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Gaellen Quinn, The Last Aloha

June 27, 2011

If you look up my book, The Imperialist: A Novel of the Hawaiian Revolution, on Amazon.com, just scroll down a bit and you will find a little note reading, “Customers who bought this item also bought…”   What follows is a list of books and authors composing what I like to think of as Mr. Hanson’s neighborhood, and I think it’s time we met the neighbors.

Gaellen Quinn is the author of the award-winning historical novel, The Last Aloha, which dramatizes the events leading to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and the annexation of the Islands by the United States.  She was gracious enough to speak with me, (the complete conversation can be heard by clicking the icon, top left) and I was immediately impressed with the depth and breadth of her knowledge of Hawaiian history, culture, and cosmology.  A native of the mainland who has since removed to Molokai, she remains an avid student of all things Hawaiian.

Connected to Hawaiian history through her extended family, she listened to the stories of pre-statehood Hawaii, and her ear for history led her to a deeper study of the Islands.  The Last Aloha is the product of that research—a novel that has as much to say about the enduring spirit of Hawaii as it does of the events of the nineteenth century.  As the author reminded me, “We don’t leave history behind—it travels right along with us—and it is the bedrock on which present events are based.”

Originally envisioned as a story of Princess Ka’iulani, (who was featured in this blog June 11th), she soon realized that it was really Queen Liliuokalani’s story, and her depiction of the deposed Queen is that of a far-sighted, peaceful sovereign, who put the spirit of her people
ahead of her own office.  She was also able to see her own overthrow within the scope of world events—a consequence of the world growing smaller, bringing industrial powers into conflict with indigenous peoples.

Queen Liliuokalani’s spirit, Quinn tells us, continues to guide Hawaiian events.  The independence movement, for instance, has never become violent “because people understand that the Queen would have frowned upon it.”  This is the legacy of the Queen’s; “a new way
of being in the world,” and were her example better known, Quinn believes Liliuokalani would be heralded as a peacemaker in the company of Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

“What interests me are the examples of the people who stand up and are different.  And I think Queen Liliuokalani was an extraordinary example of someone who was able to see beyond her time and to understand that the most important things in life are not always accomplished in one lifetime.  And that if she preserved the most important part of the spirit of her people, which is the spirit of Aloha, ages would roll, governments would change, but at least Hawaii would always exist because that spirit would exist.”

“I think my story is really about the struggle to see what values will prevail, and also what happens when we fail to see the beauty in each other.”

On top of that, The Last Aloha is a very good read.

Kurt

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History and Fiction, Cadit Quaestiō

June 20, 2011

The responses to last week’s question (How much history do you like in your fiction?) come mostly from Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.  They were illuminating, generally thoughtful, and surprisingly entertaining. Opinions on the topic could be reduced to two categories: Stick to the facts, and Facts, schmacts.

The vast majority held to the first position, expressing their desire that authors keep as close to “the true story” as possible. (How one divines the “true story” in history is a debate for another day.) It was abundantly clear that the favored approach is for authors to use fictional or obscure historical characters to illuminate larger events and actors. That is, however we enjoy reading the exploits of the fictional Pug Henry (or his wife as she busies herself schtooping the officer corps), we want the particulars of WWII rendered faithfully. The comment that best captured this sentiment was, “I’m so sick of The Tudors 90210.”

One bold discussant stood up to majority, declaring he did not care if the author fudged a bit with the facts because it is, after all, fiction. This being precisely the approach Shakespeare took, we should allow that the reader has a point. Others have gone further. In film we all enjoyed Quentin Tarantino’s splendidly indulgent, yet historically bastardized killing of Hitler in Paris in Inglourious Basterds. An author can also turn history on its head and go counter-factual, as Harry Turtledove did when he endowed the Confederacy with AK-47’s in Gun’s of the South, rather dramatically altering the balance of power in the American Civil War, killing the Union and saving Lincoln.

In fact, the differences were not as stark as all that. Most of those who favored historical fidelity made clear that they didn’t mind the author stepping out on the facts as long as long as the dalliance was openly acknowledged. The “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, where all is made clear in the morass of fact and fiction, is a beloved thing.

Kurt

History and Fiction: How Much of Which

June 11, 2011

It is perhaps ironic that this blog on historical fiction begins with discussion of a historical movie, “Princess Ka’iulani,” but it gets to a question historical novelists deal with constantly: how do you balance history with fiction? How much of which?

This particular movie alleges a love affair that may never have occurred, depicts certain events that simply did not happen, and generally compresses events that did. As I watched one scene after another, I gave voice to my inner historian’s indignation, saying aloud (to the annoyance of everyone else in the room), “But that didn’t happen!” Yet, at the conclusion of the movie I felt that the movie somehow captured the essence of the Hawaiian Revolution. (Hawaiian history buffs may feel differently.)

The novelist, happily, has a broader canvas to work with than a ninety-minute movie, but the question remains: how much history do you put in your fiction, or vice versa? In my own novel on the Hawaiian Revolution, I used Herman Wouk’s Pug Henry as a model for the fictional character who I could conveniently place wherever I wanted him to be. That allows me to leave history as it is, requiring the fictional character to make all the necessary concessions. That strikes me as less of an abuse of history.

So, what do you look for in historical fiction, a good story or good history?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Kurt