I interviewed writer Sally-Jo Bowman just about the time her book “The Heart of Being Hawaiian” was published, a book I also reviewed for the Honolulu Advertiser (take a peek here). This is the first time our full interview is available.
Q&A with Christine Thomas
-What are you reading?
The book is “Bird of Another Heaven” by James Houston, and I’m really liking this book. I like it from the writing standpoint, but also what I think is really hitting me–and I’m about half into it so I have a good sense of the flavor of it–is I like that it connects Hawaiians and Hawaiian history with history on the west coast of the United States, and particularly intertwines Hawaiians with the California Indians. And this is all historically correct for the most part. I’m finding this an interesting looking primarily into the 19th century, although the book bounces around in time.
-How did you discover it?
I found it in a bookstore. In fact, I found it at Book Ends in Kailua.
-What about the writing do you like?
I think the thing that stands out the most is the richness of the detail. It’s very, very descriptive and in a very sensory way, which is a very Hawaiian kind of characteristic—very sensitive to the surroundings and to people—and it comes through in the writing. I also like his technique of having a narrator who is a present-day person, and so it’s a first-person story in that respect, but devises a way to get the 19th century to speak through a journal. But then he’s able to pull out a regular, ordinary narrative for the 19th century story. It’s a very intricately organized story. It has these generational layers to it.
-Is it Houston’s writing or the Hawaiian connection that most grabs you?
It’s both. They’re intimately intertwined. It’s a joyful experience for me to find to a well-written novel, not only on a Hawaiian subject but a deeply Hawaiian subject. He’s attempting to get way beneath the surface of a story and I really appreciate it. To me it’s a toss up since I’m both a Hawaiian and a writer, so it’s a joy to come upon it.
-Does this mirror what you have done in your writing—get beneath the surface to really connect at a deeper level?
There are many layers of life and that has always been very reflected in Hawaiian oral literature and traditions, in songs and chants and anything like that always have multiple meanings. The one on the surface is almost never the most important, but it’s the entry point, and the same is true of writing. Good writing is going to have more than one layer, and writing on Hawaiian topics is going to reflect that oral tradition of multiple layers—and I hope my own book is doing that.