Thursday, April 18, 2019

Q&A with Alan Brennert

Alan Brennert is the author of the new novel Daughter of Moloka'i, a sequel to his novel Moloka'i. The main character in the new novel, Ruth, is the daughter of Rachel, the protagonist in Moloka'i. Brennert also has written the novels Honolulu and Palisades Park

Q: Why did you decide to write this sequel to your novel Moloka'i?

A: The idea was first suggested to me by a member of a book group not long after Moloka’i was published, but at the time I wanted to move on to different subjects and wrote Honolulu and Palisades Park.

Then a few years ago I was discussing ideas for a new novel with my brilliant agent, Molly Friedrich, when she suddenly said, “I think you should tell Ruth’s story.”

Well, you don’t have to hit me in the head with an idea a third time, so I started examining the scope of Ruth’s life and realized that it was as rich a story in its own way as Rachel’s. And the challenge of imagining that life from the clues of what I had written in Moloka’i turned out to be a rich and rewarding experience for me as a writer.

Q: The book spans more than 50 years. What kind of research did you do to write it, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: I visited Manzanar National Historic Site, of course, where a very knowledgeable park ranger, Rosemary Masters, recommended books and videos and was kind enough to keep in touch via email, sending me more information, answering my questions, helping me add dimension to the cruel history of the internment camps. Another ranger, Patricia Biggs, also provided valuable information about the Manzanar Riot.  

I went to Sacramento State University and read through their voluminous files of oral histories narrated by Japanese Americans who had been forced into those camps, and I used those stories and even the tiniest details to form the bedrock of fact that Daughter of Moloka’i rests upon.

As for what surprised me, what struck me most was how similar—depressingly similar—the arguments against Asian immigrants to the U.S. were to those being made against other immigrant groups today.

Organizations like the Anti-Japanese League and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West claimed that Japanese farmers were taking land away from white farmers; in reality the Japanese were leasing or buying poor-quality land that white farmers wouldn’t touch and using their intensive farming techniques to make the land productive.

They also claimed that Asian culture and religious beliefs were too “alien” and that Asian immigrants were incapable of being assimilated into American culture. But the second generation of Japanese immigrants, the Nisei, fully embraced American culture and thought of themselves as Americans.

This only made their internment after Pearl Harbor all the more shocking to them: they were hardworking, law-abiding citizens, yet the government viewed them all as potential spies, security risks. The truth is that during World War II not a single Japanese American in the United States was ever convicted of espionage or sabotage.

Q: The novel takes place in Hawaii and California. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: It’s not as important as character and story, but it is important because it plays a key role in shaping characters and story. Ruth’s personal history would have been very different had her family remained in Hawai’i rather than moved to California.

Setting—both location and time period—is something I try to present as authentically as possible, right down to the names of the stores and storekeepers in Florin or Honolulu. When you’re writing about the past you’re world-building, and I want that world to be as evocative, believable, and accurate as possible.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Hansen's disease or leprosy, which features in the novel?

A: That it’s highly contagious (it isn’t); that there is no cure (there is); and that it’s a thing of the past (cases occur in places like Thailand, India, Vietnam, and even the United States).

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Still researching an idea to see if there’s a novel in it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Daughter of Moloka’i is not so much a sequel as it is a companion novel, one that can be read as a standalone by anyone who has not read Moloka’i. They complement each other, and taken together they form one large overarching story. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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