Interview: Liz Prato
Hawaii is a heart place for me, and I was thrilled to catch wind of a new essay collection about my favorite islands. It’s my pleasure to speak with Liz Prato about her new book, Volcanoes, Palm Trees and Privilege which will be released on April 16th by Overcup Press. Pick it up to learn more about the history of Hawaii before your spring break trip. You will not be disappointed by her smart and entertaining essay about the Brady Bunch episode in which the family goes to Hawaii (I know you remember it!). Her essay entitled “Bombs Away” will give you fresh eyes for seeing the islands. I have picked up a couple of copies for handing out to friends the next time I go to Maui. I hope you’ll pick one up too—I’d love to chat with you about it.
Your essay collection documents a love affair with Hawaii. What led you begin writing about this obsession?
I was hiking in Waimea Canyon on Kaua‘i with my husband, and was thinking about what I wanted my next writing project to be. I thought of the pearl of advice that you should write about what you’re obsessed with and, in that moment, it was pretty clear I was obsessed with Hawai‘i. I’d only recently—like, in the previous couple of years—realized that I didn’t love Hawai’i just because it’s pretty and the weather’s warm and it’s relaxing to be on the beach (although I do love all that!). I knew there was a deeper connection, but I wasn’t sure what it was about. So, I said to my husband, “Hey, I think I’m going to write a book about Hawai‘i with eight chapters, one for each of the main islands.” My thought was that in writing about the islands, I’d figure out why I felt so connected and so myself there. That was the genesis of the collection, although it ended up taking a different path.
An important part of the book has to do with you sorting through your role as a tourist in the Hawaiian Islands. When did you begin to take a critical look at that relationship? What do you hope others take from your willingness to look at the difficult colonial history behind tourism in Hawaii?
Well, that happened pretty early in the “Eight chapters about each of the eight main islands” incarnation. I realized that I’d been coming to Hawai‘i since 1979, and yet knew almost nothing about the history—which was embarrassing. I had this really narcissistic idea that when I learned the history of the islands, I’d uncover some obvious similarity between it and me that would be proof of how I belonged there. Instead, I got a crash course in colonialism. I also started reading Hawaiian newspapers, and was exposed to the modern Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, which, among other things, made me aware of how tourism is just another factor separating the Hawaiian people from the land and their culture. The question I asked myself is, “So, do I love Hawai‘i enough that if the majority of people there wanted tourists to stop coming, I’d stop? Would I give up the thing I loved for its own sake?” Ultimately, I learned it’s so much more complicated than that. Tourism has both sustained and destroyed Hawai‘i. Some residents hate it, some love it, some put up with it as the devil’s deal. I think it’s important to understand what role we, as tourists, play when we visit anyplace, but especially a place that was colonized by Westerners. It changes how you interact with the people, with the land, with the wildlife. Sure, it makes it more complicated in some ways—I mean, I suppose some folks never want to consider that Hawai‘i is more than Disneyland—but it makes the experience richer. More human.
In the essay entitled, “Bombs Away,” you write, "The island looked healthy, alive, but I knew that which is destroyed cannot be brought back. What is gone will always be gone." So much of this collection is about loss--the loss of your family, the way tourism has changed the Hawaiian islands, and those things that we lose irrevocably. What has writing this collection taught you about grief? How would you describe the relationship between grief and place for you? What kind of healing was there for you?
I’m not trying to compare the loss of my own family with the Hawaiian people’s loss of life, land, and culture. Their loss is so much bigger, so much more consequential in scale than mine. But I started going to Hawai‘i with my family forty years ago, and there was no way to write about the place without writing about my family. And there was also no way to be, like, “Oh, and by the way, they all died,” and then just move on to, “Now, let me tell you about luaus . . .” Plus, Hawai‘i—especially Kaua‘i—became such a place of refuge and respite when my dad and brother were sick, and after they died. I know this would be a way more redemptive and inspiring story if I could point to some specific way that the island healed me from my grief, but that’s not how it worked. I’ve never gotten over it, I’ve never completely moved on. Sometimes it recedes into the background, but it’s always in me. It’s always present. And I think one thing the islands did was hold me and just let me be. I didn’t have to keep it together or be anyone or anything better than I am. Whenever I’m there, I feel like I’m the truest version of me.
I suspect part of what that happens is the obvious—it’s warm and beautiful and I’m not wearing fifteen layers of clothing, and people are more laid back in Hawai‘i than on the mainland, and my work and domestic responsibilities are lessened. But I think there are two more esoteric reasons I feel at rest in Hawai‘i: One, because it’s where I experienced so much of my coming of age, where I navigated sexuality, and being independent. (Even though my dad was there, I was basically unsupervised). Remembering that time—and by “remembering” I mean smelling and feeling the air, the sun, the sand and the ocean—when I was still pretty close to my organic “me” reminds me of who I am. And along the lines of organicity, I think there’s something about being surrounded by water that speaks to my body on its most basic level. The water that composes the majority of my corporeal being feels at home.
What, if anything, has writing taught you that carries over into other aspects of your life? Are there any habits or routines you keep as a writer that support your life in general? In what way does writing impact your wellbeing?
You know, I think this works the other way around for me. Like, in my everyday life, the way I process things is to talk them through, to follow various paths to see what they teach me, to learn what I do and don’t know. I can sometimes think I’m supposed to know what I’m going to write when I sit down to write. I think I’m supposed to know what the essay or story is about. But the best work comes when I follow the trail into nooks and crannies, when I go down all those rabbit holes, and end up writing about something different than what I originally planned Monday, March 18, 2019. I surprise myself and, more importantly, I almost always land in a place of greater empathy.
What creative inputs light you up these days--books, films, anything really?
This is going to sounds really morbid—but considering everything we‘re talking about, I guess that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise!—but an artist’s death always gets me thinking about what they brought to their work. Like, when Prince died, I was really struck by how his body and his art were so entwined. Or how Carrie Fisher just put her mental illness and addiction out there. Or how David Bowie didn’t let himself get boxed in. Also, last year I read Karen Karbo’s book In Praise of Difficult Women and the theme running through all the successful women she wrote about is that they didn’t let anyone else—but especially the patriarchy—dictate how they were going to do things. What all these people has is common—from Prince to Coco Chanel—is having the courage to take chances and say “fuck you” to anyone who says they can’t do it.