There’s arguably no American state that inspires more wonder and delight than Hawaii, the very mention of which brings to mind lush landscapes and simpler, pleasure-filled days on the beach. No state in America is quite as mysterious, either. The history of the islands, from the volcanic eruptions that formed the place to the arrival of the Polynesian inhabitants who first called it home to its acquisition by the United States in 1959, is less known, shrouded in myths and brief but poignant moments in history—from Pearl Harbor to its stake as the birthplace of our current President.
Hawaii-born novelist Susanna Moore has pieced together a comprehensive, riveting nonfiction narrative in her new book Paradise of the Pacific, which focuses on Hawaii of the 1700s: she tells us about the kings and queens who ruled, the pagan gods worshipped, and the explorers and missionaries who forever changed it.
One of the most vivid figures in Moore's book is Queen Ka'ahumanu, the favorite of the 22 wives of King Kamehameha I. The Queen was a converted Christian with a pipe-smoking habit and a love of brandy. She exerted real political power over the kingdom, establishing relations with America and encouraging natives to be baptized into the Christian faith.
Moore talked with Travel + Leisure about the great, guileful Queen Ka'ahumanu; writing history; and what she loves about her home.
You've written a memoir about life in Hawaii, but this historical book is a departure from the novels you're known for. Tell me a bit about the move from fiction to nonfiction.
The first few books are rather grandly known as the Hawaiian trilogy, and they are very autobiographical: they're about growing up in Hawaii and moving to New York as an 18-year-old. In some ways I caught up with myself. Those books were written a long time ago, when I was in my thirties. Then I wrote In the Cut, which was shocking to a lot of people; it was seen as a big shift from the idyllic, somewhat romantic writing I had been doing. Some people thought my first books were “women’s books”—which meant that I wrote beautifully about flowers and children. I hated that.
In the Cut couldn't be more different and was quite controversial. It’s about a girl who is murdered. My last novel, The Life of Objects, was very difficult to write because I had to solve the problem of presenting familiar history—World War II—in a fresh and original way. Readers know a lot about the War—so how would I write about D-Day, or the arrival of the Red Army in Berlin, in a way that was new, and not ironical or didactic? It was quite difficult to solve that. I read a lot of history, obviously, while I was writing that book. I worked on it for about two years. It's very seductive for me, the research stage of the book. Writing a novel is always exhausting and, for me, a bit draining, and when it's finished, I need time to fill up again.
I thought it might be interesting to write nonfiction. My editor at FSG, Jonathan Galassi, suggested I write about Hawaii. The subject is so rich, and so broad, and in many ways unexplored. I was at first overwhelmed. And then I reminded myself, as I remind myself when I begin a novel, to pay attention to those things that most interest me.
What was it like reading about and researching Queen Ka'ahumanu?
Well, growing up in Hawaii, I knew about her, even though when I was a child, interest in Hawaiian studies was very superficial. It was not until the 1970s that people changed the way they thought about Hawaiian history; it became more ethnocentric, if sometimes less accurate, whether it was from the point of view of Hawaiians, or Japanese, or Filipinos. This was a result of postmodernist thinking, and it occurred in many fields of American studies. Because of this, contemporary Hawaiian scholarship can still be a bit chaotic, if not fanciful.
Queen Ka'ahumanu was always present in my understanding of Hawaiian history. A few years ago—and this story is an example of the revisionism in Hawaiian history that I deplore—I happened to mention to two young women that I was thinking about writing about her. Both of these women had gone to very good schools in Honolulu, where there would have been ample—assumedly objective— ourses in Hawaiian history, unlike when I went to school. They didn’t find the subject of Queen Ka'ahumanu at all appealing, which surprised me. I wondered if their lack of interest was due to the new scholarship, which can be unfairly critical of Ka'ahumanu because she abolished the old gods, and later converted to Christianity. I dislike this new ideology. It's harmful for young people, especially young Hawaiian children, as it allows them to continue to refuse to take responsibility for their own history. It's sentimental, and it's sloppy. My conversation with my two young friends of course made me want to write about Ka'ahumanu even more.
She was extraordinary, and very unusual; there was really no one, no other woman, like her.
Yes, she had serious guile. She strikes me as very different from your previous heroines.
She reminds me of the heroine from my book about colonial India. I'm not alone in finding that kind of woman appealing: intelligent, courageous, outrageous even, reckless, self-indulgent, completely assured. She's irresistible.
By Western standards she was not a beauty; in the one or two images that we have of her, she is obese. But I think of her as beautiful, and people here in Hawaii think of her as beautiful, and not simply because we are used to Polynesian standards of beauty.
What do you hope readers will take from this?
I hope that the book will give those interested in Hawaiian history a more balanced and objective view of 18th-century and early 19th-century Hawaii, especially in regards to the influence of the missionaries. Academics and activists here tend to distort Hawaiian history for political ends, or to sentimentalize the past, which, as I said, is destructive of the truth.
Readers might find it interesting that the sometimes shocking events in Hawaiian history—human sacrifice, for example—occurred quite recently. The last sacrifice took place on the side of Diamond Head, a short walk from the hotels of Waikiki, in 1819. Not that long ago. As a result, history is very present in the Islands. It is everywhere.
I'm not sure people realize, too, how close the race came to extinction, for all sorts of reasons, especially as a result of the intrusion of Western civilization. But the Hawaiians were not altogether blameless.
The history of Hawaii is very present on the islands—for me, it's all over, when I go for a walk or explore. I see it everywhere.
Tell me about how reading more Hawaiian history made you see your home island differently.
I was always, even as a girl, wary of the haole (white) view of things. When we learned hula in gym class (not history class or even music class), we danced to a song in English, written for the tourist market or what is called 'nightclub hula.' Now, when children are taught hula in school, they learn an early form of the dance called 'kahiko,' set to traditional chants, which is not the hula one is used to seeing on television or in exhibitions for tourists.
Doing research enabled me to think about the way that I wanted to present my story — facts, whether you agree with them or not, are still facts. I discovered, for instance, that Kamehameha I was a very violent man, which only added to the complexity of his character.
In writing history, it is important not to slip into didacticism, or even to have a very particular point of view. Of course, the information that you choose to present, or favor, indicates immediately to an attentive reader your opinion of things, even if you work to conceal it. I wanted the book to be as objective as I could make it. I realized when I was finished that I was so intent on this, that I used very few adjectives—an adjective or an adverb might give me away.
You grew up in Hawaii and eventually moved to New York, and now you split your time between the East Coast and the islands.
I live in a small town on the Big Island in the far north. I teach every fall at Princeton and live in New York for those three months.
I'm married to a man who takes photographs of the Hawaiian hawk, among other things. We spend a lot of time walking in the mountains and gulches. It is very rural in North Kohala, much like the Hawaii of our childhood.
When you return to Hawaii every winter, what do you want to do right away?
Always, I want to be in the ocean—immediately. My plane often arrives at night, so I am forced to wait until the following day. There aren’t many beaches on the Big Island; the coastline is rugged and there are cliffs. The current can be dangerous. It is not like Oahu, and because of that, it is still quite unspoiled.
Do you suffer from that travel syndrome of always missing your other home, when you're in Hawaii or New York?
There's a lovely line from the Japanese poet Basho: "Even in Kyoto ... I long for Kyoto."