Fishes versus Haoles Smackdown

Two books came our recently which both deal with the topic of Haoles (white people) in Hawai’i. Both are short, designed to be accessible, and appeal to a broad audience. Both summarize a great deal of recent research done on and in Hawaii, where I live and work, and both adopt an autobiographical tone. Unfamiliar Fishes by humorist Sarah Vowell, is a history of white people in Hawaii from the arrival of the first missionaries in the 1820s (the ‘unfamiliar fishes’ of the title) to the islands’ annexation by the United States seventy years later. Haoles in Hawaii is by Judy Rorher, a graduate of the University of Hawaii who studies the political economics of Haole presence in contemporary Hawaii. I adore Rorher’s earlier, autobiographical writings about growing up Haole in Hawaii, and detest the NPR Ira Glass/David Sedaris Culture Industry out of which Sarah Vowell emerged. As a result I expected to love Rohrer’s book and dislike Vowell’s, but in fact just the opposite happened: I was disappointed by Haoles in Hawaii and now recommend Unfamiliar Fishes to anyone visiting the islands to understand its history. Why my position switched says a lot about how to write for a popular audience, how to communicate expert opinion to nonexperts, and how to make moral judgments in your writing.

Unfamiliar Fishes is a popular history of American colonialism in Hawaii dressed up as a light travel narrative. Vowell builds her historical narrative up out of anecdotes of her own visits to Hawaii to research the book: tourist locations she goes to with her family, interviews she did with local scholars, interesting but not quite topical documents she found in the archives. Although the book is supposedly about New Englanders who traveled to Hawaii to preach the gospel, much of it is actually about Hawaii and Hawaiians itself, with long diversions about different aspects of the culture: hula, kapa, ahupua’a, and so forth. Along the way you also learn a lot of about 19th century American protestantism, of course, but it’s clear that Vowell’s goal is to provide a relatively detailed sketch of Hawaiian culture and history in its own terms, and she succeeds at this goal.

One of the reasons that Vowell is successful is the circles she moved through. Throughout the book she recounts meetings with some of the premier scholars of Hawaiian history and politics, as well as sovereignty activists (who want to secede from the United States, basically) and of course missionary descendants themselves. She quotes from some of the most recent influential books on Hawaiian history (Aloha Betrayed by Noenoe Silva, for example) as well, which indicates that she’s done her homework. In sum,the book’s success is due in large part to the way Vowell has tapped into and reported on a pre-existing community of scholars and the body of work they’ve produced, some of whom are played by Keanu Reeves in the audiobook.

Haoles in Hawaii is even more a summary of local research in our islands. Rohrer worked closely with many of the people that Vowell cites, and her work presents a much more distilled and careful reading of their arguments — indeed, if you are an academic wanted a run-down (complete with citations) of contemporary critical scholarship on Hawaii, this is is the place to come. The topics she deals with are also very topical: lawsuits attempting to demonstrate that a Hawaiian-only school is unconstitutional, and the ongoing debate, fueled largely by white immigrants to Hawaii, about whether the term ‘Haole’ is itself racist — because for many of these people being on the receiving end of a minority identity is a major shock, apparently.

At times, however, Rorher’s book is too closely related to the literature she cites. One of the main audience of Haoles in Hawaii is haoles in Hawaii, and the book clearly wants to help them get a clue about the history that informs the race relations that they encounter when they arrive here. I don’t think Rorher succeeds in doing this in her book. To a certain extent this is because the tone is ‘too academic’. It lacks the autobiographical, vulnerable voice of “Haole Girl”, a genre-bending article of Rohrer’s that I often assign my students and while it is clearly written, it is still identifiable as an academic text.

And this is, really, the biggest issue I have with the book: the critical tone it borrows from ethnic studies, indigenous studies, and critical race theory that she draws on. It is one thing to write for scholars who oppose hegemonic anglo-protestant narratives, but it is another thing to write for an audience of hegemonic anglo-protestants. The book is too full unveilings and critiques to appeal to a readership that is simultaneously audience and target. So while I agree with what Rohrer is saying, I am afraid that her book will turn off haoles who read it, even those who go out on a limb and try to meet her halfway. Issues of style, rather than substance, may keep the message from getting across.

In contrast, Vowell is readable — at time even cloying. As a refugee of the early-oughts blogosphere explosion I recognize Vowell’s post-David Foster Wallace style and, frankly, it drives me nuts (perhaps this is the narcissism of minor differences at work). Additionally, much of the prose seems formulaic. There is a strong tendency, for instance, for every paragraph to end with a droll and incongruous sentence to make sure the reader decides to read the next paragraph. Still, Vowell calls it like she sees it morally, giving the thumbs down both to the terrifyingly close-minded missionary Hiram Bingham even as she condemns King Kalakaua (venerated in Hawaii for his support of traditional cultural activities) as spendthirft who subsidized his sybaritic lifestyle through the opium trade. Vowell’s frankness, and her ability to pain herself as a sympathetic narrative voice, make the normative elements of the book go down pretty easy.

The historical element in both books are strong. In fact, both authors take books that are ostensibly about Haoles and turn it into a history of Hawaii. But again there are differences, notably in terms of evidence. At time Rorher’s book focuses so much on the wrongs done to Hawaiians that the haoles of her title disappear from sight altogether and the books becomes a history of Hawaii. What little evidence she does use take the form of (oldish) newspaper clippings, rehashing the histories of court cases, or some extremely brief analysis of economics indicators — as a result there is little in the way of data bout the lifeworlds of Hawaii and where concepts of haoles (and the actual white people themselves) fit in. It may be that as a short introductory volume the book isn’t suppose to have much in the way of data, but a more skeptical audience would want to see more proof in the pudding.

In contrast, Vowell has done a much better job of historical research than anyone could reasonably expect her to. It’s clear she loves quoting salacious bits from the archives — and in the case of the incredibly repressed Yankees who landed on Hawaii’s shores, it’s not hard to find salacious bits. In fact, Vowell accomplishes most of the work of denouncing the evils of colonialism simply by quoting the colonizers, who were frankly, shockingly brutal people. At times this tendency goes to far. The last third of the book pretty much gives up inserting bits of travelogue into her book and lapses into straight narrative history (think: book report). In fact, towards the end certain pages are mostly cut-and-pastes of legal texts.

In sum, I eventually came to like Vowell’s book because of its level of detail and its unique personal voice. Rohrer’s book will doubtless be taught more often here in Hawaii and probably works better in an academic setting, but it lacks ethnographic thickness and fails to meet skeptical audiences half way. The lesson I take from the two is that it is the how, not the what, of writing that makes it accessible to a broader audience. It is not that certain positions are unacceptable to the public, but rather that ways of conveying them and creating one’s self as an authoritative, trustworthy author are key to getting your message across.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

3 thoughts on “Fishes versus Haoles Smackdown

  1. Enjoyable comparison and argument about two books I otherwise wouldn’t have known of, thanks. Sparks a lot of questions. I’m curious to hear what you detest in NPR’s Ira Glass/David Sedaris stuff. Though that initially felt like a tangential and frivolous curiosity, I suspect it might be relevant to your argument about how best to write for a popular audience and make moral arguments.

    What kind of institutions do these books identify as central to the history of haoles in the islands? I assume the church and missionary societies, but wonder if either touch on schools or firms (like Castle and Cooke), civic societies, or radio programs and the like? Though two years of residency hardly make a kama’aina, I’m a Punahou grad whose FMZ (father’s mother’s sister) taught at Iolani, and later at Punahou, starting in 1942 (she also had a popular radio show on RKO). So that’s why I ask about institutions. The two schools–Iolani and Punahou (“the haole school”)–seem from merely personal vantage to be significant to the history of haoles in Hawaii–a phrase that for some reason has Gil Scott Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” ringing in my head.

    What I appreciate most in Rex’s post is the encouragement to work to communicate “expert opinion to nonexperts” and implicit sanction to make moral judgments in our writing (by arguing there are more and less effective ways to do it). That buoys me greatly in my summer work. While Rohrer you identify as an academic, I’m wondering, what sort of expertise you see for Vowell whom you describe as emerging from the detestable “NPR Ira Glass/David Sedaris Culture”?

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