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Honolulu



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About The Author

Alan BrennertAlan Brennert

ALAN BRENNERT is the author of Moloka’i, which was a 2006-2007 BookSense Reading Group Pick and won the 2006 Bookies Award, sponsored by the Contra Costa Library, for the Book Club Book of the Year (over My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult; The Devil in the White City, by... More

photo: © Monica Schwartz

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Reading Group Gold

From the bestselling author of the “dazzling historical saga” (The Washington Post), Moloka’i, comes the irresistible story of a young immigrant bride in a ramshackle town that becomes a great modern city

“In Korea in those days, newborn girls were not deemed important enough to be graced with formal names, but were instead given nicknames, which often reflected the parents’ feelings on the birth of a daughter:  I knew a girl named Anger, and another called Pity.  As for me, my parents named me Regret.”

Honolulu is the rich, unforgettable story of a young “picture bride” who journeys to Hawai'i in 1914 in search of a better life.

Instead of the affluent young husband and chance at an education that she has been promised, she is quickly married off to a poor, embittered laborer who takes his frustrations out on his new wife. Renaming herself Jin, she makes her own way in this strange land, finding both opportunity and prejudice. With the help of three of her fellow picture brides, Jin prospers along with her adopted city, now growing from a small territorial capital into the great multicultural city it is today.  But paradise has its dark side, whether it’s the daily struggle for survival in Honolulu’s tenements, or a crime that will become the most infamous in the islands’ history...

With its passionate knowledge of people and places in Hawai'i far off the tourist track, Honolulu is most of all the spellbinding tale of four women in a new world, united by dreams, disappointment, sacrifices, and friendship.



Recommended Reading

Sunset in a Spider Web, adapted by Virginia Olsen Baron and translated by Minja Park Kim, contains many lovely sijo poems of old Korea by the kisaeng Hwang Chini and others.

The Trembling of a Leaf by W. Somerset Maugham collects some of his short stories set in the South Seas, including “Rain.” It’s worth noting that although Maugham later spoke unflatteringly of his bawdy rooming-house neighbor, May Thompson’s fictional counterpart Sadie is the most winning character in the story and the author clearly intended for her to win the reader’s sympathies as well. Maugham was too fine a writer to let his personal animosity get in the way of a great character.

Think of a Garden and Other Plays by John Kneubuhl showcases three stage plays set in Hawai'i and the author’s native Samoa (where his parents, who owned a trading post on Pago Pago, met Maugham and May on their rainy stopover). Kneubuhl was a preeminent playwright on Polynesian/Pacific themes, as well as a prolific writer for television in the 1950s and 60s.

And for anyone curious about modern Honolulu in the years after Jin’s story ends, I highly recommend My Time in Hawaii by Victoria Nelson, a beautifully wrought memoir of “her time” in Honolulu, spanning the years from 1969 to 1981.



Did the idea for Honolulu come out of your research for your previous book, Moloka’i?
In a way. One of the most colorful periods of modern Hawaiian history was the so-called “glamour days” of the 1920s and ’30s. Though I read about it in my research for Moloka’i, it was a time period I couldn’t really explore in depth in that book, since my main characters were held in isolation at Kalaupapa. These were the years when Hawai’i made its deepest impression on the American consciousness: the years of Matson liners, the China Clipper, Hollywood celebrities vacationing in Honolulu, and the Hawai’i Calls radio show that broadcasted popular hapa-haole music to the mainland. I found myself wanting to tell a story against that romantic backdrop.

But Honolulu also presents a very different picture of Hawai’i in those “glamour” days.
Yes, there were almost two Honolulus existing alongside one another—or, more accurately, interwoven, like the Korean patchwork quilts I write about in the book. Because at the same time this romantic, glamorous image of paradise was being exported to the American public many Native Hawaiians and immigrants to Hawai’i labored on plantations for low wages or lived in poverty in Honolulu tenements. So Honolulu, the novel, is partly about this collision of image and reality...and how, in fact, the reality was actually far richer and more captivating.

What led you to choose as your protagonist a Korean picture bride?  What was compelling for you about Korea and the Korean experience in Hawai'i?
When I first read about the Hotel of Sorrows it struck me that the story of a picture bride neatly dovetailed with that of the two Honolulus. I chose a Korean bride because there had already been novels and even a movie about Japanese picture brides. But the more I researched it, the more fascinated I became by the role of women in Korean society. It wasn’t hard to see why so many women jumped at the chance to become picture brides: to gain a degree of freedom and adventure in their lives that they might never have experienced had they stayed in Korea. It seemed an ideal motivation for my protagonist—and then of course as soon as she arrived in Honolulu, all those expectations would be rudely dashed when she met her husband-to-be. When I had these two elements joined in my mind—Jin’s personal journey and the rich background of the city she comes to—I knew I had the alloy of a story, a novel.

Both the protagonists in Moloka'i and Honolulu are women. You do an excellent job portraying their perspectives—their voices feel authentic. How do you go about writing a book from the viewpoint of a woman of another time, place, and culture?
To me, the two most important tools for a writer of historical fiction are empathy and research. Jin’s childhood issues—of feeling homely and out of place—are certainly ones I could identify with myself (boys can feel that way too, growing up) and which are fairly universal. People feel the same emotions the world over, and that’s essential to making a reader connect with a character; but just as interesting, I find, are the differences, the particulars of a character’s time and place and culture. I try to make those as specific and accurate as possible. But unless a writer has grown up in that culture, you simply have to immerse yourself in everything you can read on the subject in search of specificities that add flavor, texture, and dimension to the character and the story. A young girl growing up in America in the 1900s might share Regret’s desire to read and be educated, but it’s the particular impediments to this in Korea—and the solution, in the form of Evening Rose’s tutelage, the irony that a woman of the lowest status is allowed the most education—that I think enrich the narrative.

In both of your books, there is a distinct leaning toward representing the experiences of native Hawaiians, and it's fascinating and refreshing. In your visits to Hawaii have you developed relationships with native Hawaiians?
I do have some friends of Native Hawaiian heritage. I felt it was important to acknowledge that Hawai'i’s multicultural society, as unique and wonderful as it is, was achieved at a cost. That cost was to Native Hawaiians—whose country, after all, it was originally. That’s why Queen Lili'uoklani is in the book: She’s one of only two characters who also appeared in Moloka'i—the other is Governor Lawrence Judd—and I included her in Honolulu both to complete the narrative “arc” begun with her overthrow in Moloka'i, as well as a kind of grace note, displaying her dignity and pride even in face of the loss of her kingdom, something Hawaiians have lived with for the past hundred years.

Interview conducted by Stephanie Deignan, Events Coordinator for Copperfield’s Books.
Excerpted from www.copperfieldsbooks.com.

Reprinted with permission. © 2009 Copperfield’s Books.



Reading Group Questions

1. How do you feel about Jin’s decision to leave Korea? What might you have done in her place? How do you regard the various decisions she made after learning the truth about her fiancé in Hawai'i?

2. How would you interpret the poem by Hwang Chini on page 26 within the context of the novel?

3. Korea and Hawai'i were both small countries, in strategic locations, that came to be dominated by more powerful nations. In what other ways were the Korean and Hawaiian societies of the time both similar and different?

4. Compare and contrast the lives of a Korean kisaeng and an Iwilei prostitute. 

5. How does the author weave real people and events into the lives of his fictional characters, and how do they contribute to your understanding of Jin’s circumstances? If you were already familiar with any of the historical figures, how do you view them after reading the novel? For example, the author is uncertain of May Thompson’s fate in real life—what do you think she might have done after leaving Honolulu? What do you think about the Governor’s decision to commute the sentences of Lt. Massie and the others convicted in Joe Kahahawai’s death?

6. How have Americans’ attitudes toward immigrants changed—or not changed—since the 1900s?

7. The biography Passage of a Picture Bride describes its real-life subject as having a “positive outlook and broad-mindedness, unusual traits among Korean women” of that time. How does this statement apply to Jin and her fellow picture brides?

8. What binds Jin and her “Sisters of Kyongsang” together, other than the kye? What purpose do they serve in each other’s lives?

9. What is the significance of the patchwork quilts not just to Jin’s life, but to the life of Hawai'i itself?

10. At the end of the novel, Jin says “Hawai'i has often been called a melting pot, but I think of it more as a ‘mixed plate’—a scoop of rice with gravy, a scoop of macaroni salad, a piece of mahi-mahi, and a side of kimchi. Many different tastes share the plate, but none of them loses its individual flavor, and together they make up a uniquely ‘local’ cuisine. This is also, I believe, what America is at its best—a whole great than the sum of its parts.” What do you believe? What is gained and what is lost—both in Hawai'i and in the U.S. as a whole—in becoming a multicultural society?  How might this be particularly relevant to Native Hawaiians?

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