Bill Fernandez was born and grew up on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i in the years of the Great Depression and World War II. Later, he moved to the mainland, practiced law, served as mayor of Sunnyvale, California, and was a judge for more than twenty years before he and his wife moved back to Kaua'i. In his memoir, Kaua'i Kids in Peace and War, he writes candidly about how the idyllic became guarded as history intruded on his island home. I'm thrilled Red Room introduced us and to have done this interview with him.
1) After retiring as a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge, you returned to your late mother’s home on the island of Kauai. What was the most striking change on the island from the time you were a boy there, in the 1930s and 1940s, to today?
The most striking thing is the large number of mainland young people who have made Kaua’i their home.
2) One of the themes of Kaua’i Kids in Peace and War is the importance of access to the sea for Native Hawaiians over the years--and how both the plantations and the occupation of the island by the U.S. military cut off access to the ocean for many people in the 1930s and 1940s. Why was being able to reach the sea so important to the ordinary islanders in those days?
The ordinary islanders (Native Hawaiians included) did not have much money to buy whatever food might be sold in the few stores on the island. Traditionally, Native Hawaiians turned to the ocean for their food: Limo (sea weed), opihi (mollusks), and fish nourished them plus the taro and fruits. The islands were very rural with almost all land including access to the ocean occupied by plantations growing sugar cane or pineapple. Most people had little money and few places to spend it. The ocean was the grocery store. Native Hawaiians are a sea-going people by tradition so both ocean food-gathering and recreation play a significant role in the culture.
3) Is access to the sea still restricted today on Kauai? If so, by whom?
No, although some private landowners and developers still try to discourage legal access to the beaches and ocean by plantings and placing large boulders, etc. to block access. It requires vigilance.
In your book, you are very critical of the economic control that the Big Five held over the Territory of Hawaii when you were growing up there. How has this changed in the intervening years and where does economic control reside now that Hawaii’s sugar industry has largely disappeared?
After World War II, the Democratic Party wrested control over the Legislature and Governor’s office from the Big Five. The GI Bill played a role in this as the returning Nisei soldiers earned college and law school degrees and became successful in politics. The hotel industry and developers exert a great deal of control today.
5) The influx of military personnel to Kaua'i following the attack on Pearl Harbor had one fortunate effect of helping to save your parent’s theater from bankruptcy. But you also suggest that it helped instill a sense of enterprise into you and other Native Hawaiians that helped propel you into very different lives than you might otherwise have led. Could you elaborate on this?
Growing up on an isolated island produces a myopic point of view. Meeting people from across the seas widened our point of view.
6) How did Kauai’s occupation change what you call the spirit of “Mahapi” – or the attitude of “I’ll do it tomorrow…”?
War made us realize you have to fight it, be organized, etc. You can’t wait “until tomorrow”. The urgency of war brought changes in lifestyle.
7) Why do you think your parents never taught you to speak Hawaiian?
After the overthrow of the Queen, the new powers banned it by law. We were to become Americanized. Not until 1959 was it a legal language under the new state constitution. At Kamehameha Schools for Hawaiian children, it was forbidden for decades until then.
8) How did you overcome what you describe feeling as a child of “the sin of being Hawaiian”?
Seeing what my parents accomplished by their hard work, Roxy Theater, taught me that Hawaiians could be successful. My education at Stanford University and my career in the law community brought a sense of success to my life. I continue to be impressed by the talents and intelligence of what my ancestors did, such as the voyages of the Hokule’a canoe to Tahiti, etc.
9) I understand you are now composing oli, or chants. Could you tell me more about that? Are you composing them in Hawaiian?
When I started giving book talks, I wanted to bring in a sense of Hawaiian to the audience, many of whom have no knowledge of it. Oli are very special chants done to impart a sense of seriousness to occasions. When I do them, I can see the audience sits a little straighter. I do a different one for each talk/occasion. I first compose a brief poem in English, then turn to the Hawaiian dictionary and try to use language that gives a rhythmic sense to the poem and I chant to that rhythm.
10) Native Hawaiians, for the most part, remain at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in Hawaii. Why do you think this is and what can be done to change it?
The sad lack of education is the reason. The Department of Education must be urged to make special programs available to the children. Too often in the past, these children have been viewed as having low potential. Cultural learning patterns must be considered. Parents want the best for their children but often are unaware of how to help them succeed, such as preschool, books in the home, etc. Kamehameha Schools has been working hard in this area.
11) You write about working in the pineapple fields as a young teen during the war years and declaring to your mother after your first day in the fields that, “When I grow up, I want an inside job so I won’t smell like Johnny pineapple.” Clearly, you were a motivated student when you arrived at Kamehameha Schools. What was the single most important thing that helped you make the leap to Stanford and attending college and law school on the mainland?
My parents had little formal education. My father had a strong desire to learn, taking courses through the years. He and the rest of my family always urged me to become educated and become a lawyer.
12) Is there any advice you would give today’s Native Hawaiian students about how to make their way through the world?
Strive for success through education and learn good English.
Mahalo nui loa for the opportunity to ask you these questions!
As a longtime London-based foreign correspondent, Julia Flynn Siler wrote about family business dynasties, millionaire dons at Oxford and Cambridge, and Virgin founder Richard Branson, among other subjects. Towards the end of her years in London, she joined The Wall Street Journal as its European management correspondent. After returning to the U.S., one of the first articles she wrote for The Wall Street Journal was about the turmoil within the Mondavi family’s wine empire. It ran as a front page story in June of 2004.
That story led to her book The House of Mondavi, published by Penguin's Gotham Books in 2007. It was honored as a finalist both for a James Beard Award and a Gerald Loeb Award for distinguished reporting. Ms. Flynn Siler's latest book, Lost Kingdom: Hawaii's Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America's First Imperial Adventure, was published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 2012. She continues to write Page One and Weekend stories for The Wall Street Journal out of its San Francisco bureau.
This interview is one in an exclusive series of original author interviews arranged by Red Room editors as part of our Author Matchmakers series. Learn more about the series here, and arrange to be an interviewer or interviewee by writing to email@example.com.
Causes Bill Fernandez Supports
Juvenile Justice, Native Hawaiian political and social causes