Sarah Vowell interview

Five minutes with humerous historian and author

Interview, Time In

In what Sarah Vowell calls ‘an orgy of imperialism,’ the United States in 1898 laid claim to island nations scattered across the seas, including Cuba, the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Hawaii. Only that last one became a state, through a joint resolution that, Vowell notes, is the kind of legislation through which the US state of New Jersey would dedicate an official day on its calendar to honour rocking resident Jon Bon Jovi. The self-proclaimed ‘smart-alecky’ historian spoke to Time Out about spring break, imperialism and her new book about Hawaii.

What interested you in Hawaii?
The boring answer is that I was fascinated by the era of the Spanish American War. And then we went to war in Iraq, which I thought was déjà vu of the Spanish American War: a preemptive war that had plenty of troubling consequences ahead. I went to Hawaii three times over a couple of years and started learning about the fascinating lead-up to its Americanisation, with all of the missionaries and sailors landing there.

We didn’t expect to find quite so many New Englanders in Hawaii’s history.
Yeah, well, the Hawaiians probably didn’t, either. They got the worst of both sides of New Englanders, the wild drunken sailors on leave and the puritanical missionaries who think they’re going to hell. Those are the two extremes that make us unattractive as a culture: Sunday schoolers and spring breakers.

Most people don’t know the history of Hawaii. Did you know much about it going in?
I knew a little bit, just from going there. I’m not the kind of tourist who does a lot of ‘Hawaii things’. The first time I went there I visited the [USS] Arizona memorial and the Iolani Palace. On my third trip, I was telling my fellow visitors about the palace and how interesting it is, and urging them to get off the beach and take a historic house tour. None of them were going to do it. I couldn’t believe they would go to Hawaii and choose to spend their free time lollygagging in the sun.

We like how you put historians and laymen on equal footing, so you’ll quote from someone’s memoirs or from a tour guide.
I just don’t distinguish among the places where I learn things. You can learn a lot about the sociopolitical situation in Hawaii by watching the new Hawaii Five-O TV show. Anywhere I can learn something,
I’ll use it. I don’t care if it’s overhearing a third-grader on the bus or reading an academic book. I don’t really draw distinctions like that for myself. I like David McCullough and I like Glee.

But there’s a difference between liking Glee and choosing your sources for a book.
I suppose. But I’m an American writing about American civilisation, and, let’s face it, it’s not the most sophisticated civilisation. Presenting a wide variety of teachers seems truer to American life.
Unfamiliar Fishes is available now at

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