Gaellen Quinn Interview

Today I am happy to have with us Gaellen Quinn. Back in 2009 Gaellen wrote the memorable book, The Last Aloha, which deals with the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy by the United States. Years later people are still talking about this wonderful book.

Aloha, Gaellen, thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to spend some time with us here at Your book was an eye-opener to many people who were unaware of all the drama and intrigue as to how how Hawaii became a US possession and eventually a state.

Before we get into the book, would you mind telling us a bit about your fascinating life?

I live on the island of Molokai and currently my only profession is writing. Previously, I worked for Mona Foundation ( in various capacities. The foundation works to provide support for grassroot educational initiatives and raising the status of women and girls around the world.

What made you want to go into writing? And specifically how did you come to write The Last Aloha?

I’d always wanted to write since I was a kid. I remember thinking seriously about it when I was about 12 years old and talking to a friend who liked to draw. I planned to write the stories and she would illustrate them. I took some stabs at writing as I got older but life intervened. I got married and had two children and when they were pre-teens we went to live in the Brazilian Amazon to assist a social economic development project. It was there that I began my first novel, The Black River of Eve. (Just so you know, it’s never been published.)

When we came back to the States, I happened to be in New York City on 9-11 staying just 10 blocks from the World Trade Center. Going through that kind of experience makes you assess where you’re going in life and it was at that point I got serious about writing again. I finished my first novel and got an agent. While she shopped that around I thought, “If she sells that book, I’m going to need another book; and if she doesn’t sell that book, I’m going to need another book.” That’s when I began to write, The Last Aloha.

My dad was a pilot and Hawaii was one of his routes, so I’d been coming to Hawaii since I was a kid. I knew there was a King Street and Queen Street in Honolulu and “the only royal palace on American soil,” but I never put two and two together to understand that Hawaii had been a sovereign nation before it became a U.S. territory and then a state. 

Some years ago, my brother married a Hawaiian woman. Her grandmother was about 5 or 6 years old when the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom happened and so, many stories from the Hawaiian side of things came down in living memory in her family. My sister-in-law told stories that I’d never heard before and I wondered why more people didn’t know about how Hawaii became part of America. I thought, more people would read a novel than a history book and perhaps I could dramatize the history somehow. 

So in order to get the flavor of Hawaii, did you have to spend time on Oahu, and what source and research materials were you able to use?

At the time I was writing The Last Aloha, I lived in Austin, TX. My sister-in-law had given me some books to read, but it became apparent that to really write the book, I’d have to get to the archives in Hawaii. I didn’t have a budget at the time, but serendipitiously a short term job came up that I completed in a month. That gave me a grubstake and I called a friend who lived in Honolulu to see if I could sleep on her couch while I was doing research. She asked when I planned to come and coincidentally, it was the dates that she and her husband would be traveling so they said I could stay at their apartment while they were gone. 

I spent time in various archives including the Hawaii State archives and Bishop Museum to read documents, the diaries of the queen and other materials, read lots of books, both comtemporary and from the 19th century (some rare accounts I found online) and interviewed some people whose ancestors knew stories of the queen.

I also went to the island of Molokai because, as the “undeveloped” part of Hawaii, it was as close as I could get to the feel of Hawaii of the 19th century. I fell in love with Molokai and made it my home about 15 years ago.

Beginning shortly after the overthrow of the Monarchy there developed some very strong Native Hawaiian cultural revivals and activism, were you able to get assistance from these groups and what was their thoughts as to your book and how you treated the topic of the overthrow of the Monarchy?

I was very concerned about the reaction of the Hawaiian community to the book. I was the least likely person to write it. I was not Hawaiian, I didn’t even live in Hawaii at the time. However, through research and connections I met some of the people involved in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement who encouraged me because they wanted the story told. I have had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to The Last Aloha from Hawaiians and I can tell you, I was much relieved. 

There’s still a lot of hurt and trauma around the history of the overthrow and the last thing I wanted to do was be the cause of more hurt.

What strikes you right away with the book is the beautiful cover. Could you tell us a bit about the cover artwork, and did you personally choose it? I can tell you that the members of our book club really were impressed with the cover.

The publisher was willing for me to give input on the cover. I told them I preferred a painting to graphic art for this cover because, to me, there’s already a feeling embedded in a painting — it’s not just a design. The publisher found Princess Ka’iulani’s painting online and it was in the public domain, so I immediately agreed that it should be the cover.

In 1889, at age 13, Princess Ka`iulani was sent to school in England. While she was abroad, the descendants of American missionaries in the Hawaiian Islands overthrew the monarchy.  The princess’s painting suggests her own inner landscape. She often admitted feeling desperately homesick for her beloved islands; and the bay and coastal mountains, though painted in Great Britain, take on a strong resemblance to the shape of Diamond Head and the curve of Waikiki.

These icons of Ka`iulani’s island home fade into the barren background, covered over by Western plants: the red poppy, known for its drowsy, narcotic effect, which can ultimately cause death; and the yellow dandelion, a noxious weed that propagates itself through the soil and the air to choke out other flowers. Red and yellow are the colors of the royal ali`i, the rulers of Hawaii. Perhaps  the young princess’s art depicts her despair about how Western influence was usurping that power, and killing the land and its people.

I knew the original painting was in a private collection and I hoped one day to see it. I was invited to give a talk to the docents of ‘Iolani Palace in Honolulu and the woman who arranged the talk told me she thought that one of the docents knew the location of the painting. When I arrived to give the talk, I discovered that the docent had brought the painting with her. The last queen was gifted the painting by Ka’iulani’s family and then it was handed down to the docent’s family. 

The queen and her husband never had children, but the queen’s husband had a child out of wedlock with one of the queen’s retainers. The queen graciously took on the support of this baby and treated him as if he were a natural child. The docent who showed me the picture was the granddaughter of that child.

You chose to tell the story of the downfall of the Hawaiian Monarchy through the eyes of Laura Jennings a young lady from San Francisco. Why did you choose to do that? And did you feel the need for your narrator to be someone who knew little about Hawaii until the time that her personal tragedy resulted in her relocation to Honolulu?

Hawaiian culture has a lot of subtleties. I knew early on I couldn’t simply tell the story through the queen’s eyes — I felt I wouldn’t have the deep Polynesian sensibilities to pull that off — even though the queen is in a lot of direct scenes which I was able to manage through getting to know her through her diaries and other records. Also, to tell the story, I felt I needed a character who could move between the two camps – the Missionary Party and the royal Hawaiians, so I invented Laura Jennings. 

I was able to read the diaries of some young ladies who were governesses to Princess Ka’iulani and other such records so I felt that Laura is someone who could have lived at that time. I liked the idea of Laura learning her missionary family’s ideas about Hawaiians and then little by little discovering the truth for herself.

Did you ever read James Michener’s book “Hawaii”? If so, did it supply any background for you? And did you consciously delve into more of the fall of the Hawaiian Monarchy than he wrote about?

You know, I met Mr. Michener many years ago when he lived in Austin, TX. He was quite elderly at the time, but still sharp. I thought, if there was no other reason for writing than to retain that mental sharpness into old age, it was still a valuable thing to do. 

Mr. Michener had been married to a Japanese woman and experienced a lot of prejudice years back because  of it. There was not a whiff of prejudice that I could detect in the man.  I read his book before I started writing The Last Aloha to see what he wrote about the monarchy period which lasted 100 years. Imagine my surprise that in the 1,000 or so pages of his book, maybe 10 pages were devoted to the time of the monarchy, mostly about Lili’uokalani, the last queen. And, not only did he get the history all wrong, his words about the queen were actually demeaning.

Given his kind nature, that puzzled me. It was only when I started doing research that I figured out what had happened. Michener’s book came out in 1959 when Hawaii became a state. When the last queen was imprisoned, all the documents associated with the monarchy were confiscated and kept under lock and key until well into the 1930s, and then in private, missionary family collections into the 1960s when they started to migrate into public collections. Michener didn’t have any access to primary documents. He could only repeat what the descendants of the missionaries told him, which were untrue, degrading stories about the royal Hawaiians.

Fortunately, there’s a new generation of Hawaiian scholars who are able to read primary documents and the newspapers in the Hawaiian language, so there is more and more of the history being revealed. Virtually all the history books on Hawaii currently in print are by people who did not speak or read Hawaiian and so were unable to access primary documents in that language and are therefore, necessarily limited, if not outright in error.

Who were the leading US missionaries and businessmen who dominated Hawaii and were instrumental in its downfall and could you tell us a bit about them?

The men were grandchildren of the original missionaries. I named a few of them as the opposition in my book – Thurston, Dole, Castle & Cooke and others. The names are still familiar in the Hawaii of today and their descendants still control a lot of the land (which they grabbed illegally because it was the private property of the Hawaiian rulers, not government land) and some of the bigger businesses here.

Unfortunately, they were men of their time, many educated at places like Columbia University, where, in the 19th century, they were taught social Darwinism — that only the Teutonic race had the ability to rule. So, they were prejudiced against people of color, against women holding any power and against anyone who was not of their religious persuasion. Quite a toxic cocktail that is sadly still prevalent today, and not just in Hawaii. These men felt perfectly justified in overthrowing the Hawaiian Kingdom. In fact, one of Thurston’s grandson’s wrote a book published in 1998, and it could have been his grandfather who wrote it. Their views and their sense of entitlement in overthrowing the Hawaiian Kingdom has never changed.

Was there one or two individuals in those groups who stood out as the ringleaders of the US plotters?

I would say the ringleader would have been Lorrin Thurston. He helped form the Committee of Safety. It was a 13-member group composed of mostly Hawaiian subjects of American descent and American citizens who were members of the Missionary Party, as well as some foreign residents in the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. The group planned and carried out the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. The goal of this group was to achieve annexation of Hawaiʻi by the United States. 

The “annexation” of Hawaii was a completely illegal act. It was done through a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress. The U.S. Congress has no jurisdiction over foreign territory. It would be like Congress making a joint resolution to annex Canada. It’s absurd.

Therefore, in accordance with international law, Hawaii is still a sovereign nation and is an occupied territory. Space here is not sufficient for a long explanation, but if your members are interested I can send a link for a series of talks given by historians that explain some of the intricacies of this period of Hawaiian history.

Could you tell everyone about the rulers of the Hawaiian Monarchy and the Bayonet Constitution force upon the Monarch?

There have been a lot of lies told about the Hawaiian monarchs, as I mentioned before, and these lies have persisted to the present day. In my research, I came to admire the Hawaiian royalty who were truly concerned with the welfare of their people. Were they perfect people, no, who can claim to be perfect? But many of the social efforts they started still exist today. The Queen Lili’uokalani Trust that she founded still serves needy children throughout the islands, the Lunalilo Home still serves the elderly, the Queen’s Hospital system founded by Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma (who went door to door to solicit donations to start the hospital) is still the preeminent medical facility serving all the islands. 

They were talented writers, musicians and poets. They traveled the world. King Kalakaua was the first monarch to circumnavigate the globe and was received with all royal honors in the courts of Asia and Europe, met the Pope in Rome, met with Queen Victoria and President Grant. 

They were doing a fine job of moving from pre-contact chiefly governance to a constitutional monarchy that gave the vote to the people and their kingdom was prosperous. The sugar planters’s monetary greed turned into political greed. They forced Kalakaua, at the threat of death, to sign a new constitution that took away much of his power and took away the vote from the Hawaiian people. Only white men with money or property could vote under their new constitution and even Asians who had been naturalized were prevented from voting. However, white men who had a short residence in the islands could vote, without even becoming citizens.

Even though King Kalakaua was forced to sign the document was there anything you found to indicate that there would have been a different outcome had he not died in January of 1891?

The Missionary Party was fixated on annexing Hawaii to the United States and likely would not have stopped agitating for their ends. However, they never succeeded. As stated above, there was no annexation and according to international law, Hawaii is still a sovereign nation and an occupied territory. That fact has been recognized by the International Court of Arbitration at the Hague. ( This history is still being written.

Queen Liliuokalani is by far the most sympathetic and touching person in the book. Was your representation of her consistent with historical records?

I have, thankfully, been complimented by Hawaiians and historians on how accurate the history and representations of the Hawaiian characters are. 

Laura eventually works for the Queen, was there someone like Laura who worked with the Queen during these turbulent times?

Yes, both the queen and Ka’iulani had western servants, such as ladies-in-waiting.

While this is all speculation, what are your thoughts as to whether the US was the lesser of evils, since many countries were looking to control or take over Hawaii?

The history is complex. Actually, Kamehameha I, who united the islands made Hawaii a protectorate of Great Britain for a time, to protect it from other nations. And the Hawaiian royalty favored relations with the monarchy in England. But, it’s beyond my purview to say whether some other nation would have been better to overthrow a sovereign nation.

I have heard stories that Hawaiians do not like people from the Mainland of the US. Any truth to that? And how do you feel most Hawaiians feel about being part of the US?

Again, it’s complex. For the most part, the continental U.S. is an individualistic culture. And Hawaiians have a collective culture. From my perspective, most of the misunderstandings arise from that. 

Hawaiians seem to be 360 degrees aware of people around them and how they’re feeling. They respond to that. They take care of each other. (Like anything, there can be exceptions.) I’ve lived on the island of Molokai for almost 15 years now. I’ve always been treated kindly.  However, the way some tourists act offends Hawaiians. The tourists don’t seem to realize they’re in someone else’s home and in a place which is not their playground, but that has a rich history and culture. It’s a matter of awareness and respect for the people and the place.

Currently there are some efforts to make tourists aware and perhaps that will make everyone’s exxperience more pleasant. Since millions come here to vacation every year, and many return, I think most people have a good experience. 

Hawaiians have served in the U.S. armed forces since WWI. They are proud of their service. I live on a small island where about 90% of the population is native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders. Most of the Hawaiians I know understand that Hawaii is not legally part of the U.S. 

So what has Gaellen Quinn been up to since the Last Aloha?  Any thoughts of revisiting Hawaii as a setting for a new book?

Right now I’m adapting The Last Aloha to a limited series. Maybe one day you’ll see it on the screen.

Gaellen, thanks so much for making time after all these years, to chat about The Last Aloha. Anyone who has read it will never forget this truly wonderful and educational book! Mahalo!!

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