Alan Brennert Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Alan Brennert

Alan Brennert

An interview with Alan Brennert

In two separate interviews Alan Brennert talks about Moloka'i, set in a leper colony in early 20th century Hawai'i; and Honolulu, which follows the life of a young "picture bride" who arrives in Hawai'i in 1914.

In two separate interviews Alan Brennert discusses his first two books, Moloka'i and Honolulu

Alan Brennert discusses Honolulu

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

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.

But Honolulu also presents a very different picture of Hawai'i in those "glamour" days.

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.

Is this why you've used so many actual historical figures in the book?

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's "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.

Your protagonist, Jin, is a young Korean woman who comes to Hawai'i as a "picture bride." Was she based on any specific person?

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.

How many picture brides actually made this journey?

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.

Alan Brennert discusses Moloka'i

What prompted your interest in the subject of leprosy, or Hansen's disease as it is now called?

Well, first and foremost, I love Hawai'i. The first time I set foot there, twenty-four years ago, I felt as if I were coming home. The place and the people have drawn me back year after year, and the history of the Hawaiian people is one that holds a special fascination for me. I visited Moloka'i for the first time in 1996, but it wasn't until three years later that I began reading about Kalaupapa, the leprosy settlement on the island's north shore. And the more I read, the more I came to understand that here was a compelling, true-life story that had never fully been told before.

Did your research include a trip to Kalaupapa itself?

Yes, of course. As well as many, many days spent at the Hawai'i State Archives, the Bishop Museum, the Hawai'i Historical Society, the Honolulu Medical Library, and other institutions. When I first began my research, I searched in vain for one book that might present a comprehensive overview of the history of Kalaupapa, from its beginnings in 1866 to the present. It didn't exist. I had to write it, or at least an outline of it. Before I could write my novel, I first had to write myself a history of Kalaupapa.

With the help of, I acquired an extensive library of books--on Kalaupapa, Hansen's disease, Hawaiian history--dating back to the 1880s. From disparate sources I cobbled together a timeline of the real-life history of Kalaupapa and the people who lived there. It's nearly thirty pages long and is a detailed chronology of the people and events that make up the history of the settlement. I was quite flattered when the librarians at the Bishop Museum expressed interest in obtaining a copy for their archives, which I was happy to send them.

How much of Moloka'i is based on fact, and how much is fiction?

Nearly everything in it has a basis in fact. The details of life on Moloka'i came in part from letters and journals in the Hawai'i State Archives, where I actually held in my hands letters on yellowed paper, written over a century ago by leprosy patients exiled from home and family. It was moving and humbling. I wanted to do right by these people who have been largely forgotten by history--I wanted to present their story as no one else has.

I read oral histories and biographies of patients, distilled them down to their common elements, and made that the armature of Rachel Kalama's life—on which I then expanded and embroidered. Rachel is entirely a fictional character, but the events and people that shape her life are inspired by actual people and events. Many of the book's supporting characters are actual people: Brother Dutton, Mother Marianne, Ambrose Hutchison, Lawrence Judd, J.D. McVeigh, Drs. Oliver and Swift and Goodhue and Fennel and Sloan, and many more. Even what happens to the character of Leilani is based on actual medical case histories.

The most famous name associated with Moloka'i is Father Damien de Veuster, the Catholic priest who went to Kalaupapa to minister to the sick, and who himself died of Hansen's disease. Yet he has only a very small role in your novel. Why?

As fine a man as Damien was, he was just one man who died of leprosy...out of thousands of other men and women who lived and died there, pretty much anonymously. But because Damien was white, and a priest, he has commanded the world's attention all these years. I like to think that he'd find this as unjust as I do. I felt while writing the book that I was in some small way giving voice to those whose voices have been lost to time, and I hope they'd approve of what I've done.

What relevance does the story of Kalaupapa hold for us today?

Leprosy was once considered as incurable as AIDS is now; both unfairly stigmatize the people who suffer from them. Leprosy victims in the 19th century were quarantined as zealously as SARS patients are today. But the prejudice, fear, and abrogation of civil rights suffered by Hansen's patients is far and away more terrible than anything AIDS or SARS patients have yet suffered, and casts a cautionary light on our own society's attitudes toward those with fatal, communicable diseases.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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