If you’re a longtime fan of Sarah Vowell, it’s hard not to get annoyed when people say things like, “Oh I just love her audio books.” And it doesn’t happen exclusively with people who consume their literature in MP3 form. Perfectly intelligent and even adventurous readers, who sometimes read books not suggested by the New York Times bestseller list, will tell you how much they enjoyed listening to Vowell’s Assassination Vacation or The Wordy Shipmates or that old classic Take the Cannoli. It’s not that they’re lazy or don’t see the value in reading a book rather than having it read to them like they’re a child being lulled to sleep at bedtime. They just love her voice. Which, okay fine, is kind of understandable. If you’ve ever heard Vowell on NPR’s “This American Life,” you’re already familiar with her distinctive nasal drawl, which sounds like a librarian with a sinus infection and is admittedly hilarious. Her inimitable soft palate is why she’s on Ira Glass’s speed dial, and why she got that lucrative (at least for a humor author) voiceover gig at Pixar. But her voice — as with David Sedaris’ voice, who has a similar audio book cult following — might as well be auto-tuner trickery. It sells albums, but it has nothing to do with the substance of the song. A funny voice does not a great nonfiction humor author make. It’s her ideas, her unapologetic nerd-girl take on the world, that makes her a writer worth watching, and actually fucking reading.
I called Vowell to talk about her newest book, Unfamiliar Fishes, which can and should be bought in non-audio book form next Tuesday, March 22nd. It’s about the Americanization of Hawaii, or as she describes it, “a painful tale of native loss combined with an idealistic multiethnic saga symbolized by mixed platers in which soy sauce and mayonnaise peacefully coexist and congeal.” So yeah, it’s history by way of food analogy. And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of its awesomeness. To be perfectly frank, I could listen to Vowell talk all afternoon about any subject that happens to strike her fancy. And it has nothing to do with the sucking-a-helium-balloon theatrics of her voice.
Eric Spitznagel: In my high school history classes, I was always bored. But as an adult, I’m fascinated by history, U.S. or otherwise. I read historical biographies and watch the History Channel incessantly. When did history get more interesting?
Sarah Vowell: Do you think it has more to do with the fact that you’re closer to death now? I think it’s natural for somebody to have more interest in dead people the closer they are to becoming one.
Is that what happened with you? Did you become a history nerd because you got a whiff of your own mortality?
No, I think you’re right, the history they taught in high school, at least when I was a teenager, was heavily edited. I certainly didn’t know that Thomas Jefferson had a thing with one of his slaves. We didn’t talk about that kind of stuff. American history in particular was just civics in disguise. And not deep, probing civics, but more like, “The United States’ path to glory.” We would always end at World War II, just because we “ran out of time.” Nobody wanted to deal with Korea or Vietnam. I learned that America never lost a war. And I started school the year we pulled out of Saigon.
The kind of history that’s in Unfamiliar Fishes needs to be taught in high schools. Especially the part about how there’s a hula specifically for celebrating the genitals of Hawaiian royalty.
That’s interesting stuff, right? When I first heard of that, I giggled. But the story behind it is so much more complicated and interesting than one would think. It sounds like, “Oh those Hawaiians are just a bunch of libertines, dancing up a storm about their king’s private parts. They’re just so much more fun than we are.” But those hula dances were serious business. The dancers were like nuns. It’s deeply steeped in a complicated, academic, religious tradition. It’s about celebrating the past and how a leader’s genitals were their connection to the future and continuing the traditions and the bloodlines. In a way, it’s fairly stodgy and conservative stuff. I don’t want you to come away thinking that the Hawaiians are more fun than they are.
This isn’t a paid endorsement by the Hawaiian tourism board?
Oh no, not at all. I think when most Americans picture Hawaii, they actually don’t even think about people. They probably just picture a smiley hula girl or something.
You write in Unfamiliar Fishes that you “envy people who celebrate their leaders’ private parts.” Were you being tongue-in-cheek?
So you think the problem with politics in this country is that there just isn’t enough penis worship?
Well, let me put it this way. There are (U.S.) presidents that I really respect and admire, but I’m not going to get all weepy about whether or not they procreate. That’s a reverence for leaders that the Hawaiians have that I’m never going to have. As a smart-alecky, irreverent New Yorker, it was a nice change of pace to meet people who are reverent and have deep feelings of respect. Because when you’re smart-alecky and irreverent, you don’t get to feel those things very often. I’m reverent about irreverence, I guess. But that’s different.
David Sedaris has called you a “funny historian,” which sounds like its own literary genre. But you seem to be the only one doing it. There aren’t a lot of writers out there mining history for laughs.
I honestly don’t think about what I do, I just do it. It is odd though how people always seem to remember the funny parts. My stories are filled with huge tragedies and massacres, and Unfamiliar Fishes is all about the downtrodden and epidemics and unfairness. But for some reason, people just remember the jokey bits. Which I guess is good. My books are kind of like childbirth. People don’t remember the pain.
That’s remarkable if only because it’s so rare. It’s not like Howard Zinn’s books ever made somebody laugh till milk came out of their nose. Nobody ever says about Niall Ferguson, “Oh man, get a few glasses of white wine in him and you’ll be throwing up with laughter!”
Yeah, that’s true. Although, I’ve been on the lecture circuit for a few years, and college students loved Howard Zinn. He’s somebody you didn’t want to follow. I always got the feeling that college students wished I was as fun as Howard Zinn. But to your point, I think the humor comes from me not being a historian. I’m not an expert. I usually start from zero and learn from there. And so much of history is just terrible. It’s Wounded Knee and mass graves and Stalin. The only way to possibly think about those things without bursting into tears is to use that old human coping mechanism of nervous laughter. [Long pause.] I don’t know, you’re really making me think about and question what I do and whether I should be doing it at all.
Is there a chance you only wrote Unfamiliar Fishes because you wanted to visit Hawaii and get a tan?
Well, that presupposes that I’m fun.
And that would be untrue?
Let’s just say that when I went to Australia for a book festival, they said, “We don’t really get people as pale as you around here.” So, to write the kind of book that I’ve written, you’ve got to go to Hawaii for six weeks and spend every day in a refrigerated archive while wearing a cardigan sweater, reading the brittle correspondence of the dead. That said, it did change me a little. Before Hawaii, I never really understood the point of the beach. But as it turns out, it can be a nice place to read.
You’re just figuring that out now?
Yeah. You can read there. If you look over the top of your book, there’s a pretty impressive large body of water in the distance. And it requires as much effort as sitting in your rocking chair in Manhattan.
Last year at a Public Library Association conference in Portland, you said that after devoting so much of your life to historical research, “It turns out I’m an imperialist.” How does that happen? Is it like a literary Stockholm Syndrome?
Oh, I think I meant… (Long pause.) I wonder what I meant. I really shoot my mouth off a lot. I probably meant that I’m a cultural imperialist.
How is that different?
Well, in Hawaiian history, the real villains are the missionary offspring. The government that they created between overthrowing the queen and handing over the islands to the United States was this demented oligarchy that was way less democratic than the constitutional monarchy they usurped. But on the other hand, I’m still an American and the idea of monarchy is ridiculous to me. I remember at one point, when I was doing research for this book, I was sitting in the state archives of Hawaii, getting miffed by some monarch acting monarchical. And it made me wonder, “Where does this come from in me?” Because it really bugs me.
Growing up in this country, anti-monarch sympathies kind of get hard-wired into your DNA.
They really do. We get fed these stories about the colonials and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. But I also had this very clear image in my head of the publicity campaign for the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen. And those pictures that Jamie Reid did of Elizabeth II with a safety pin through her nose. It’s not just a disdain for monarchy but a mockery of it as well.
And how does this relate to Hawaii?
Although the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy was pretty fishy, a part of me can understand why they did what they did, because it’s the one thing I have in common with them. I have no respect for that form of government, for royalty or monarchs or any of that stuff. It’s like my fascination with the missionaries, who were probably not people you’d want to hang out with for an entire evening.
That was a hard pill for me to swallow. I always think of missionaries as religious bullies with a single-minded “Accept Jesus As Your Lord and Savior and We’ll Give You a Sandwich” agenda. But as you point out, they were also all about literacy.
Right, right. Their obsession with literacy was the core of Protestantism. You have to be able to read your bible. And in Hawaii, they invented a written language for the Hawaiian language and published millions of pages on their printing presses, almost all of it in the Hawaiian language. They basically taught the entire Hawaiian population to read in a generation. And that’s probably a form of cultural imperialism too. Just in the way I interpret it as a good thing. It’s favoring the written tradition over the oral tradition. I’m a writer, I confess to that, so writing about the history of Hawaii forced me to face my biases a little bit.
Even if it’s cultural imperialism, they’re still pushing for education, which goes against every stereotype I have of the devoutly religious. From my experience, the people walking around with bibles are not usually the same ones saying, “You know what? You should do some outside reading.”
[Laughs.] That’s true. But that was a different time. In the history of the world, if you’re one of the peasants, the one access you have to learning is through religion. If your kid can become a priest, then your kid gets to spend time with books all day. But reading begets reading.
Once you’ve learned how to read the bible, how hard can it be to pick up one of those Harry Potter witchcraft books?
I’m a working class person whose parents didn’t go to college and I was raised as a fundamentalist. I had to go to church three times a week and I was supposed to read the bible every day. And to me, like anybody who grew up in an anti-academic background, you’re taught to read the bible and then you start reading other things. Reading just leads to more and more questions. So it’s probably to the advantage of a certain world view to discourage learning and education, even though that’s really not in keeping with the origins of Protestantism. It’s about protest. It was created as an argument for “You need to read this book and make decisions for yourself. You can’t let some priest tell you what to think.” Buried inside of Protestantism is really the death of it. Because you read this one book every day, and that just leads to more books, and eventually you grow beyond the bible. Education is a whole can of worms. You can’t contain people.
Should we be worried when the Texas State Board of Education decides that high school textbooks should reflect a more Christian sensibility?
It’s worrisome only because the Texas State Board has so much influence on how textbooks are published in this country. It’s one thing to try and reflect your local values, but it’s such a huge state, and they have so much control over what students in the rest of the country are reading and learning from. But I do take their point.
You do? You think high school history classes in the U.S. need more biblical fables?
I think it’s pretty important in understanding the history and culture of the United States. I’m an atheist who was brought up in the Christian tradition, and I think every student should read the bible, just in terms of its importance as probably the most influential literary work on the planet. You would be crazy to think otherwise. But on the other hand, I don’t think it’s constitutional and therefore legal to assume that your faith is or should be the standard that everybody else is held to. So that’s troublesome.
It’s also not a historically accurate version of the United States. If you’re only going to teach about the founding fathers who were Christians, you’re gonna leave out guys like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin.
And you probably can’t include Lincoln, who maybe wasn’t the most churchiest guy who ever lived in the Oval Office. It’s hard to cast stones, because I’m sure the godless heathens are just as fundamental about their beliefs. There are probably parents who would cringe at the idea of their children reading the bible as homework, just as there are Christian parents who would cringe at their children reading the Koran as homework. But come on, those are important books. And part of what education is about is learning about people who are different than you.
You’ve said that Al Gore lost the 2000 election because he was a nerd. So how did Obama slip through?
That’s a great question. I guess because Obama is just as big a nerd as Gore, right? I don’t know. Honestly, I think most Americans vote — at least the ones that do vote — entirely in their own self interest. They vote for the person they think is going to be best for their bank account. Not that I can criticize that too harshly. I don’t have kids, so I understand that people with children can’t vote as idealistically as I do in my Ivory Tower. In the last election, I think most people thought, “The economy’s in the toilet. Which guy seems like he’ll fix it faster?” It just happened to be Obama. Whereas me and a lot of my friends saw it as this really idealistic thing.
He’s taken a lot of hits lately, and a lot of criticism that he hasn’t lived up to expectations. As an avowed nerd who votes idealistically, have you changed your mind about Obama?
No, I haven’t really. And that’s saying something. After the 2000 election, when that other guy became president, I didn’t think I could be more disillusioned. But in 2004 when he was re-elected for a second term, despite the previous four year’s nincompoopery, I kind of lost my rosy colored glasses about the electorate. Now I just fear them. They’re like a dog with a bone or something;. This country is really schizophrenic and insane.
I love how you won’t even mention Bush’s name, like he’s Lord Voldemort from a Harry Potter book.
[Laughs.] I just don’t like mentioning his name.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that was my second Harry Potter reference in this interview.
I did notice. And congratulations, I guess. But yeah, with Bush, I’m still something of a grandpa. I still don’t like it when people refer to him by his middle initial. Because that’s just disrespectful to the democratic process.
I think so. I still have enough respect for the presidency that the idea of referring to the president by his middle initial in a derisive manner just seems childish and mean-spirited. So I handle that by never mentioning his name at all.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)