Friday, March 13, 2009

Interview with author Alan Brennert


Q: Did the idea for Honolulu come out of your research for your previous book, Moloka’i ?

A: In a way. One of the most colorful periods of modern Hawaiian history was the so-called “glamour days” of the 1920s and 30s. Though I read about it in my research for Moloka’i, it was a time period I couldn’t really explore in depth in that book, since my main characters were held in isolation at Kalaupapa. These were the years when Hawai’i made its deepest impression on the American consciousness: the years of Matson liners, the China Clipper, Hollywood celebrities vacationing in Honolulu, and the Hawai’i Calls radio show that broadcasted popular hapa-haole music to the mainland. I found myself wanting to tell a story against that romantic backdrop.

Q: But Honolulu also presents a very different picture of Hawai’i in those “glamour” days.

A: Yes, there were almost two Honolulus existing alongside one another—or more accurately, interwoven, like the Korean patchwork quilts I write about in the book. Because at the same time this romantic, glamorous image of paradise was being exported to the American public, many Native Hawaiians and immigrants to Hawai’i labored on plantations for low wages or lived in poverty in Honolulu tenements. So Honolulu, the novel, is partly about this collision of image and reality...and how, in fact, the reality was actually far richer and more captivating.

Q: Is this why you’ve used so many actual historical figures in the book?

A: They’re not “historical” figures in the conventional sense; my whole point in using them is that many of these people have been largely lost to history. Chang Apana, for instance, was one of the great characters in modern Hawaiian history: a small, two-fisted Chinese-Hawaiian police detective who became one of the most celebrated police officers of his day. But most people today—if they know of him at all—know him primarily as the real-life inspiration for Earl Der Biggers’ “Charlie Chan.” The fantasy has eclipsed the reality. Yet Apana was really a much more colorful and fascinating character than his fictional counterpart, and that’s who I wanted to bring to light—along with other real-life people like “Panama Dave” Baptiste, May Thompson, and Joseph Kahahawai.

Q: Your protagonist, Jin, is a young Korean woman who comes to Hawai’i as a “picture bride.” Was she based on any specific person?

A: Like Rachel Kalama in Moloka’i, Jin is a fictional creation, but is inspired by any number of actual women who emigrated to Hawai’i between 1903 and 1924—Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. I chose to make her Korean because there had already been several fictional representations of Japanese picture brides, but once I started researching Korean culture of that era I saw the rich potential it held as a dramatic motivation for Jin’s journey. It’s been said that Korea in those days tried to be “more Confucian than the Chinese,” and for women it was an especially oppressive environment—which is what motivated many of them to seek a better life elsewhere, through matchmakers who promised a life of adventure and affluence in Hawai’i.

Q: How many picture brides actually made this journey?

A: Estimates range from between six hundred and a thousand. But these women were just a small part of a larger influx of immigrants—Asian, Portuguese, Spanish, Filipino—brought to Hawai’i by the sugar barons who needed laborers to work on the plantations. Those immigrants formed the basis of a polyglot population that today mirrors the kind of multi-ethnic society America is becoming. It’s a subject that’s more pertinent than ever since our new President is himself a product of Hawai’i’s uniquely multicultural society. Honolulu tells of how that culture came to be—and how its story is really the story of America itself.

About the Author:
Alan Brennert is the author of Moloka’i, which was a 2006-2007 BookSense Reading Group Pick and won the 2006 Bookies Award, sponsored by the Contra Costa Library, for the Book Club Book of the Year. It appeared on the BookSense, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Honolulu Advertiser, and (for 16 weeks) NCIBA bestseller lists. He lives in Sherman Oaks, California.