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Ideas of the Islands: Liz Prato’s Volcanoes, Palm Trees and Privilege

by Joe Schuster

For many of us, Hawai’i seems a kind of distant paradise that, as Joan Didion suggests in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, figures large in our fantasies. After all, it’s the one state in the Union that we see primarily for its native cultures, a place we believe exists primarily to enchant us—those of us who can afford to pay for the enchantment, at any rate. 

There is, of course, a starker idea beneath that vision: a history, in part, of a native culture replaced by an outside one and then asked to show its centuries-old rituals largely as exotic entertainment. This—the ideal notion of Hawai’i and the darker story beneath that—is part of the focus of Liz Prato’s Volcanoes, Palm Trees and Privilege (Overcup Press), published in April. Prato, now 52, earlier published a story collection, Baby’s on Fire (Press 53), in 2015.

The new book is a collection of essays, interspersed with what she calls “Da Kine,” which, she tells us, is a Hawaiian term that “lacks a specific definition because it can mean nearly anything.” Prato uses these interstices to explain specific Hawaiian words or ideas so that we can understand certain nuances without her having to make digressions in her primary essays, which render her vision of Hawai’i in a way I think of in cinematic terms: some seem like long shots, for example, like the first essay, “To ‘Okina or Not to ‘Okina,” which deals with one of the ways Europeans exercised dominance over the native population by overlaying a phonetic alphabet onto the language of a primarily oral culture whose written language was pictographic. (The ‘okina is a mark that indicates a glottal stop in a word.) Other essays deal, in a fascinating way, with the history of land ownership or the hotel industry. 

Others I think of as medium shots: essays that consider, for example, what a three-episode Hawaiian-vacation arc of The Brady Bunch tells us about mainland America’s notions of the islands as a kind of refuge from the political turmoil of the 1970s. 

Still others are akin to closeups: personal essays in which Prato writes about her own relationship with Hawai’i, a place she has visited roughly two dozen times, primarily while growing up as the daughter of a land developer working on a project there. In these, Prato often looks unblinkingly at moments when Hawai’i intersected with family grief—her parents’ divorce, her older brother’s bipolar disorder, the deaths of her parents and brother, and her subsequent depression and ideas of suicide. 

The final essay, “Return to Maui,” gives the collection a sense of closure, since, while she opens with one of these long shots I mentioned, she ends with perhaps the closest of closeups, as she describes spending time recently with a friend who has turned to Hawai’i as a kind of refuge after her own family tragedies that echo Prato’s. This final essay ends with a dream Prato had on her final night on that Maui visit, when she receives a kind of balm for her sorrow: “In the light of a Maui dawn, with saltwater sticking to my skin, I was no longer bound by the fear I would be crushed by grief.”

Prato spoke with me by phone in late April from her home in Portland, Oregon, where she also works as a massage therapist.

Joe Schuster: You published Baby’s On Fire at 48 and Volcanoes, Palm Trees and Privilege this spring. When did you start writing seriously? 

Liz Prato: Like a lot of writers, I started writing stories when I was quite young, five or six, and when I was thinking about college, one of the things I considered studying was creative writing, at the University of Rochester. I remember the whole decision about where to go to college was based on, wow, the weather really sucks in upstate New York, and that was the big 18-year-old decision about creative writing. But I was always writing. Then when I was about 27, my mom died when she was 58. And I had the sudden realization of, wow, you just never know how much time we have left.  And you shouldn’t leave these dreams unrealized without pursuing them. There were a lot of dreams my mom never realized, because she thought she was not good enough, or that she was too old. So, I decided to get more serious about finishing a novel I’d been working on, about a twenty-something guy who moves from New York City to Santa Fe in the wake of his bipolar brother’s suicide. An agent took it on, and I got a lot of nice rejection letters—well written, evocative, compelling—but ultimately it was too quiet, and I was too unknown to take a chance on.Then on my 35thbirthday, I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, I don’t want to be looking in the mirror on my 40thbirthday and asking myself what I want to be when I grow up. That was when I enrolled in my first class at a local writing studio. I considered an MFA but at a point in my life I had an established practice in massage and my husband had a job also and we were very settled, so we did not want to relocate, and low-residency programs were just too expensive for me at the time, so I decided to take whatever money I might put into an MFA program and put it toward high quality workshops.

JS: I know you went to Sewanee as we met there in 2012, but I’m curious about some of the others. 

LP: For two years I attended a weekly workshop run by Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose. I also attended the Tin House summer workshop several times, and got to study with Steve AlmondAimee BenderCharles D’AmbrosioAnthony Doerr and Jim Shepard. I feel incredibly lucky to have learned from all these smart, wise writers who exposed me to ways of approaching the word on a page.

JS: Your book sort of multitasks, since it has so many different kinds of essays: There are personal essays and essays of social criticism. Others explain nuances of the Hawaiian language, while others explore the history of aspects of the islands. How did it come together?

LP: It evolved as I went along. When I started, my idea was a book of eight chapters, one for each of the main Hawaiian Islands. But I hadn’t been to them all and if I were to follow that plan, I realized, wow, that is very expensive. Then I thought, wait, I have this wealth of personal information about these specific places I’ve spent a lot of time in. While I didn’t want to write a full-length memoir, I realized I couldn’t ignore those experiences and so thought, “This is what I want to explore.” But even as I was doing that, I realized that even using a word like “haole,” I had to explain what it meant in the context of the essay. So, I realized, okay I have to write an essay about that, about the language.

JS: In your first essay, you talk about the Hawaiian alphabet of 13 letters, and its history as something that initially arose outside of Hawaiian culture, as an attempt by Europeans to represent the language in some phonetic way that would allow Europeans to read and translate it more easily. It strikes me as sort of laying out an important foundation for the book, especially since you explain that your decision as to how to render Hawaiian words arose from your own sense of your family, and mainland Americans, taking so much from the islands.

LP: In so many books I consulted, I found this one little sentence in the front matter saying that the author had decided to use the ‘okina or kahako or had decided not to. As I started to write a note explaining why I had decided to use them, it grew into a full essay. But the very last paragraph of it, where I talk about why it was important for me to use them because of how my family and I have consumed this culture and how much of a negative impact we have had on it and the ways in which we hadn’t respected it: when I got to that, I thought, “Here is why I am writing this book.”

JS: One of the tricky things about a collection is that it can’t just be a loose gathering of material. We just talked about why the first essay works as an introduction and, reading “Return to Maui,” it’s clear that has to close the book, but outside of those, how did you decide on the order? 

LP: As you say, I knew which would be the first and which would be the last, but everything else I kept shifting around. There are definitely ways I followed an arc: I started with language and my personal introduction to the islands in 1979, and then there were several pieces about land and loss, and the two essays at the end about when I returned to places I’d been with my family. The Da Kines were placed so they added to or commented on a theme or topic directly before or after them. My editor, Pat McDonald, and I also wanted a balance between essays that were more weighted towards history and culture, and ones that were more personal. That’s a big reason that “Bombs Away” (which centers on a visit Prato made to Maui as a teenager and sat on a beach with a boy she liked while the Army tested explosives on nearby Kaho’olawe) is up front, because it’s the essay that tells the reader how the book works. It signals that this isn’t going to just be a history lesson, or just a loss memoir. The hybridity of that essay is the essence of the entire book. 

JS: In another early essay, “Flying Under Assumed Names,” about a time you were in Hawai’i with your family when you were young, there’s an arresting sentence. You’re talking about how you’re all are in a broken-down rental car, waiting for the agency to rescue you, and you ask how you knew someone would come, since there were no cell phones then nor payphones near where you were. You say, “We trusted them to (come), and I will have to trust my memory because there is no one to ask, no one else in that car still alive, to fill in gaps.” First, the line took my breath away, since that’s the first time you tell us your family are all dead, and you just sort of say it in passing. But it also raises a question: As a writer of non-fiction, how do you construct a memory and where is the line when it comes to presenting something as fact?

LP: That’s a large part of the reason that essay comes so early. Although it doesn’t come out and say directly, “This is an essay about memory,” it is. There is also a line that talks about us standing on the USS Arizona memorial, and I ask, “What happens when there is no monument, there is no newspaper, no witnesses to describe an event?” Here, the event I’m writing about is my life. Then you have to rely on this partnership between our brains and faith. We have to have faith that this is as close to truth as we can get. But you know, I can’t know for sure. Luckily, because I am a writer, I have a lot of journals and diaries and there is some photographic evidence. There are a lot of things I don’t have that evidence for and so I have to make myself remember. Anyone writing any kind of memoir has to admit, and is aware that, their memory is just theirs; it’s not a journalistic record. The obligation is to not knowingly lie. When we are writing memoir, that is a part of the pact we have with the reader: we’re not knowingly going to make stuff up.

JS. So many of the essays deal with grief and tragedy in your life—your family’s deaths; your subsequent depression and notions of suicide. I’m wondering how difficult it was to write those sections.

LP. I had to take a lot of breaks with those, Often, I can sit and write for quite a while but in those sections, I had to take a break, and I don’t mean 10 minutes.  I mean I was done for the day after 40 minutes. And so many people have those experiences and so I don’t feel ashamed of them at all. About my own depression, I feel no shame. Above and beyond that, having that reaction to my whole family being dead seems entirely reasonable. 

JS. Is there something cathartic to writing about it?

LP. I have never been one who believes writing is therapy and I don’t use it as therapy. It can be but that is not why I do it.  

JS.But thinking about it in the organized way you have to think about things when you write, I think, can have a cathartic effect, whether that is your intention or not.

LP: I like that word “organize” because that is a huge part of it. Having to organize your experience is interesting because so often, especially at difficult times, everything is so disorganized. At one point, I knew well and good I could not finish the book unless I went back to Maui because I had not been there for 23 years. I always knew Maui would have to be the last essay, but I didn’t know what was going to happen. So, the visit was a strange meta experience because in every aspect of it, I was, “Oh I am going to write about this, I am going to write about this.” But when I came down to what was going to be my last day there, I realized I did not have what I needed. Nothing had happened as it was supposed to happen. Even though it was financially insane to stay longer, I knew I had to. That gave me an opportunity to just sit. I took a notebook with me to all of these places and just sat and was quiet, trying to get a sense, what is in this place? And then I had this dinner with Lauren and then that night I had that dream. So even in my life, I had to organize myself to lead to the catharsis.  If I hadn’t taken the chance and stayed longer than I planned, I never would have found that ending. 

Joe Schuster is the author of The Might Have Been. His short fiction has appeared in Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, New Virginia Review and Western Humanities Review, among other journals. He has also contributed two titles to Gemma Open Door’s series of books for adult literacy programs

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