Mary Karr: ‘For Our People to Do Anything to Generate Income That Won’t Land You in Prison, It’s a Win’

What an interesting read, this Paris Review interview with Mary Karr, author of The Liars’ Club: A Memoir. It’s not a new article; I just stumbled upon it. An excerpt from the interview:

INTERVIEWER

Did you tell your family you were going to write about them?Leslie Lang, Author, Writer, Hawaii

KARR

I’d warned my mother and sister in advance that I wanted to cover the period of Mother’s psychotic break and her divorce from Daddy. She’d inherited a sum of cash that was vast by our standards, and she bought a bar and married the bartender—her sixth husband. She was an outlaw, and really didn’t give a rat’s ass what the neighbors thought. She drank hard and packed a pistol. When I tested the waters about doing a memoir of the period, she told me, Hell, go for it. She and my sister probably figured nobody’d read the book but me and whomever I was sleeping with. Also, my mother was a portrait painter. She understood point of view. My sister, who’s a very sophisticated reader, signed off too. For our people to do anything to generate income that won’t land you in prison, it’s a win.

The memoir came out in 1995 and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year. It sold half a million copies, and was highly acclaimed, ending up as an annual “best book” at the New York Times, The New Yorker, People, and Time. Entertainment Weekly rated it number four in the top one hundred books of the last twenty-five years.

Slate ran an article by Karr called, The Liars’ Club, How I told my friends I was writing about my childhood – and what they said in return.

Another interview excerpt:

KARR

People who didn’t live pre-Internet can’t grasp how devoid of ideas life in my hometown was. The only bookstores sold Bibles the size of coffee tables and dashboard Virgin Marys that glowed in the dark. I stopped in the middle of the SAT to memorize a poem, because I thought, This is a great work of art and I’ll never see it again.

INTERVIEWER

Was this a practice test?

KARR

No, it was the SAT itself—maybe the literature test. I just put my pencil down and started memorizing. Later I came across the poem in a library. It was “Storm Windows,” by Howard Nemerov. I wrote him a fan letter, to which he replied on Washington University stationery—it was like the Holy Grail, a note from a living poet. When I was twenty I met him at a reading he gave in the Twin Cities, and he said, You’re that little girl from Texas!

Great read. Like the memoir itself.

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Piecing Together the Memories

One reason to get your story down:

“It has always been on the written page that the world has come into focus for me. If I can piece all these bits of memory together with the diaries and letters and the scribbled thoughts that clutter my mind and bookshelves, then maybe I can explain what happened. Maybe the worlds I have inhabited for the past seven years will assume order and logic and wholeness on paper. Maybe I can tell my story in a way that is useful to someone else.” 

― Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank, a novel based on the true story of Mamah Borthwick and her illicit love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Leslie Lang, Writer, Ghostwriter, Memoir, Biography, Author

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Investigating a Life – But Whose?

Wallage Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Angle of Repose is on my list of favorites. Wow. Stegner once said, “It’s perfectly clear that if every writer is born to write one story, that’s my story,” and I get it. I’ve got one of those in my head, and maybe that’s why I recognize and am so drawn to his.

Leslie Lang, Memoir, Biography, Writer, GhostwriterIt’s a novel in which a retired and wheelchair-bound historian sets out to write a biographical account of the lives of his extraordinary grandparents, who went West a hundred years before and carved out a life for themselves on the frontier.

Angle of Repose is a 1971 novel by Wallace Stegner about a wheelchair-using historian, Lyman Ward, who has lost connection with his son and living family and decides to write about his frontier-era grandparents. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972. The novel is directly based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, later published as A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West

Lyman Ward narrates a century after the fact. Lyman interprets the story at times and leaves gaps that he points out at other times. Some of the disappointments of his life, including his divorce, color his interpretation of his grandparents’ story. Toward the end of the novel, he gives up on his original ambition of writing a complete biography of his grandmother.

Stegner’s use of Mary Hallock Foote‘s historical letters gives the novel’s locations—Grass ValleyLeadvilleNew AlmadenIdaho, and Mexico—an authentic feel; the letters also add vividness to the Wards’ struggles with the environment, shady businessmen, and politicians. Lyman’s position in the contemporary culture of the late sixties provides another historical dimension to the story. Foils for this plot line include Lyman’s adult son, a Berkeley-trained sociologist who sees little value in history, and a neighbor’s daughter who helps transcribe Lyman’s tape-recorded notes while she is home on summer break from UC Berkeley, where she has been active in the “hippie” counterculture movement. – Wikipedia

So it’s a novel, albeit one using primary historical sources, about a biography. It’s a little complicated to describe, but it works.

This article, which I just came across, calls it “an investigation into a life. But whose life?”

Ostensibly, it explores the life of Lyman’s grandmother, illustrator and writer Susan Ward, reconstructing it from sources including her letters and notebooks as well as her published writings and drawings. And a very interesting life it is, too: from an elegant, cultured existence in Brooklyn Heights, surrounded by sophisticated people and domestic luxuries, she moves west with her engineer husband Oliver to places that, in the 1870s, were still works in progress as outposts of American “civilization.” As jobs come and go and hopes rise and fall, they move around, from California to Colorado, from Idaho to Mexico, each time in a new way re-establishing themselves as at home.

In all his guises (as narrator, as Lyman, as Susan), Stegner writes wonderfully about the landscapes of their travels. (So too, perhaps, does Mary Hallock Foote, the real 19th-century woman on whom Susan Ward is based and some of whose letters are incorporated verbatim into the novel — I say “perhaps” because her materials are not identified so I don’t know what words are hers.) The descriptions are never conspicuously stylish or artful. They are just wonderfully specific and tactile:

“They came out onto a plateau and passed through aspens still leafless, with drifts deep among the trunks, then through a scattering of alpine firs that grew runty and gnarled and gave way to brown grass that showed the faintest tint of green on the southward slopes and disappeared under deep snowbanks on the northward ones. The whole high upland glittered with light.” Read the rest

Three thumbs up. Here’s what others say about it if you are interested in learning more. I’m hoping to talk you into reading it. One likes to share one’s favorite things.

Publisher Comments:

Angle of Repose tells the story of Lyman Ward, a retired professor of history and author of books about the Western frontier, who returns to his ancestral home of Grass Valley, California, in the Sierra Nevada. Wheelchair-bound with a crippling bone disease and dependent on others for his every need, Ward is nonetheless embarking on a search of monumental proportions — to rediscover his grandmother, now long dead, who made her own journey to Grass Valley nearly a hundred years earlier. Like other great quests in literature, Lyman Ward’s investigation leads him deep into the dark shadows of his own life.

Reviews:

“Brilliant….Two stories, past and present, merge to produce what important fiction must: a sense of the enhancement of life.” Los Angeles Times

“Masterful….Reading it is an experience to be treasured.” The Boston Globe

“Cause for celebration….A superb novel with an amplitude of scale and richenss of detail altogether uncommon in contemporary fiction.” The Atlantic Monthly

“A fine novel, engrossing and mature…for when all is said individual lives are very much like bits of detritus, rolling down from the high places of stress and emotion until they reach that place where the tumpling and falling stops and they find their angle of repose. To chronicle this movement as well as this novel does is high art — and first-rate writing.” San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle

 

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Were They Blogging On Cave Walls?

Remember those free AOL disks that used to be everywhere? They came unsolicited in the mail, and it seems like they were packaged with every magazine you bought (remember buying magazines?).

Things have changed a lot in this online world. Today I’m thinking about how ubiquitous blogs are these days, when they really haven’t even been around that long. Before blogs, there were digital online communities (now they seem kind of primitive to me) like the moderated discussion groups at Usenet, GEnie, the early CompuServe, email lists and bulletin boards.

I can remember getting on those boards and lists and thinking the whole thing was so cool, but also pretty limited. Back then, I would have loved knowing where we were headed with this Internet business. Those were the dial-up days. Before that, people drew their messages on cave walls. Leslie Lang, Writer, Ghostwriter, Blogger

I wonder what’s still to come.

Justin Hall is said to have been one of the first bloggers. He started writing online in 1994 while a student at Swarthmore College and he’s still going.

We didn’t even have the rather ungainly word “weblog” until 1997, when Jorn Barger coined the word for web + log.

In 1999, Peter Merholz jokingly turned the word “weblog” into the phrase “we blog” in the sidebar of his, well, blog, and gave us the word “blog.”

Shortly after that, Evan Williams started using “blog” as both a noun and a verb, and he concocted the term “blogger” (he was helping to create the blogging software Blogger at the time).

That’s about when blogging really took off as a result of blogging “tools” coming on the scene. Open Diary started in October 1998 and had thousands of online diaries. That was the first blog community where readers could comment on other writers’ entries.

Also in 1998, the Charlotte Observer live-blogged Hurricane Bonnie, and that’s thought to be the first known instance of a blog on a traditional news site.

LiveJournal started in March 1999. Blogger.com started in August 1999 and brought blogging to the mainstream (Google bought it in February 2003).

Popular American political blogs started appearing in 2001, how-to manuals started appearing for bloggers, and established journalism schools started researching blogging and noting the differences between it and journalism.

Leslie Lang, Writer, Ghostwriter, Blogger
Steve Case, CEO of AOL back then, recently responded to a Quora question about how much money AOL spent in the 1990s sending out all those disks. “A lot,” he said, among other comments. Another Quora reader calculated it at $300 million.

Movable Type, which spawned TypePad, started in September 2001.

Since 2002, blogs have gained increasing notice and coverage for their role in breaking, shaping and spinning news stories.

WordPress started in 2003.

In 2004, blogs have become increasingly mainstream. Political candidates were using them, the Columbia Journalism Review began covering them regularly, and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary declared “blog” the word of the year.

In 2006, I set up a blog for Richard Ha, and I continue to help edit and write posts. We have blogged close to three times a week ever since – eight years now! – and we’re still going strong.

Since then I also spent a couple years with a business partner running the now-defunct blogs Honolulu On The Cheap and Big Island On The Cheap, blogged here at my own website, and blogged for clients at various sites including at Fodors.com and Ancestry.com (alas, no byline at Ancestry, but I write some of the posts at that link).

This month, I’m participating, along with a lot of other writers, in a 30-day blogathon. I really enjoy blogging. There’s a nice rhythm to posting to the same blog over time, and it’s a comfortable way to bring your message – one that resonates with and is important to you – to your readers. The writing is often a little less formal, while still being professional. Readers can respond to what you post, and sometimes there’s some back and forth. It’s a very satisfying style of communicating.

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The Relationship Between Freelancing & Bonbons

“You’re a freelance writer in Hawai‘i? Really?!” I hear this occasionally and realize that what I do sounds pretty plush to people who aren’t freelancers.

I get it. They like thinking about not having to get up early to clock in at a non-dream-job. I can sleep in and wear what I want every day, they are thinking. And on top of all that, HAWAI‘I, where the crystal clear ocean is warm like a bathtub, and sea turtles swim lazily alongside you, and there are gorgeous sunsets. Leslie Lang, Freelance Writer, Ghostwriter, Content Marketing, Hawaii

Some of that is true. But other freelance writers understand how this lifestyle really works. Let’s look at some of those assumptions.

Sleeping late!

I could sleep in but I usually don’t, because I’m running a business here. I keep fairly normal business hours most of the time, because that’s what works for me. The regular hours keep me sane – I don’t have to worry about when my work is going to get done. And it works, too, because there are people I need to interact with, and most of them are available during regular business hours. Of course, there is some flexibility, though, and if I were feeling a little under the weather, I could sleep an hour or two later and make it up on the other end without needing to get anybody’s permission.

Working in pajamas!

I don’t do that; I get dressed. When I switch on my business head, I don’t want to look down and see pajamas. Pajamas say bedtime, not “book contract.”

Time off whenever you want!

Yes, I can take time off and help chaperone a school field trip, or see a friend who’s suddenly in town on a weekday. But then I usually make up the time later, because I keep my work calendar comfortably full. Many weeks I work more than someone who clocks in from 8 to 5 (does that surprise you?). I’m trying to change that.

Writing when the muse strikes!

No. Writing when the assignment needs to get done.

Beach! Ocean! Sunsets! 
Leslie Lang, Freelance Writer, Ghostwriter, Content Marketing, Hawaii

There are days when I come into my office in the morning and flip on the light, work without hardly leaving my chair except to flip the light off a little later when it’s bright outside, and then work until the sun has meandered off and I need to turn on the light again. Successful freelancing takes a lot of work, and unlike an employee, a freelancer handles everything. Not just the work, but also obtaining, invoicing for and collecting for the work, and the accounting and the taxes and the retirement plan and the IT and the website and the marketing and the purchasing and the social media and the public relations and paying for the medical/dental coverage. I really just want to write, but it doesn’t work that way. A friend of mine lists herself on Facebook as her company’s CEO & Janitor. True.

Bottom line? I love freelancing and I like doing it here in Hawai‘i. I like having some flexibility, but this is a real business I’m running here and I work hard. I’m tired at the end of my workday. No bonbons are being consumed, and if you call me you will not hear Oprah’s voice coming from a TV in the background.

I should get out and enjoy that ocean and the sunsets (or sunrises) more. Right now, though, you know: I’ve got work to do.

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Painting Pictures About Hawaii

Hawaii writer, Leslie LangI specialize in writing about Hawai‘i, where I live and have deep roots, in addition to ghostwriting memoirs, biographies and family histories. I help Hawai‘i individuals, small businesses and larger ones with their content marketing.

From the Content Marketing Institute:

Content marketing is the art of communicating with your customers and prospects without selling. It is non-interruption marketing. Instead of pitching your products or services, you are delivering information that makes your buyer more intelligent. The essence of this content strategy is the belief that if we, as businesses, deliver consistent, ongoing valuable information to buyers, they ultimately reward us with their business and loyalty.

I’m familiar with Hawai‘i’s culture, its language and orthography, and many of the islands’ movers and shakers. Whether it’s writing content about Hawai‘i’s business, travel, culture or people — or something else — I do it. My master’s degree in anthropology, specifically the cultural anthropology of Hawai‘i and the Pacific, makes me knowledgeable about and able to write well about Hawai‘i’s culture and people. My journalism degree and background means I know how to conduct research and find the information I need.

Who hires a writer like me to write content? Hotels (I’ve written for the Kohala, Halekulani, and Trump Waikiki hotels, among others), representatives of trade industries (like Hawaii Hospitality magazine), airlines (Hawaiian Airlines, the former Aloha Airlines), travel companies (such as Jetsetters, Fodors.com), online behemoths (such as Ancestry.com), human resources companies (ALTRES), other corporations (Trek Bicycles) and local businesspersons (Richard Ha, and many others). Just about anyone who has a business and a message to impart, in other words.

I’ve been in this business full-time now for about sixteen years, and it’s been interesting to see content marketing emerge. It’s sort of a new buzz phrase, content marketing, but really it means writing articles, web copy, blog posts, white papers, reports, and the like to help tell someone’s story. It’s very much what many of us writers have been doing all these years.

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Writing & Reading Memoir

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I am excited each morning to carry a good cup of coffee into my office, sit down at my desk and start working. I really enjoy being a freelance writer/ghostwriter of memoir and biography, and working with others to tell their tales so they aren’t lost.

Currently I am helping two people write memoirs, and writing a biography for a third client about his mom and her family’s history. Memoir writer Leslie LangIt’s a huge responsibility to take someone’s stories and make sure you are wrangling them down onto paper just right, while also correctly grasping the significance. I’m tired at the end of my work day, though it often may look as though I merely sit the whole time. I’m hard at work while sitting!

I really love it, though. Everyone I work with has such an extraordinarily different story, and it’s all fascinating. This work is a great match for me. Hearing people’s stories, figuring out how to tell them, and writing them well – I couldn’t enjoy it more.

Here are some resources if you’d like to read some more about the genre of memoir.

1. Do you know the website BrainPickings.org? If you don’t, you should, because what a great site. Here’s a good entry point:

The 13 Best Biographies, Memoirs, and History Books of 2013   From Alan Turing to Susan Sontag, by way of a lost cat, a fierce Victorian lady-journalist, and some very odd creative habits.

by Maria Popova

It’s that time of year again, the time for those highly subjective, grossly non-exhaustive, yet inevitable and invariably fun best-of reading lists. To kick off the season, here are my thirteen favorite biographies, memoirs, and history books of 2013. (Catch up on last year’s best history books.)…

2. My writing colleague Pat McNees,who is amazing, put together this great online resource called Memoir, biography and corporate history. Its subtitle says, Memoir or personal history, biography or autobiography, oral history or interview, corporate or organizational history — resources on various forms of life writing a/​k/​a life story writing. It is a truly amazing collection of linked reference materials you have to see to appreciate.

3. This New York Times review of Ben Yagoda’s book Memoir: A History, is fun to read. “He ambles past Holocaust memoirs, child abuse memoirs, sexual abuse memoirs, and incest, drug addiction, celebrity, spirituality, eating and parenting memoirs; pauses to contemplate the odd species of “investigative” memoir (written by or for someone who must supplement memory with research); notes with surprise the fake Holocaust memoir; and stops in amazement before the strangest hybrid of them all, O. J. Simpson’s “If I Did It,” a memoir in the conditional mood.”

4. This person, a serious fan of the memoir, has put together a Pinterest page showing memoirs: I’ve read a memoir a week starting in October 2011,” she writes. “Many of them are listed here, plus other memoirs/biographies that I continue to read.”

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Memoir: Isabella Bird in the Sandwich Islands

When Isabella Bird was 19 years old, in Yorkshire, England in 1850, she had an operation to remove a tumor from her spine and the operation was “only partially successful.” I’m not sure what that means, but it’s written that afterwards she suffered from insomnia and depression and her doctor recommended, as so many did in those days, that she travel. I wish I had a doctor like that. Though I’m sure Kaiser wouldn’t cover it.

Her father must have been a remarkable man, because four years after that operation, when she was 23 years old, he gave her 100 pounds and told her she was free to go wherever she wanted. Wow! Let’s recap: She was a woman in somewhat poor health in Victorian England who took off and traveled the world, apparently fearlessly.

Isabella Bird, Leslie Lang, Hawaii Writer

She traveled first to North America, and stayed for several months in eastern Canada and the U.S., writing letters home to her sister the whole time. Upon her return to England, she referred to those letters to write her first book, a work of travel writing and memoir called The Englishwoman in America. (The full text is online at that link.)

When her father died in 1858, she and her sister and mother moved to Edinburgh, which was her home for the rest of her life. She continued to travel, returning to North America three times and going once to the Mediterranean. Then, in 1872, she boarded a ship in San Francisco that was headed for New Zealand.

She decided to get off in Hawai‘i and she remained here in the islands for six months. I don’t think any visitor ever had a fuller six months in Hawai‘i than Isabella Bird. She learned to ride a horse astride, instead of sidesaddle like a proper English lady, and journeyed to the top of Mauna Loa. She did not travel like an invalid, that’s for sure. Travel seemed to agree with her.

Later, she wrote about her pleasure in “visiting remote regions which are known to few even of the residents, living among the natives, and otherwise seeing Hawaiian life in all its phases.” She recorded her great stay in Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, published in 1875 (original title, The Hawaiian Archipelago: Six months among the palm groves, coral reefs & volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands). Full text here.

Though her books are often categorized as travel writing, they are also memoirs. “A memoir,” says Gore Vidal, “is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked. In a memoir it isn’t the end of the world if your memory tricks you and your dates are off by a week or a month as long as you honestly try to tell the truth” (Palimpsest: A Memoir, 1995). Bird was a keen observer and we are the better for being able to read her memoirs, and get glimpses of the worlds she stepped into.

People live more happily than any that I have seen elsewhere.  It is very cheerful to live among people whose faces are not soured by the east wind, or wrinkled by the worrying effort to “keep up appearances,” which deceive nobody. – Isabella Bird, The Hawaiian Archipelago

My daughter and I went to look at Rainbow Falls yesterday, a beautiful waterfall in the Wailuku River that has a lot of Hawaiian traditions associated with it, and I always think of Isabella Bird there. She would be astounded to see it now. While the falls probably look about the same, here’s how we got there: we drove our small SUV  up Waianuenue Avenue, and then turned onto a well-paved, wide street that leads to the falls and then turned into its clear, open parking lot, which is large enough to easily accommodate the numerous tour buses that roll in and out of there every day. There are bathrooms there, too.

Here’s how Isabella Bird got to Rainbow Falls, which was then known as Anuenue Falls (did you know that Waianuenue Avenue is named for its wai anuenue [rainbow waters]?), in 1872. They were on horseback (my emphasis): “Miss Karpe, my travelling companion, is a lady of great energy, and adept in the art of travelling. Undismayed by three days of sea-sickness, and the prospect of the tremendous journey to the volcano to-morrow, she extemporised a ride to the Anuenue Falls on the Wailuku this afternoon, and I weakly accompanied her, a burly policeman being our guide. The track is only a scramble among rocks and holes, concealed by grass and ferns, and we had to cross a stream, full of great holes, several times. The Fall itself is very pretty, 110 feet in one descent, with a cavernous shrine behind the water, filled with ferns. There were large ferns all round the Fall, and a jungle of luxuriant tropical shrubs of many kinds.”

She traveled extensively after her stay in the Sandwich Islands, though she settled down in Edinburgh for awhile after her sister died of typhoid in 1880 and married her sister’s doctor. He died just five years after they married and then she took off traveling again, and writing memoirs of all her great adventures.

It is a strange life up here on the mountain side, but I like it, and never yearn after civilization. – Isabella Bird, The Hawaiian Archipelago

Her works (this list is from Wikipedia):

Her adventures included traveling alone on horseback from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe, riding alone through a blizzard with her eyes frozen shut, spending several months snowed in a cabin with two young men, and being wooed by a lonely outlaw (these stories are all from her A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, 1879).

In Amritsar, India, she established a hospital named for her sister, the Henrietta Bird Hospital, and in Srinigar, the John Bishop Memorial Hospital, named for her late husband. In northern India, she met up with someone and traveled with him to Persia, crossing the desert in mid-winter and arriving in Tehran, it’s said, half-dead. From there, she led her own caravan through northern Iran, Kurdistan and Turkey. She did many, many other interesting things in her lifetime; these are only a few.

She was the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society (1892). When she died in 1904, at 72, she was in Edinburgh packing her trunks for a trip back to China.

“There is also a dog, but he does not understand English.” – Isabella Bird, The Hawaiian Archipelago

I am so glad she was compelled to write as she traveled and explored, and then to publish. It’s as though she’s speaking to us from the past and telling us all about how it was for her then.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that many of the books above are available to read on Google Books for free, because they are out of copyright now. And many of them are free on Kindle – I feel a binge coming on, and I’m off to do some downloading. If only there were more reading hours in the day!

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Howie Mandel, My Great-Great-Great Grandfather & Hawaii’s Poi

I stopped Howie Mandel in his tracks.

Read about what happened here, in an article I wrote about kalo (a.k.a. taro) and poi. This article, for the Hawaiian Airlines in-flight magazine Hana Hou, earned an “Excellence in Journalism” award for feature writing/long form, from the Society of Professional Journalists.

***

Kalo Culture

by Leslie Lang

A few years ago, I did a newspaper interview with the comedian Howie Mandel, who was coming out to perform in the Islands, and he kept cracking canned jokes about poi — the traditional Hawaiian staple made from pounding the root of the taro plant into a starchy, nutritious paste. His seemingly endless stream of one-liners stopped only when I mentioned that my husband grows taro and we make our own poi. He was taken aback. “You mean you really eat that stuff?” he asked, sounding confused. “You like it?” The idea, apparently, had never occurred to him.

Mandel’s reaction is fairly typical of newcomers who encounter poi for the first time at a tourist lü‘au, and frequently compare it, unfavorably, to “wallpaper paste.” As far back as the 1850s, Mormon missionary George Q. Cannon had this to say about his first poi experience:

“Before leaving Lahaina, I had tasted a teaspoon of ‘poi,’ but the smell of it and the calabash in which it was contained were so much like that of a book-binder’s old, sour paste-pot, that when I put it to my mouth, I gagged at it and would have vomited had I swallowed it.”

Proving the conventional wisdom that poi is an “acquired taste,” however, Cannon’s attitude changed dramatically after he realized that if he didn’t learn to eat it, the people preparing his meals would constantly have to cook separate food for him. “This would make me burdensome to them, and might interfere with my success,” he wrote. “I therefore determined to live on their food, and, that I might do so, I asked the Lord to make it sweet to me.

“My prayer was heard and answered; the next time I tasted it, I ate a bowl full and I positively liked it. It was my food, whenever I could get it, from that time as long as I remained on the islands. … It was sweeter to me than any food I have ever eaten.”

It might perhaps surprise wise-cracking malihini like Howie Mandel to learn that the plant from which poi is made, taro — or kalo in Hawaiian —  is not only relished by the Islands’ kanaka maoli (native people), but also regarded as a divine ancestor. According to the sacred Hawaiian creation chant the Kumulipo, the sky father Wakea and earth mother Papa had a stillborn son named Haloa-naka, who was buried, and from his body grew the first kalo plant, which was also called Haloa (“everlasting breath”). Wakea and Papa’s second son, also called Haloa, was the first human being, elder brother of the Hawaiian people. Hawaiians ever since have been nourished by their sacred ancestor who died to become the kalo plant.

Taro is a perennial herb that takes around nine to twelve months to mature. The plant is primarily grown in wetland conditions, and the traditional Hawaiian method of cultivation involves ingeniously designed, water-filled terraces called lo‘i, surrounded by walls of earth reinforced with stones, and irrigated by streams passing through the terraces. Along the banks of the lo‘i, other useful crops such as bananas, sugarcane, ti and wauke for making kapa cloth were planted, and edible fish were raised in the water along with the taro. In areas where there was rich soil and enough rainfall, Hawaiians also planted taro in dry plots.

Every part of the plant can be eaten, though it must be thoroughly cooked first to break down oxalate crystals that otherwise sting the mouth and throat. The long, heart-shaped leaves are cooked as greens, similar to spinach. The stem can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable. And the potato-like corm is baked, boiled or steamed and eaten sliced, or pounded with water to make poi, or sometimes fried into taro chips. Today, one can find taro used in breads, bagels, pancakes, biscotti and lavosh, among other foods. You can buy “poi in a tube,” flavored with banana. There is even poi ice cream.

Leslie Lang, poi, Hawaii, freelance writer
Unidentified Hawaiian men pounding poi, c. 1890.

In generations past, the pounding of poi was a regular part of life’s rhythm. My grandmother often told stories of my great-great-great grandfather, Tutu Nalimu, who was born in 1835 and even into his eighties regularly pounded kalo that he grew himself on family land along the Big Island’s fertile Hamakua coast, where I still live. She described the scene to me so many times I sometimes have to remind myself that it was her memory, not mine: The elderly, blind man with a thick shock of white hair, sitting on a lauhala mat on the floor, a cloth tied around his forehead to catch the sweat, swinging a stone poi pounder rhythmically onto the cooked kalo on the wooden poi board in front of him.

These days, many Hawaiians have gotten away from eating traditional foods, since farming and hand-pounding poi don’t fit easily into 21st-century lifestyles and work schedules. Yet there’s still a demand for taro, and on important family occasions it’s still common protocol to throw a backyard lü‘au with all the familiar foods. At the dawn of the new millennium, farmers in Hawai‘i had some 470 acres in taro production, and sold $3.7 million worth of their produce, a record high. The price of taro grown for poi was also at a record high: an average of 53 cents per pound.

At the end of a rough gravel road in Hilo, an old brown building houses the production headquarters of Pa‘i‘ai Poi Systems. Inside, on Tuesdays and Fridays, workers are all business. At 3 a.m. they start peeling taro that was cooked the night before. When they’re done, the taro is run twice through a commercial meat grinder to make poi, then packaged and labeled. By about 9 a.m., the whole operation is done, and the bags of poi head for the airport, bound for supermarket shelves in Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona and Las Vegas, where there are substantial populations of expatriate Hawaiians.

Young, sincere, and articulate, Kalae Ah Chin, who runs the poi factory along with his wife Keli‘ikanoe, sports a shaved head, tattoos and a T-shirt that reads Loa‘a Ka Poi? (“Got Poi?”). The couple also owns Ka‘upena ‘Ono Hawaiian Foods, the original hole-in-the-wall take-out place in Hilo (with another opening soon in Kona), where a sign in the front windows boasts in Pidgin: “Poi – We Always Get.”

Ah Chin says his vision is to get poi back on the tables and into families’ diets. “If you eat poi the traditional way, in a communal bowl,” he says, “it forces everyone to move from the living room and the TV back to the table, where there’s lots of sharing. We wanted to bring families back to the table.”

Talking about taro is not at all like talking about other crops — all business and market prices — because taro is also about culture. “People don’t respect poi like they used to,” says Mahina Gronquist, a Hawaiian-language immersion school employee who was raised in the old ways by her grandmother. “There was a whole protocol,” she says. “To kahi (scrape the poi off the sides of) the bowl; and when you’re eating poi, you cannot take from the side of the bowl, you have to take it from the middle.”

Traditionally, poi was referred to as “one finger,” “two finger,” or “three finger,” according to how thick it was. The thickest poi could be swooped up to eat with one finger; the thinnest needed three. Taro used to be preserved by pounding until it reached the stage called pa‘i‘ai, before much water was added. “Pa‘i‘ai was when the taro was more like a potato than a poi — thick, thick, thick,” says Gronquist. “That’s what our navigators would take on their long canoe voyages because it kept, so they had nutritious and healthy food that would last.” Indeed, taro itself is one of the Islands’ “canoe plants” — the vital crops that Polynesian wayfarers painstakingly carried with them across countless of miles of ocean when they settled in Hawai‘i more than a thousand years ago.

Today, kalo remains a potent symbol of the Hawaiian culture, and, increasingly, educational groups have been using taro cultivation as a means to help Hawaiian young people literally get back to their roots.

Among these is Nawahiokalaniopu‘u School in the rural Big Island town of Kea‘au, which has been around since 1994 as a Hawaiian-language immersion high school, and this year added lower grades for the first time. It’s an incredible campus, where everything is recycled or reused and the lessons are practical. Students learn about raising fish in the school’s aquaculture program, and they tend pigs, chickens, rabbits for food, all of whose waste is captured and used to make soil.

The cultural history, planting, tending and preparing kalo is only one lesson at Nawahiokalaniopu‘u, says groundskeeper Jimmy Nani‘ole, but it’s an important one. “Most of us today live detached from our bodies,” he says. “We don’t give our bodies what they need; we give them what we want, and the result of that is that people are getting overweight, they’ve got no more energy. What we do with kalo and sweet potato (another Hawaiian staple) is to bring children to the awareness that what you eat is who you are. Just like you cannot have good kalo if you don’t have good soil, you cannot have a good body if you don’t have good nutrition.”

Another place where the culture of kalo is being taught is the nonprofit, 97-acre Ka‘ala Farm, located deep in O‘ahu’s Wai‘anae Valley, which is loud with birdsong and removed from modern development. In old times, the valley was the area’s “poi bowl,” or breadbasket, where the kalo for the whole leeward coast was grown.

Ka‘ala Farm got its start in the 1970s, when a group of “alienated youth” from the Wai‘anae Rap Center, a federally funded community organization, hiked the uplands of the valley and stumbled onto ancient stone terraces. They didn’t immediately recognize them as lo‘i — wetland taro fields — but Eric Enos began investigating further. He was on the staff at the Rap  Center then, “though I was probably a little alienated, too,” he laughs. Now he’s director of what has become the Ka‘ala Farm and Cultural Learning Center, where some of the abandoned lo‘i have been restored and replanted. In the early days, Enos says, “We had no idea about growing taro, so we had to learn about it from the University of Hawai‘i’s Lyon Arboretum. They were so overjoyed, because here were Hawaiians interested in taro, which at that time was an unusual thing. They had tears in their eyes.”

Today, three to four thousand students visit Ka‘ala Farm each year to learn about Hawaiian culture by planting kalo and making poi, as well as learning about making kapa cloth and listening to kupuna (elders). Most love getting into the mud to work with the kalo, their bare feet sticking in the slurpy muck as they work. Students learn that kalo was used for offerings, food, as bait for fishing and even as medicine.

Ka‘ala Farm, which is not open to the public, has a Hawaiian Studies program through which high school students can spend one day a week mapping cultural sites and working on stream studies with the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. Another program helps individuals from a Wai‘anae substance-abuse program learn life skills through working in the lo‘i.

One cannot talk about growing taro without talking about water rights, an issue that has posed serious challenges for the farm, and for contemporary taro growers in general. Over the last century, large amounts of Hawai‘i’s surface water has been diverted away from natural streams and traditional taro areas to support sugar plantations and other modern commercial uses. The effect, Enos says, has been to contribute to “the whole breakdown of Hawaiians’ connection to the land and fishing and everything else.”

“The valley got dried out to make a town,” says Butch DeTroye, Ka‘ala Farm’s facilities manager. “But we believe it’s possible to put water the back, and share it with the forests, too.” Enos says he went through years of bureaucratic struggles to bring water from a diversion ditch down to the valley, where it used to run. “We still don’t have enough water,” he says. “But I think we’re closer to the driver’s seat. Before, we weren’t even in the bus.”

Here at my home on Big Island, where rainfall is abundant, my great-great-great grandfather’s kalo has continued to grow, even during decades when no one was tending it. A few years ago, I came across a bundle of old letters my grandmother had written to her own mother in 1940, including one referring to taro, and to my grandfather wanting to learn to pound poi:

“… We eat a lot of taro now, and also make our own poi with the meat grinder. Have to strain it, though. In a few days we’re going to make some more poi, and Don wants to pound it so he’ll know how. He says if Tutu could pound poi at 80, he (Don) should be able to do it at 29. Instead of improving with the times and using modern, labor saving devices, we’re going backwards.”

Now, more than sixty years later, my own husband — himself from a long genealogy of taro farmers in Waipi‘o Valley — grows taro where my Tutu Nalimu did. We make our own poi using a commercial Champion-brand juicer — a machine now favored for that purpose by many families in Hawai‘i. My favorite way to eat poi is fresh, when it has an almost nutty taste. My husband likes it better when it’s a couple of days old and has soured a bit, in the true Hawaiian style. No doubt, Tutu Nalimu would approve more of my husband’s taste than mine.

Some of the taro plants we grow are actual descendants of Tutu Nalimu’s kalo,  living symbols of how the process helps me feel connected to my Hawaiian ancestors stretching all the way back to Haloa at the dawn of time.

Poi entrepreneur Kalae Ah Chin encourages more families to grow their own kalo and get “poi machines” like ours. “I wouldn’t say it’s better, or even just as good as the old-fashioned way — the quality family time that goes into sitting around watching Tutu pound the kalo,” he says. “But in light of the fast-paced, Western world we live in, it’s a good way to get the family back together, eating at one bowl, and getting healthy stuff back into their diet.”

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Hawaii Content Marketing & Rock Stars

Do you know that buzz phrase “content marketing?” It’s what businesses are calling the content they hire us writers to provide. Here’s the best definition of content marketing that I’ve come across; it’s from the Content Marketing Institute:

Traditional marketing and advertising is telling the world you’re a rock star. Content Marketing is showing the world that you are one. – Robert Rose

Content marketing is a focus for me, and much of the content marketing I do is related to Hawaii, where I live and work. I know Hawaii well, and my journalism background and years as a freelance writer makes it easy for me to research and write (or ghostwrite) about just about anything – whether it’s related to Hawai‘i’s business, travel, culture, people, or something else.

I don’t have links to many of my articles on my website right now, so I am compiling a list here. This is just a small number of the many and varied magazine articles, books and blog posts I’ve written for various businesses, corporations, hotels and media outlets in Hawaii and elsewhere.

On Business & Current Affairs:

Hawaii Travel

Hawaii Culture

Hawaii People

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