Author Sarah Vowell

Unfamiliar Fishes author discusses the annexations of Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Guam and explains why the summer of 1898 is when the U.S. really became a superpower.

Known for her commentaries on public radio's This American Life, Sarah Vowell is also a best-selling author of nonfiction books on American history and culture. She's contributed to numerous publications and is a former columnist. She was also the voice of Violet in the Oscar-winning animated film, The Incredibles. Vowell is a fellow at NYU's Institute for the Humanities and on the board of 826NYC, a tutoring and writing center in Brooklyn. Her most recent work, Unfamiliar Fishes, dissects the history of Hawaii, America's 50th state.


Tavis: Sarah Vowell is a popular author and social commentator known for her best-selling books and her work on PRI’s “This American Life.” Her critically acclaimed new text is set in Hawaii. It’s called “Unfamiliar Fishes.” Sarah, good to have you on this program.
Sarah Vowell: Thank you.
Tavis: Love the title, “Unfamiliar Fishes.”
Vowell: Thank you.
Tavis: Why?
Vowell: Why the title?
Tavis: Yeah.
Vowell: It actually comes from a letter written by the man who’s essentially the first Hawaiian writer. His name’s David Malo. He was one of the first generation of the American missionaries who arrived in the 1820s. They taught him to read and write. He was almost 30 years old and he became a minister and a teacher.
As he grew older and watched the rising tide of white people drowning [laugh] his homeland, he wrote a letter to some native friends saying, “When a big wave comes in, large and unfamiliar fishes come to the shore and they see the small fishes of the shallows and they will eat them up.” Kind of prophetic about what happened to white.
But I also like the title, the “Unfamiliar Fishes.” He’s talking about, you know, the white people, the Americans. But I like that title because there are all these white people coming to Hawaii. They’re not, you know, the regular Joes. They’re the bible thumpers and the sailors on leave. They’re odd ducks, you know, representing our country.
Tavis: You argue – the book is really built around this fact – that 1776, although interesting for all the obvious reasons – that 1898 should be just as fascinating for us. Tell me about 1898.
Vowell: I think it’s pretty important. It’s kind of the year we became a world power. Not even the year; more like a summer. In April of 1898, we invade Cuba, then we invade the Philippines. Then by the end of the summer, we have annexed Guam and Puerto Rico and taken over the Philippines and Cuba becomes our protectorate and annexed Hawaii.
Part of it was this, you know, drive on the part of men and the government and the military, people like Theodore Roosevelt or President McKinley or Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts who wanted to make America great. To them, greatness meant empire and empires were built on Navies and Navies required island colonies to have naval bases on. That’s how we ended up with Pearl Harbor and Guantanamo Bay.
So that’s really when we turned this corner that, you know, the street where our tanks are still moving down that street. It kind of happens that year.
Tavis: In retrospect, was that a wise power grab or just being greedy?
Vowell: I mean, was it wise? It depends on who you ask. If your goal as Theodore Roosevelt’s goal was to be great and powerful and not be a sissy, you know, and have this big Navy and take over the world, then it was a great idea. Pearl Harbor is still the headquarters of Pacific Command.
If you are, say, one of the namby-pamby wishy-washy anti-imperialists who thought, “Hey, isn’t the United States about government built on consent of the governed?” then you shed a few tears, I think.
Tavis: Talk to me specifically about – which is, again, the centerpiece of the book – the annexation of Hawaii specifically.
Vowell: There are two factions who wanted it and all of them were white. There were the people in Washington who wanted Hawaii because they wanted to turn it into a big military base. Then on the ground in Hawaii, there were the descendants of the original New England missionaries, these guys who started the sugar plantations. They had overthrown the Hawaiian queen and they wanted Hawaii to become American because they wanted Hawaiian sugar to be American sugar.
But the Hawaiian people were still loyal to their queen and, when annexation came up before the Congress, the Hawaiian people rallied, gathered thousands and thousands of signatures, and sent them to Washington and said, you know, we want to go back to being a sovereign nation. That worked. There is no real treaty of annexation because the congressmen were persuaded by the Hawaiian people and the Hawaiian queen who also wrote this beautiful book partly to argue against annexation.
After the treaty became impossible to pass, the McKinley administration still sort of jerry-rigged this joint resolution. I mean, I say in the book, that’s the kind of law like President Reagan signed to make something into National Mime Week [laugh]. It’s a little less rigorous and requires a lower majority, you know.
Tavis: You’ve raised this a few times in this conversation and it’s one of the through lines, to my eye at least, in the book. This notion of the white people that you keep referring to.
Vowell: We could call them haoles. That’s what the Hawaiians call them.
Tavis: Say that again?
Vowell: Haole.
Tavis: Haole, exactly. What’s your preference for this conversation?
Vowell: Oh, either way. You know, it’s always good to have a synonym just for variety.
Tavis: [Laugh] Okay. So when you wrote off this list of all the land-grabbing that we did in this summer, not even a year, to your point, in the summer of 1898, it’s white folk basically doing the grabbing and people of color, for lack of a better phrase, being grabbed. The takers and the tooken. Talk to me about that relationship, that juxtaposition.
Vowell: Well, the interesting thing about Hawaii as opposed to all those other 1898 acquisitions which were all former Spanish colonies like Puerto Rico or the Philippines or Guam, they were Catholics, but Hawaii, because it had been overrun by these missionaries for almost eight decades beforehand, Protestantism was pretty entrenched there and there was white ruling class in place because of the missionary descendants and their sugar plantations.
So I think Hawaii – maybe this is one of the reasons that Hawaii is the only one of those colonies that became a state because there was this long American presence there and Hawaii had been so Americanized already.
Tavis: How unfair – let me ask it another way. How unfair in retrospect was this deal to these persons of color in all of these places, in Hawaii, in Guam and Puerto Rico, etc.?
Vowell: Well, how unfair, I don’t know. Do you want to go by colors? It was pretty unfair, you know.
Tavis: Here’s what I’m getting at. When we talk about – we use like nice words. We’re being serious and funny at the same time in various parts of this conversation alternately. We’re talking about annexation, we’re talking about acquisitions.
There are a lot of other words we could use that are not so kind about what really happened to the persons in these various places in that power-grab summer. So I’m just trying to get to – as I might call it – the dark side, the night side of what happened in 1898.
Vowell: There are so many dark sides in Hawaii; it’s like a Rubik’s Cube, you know, where every side is black. I mean, for one thing, like the natives of the Americans, the Hawaiian’s first starters had little resistance to western diseases. Like when Captain Cook arrived in 1778, he’s the first westerner on record. There were as many as 300,000 to maybe a million native Hawaiians. A century later, there were about 30,000 or 40,000 depending on how you count them. So they were wiped out so much just by disease.
And then a lot of what happened with the white people taking over the land, a lot of that was purely legal and it goes back to the generosity of the Hawaiian monarch who privatized the land and made it legal for foreigners to buy land. So by 1898, the white residents of Hawaii owned about 90 percent of the land and almost all of that was legal.
You know, it’s not pretty. I mean, some ways the fact that that was legal, it makes – you know how so many things that are legal aren’t necessarily right? So there’s that. I mean, that –
Tavis: – the bible says lawful, but not expedient.
Vowell: Right. You know, I’m an American girl and I’m no super fan of monarchy, but the Hawaiian queen at the time she was overthrown, I mean, she was a constitutional monarch. There was fairly universal suffrage and then, when these missionary descendants overthrew her using all the rhetoric of 1776 and even the Magna Carta, what they did is establish this oligarchy that was way less democratic than the monarchy they replaced.
Then because Grover Cleveland was president at that time and he refused to annex Hawaii and they kind of had to wait around for him to leave office before they could. In that time, they realized we’re gonna have to be a government for a while and we need a constitution.
So one of the representatives of the Hawaiian government lobbying for annexation in Washington, he’s writing his old buddies in charge back in Honolulu saying, “If we’re gonna make a constitution, you guys should check out the new constitution of the State of Mississippi,” you know, that Jim Crow masterpiece, because they have really figured out how to disenfranchise all of these former slaves in Mississippi that we can also apply to the Hawaiians and then also the large population of Asia and plantation workers.
Then he has the gall to say, “And this new country, whatever it should be called, it should have the word republic in the title.” He wants it to be called the republic, just not be one.
Tavis: So back to your earlier point, historically we know why we wanted to annex these places. You could put in bases; you could launch things from these bases. So in a contemporary sense, that is to say, in 2011, what are we using militarily Hawaii and Puerto Rico and Guam for these days? We seem to be itching to invade people.
Vowell: It’s not all nefarious, you know. I think one of the things they do is support the independence of South Korea from that eccentric gentleman running the north of Korea. We also support the independence of Taiwan. So they do good work there [laugh]. You know, there are some other things we did in the 20th century from those headquarters like, you know, Vietnam, let’s say, Korea, some of that. I don’t know.
But when I was a student, I lived in Holland for a bit and I lived with this Dutch couple who had been Indonesian colonials and they had spent their childhoods in Japanese concentration camps that were liberated by Americans that I’m sure passed through Pearl Harbor on the way to come save those people.
It’s a big mess. I’m just glad I’m not one of those people in charge of making these decisions about, you know, where to point that weaponry. All I’m saying is maybe before we start talking about ourselves as this flawless city on a hill, perhaps we could just be a little more aware of some of the lint on our fine sweaters.
Tavis: Just precisely why I wanted you on this program to talk about “Unfamiliar Fishes.” Before I let you go, since we’re talking so much about Hawaii, the person who is in charge of it – you’re glad that you are not that person – the person who is in charge of deciding where we’re going to point our missiles and bullets happens to be a Black man from Hawaii named Barack Obama and there is great debate these days.
I see Donald Trump now is the latest idiot – I mean, excuse me, the latest person – to raise this question about the president’s birthplace and birth certificate. So what does Sarah Vowell make of this debate about Obama, Hawaii, the birth certificate? What?
Vowell: I think that’s all silliness. I mean, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t take over these islands and make them American and use them as one of our military capitals and then make the claim that someone who was born there is not an American. That just seems kind of unpatriotic to me and it certainly demeans the contribution the Hawaiian people have made to our path to world domination.
I mean, I’m not one to make fun of, you know, a patriot like Trump, but that’s just my humble little opinion.
Tavis: Thank you, Sarah, for sharing that. I appreciate it.
Vowell: Um-hum.
Tavis: The new book from the “New York Times” best-selling author, Sarah Vowell, is called “Unfamiliar Fishes.” Sarah, congrats on a good text, and good to have you on this program.
Vowell: Thank you very much.
Tavis: Glad to have you.
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Last modified: April 28, 2011 at 5:29 pm