'The Descendants' Author Kaui Hart Hemmings Talks Hawaii
With her book The Descendants, Kaui Hart Hemmings put the lie to mainland Americans' postcard image of Hawaii by allowing tragedy and, more insidiously, the mundane to run amok in paradise. She described singularly beautiful and exotic islands populated by people both defined by and inured to beauty and exoticism. In short, she created a portrait of the Hawaii where she grew up and where she lives, the Hawaii where Hollywood found her.
The movie adaptation of Hemmings' book is now out in theaters and receiving rave reviews from critics, who can't seem to get over the banal charm of the film's Eden meets suburbia aesthetic. Hemmings spoke with HuffPost Travel's Andrew Burmon about just how close the film comes to capturing her novel and her day-to-day life, her favorite island spots and how her dog learned to boogie board.
Andrew Burmon: In The Descendants, Hawaii is an everyday sort of setting not a vacation spot. That this seems unusual is indicative of how closely the islands are associated with tourism. What is the local attitude towards visitors?
Kaui Hart Hemmings: I can't speak for all Hawaiians, but the reality is that we depend on tourism. Locals might not want to go to the spots like Waikiki, but we do want tourists to experience more of the islands. It would be nice to see them get out of Waikiki, which doesn't really even resemble Hawaii anymore and sort of looks like everywhere else just prettier, and see something surprising.
Some of the islands are full of tourists but there are places they don't ever go and pockets of peace.
AB: So you don't worry about the islands being overrun?
KHH: Disney's Aulani Resort has really developed the southwest coast of Oahu and led to it getting more attention. That area used to be very dangerous and you'd never hear about people going out there, but now it is being beautified by resorts that create jobs… There are always people suspicious of development, but some of the spots where hotels have popped up look great and they didn't before.
AB: Where do you hang out?
KHH: Kailua beach on the windward side of Oahu. That's where we go. It is also, incidentally, where Obama is staying right now.
AB: What is it like having a president for a neighbor?
KHH: It affects the neighborhood mostly in terms of traffic, though it has definitely increased the interest in Kailua and more people come there now. The town has changed. There aren't hotels, but the beach gets populated and there is a really positive energy. It helps that the beach is so big that you never really feel crowded.
We go down there and my daughter and my dog go boogie boarding together -- my daughter on my dog's back -- and I'll look around and we'll suddenly be surrounded by Japanese tourists taking pictures. He's a celebrity too.
AB: Your dog boogie boards? How did you teach him to do that?
KHH: I think it started as an attempt on his part to stop us from drowning.
AB: With the beaches so full of American and foreign tourists, do you worry about traditional Hawaiian culture being lost? In your book, many of your characters seem invested in tradition even as they drift away from it.
KHH: My seven-year-old daughter knows old songs and how the neighborhoods got their names. There are little things: Businesses receive blessings from Hawaiian priests before opening and everyone's kids have their debut luau. You can't really get through a day without doing something Hawaiian. We don't contemplate Hawaiian-ness. We just experience these traditions.
AB: When you saw the movie, did you think it captured the Hawaii you grew up on, the everyday island?
KHH: I thought it was eerily accurate. Alexander Payne, the director, lived here for eight months before shooting and I showed him the spots I was thinking about when I wrote the book. I introduced him to my cousins whose house they used on Kauai and my friend whose house and goat they also used in the movie.
AB: That sounds like it might be disconcerting to see on screen…
KHH: Not at all. It was so respectful that I felt honored more than anything.
AB: Payne sort of plays the childishness of some Hawaiian things, the shirts and sandals uniform for one, for laughs. Do you think it changes your perspective on the world when you go to work in flip flops?
KHH: Not really. We're definitely a playful society here. People go surfing before work and paddling afterward. My husband is from Wisconsin and he goes to work in his Hawaiian shirt. Still, business is business down here. We have the same problems as everyone else. We just have better weather.