confounded me and made me think way harder about something than I normally do.

Did that experience make you become a more traditional historian?

I guess I become more like a traditional historian as the years go by because the older I get the more interested I am in facts, and the less interested I am in my own experiences. I just get swept up by the people and the circumstances and the time and all of that. But, no, I'm not a traditional historian, because a sense of place is so important in the stories that I tell. So much of what I do, besides reading the books and going to the archives and looking up old newspaper articles, is just hanging out. I'll use a yellowing old letter in an archive as a source like a normal historian, but I'll also just talk about something I've seen from the bus window. ... So even though I can tell a story in the third person and I like doing that, I can't imagine not wanting to tell the reader about my experience. I'm not just interested in isolating history in its time and place; I'm also interested in how people think about that history, or how they don't, and how the past filters into the present.

And the big difference between your books and traditional history, of course, is that unlike traditional history, people actually read your books.

[Laughs] That's funny, isn't it? I don't really think about the audience too much when I write books, but I have some pride, and I do want people to read them. I mean, it's a weird position to be in, because a lot of my readers don't generally read books about history. So on the one hand, I'm happy to bring them along. On the other hand, when I give the readings and do the questions-and-answers sessions, it's rare that I get to have a conversation about the actual subject matter of what I do. I think if I were an academic, my only readers would be my fellow academics, and then I would go to those conferences and we would all have incredibly rich, detailed conversations about the actual subject matter we were all obsessed with. In some ways what I do is a lonelier way to live, because I learn all this stuff, and I tell all these stories, but it's more of a one-way conversation. ... I think I ended up where I am because I didn't start as a historian. I started writing for newspapers, and then for the radio. I went to grad school. I have a master's degree, and I wrote a thesis that literally one person read. And even at the same time as I was writing that thesis, I was writing for newspapers, and I would go get coffee and see the paper I wrote for in the coffee shop. Comparing the two experiences, it was just much more real and meaningful to see my writing sitting in the recycling bin of a coffee shop, versus knowing that the only person who was going to read my thesis was my professor. I would rather be recycling. I would rather be part of people's lives, because that's kind of what I write about: I show how my subjects are in the world. It only makes sense that I would want to be in that world, too.


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