Going into Unfamiliar Fishes, my knowledge of Hawaii was sparse, to say the least. I can’t say that we covered any Hawaiian history in school- not even that it is our “newest” state. Information came in fits and starts; a friend of mine teaches Hula through VSA, I was familiar with Captain Cooks adventures (and one serious misadventure) in the archipelago, and I caught an old episode of No Reservations. Embarrassing, I know. I had nothing to write home about.
Enter Sarah Vowell and her “almost oral history” of (white) people messing with Hawaii- often with disastrous outcome. Vowell quotes regularly from the memoirs of native Hawaiians, the diaries of Protestant missionaries and their families, speeches from politicians on the mainland, and ancient traditional songs. She also met with people allover the island to extract their views; tour guides, cab drivers, teachers, librarians, descendants of native Hawaiians, decedents of missionaries, and descendants of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Portuguese immigrants who also found themselves in Hawaii in the 19th century.
I say “almost oral history” because voice matters. The voice of the author wraps the whole collection neatly together, but the voices of Hawaii speak the loudest. I experienced Unfamiliar Fishes as an audio book, and highly recommend that you do the same if this subject is of interest to you. Excerpts from diaries, memoirs, and interviews are read (performed, really) by Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Catherine Keener, and many others. Edward Norton is especially well-cast as the dry-as-a-bone missionary Hiram Bingham.
The tale is often depressing, what with disease, erasure of culture, the seizure of sacred lands, the destruction of sacred artifacts littered across Hawaii. I feel that it is important that we learn of the cultural attacks that America bestowed upon Hawaii (and the Philipines, Guam, Puerto Rico…..). We need to look back to keep moving forward, and make amends to the many people that we have harmed along the way. Don’t worry though- there is some schadenfreude to be had along the way. Sailors really gave the missionaries a run for their money!