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Talk Story with Author Sam Low

2013/11/22

Earlier this summer, I picked up a newly-published book and couldn’t finish it. Not because it wasn’t a good story but precisely because it was a good story--and I kept giving away my copy. After purchasing three copies, I finally managed to keep one long enough to finish reading the entire book.

That book was Hawaiki Rising by Sam Low, and as I do with most Hawaii authors whose books I read—and like—I reached to Sam to talk about his book and, hopefully, learn a few trade secrets in the process.

In 1976, a group of sailors boarded a double-hulled voyaging canoe with the intent of sailing from Hawaii to Tahiti. They provisioned themselves with food and drink but did not pack modern navigation devices of any kind. No GPS. No compass. Not even a sextant. Instead they would use stars, sun, waves and wind as their road map.

Hawaiki Rising is the story of the early years of the Hokulea, a double-hulled voyaging canoe built in the manner of the ancient Polynesia canoes that once traveled the big Pacific Ocean in search of land. In sailing to Tahiti in 1976, Hokulea not only pulled some islands out of the sea and proved the original discovery of these Hawaiian Islands was no accident but pure scientific discovery. In the process, Hokulea restored a culture from near extinction.

“There is also a deep universal philosophy of life here, I think,” Sam Low told me. “It is a story behind the story of adventure and culture—it is universal. I hope.”

Sam Low and I traded a series of emails over a couple weeks. Here’s how our conversation went:

I can see that writing Hawaiki Rising was no small endeavor. I mean, the research alone must have taken years. Do you have any idea how many hours you spent researching—interviewing, reviewing logs, diaries, historical record and such?

I spent so much time researching and writing the book it is hard to calculate. I made three voyages on the canoe and one on an escort boat, taking notes and photographs all the time. I wrote more than a dozen articles for national magazines which was part of the preparation for writing the book. I would say that I must have spent at least three years, full time, over ten years writing Hawaiki. That would be about 6,240 hours just on the book—at least. And don’t forget that I spent two years before that making my movie--The Navigators--which contributed to my knowledge of the subject. It was a labor of love—or a kuleana, as we say in Hawaii—a privilege and a responsibility.

I know you grew up on the East Coast and now live on Martha’s Vineyard. Will you share your story of connection with Hawaii?

My father was sent away [from Hawaii] to school in Connecticut when he was 17 years old. The story goes that his father went bankrupt at home and he had no money to pay for his son’s return – so my father decided to make his way in New England. He grew up to become an artist, teacher and director of an art museum in New Britain, Connecticut, married a beautiful and talented New Englander, had me, and stayed on.

I knew that my father was different from other dads at an early age. For one thing, he did not work in an office, he went to his studio to paint, or to Loomis School to teach art, or to the New Britain Museum of American Art where he was the director. My mother was an artist, too, so I grew up in a very creative family. And my father was the only dad that I knew who played the guitar and sang songs in Hawaiian. The fact that I was part Hawaiian didn’t really have much meaning for me, growing up in a very haole world in New England. What fascinated me most were stories my father told about HIS father – a famous cowboy from the Big Island known as “Rawhide Ben Low.” How could I not be interested in a grandfather who was a cowboy? I loved dad’s stories of Rawhide Ben growing up on the Parker Ranch, hunting wild cattle on the slopes of Mauna Kea, losing his arm in a roping accident, and founding Puuwaawaa Ranch. Still, I really did not know what “being Hawaiian” meant.

In 1964 I was commissioned as a Naval Officer and ordered to a ship in Pearl Harbor – which was my choice – I wanted to see Hawaii.

My plan was to drive a battered Volkswagen across country to San Francisco, ship the car to Hawaii and fly to join my ship. On the day that I left home, my father took me aside.

“I will see you in Hawaii,” he told me. “I have not returned but now is the time. You will be there and I want to see my family.”

He died in his sleep that night of a massive heart attack.

Later, in Hawaii, an elderly cousin took me aside. “When your father never came back, some of us in the family were angry with him. We felt that we were not good enough for him. But there is another reason. When he left the islands, he went to a kahuna for a blessing. The kahuna told him that he would die young and that he would never come home. I think he did not come back because he was afraid to. And now the kahuna’s story has come true. But I am glad that you are here. In you, he has come home.”

It was not until I arrived in Hawaii for the first time in the fall of 1964, as a young naval officer stationed on a ship home ported in Pearl Harbor that I began to get an inkling of my Hawaiian identity.

I lived on Sunset Beach for about six months in a house I rented from Fred Van Dyke. During that time, I got to know my aunt, Clorinda Lucas – and I was introduced to an old-time, authentic Hawaiian life style by staying with her in Niu Valley. Clorinda was a well-known social worker who dedicated her life to helping Hawaiians. Almost every day, Hawaiian families would visit her home in Niu and be welcomed to discuss their lives, their joys and sorrows, with Clorinda. And, when needed, Clorinda would find a way to help them. It was this “helping” ethic that I found most fascinating and that introduced me to, if you will, the “aloha spirit.”

At that time, I did not really see much left of an authentic Hawaiian culture. None of my family spoke Hawaiian – with the exception of Clorinda who knew a few sentences and phrases. All of them, like so many Hawaiians, had been raised to deal with a haole world. I did not see any classic hula. The culture seemed to be dying.

In 1976, I read about Hōkūle‘a and her successful voyage from Hawai‘i to Tahiti – carrying her crew 2400 miles in thirty-five days. Even more astonishing, she was navigated by Mau Piailug, a man from a tiny Micronesian Island who found his way as his ancestors always had, without charts or instruments, relying instead on a world of natural signs. I determined to make a film about this story and to tell it from the perspective of the scientists who had discovered the truth about ancient Polynesian explorers and men like Mau Piailug who continued to sail in the old way.

I spent two years traveling the Pacific with experienced archaeologists as guides, retracing steps taken by early Polynesian mariners. I sailed with Mau Piailug from his home island of Satawal. He told me how he navigated by the stars and by signs in the wind and waves using secret knowledge handed down from father to son over thousands of years. I spent time in Hawai‘i with Nainoa Thompson who combined Mau’s teachings with his own discoveries to reveal how ancient Polynesians may have guided their canoes. I began to feel a stirring in my blood. I am one-quarter Hawaiian, and three-quarters haole—descended from a Hawaiian aliʻi (a chief) and a New Englander who ventured to the islands in 1850 seeking wealth and bringing with him disease and an alien way of life. At first glance, this influx of outsiders seemed to have destroyed Hawaiian culture. But as I visited the islands more often, I discovered an astonishing revival of the Hawaiian language, poetry, dance and all the other arts of indigenous life. Hawaiian culture had not died. It had gone underground—waiting for a spark to ignite it. That spark was Hōkūle‘a.

What’s also quite evident in the story is the access you had to the key players of Hokulea and the Polynesian Voyaging Society from the early days. How did that come about and what was that experience like? Were people forthcoming? Shy? Resistant?

Nainoa Thompson is my cousin, so when I visit Hawaii - usually every year - I stay with my family and Nainoa lives about 100 feet from my guest house residence. I was able to talk with him on hundreds of occasions. We developed a deep mutual trust and affection which allowed me to ask intimate questions and allowed him to respond.

In addition - voyaging aboard Hokule’a allowed me to connect to crewmembers on a deep level. Before writing the book I posted hundreds of stories on the web, wrote magazine articles and the like which developed trust that I would fairly represent everyone I spoke with. And - it is also an obligation on the part of crew to get their story out to the public and they recognized that was my task - to help them do that - as documenter.

Why did you decide to just write about the early years of Hokulea and the Polynesian Voyaging Society?

The early years were the most important and the most dramatic in my opinion. Hokule’a has had such a stunning history - 40 years since inception and 140,000 miles of voyaging - that I needed a shorter time span. There was too much to cover. The first years were the time during which the ethos of voyaging evolved, the universal view of the importance of the quest to find ourselves as human beings--not only as Hawaiians. That is the central story--what makes the quest so universal - and all that happened in the first seven years of Hokule’a’s evolution and that of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

The narrative reads like a nail-biter. There’s tension and drama throughout--and I even knew the ending. Did you consciously think about this as you were writing and what inside writing techniques can you share that helped you achieve such an interesting read?

I am a student of a kind of writing style called literary non-fiction in which the author uses all the elements of fiction storytelling—character development, plot, setting, theme—to tell a non-fiction story. It was always my goal to write a “good read” while being accurate to the facts. I read and reread authors like Joseph Mitchell, John McPhee, Tracy Kidder to learn the style.

Was it difficult to find a publisher? What was that experience like?

It was not difficult to find a publisher. I was interviewed by five of them in Hawaii, including the University of Hawaii Press, and they all wanted to publish the book. But, in the end, I decided to publish it myself because I wanted to keep control of the book—to choose and design the cover, the text layout, and be in charge of every detail that went into the book. It was a sacred obligation to the Ohana Wa’a to do that, and I did not want anyone else having control over the process.

The response to the book from what I’ve seen is nothing but favorable. Overall, it’s getting four stars on Amazon.com, and the first print run must have sold out quickly, because I had a hard time finding it in Hawaii. What kind of feedback are you hearing from people when you do readings and/or public events?

Actually, they are five star reviews - out of a possible five - and I have received 35 of them so far from readers. The book sold out in five months, 3,000 copies, and is now in its second printing.

The personal response has been very, very gratifying. I released the book at the Hawaii Book and Music Festival, and Nainoa and I signed over 100 books with people waiting in line for an hour.

I released the book in Hawaii first because it was important that Hawaiians approve of the book before I sold it on the mainland. The response was so enthusiastic that I believed that I had the approval of my crewmates and fellow Hawaiians, so I released it on the mainland a few months ago.

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