Hawaii, Mortuaries, and Saving Kurt Vonnegut: An Interview with Kirby Wright

The Understanding between Foxes and Light contributor Kirby Wright chats with George Wallace

Kirby Wright was a Visiting Fellow at the 2009 International Writers Conference in Hong Kong, where he represented the Pacific Rim region of Hawaii. He was also a Visiting Writer at the 2010 Martha's Vineyard Residency in Edgartown, Massachusetts, and the 2011 Artist in Residence at Milkwood International, Czech Republic. Kirby is the author of the companion novels Punahou Blues (Lemon Shark Press, 2005) and Moloka’i Nui Ahina (Lemon Shark Press, 2007), both set in Hawaii. Read his "Advice for Preparing a Husband" in great weather for MEDIA's latest anthology The Understanding between Foxes and Light.


GW: You grew up in a well to do home in Honolulu, with a father who was a successful corporate lawyer, and attended the prestigious Punahou School. After college in San Diego you sold cars and worked in PR until "rich and unhappy," you went for your MFA at San Francisco State University. Now in your novels and poems, you examine what it is like to be objectified as a haole in Asian/Polynesian Hawaii; the shifting power dynamics in American families, particularly between father and son; and in work like Advice on Preparing a Husband, the dehumanizing pressures of the American obsession with material success. Could you discuss  Advice on Preparing a Husband, in this context?

KW: Actually, the spark for Advice on Preparing a Husband came from me taking my mother to the mortuary for a final look at my late father before he was cremated.  I kept my mother company while she sat on a bench staring at his body on a stainless steel table. "Daddy looks so alive," she said. It was strange hearing her call him 'Daddy,' as if she wasn't a wife at all but one of his children. We talked story about him and how he treated us. She focused on happy times, such as going to M's Ranch House for dinner and cruising on the SS Lurline to San Francisco. But I knew, deep down, she hated him. She hated Daddy because he destroyed her concept of 'a happy married life' after decades of brutal arguments. I remember her running out of the house yelping, "He’s murdering me, he’s murdering me!" to no one in particular. Daddy wasn't really "murdering" her, but in a way he was by ridiculing her desire to become a singer. He was an expert at assassinating dreams, especially those involving the creative arts. He squashed my big brother Barry's hopes of becoming an actor and wanted me to abandon my love of creative writing. Instead of Daddy being happy that Fox News interviewed me for Punahou Blues, he yelled at me for revealing that my grandmother had Hawaiian blood.

Eventually the Mortuary Man gave me the stink eye from the showroom doorway. It was time to leave. I pried my mother off the bench and we drove through a graveyard sprinkled with plumeria blossoms that had fallen off the trees.

It is true that I grew up in an affluent neighborhood and went to a prestigious school. But there were horrors that went on behind closed doors that I refuse to ignore, such as the "double header" beatings Daddy inflicted on Barry and me. Julie, my kid sister, suffered from the fallout of that abuse. She wept during dinner recently and confessed she feared punishment time would turn into a triple-header and that, one day, Daddy would come for her. A few times I got on my knees and begged him to beat me first because I couldn't stand hearing Barry's screams in the next room knowing I was next. "Oldest first," Daddy always said. After my turn, I searched for Julie. She always had a new hiding place in the house.

GW: Could you discuss this passage from your monologue-style poem "Transformations In Northern California" in this context?

Investments secure us, can transform us from Democrats to Republicans, make us worry as new owners about faded paint, dying landscape, pipes weakened by decades of renters and gallons of Liquid Plumber. Everything’s relative, including my mother-in-law who holds the wedding pictures hostage… I’m wondering if my wife's mother knows her only daughter's Ring isn't a diamond. I’m a fraud.

KW: I’m fascinated how owning something, especially something as big as a home, can affect your political leanings. Home ownership spawns thoughts of equity and maintaining value. I suppose I was suggesting that the more investments you have, the more likely you’d lean to the right. Yet, if you have a starter home and can't afford the repairs, this might sway you back to the left. In Transformations in Northern California, the narrator chooses to invest in a fixer-upper instead of a diamond and must live with the nagging guilt that his bride's ring is a fake as well as the terror that his mother-in-law will find out.

GW: You have said you harken to the idyllic, idealized grandmother figure you grew up with, in part, in Moloka'i—both for her genealogical connection to indigenous Hawaii and for her story telling prowess, particularly the Roaring Twenties era in old Waikiki. Can you discuss your experience of her with us? What does she represent as a touchstone for you? Can you discuss how that experience reflects itself in your writing? How does her influence come out in your poetry?

KW: Going to Moloka'i as a four year old changed me, mostly because of the contrast between the rural east end compared to the burbs of Diamond Head. The roads were dirt and gravel compared to subdivision asphalt and kiawe tree branches formed a canopy over the road. You never knew who would show up at the ranch and that included Uncle Chipper, Gramma's ex. My first night on Moloka'i, he banged on the window above the pune'e I shared with Gramma. "Brow-nie," he moaned, "you gotta tow me out. I ran off da bridge at Puko'o."

Gramma loved reminiscing and I listened to the same stories for seventeen straight summers. Her story-telling ability, plus the ocean and odd/surreal/violent happenings, shaped me as a writer. I remember Gramma talking to her dead mother through the screen door. I saw her crack a bottle of red eye over Chipper's head when he was trying to rape her. I fished from my bed on the lanai, after tethering the end of a kaka line to my bedpost—whenever my bed jerked I knew I had a strike.

GW: How do you integrate her influence in your writing with the influence of other aspects of your experience, as mentioned above?

KW: My love of magic realism and the surreal can be traced back to my Moloka'i summers. It was also the first place I experienced death, when I stood at the fence line watching the ranch hand burn the body of a dead horse. The integration of the tarot deck in The End, My Friend comes from Gramma—she read the fortunes of the Filipino pineapple workers using a regular deck of cards. My dark comic edge is the end result of trying to use humor to maintain my sanity growing up in a dysfunctional family in Honolulu. I've been working on a series of Kafkaesque miniatures dealing with family life, such as parents who routinely dine on their children’s body parts and a boy obsessed with shining a flashlight at his parents while they’re having sex.

GW: You met Vonnegut and Ginsberg while attending school and studying with Maxine Hong Kingston at University of Hawaii. You studied at UC-San Diego with Jerry Rothenberg. You traveled to China to present lectures with Gary Snyder. Could you talk a little about your experiences with those individuals? How have these experiences informed your sense of yourself as a writer? Your writing itself?

KW: Anyone who wants to be a writer should, if given the opportunity, hang out with "real writers," that is, poets or writers who are lions in literature, semi-lions, or published authors. I learned that famous writers are people with foibles like anyone else and this helped me realize reaching their level of notoriety wasn't impossible. The best place to do this is at colleges and universities. I wandered into Maxine Hong Kingston's class at UH only because I needed to add a class and thought creative writing was an easy "A." She had just won The National Book Critics Circle Award for The Woman Warrior and was incredibly humble. That humility made me want to take her class. I was also aching to unlock the stories Gramma had told me about the good old days on Moloka'i, including her love affair with my English grandfather and the myths of Old Hawai'i.

I met Ginsberg thanks to Maxine Hong Kingston. She led us out of the class one day and we marched over to the East West Center, where she snuck us into the Writers Conference. Ginsberg stood in the doorway smoking pot. I knew it was crummy dope by the smell—leaves and stems at best. Skeet, my Japanese classmate, offered Ginsberg North Shore pakalolo. Ginsberg fell in love with the pakalolo and then Skeet. Kurt Vonnegut told Ginsberg to "cool it" but that comment only seemed to excite Ginsberg more.

I met Vonnegut a second time working for the University Events office at UCSD. I developed a rapport with the visiting writers and think they liked me because I didn't fawn over them. I'd already had classes with the poets Jerome Rothenberg and Bobbie Louise Hawkins, so "successful" writers and poets didn't intimidate me. I fetched Vonnegut from Lindbergh Field and drove him to La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla. He invited me to lunch. He told me I reminded him of John Irving. I was in charge of his So, You Want to Be a Writer lecture in the gym that night and served as a sort of MC/bodyguard/guide. Well, after his lecture, about a hundred fans wanted him to sign books, everything from dog-eared copies of Palm Sunday to hardback editions of Deadeye Dick and the newly released Galapagos. All I could see were hands attached to books thrusting out. Those hands punched him from the podium out toward a railing with a forty-foot drop. I knew what was coming next so I summoned crowd control. Linebacker-sized guys in yellow shirts, made a semi-circle of muscle around Vonnegut and pushed the mob back enough to get him down the stairs to a waiting car. That was a close call. Later, I joked with Vonnegut about it over shots of whiskey at a La Jolla bar. Still, I could tell he was rattled. The next morning we drove to the airport and I passed him a copy of Breakfast of Champions. I assumed he'd just written his name and didn't look at the title page until I was heading back.  I reached the Mission Bay exit and flipped open the cover:

To Kirby Wright, who will make it as a writer. I know these things.

Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun, signed off on my MFA thesis at San Francisco State University. Her success reinforced my belief that, through hard work and sacrifice, I could one day be as successful as her.

I didn’t hit it off with Gary Snyder. A colleague told me after our joint-lecture in Hong Kong that Snyder was neither impressed by my presence nor my lecture style. I didn't like how he fawned over a writer getting published by Farrar Straus Giroux and how he diminished the other Pacific Rim writers and poets by failing to ask about their books or unfinished manuscripts. He inspired Lunch with the Pulitzer Winner in Hong Kong, which was published by Pisgah Review and will appear in my 2014 collection of selected poems. Good things are born from bad experiences.

Meeting known writers and poets didn't have much effect on my writing style or voice, although it made me want to write everything from plays to poems to short stories to creative nonfiction. I learned important things from each one of them, whether I liked them or not.

GW: You live in San Diego, very much a button-down conservative town where people have sold their souls for success. How does living in a town like San Diego feed into your poetic inquiry?

KW: Writers should take advantage of their surroundings, if only to trigger memories that juice their writing. I live in the burbs. I took advantage of my life in a subdivision by writing about it deconstructing in my latest novel, The End, My Friend. This is a sort of a prequel to The Hunger Games, that is, what happened to society to get us to there. I wanted to write something for the students at nearby Rancho Buena Vista High to get them to read, so that’s why the novel begins across the street from their campus.


pune’e:  big wide bed that doubles as a couch

kiawe:  mesquite

kaka:  heavy cord line with hook and weight but no pole


Find Kirby's "Advice for Preparing a Husband" in our anthology The Understanding between Foxes and Light.