Author honors the life and legacy of his Hawaiian grandmother.
“Family stories are so valuable—we have to engage with our elders before they pass away,” says Kirby Wright ’83, who began writing his creative nonfiction novel The Queen of Molokai shortly after his paternal grandmother, Julia “Brownie” Gilman passed away in 1983. In writing Gilman’s story, however, Wright had plenty of memories from Brownie to draw from, having spent the summers of his youth with her on the island, carrying on the Hawaiian tradition of “talking story” and learning about her life.
“Especially as a kid, the isolation of Molokai really lent itself to harvesting these memories from my grandmother,” he says. “There was so much time for us to spend on the beach or up in the mountains—no TV, just stories.”
In the 1920s, Gilman was a single mother raising two boys—a city girl from Waikiki who pursued the man who would become her husband to Molokai, where she set about finding any work she could: cleaning houses, clearing the stubborn pili brush from ranchlands, mending miles of fences and ultimately becoming a paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy.
Along the way, she also seized the opportunity to own land on Molokai, eventually establishing herself as a fixture in the community. At that time, the island was considerably less developed than it remains even today, and Gilman made a living by driving cattle, fishing and harvesting the leaves of hala pepe trees for use in handmade textiles. She volunteered her time as well, joining the USO to put on variety shows for troops during WWII and joining a group that regularly delivered supplies to Molokai’s colony for those afflicted by Hansen’s Disease—more commonly known as leprosy—a journey that proved hazardous for Wright when he tried to recreate it. “It was a 20-mile hike up and down the mountain range, and I went out alone and extremely unprepared. I ran out of daylight and it was definitely treacherous, but I wanted to do what she did.”
In addition to experiential research, Wright used family photos as prompts when talking to his elders; using them as windows into past memories would sometimes bring out conflicting recollections. “That was interesting,” he says, “the different accounts I would get, the variety of perspectives on our family history.” The book even began as short stories inspired by each photo, which Wright would set about linking them, he says, “like you would link stars in the sky.”
That Wright’s book should link his grandmother’s life together like a constellation is very much her influence coming full circle. “She was an artist as well,” says Wright, “and she was also the one who always encouraged me in my writing. The book is a way of thanking her for that, and capturing all that she persevered through and accomplished in her life.”
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