Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #17, Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell
“If a big wave comes in, large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean, and when they see the small fishes of the shallows they will eat them up.” -David Malo, 1837 I’m not a big fan of Hawaii. I recognize how needlessly contrarian that probably sounds. Who doesn’t like Hawaii? The air smells, like, 1,000 times better than ours. But though I can recognize the appeal, Hawaii and I have never really connected on a personal level. I’ve been there three times, two of which were completely involuntary, and one of which was paid for by someone else (thanks, Sarah!). Despite this, I picked up Unfamiliar Fishes recently because I think Sarah Vowell is a national treasure, and it’s the only book of hers I could find at my local bookstore. Imagine my surprise when, after putting it down, I found myself kind of wanting to visit Hawaii again. Not because it’s beautiful and relaxing, but because there is a whole hell of a lot of history I’d missed because I was too lazy to look beyond the culture immediately presented to me after getting off the plane in Honolulu – a mistake which I am now eager to rectify. You see, Hawaii, like Puerto Rico, was a victim (though at times a partially willing victim, as Vowell points out) of the long reaching arm of Western imperialism. Which makes it a perfect subject for Sarah Vowell, who makes it a habit to poke holes in idealized visions of American history. In Unfamiliar Fishes, she specifically combats our great national delusion that America is not now, and never was an imperialistic power, using as her ammunition the lead-up to 1898, the year when Hawaii was annexed and the Treaty of Paris was signed, which yielded the US control of the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. Interesting thing about Sarah Vowell – she tends to be rather polarizing. And it’s not just because, as she says in her book Partly Cloudy Patriot, her “ideal picture of citizenship will always be an argument, not a sing-along.” A cursory glance at her reviews in the papers of record reveal a profound snootiness on the part of its critics for her particular brand of droll historical undertaking. You can tell, by the terms they use to describe her: “annoying,” “self-absorbed,” a writer who is both “relentlessly casual” and also “prattles away self-importantly.” And while her deadpan writing style certainly isn’t to everyone’s taste, that doesn’t seem to be their chief complaint. Instead, it’s that her work isn’t serious enough. It’s an old, familiar argument of scholars and academics, but one worth considering. We live in a culture that is profoundly stupid, historically speaking, and academia’s answer to this stupidity has become increasingly narrow. Higher education is becoming available to a narrower and narrower student base, because of the insanity of the rising cost of tuition. And once you enter academia, the education that is supposed to broaden often ends up limiting instead: first you have to pick a major, than a graduate thesis, then a PhD focus until, after almost a decade of schooling, all you have to show for it is a dissertation on what is usually an incredibly obscure but deeply researched subject. Now, there’s nothing wrong with obscure and deeply researched dissertations. But if that is the end result of academia, we can’t be surprised when many people choose to forego the ivory tower route. And for those of us who crave higher education but aren’t content to limit ourselves to one highly specific topic, we find ourselves in quite the conundrum – and that’s before we even consider how we’re going to pay for it. That might seem like a digression, but it’s important to understand when it comes to why historical writers like Sarah Vowell are often discounted by academics. Sure, part of it is because of her breezy acerbic style and occasionally awkward asides, but it’s more about her content, which tends to be much broader than most historical scholars are quite comfortable with. Sarah Vowell is a big-picture kind of girl. When she delves into historical record, she doesn’t just want to understand the context surrounding a particular historical event; she wants to understand its broader cultural implications, and perhaps most polarizing of all, she wants to understand how it has affected our current culture. That’s why she so often gets tagged with “self-absorbed,” because her attempts to link historical cultures and our own through her own bumbling anecdotes grates on the kind of people that place history on a pedestal – both those who idealize historical players, and those who idealize the study of history itself. Sarah Vowell, luckily, does neither. It’s no wonder she pisses a lot of people off: she holds a mirror up to our weaknesses. To people who idolize the founding fathers (or in the case of Unfamiliar Fishes, Teddy Roosevelt), she provides a factually-researched wake-up call. To those who idealize history for history’s sake, she tweaks their noses and tells them to get a sense of humor. And she manages to do all of this while still maintaining a relentless sensitivity toward the people and cultures she’s writing about. Does she call the white missionaries who paved the way for America’s annexation of Hawaii “haole-nerds” and intimate that they were super-boring? Sure. But she also points out the good they did in the community, especially in terms of raising the literacy rate and improving the status of women. Does she point out the bloody history of Hawaii, pre-Western rule, and it’s problematic customs, like kapu? No doubt. But she does so with all the cultural sensitivity a sarcastic white girl can muster, and when she catalogues the slow decline of Hawaiian history and customs, in favor of more Westernized culture, it’s with genuine poignancy. Sarah Vowell’s books can be read as one long argument with herself, not only about which side of a historical event was in the right (usually neither), but also about which side of history has the right idea about progress. Is it our technological age, obsessed with individual freedom, or is it the Hawaiian culture of kapu, emphasizing harmony in the community above all? Is it the big, unfamiliar fishes from the ocean, or the smaller, home-dwelling fishes from the shallows? The truth is, the answer to that question is probably neither as well. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an argument worth having. In a culture where our history consists of a couple highlights from our less-embarrassing wars and a brief, white-washed summary of the Civil Rights movement (usually something like, “blacks used to not have rights. But now they do, thanks to Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and a lot of helpful white people! Racism over.”), Vowell’s lessons in historical self-awareness are enormously valuable. And when taken with a sense of humor and a grain of salt, they’re a hell of a lot of fun, too. Recommended For: Honestly? Probably middle-class, college-educated yuppies who like to dabble in history for dinner table trivia fodder. That being said, even though I wholeheartedly approve of broad, interdisciplinary-style history, it behooves me to recommend that if you are actually interested in Hawaii’s complicated history, you should check out histories written by actual Hawaiians, like David Malo, or one of the other excellent authors that Vowell cites in her research. Read When: you’ve read, watched or listen to someone unironically talk about how imperialistic countries other than the US are. Listen With: Israel Kamakawiwo’ol. Obviously.