In Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege: Essays on Hawai’i, (Overcup Press, 2019) Liz Prato weaves her personal stories of loss, grief, and growing up and into the woman she is, with the history of the beautiful culture that is Hawai’i and the invasion, destruction, and systemic rebuilding through white colonialist structures. The book’s form allows us to swim into the stories and histories, luxuries and losses, in a deeply humanistic way, micro and macro. Prato’s research is stunning, and there are various points where, as a reader, the fight between the desire to stop reading, to set the book down and let the information sink in, or to vigorously keep turning its pages, is strong. This collection is an account of the past and a call for the future, for change.
Prato’s sarcastic humor, sprinkled throughout, allows some laughs and keeps the education enjoyable and far from self-righteous. We are dared to look at our surroundings closer, more deeply, and with a desire to seek truths over fleeting comforts. Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege: Essays on Hawai’i was nominated for the Sarah Winnemucca Award for Creative Nonfiction and was an Oregon Book Awards finalist.
We spoke recently about how the book founds its form, writing about loss and the limits of one’s own memory, reckoning with white privilege and internalized forms of patriarchal oppression, and more.
The Rumpus: I’d like to start out with the topic of form; the structure of this book is the needle that carries the various points, stories, and emotions like a thread throughout the pages in a way that is very poetic to me. You intertwine the history of Hawai’i throughout such that it sort of cradles your personal metaphors of land and body. This book includes personal essays as well as more informational and analytical essays; your own personal stories of the islands and the emotional connections you have with the place exist alongside your intentional realization of the symbolism of yourself, your whiteness, and the blatant selfish intentions of colonialism.
What was the process like for you in writing and arranging this book? Did you know right away what the structure would be? Did it happen naturally?
Liz Prato: I didn’t know right away what the structure would be. My very first thought of the book was, Hey, how about if I wrote a book about Hawai’i with eight chapters, one for each of the main islands? But as I started writing, it felt weirdly inorganic. There were islands I had a deep relationship with—like Maui and Kaua’i—and ones I didn’t at all, so it created a narrative imbalance. I decided to make it an essay collection, because I love and thrive on the short form, and to write to where the energy was.
A lot revealed itself to me as I went along. Like, as I was writing individual essays, I found myself having to explain what certain words mean in Hawai’i—like “local,” or “Hawaiian,” or “haole.” The explanations distracted from the topic at hand (and led to an ill-fated experiment proved that David Foster Wallace-style footnotes weren’t a solution), so I found myself writing a separate essay to explain these word meanings. That essay became, ultimately, about identity and ownership.
Another example of the form revealing itself happened with my interview of Jim Jones (aka Reverend Jim). After I interviewed him, I didn’t have the slightest idea what I wanted to do with his story. Months went by, and I almost omitted it from the manuscript entirely, because I couldn’t figure out what it was about, at its essence. Then one day I was outside staining the deck and it just came to me: I’d write his story in the form of the Ten Commandments. That right there is an advertisement for being open to the organic nature of the process.
That said, there were plenty of topics I’d get interested in and want to write about, then realize, “Okay, that’s not what this book is about.” If I was just going to write about Hawai’i—with no specific focus—I could write volumes on everything that interests me. This book was about my familial relationship with Hawai’i, my growing understanding of colonialism—and how I contributed to it—and how to reckon with all that. So, the balance was in being open to what came to me, but also staying focused on the theme.
Rumpus: The introduction you wrote, “To ‘Okina, or Not to ‘Okina,” sets the tone immediately, and is one of the most powerful introductions I’ve read. The last line of it made my eyes wet. Something so obvious as power and fresh water scarceness on an island goes right over our heads as tourists. When did the light bulb go on, so to speak, for you in regard to this?
Prato: It took far too long for that revelation to come to me. Like, easily twenty years before I started investigating my impact as a tourist. When I really started looking at numbers—like how much more electricity costs, and how many gallons of water a resort swimming pool uses—it changed my behavior. Tourists complain all the time that their VRBO condos don’t have air conditioning, or that they’re asked to wash their clothes in cold water and turn off the lights. In reviews, they always say stuff like, “I’m on vacation! I don’t want to have to follow rules.” I mean, they literally write those exact words. So, it’s good to remember that our travel—and not just to Hawai’i—has an impact on local resources. That real people and animals live there on the precious land and in the ocean. Being respectful of that doesn’t mean you can’t still have fun.
“To ‘Okina, or Not to ‘Okina” is another example of an essay I hadn’t planned. Many books about Hawai’i have a “Note about the text” at the beginning that explains why the author decided to use, or not use, the ‘okina and kahakō. They usually chose not to, explaining that readers are used to them not being in the text, so it would be easier or less confusing to omit them. And that just struck me as another form of colonialism.
Rumpus: The line, “…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 my gaps,” is also in the first ten pages. We know as readers at this point that the pages ahead of us hold tragedy—that of land and people, and that of family, belonging, and loss. Place, home, and belonging are all important monuments in this book. It also appeals as a tribute to these monuments.
Have you written about the impact of your experiences with all of this loss before? As someone who has purged traumas via art, I can imagine it was both healing and traumatic to revisit and hash out these losses. What was it like for you?
Prato: I wrote a memoir in 2013(ish) that dealt specifically with the trauma and loss of my mom, dad, and brother and the toll of their mental and physical illnesses. It played with form a lot, using straightforward prose as well as annotated autopsy reports, lists, dictionary definitions, etc. The form was what I like about it the most (although a beta reader called it “gimmicky”—ugh, such an ugly word!), but the content didn’t soar. It was kind of flat and depressing. I couldn’t picture myself going on the road and reading from it and talking about it again and again. I accepted that it wasn’t going to be published as a book, and figured I could just cannibalize it for essays.
The places in Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege that address the deaths of my family members were so hard to write. Like, I’d write for half an hour, and then I’d be done for the day. It took so much out of me. I don’t know if it feels like a therapeutic purging. I think that’s not a reality for me, that there’s some way I can render my loss through art that makes it not live inside me so much. I know that works for some artists, but I’m not sure I’m one of them.
Rumpus: Throughout the book, you continue to write more about memory and disclose that you may not hold all the truths in your memory. You write: “Then we turn to the unreliable partnership between neural circuitry and faith to cement this thing called memory.” When did you realize that memory can be flawed, that each occurrence holds various experiences/perspectives/narratives, depending on the person doing the remembering?
Prato: I’ve known that for a long time in a general way, but have come to understand its relevance to writing in the last fifteen years or so. It’s one of the first lessons you learn when you’re writing anything in the vein of memoir. But it really took on a different meaning for me when writing this book, because it wasn’t just an issue of me having different memories than my mom and dad and brother. Everything they knew died with them, and I became the sole keeper of memory for my family. That’s a lot of responsibility, especially when you realize you don’t know everything. There will always be cracks in the stories of my past that no one else can fill.
Rumpus: This book definitely has an informational intention, and a deeply emotional tug. Your ability to write about white privilege and the ignorance it supports is done in such a way that informs but doesn’t accuse. Was this a goal of yours? How many times did you rewrite something because it was potentially shaming? Or did you care?
Prato: You know, I never used to think of myself as a political writer, but then would find myself falling headfirst into the “the personal is political” axiom. That’s what happened here. There was just no way I could write this book and not address white privilege. I mean, I could have, but that’s not an honest story. To not address my own privilege would have been totally disingenuous (not to mention, I’d get raked over the coals for it). For me, the balance was to acknowledge my privilege, apologize for the ways it’s harmed the culture, and try to do better—but not drown in guilt or shame over it. A couple of reviews have said I haven’t acknowledged my privilege enough, and I think what they mean is I haven’t apologized and demonstrated enough shame for the fact that I have privilege at all. Both my parents grew up poor, and my dad worked hard to give his kids way more than they had. When I was younger, I took that for granted. As an adult, I feel incredibly fortunate, but not ashamed.
With privilege comes responsibility. I try all the time to be aware of how I can be an ally to those who’ve been systematically deprived of privilege. I sometimes fail—it’s inevitable in a white patriarchal culture. But that’s something else I think people need to let go of, being so ashamed of erring that we refuse to admit it when we do. We’re afraid it means we’re a fundamentally bad person if we do or say something racist or homophobic or transphobic or ableist, etc. It doesn’t. It means we were raised in a white, patriarchal, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, etc., culture and, in that moment, on that topic, we hadn’t separated from it. We get so fucking freaked out that everyone thinks we’re a monster that we’re afraid to listen, to validate, to promise to do differently going forward—and then to actually do these things.
Rumpus: The history of Hawaii, including when colonization saturated and threatened to ruin everything that was the heart of the land and culture, is laid out here with facts, feelings, and sarcastic humor. You did a lot of work to gather this historical information. What, in your opinion, would be fair reparations, and do you think the call for reparations will ever be taken seriously and carried out?
Prato: That’s a complicated question. I read a lot by and about Natives involved in the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement, and discovered they don’t all agree on what should happen. There are people who believe the United States should return the islands to the Kingdom of Hawai’i (essentially undoing its statehood), and pull out all interests. There are people who want Hawai’i to have the same status as mainland Indigenous reservations, with control over their economy and laws and land—and tourism. There are people who are more focused on restoring and building awareness about Native Hawaiian history and culture within the current framework, while not letting tourism and other capitalistic ventures get further out of hand. I don’t think my opinion matters all that much, as a white mainlander, but I think “fair” reparations would be to give Hawaiians control of their land again. But that’s probably unrealistic in the near future, so I just try my best to listen and support.
Rumpus: How long did it take you to write this book? How many years did you spend doing the research for this book?
Prato: Only one essay was written ahead of imagining this collection—from the aforementioned depressing memoir—and it got pulled from the final manuscript. It took me less than two years, including research. I was a maniac. I ate, slept, and breathed everything Hawai’i. I hadn’t been so obsessed with a manuscript in progress in almost a decade. It was exciting. It gave me a new perspective on what I could get done if I was committed. I don’t have kids or a full-time office job, but I do have chronic fatigue syndrome and several part-time gigs, so I have to carefully prioritize my energy. And yet, I wrote this book in two years.
Rumpus: In your opinion, do you think American culture has grown more aware of our colonialist and capitalist offenses over the past four decades? Stayed the same? Gotten worse? Obviously, we have endless work to do on this front.
Prato: Certain segments of society have grown more aware, which inevitably causes a backlash. When the controlling interests—let’s be real, what I’m saying here is “the patriarchy”—sees its power threatened, they push back hard. That’s what we’re seeing now. It causes great divides, which take a long time to mend, but progress is usually the result.
Rumpus: What are you working on right now?
Prato: I’m working on an essay collection that takes a long look at what shaped Generation X through the lens of my small private high school in Denver. You’d think this specific cohort would be inherently unimportant (who the fuck cares about a bunch of privileged kids?), but the experiences of my peers presaged many of the crises facing the US today. My classmates were victims of terrorism long before 9/11. We lost family members to white supremacy. We were the last generation where mental illness in children wasn’t discussed or diagnosed, often leading to addiction and life-ending tragedies. We were a mirror image to the circumstances in which Brett Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Blasey Ford. My high school was the end point for a sexual predator teaching at prestigious New England prep schools. I’m interviewing my classmates who are Black, Latinx, and Native American about what it was like to be thrown into this school with white rich kids (in the 1980s, no less!) and all the bullshit that came with that.
It’s similar to Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege in that I’m mixing narrative journalism with a memoiristic through-line. But it doesn’t have as much humor. It turns out it’s hard to find even sarcastic jokes in sexual assault and terrorism and mental illness.
Rumpus: What inspires you?
Prato: Modern dance inspires me (like the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, Martha Graham, Bill T. Jones, etc.), although I can’t draw a straight line between seeing a performance and something I’ve written. I love that the form broke from traditional conventions, and created a space for people of different body types and skin color, different stories being told in different ways. A few years back I saw a Merce Cunningham production, and when we were in the elevator afterwards—remember being in elevators with total strangers?—the people were not fondly saying, “That was really weird.” And it was really weird, and could be discordant at times, and I didn’t love every second if it, but I loved that we live in a world where something that wild could happen. That’s what inspires me.
Photograph of Liz Prato by Jill Harriman.