I reviewed This is Paradise: Stories as a part of my Native Hawaiian #OwnVoices event for the month of November. It was such an immersive collection of short stories, focusing on the real Hawai’i, the tensions between tourists and locals, and authentic self. If you have not read my review yet, please go back and check it out! Kristiana Kahakauwila has generously agreed to talk in a Q&A about her experiences as a Native Hawaiian author and writing This is Paradise.
When did you first want to become a writer?
On some level I’ve always been a writer, even before I was conscious of wanting to be one. I’ve kept a journal since I was nine. Even when it was focused on detailing the opportunities to play L.A. Game (that was our favorite board game in the 80s) at my best friend’s house, it was still a way of recording life. And I’ve always enjoyed observation, jotting down things I see, overhear, smell, taste. So, while I didn’t necessarily think of becoming or consciously want to be a writer until I was in college, I was already moving through the world like one.
Although the collection is marked as fiction, were there any personal experiences that inspired particular short stories?
I mentioned that observation has been important to me since I was young. Most of my stories begin with a real image, something I’ve witnessed and found odd or captivating or surprising or meaningful, and I want to get that image on paper. A sign on a beach warning of undertow, a red slick of spilled shave ice syrup on a sidewalk, the way the grasses in upcountry ranchland bow with the wind and how the cows watch you without looking at you when you enter a field. Those are all images I couldn’t leave behind, and they became touchpoints in my stories.
And then, there are specific experiences that lead to a story. But the experience isn’t really the inspiration; rather, it’s the questions that the experience engenders that make the story. So, for example, my paternal grandmother passed away just a year after I moved to Hawai`i post-graduate school, and that loss grounded me in my ancestral home in a new way. When I wrote “39 Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral Drinking Game” I wasn’t intent on replicating her funeral as much as thinking through real questions about homecoming and loss, as well as a particular missionary history that still lingers in the islands. These were questions that mattered to me, that I wanted to grapple with, and the story is a way of delving into them.
I think that real questioning is also what connects my work to my readers. Even when a reader hasn’t visited Hawai`i, exploring moments of belonging, loss, love, connection—these reverberate for all of us.
As a Native Hawaiian, how does culture influence the stories you tell?
Culture roots so much experience and identity for me. I’m hapa, or mixed-race, of kanaka maoli (indigenous Hawaiian), Norwegian and German extract. I move through the world as someone used to operating in these different cultural spaces and also as someone who is always marked as outsider when I am in any one space. I’m the brownest person in the room at the Daughters of Norway meeting, but I’m the only one not speaking pidgin when I’m hanging out with the family on Maui. When I was younger this sense of being outside was very difficult for me, but now I work on seeing this hapa-ness as something beautiful and particular, a marker of the culture of mixed-race folks. You get used to observing the culture from the outside and, at the same time, experiencing it deeply from the inside.
My stories are certainly steeped in Hawaiian and local culture. The details, the language, the political work, the descriptions of place. So much is from and of Hawai`i, and from and of an indigenous Hawaiian. And yet, I think there’s a clear hapa culture coming through as well, and many of the key questions and tensions come from that. “The Road to Hana” is one big debate about different ideas of what it means to be from somewhere. “The Old Paniolo Way” is about garnering power from a liminality based in sexual identity. The narrator in “39 Rules” refigures classic Christian imagery to remake heaven as something with indigenous meaning. And at the same time as the stories ask these deep cultural questions, there’s the fun of the details, like specific food or songs or activities.
Who are some other Native Hawaiian authors we should be reading?
Where to start? I’ll leave someone out and feel terrible, so I apologize in advance for any and all absences. I’ve been reading Donovan Kūhiō Colleps, whose poetry is deeply emotional for me because of its imagery and the way it moves through languages in such purposeful and fluid ways. Brandy Nālani McDougall is another poet whose creative work I admire, but I’m currently most engaged with her critical work on kaona, the intellectual and aesthetic practice of hiding and finding meaning in text. Lisa Linn Kanae, who writes in every genre beautifully. I cannot get enough of Sista Tongue, published by TinFish Press. Jamaica Osorio. No`u Revilla. Bryan Kamaoli Kawarada for his essays that demand something of me—in my writing, in my living.
There are this generation’s forebearers, too: Mahealani Perez-Wendt, Haunani-Kay Trask, John Dominis Holt, to name a few. I just taught The True Story of Kaluaikoolau: As Told by his Wife, Piilani, which was first published in Hawaiian in 1906, before Jack London’s (frustrating) fictional story, and I felt so powerful reading Piilani’s memoir. Her story, and her claiming of her own story, is a gift to all indigenous writers, a reminder of our right to our own stories.
If you could host a dinner with your favorite authors, both alive today and from long in the past, who would be invited?
In college I was a Comparative Literature Major, and I focused on post-colonial French literature. (I hadn’t yet put together that Hawai`i is a colonial space.) I would have loved to have dined with Assia Djebar and Leïla Sebbar. I have questions for them about the writing life, how they blended their politics with their dedication to the craft of story, but I also wonder what it was like for them as women writing in that time, that space.
If I could have a dinner tomorrow night, I’d use it as an excuse to ask craft questions of the writers whose work is shaping how I think about my current novel project. Toni Morrison, Patricia Grace (a wonderful Maori writer), Amanda Coplin, T. Geronimo Johnson. Epeli Hau`ofa would be on that list, though he’s not living anymore. I’d invite some poets: Ross Gay, Donovan Kūhiō Colleps, Natalie Diaz. I think it’s important to have a few poets in any prose crowd because poets think about the line, and their work demands lyricism, and I want my work to please them on an aesthetic level. Also, I’d want us to eat poke—I’d make a tofu version for the vegans in the crowd—and fresh limu, and squid lūʻau. I imagine this group would like that.
Are there any hints you can give us on projects you are currently working on?
I’m working on a historical novel that follows a young woman raised in one of the 19th Century female seminaries on Maui, who meets a Japanese ditch-digger at work on the Ko`olau Ditch… The novel toggles between time periods, looking forward to the early 2000s, when the Ko`olau Ditch becomes the center of a lawsuit over water and indigenous rights. I’m always interested in how the past lives on in the present, and that’s one of the key curiosities driving this next project.
About the Author
KRISTIANA KAHAKAUWILA is a hapa writer of kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian), German and Norwegian extract. Her first book, This is Paradise: Stories, was published in 2013 by Hogarth, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and takes as its heart the people and landscapes of contemporary Hawai’i. Kahakauwila is currently at work on a historical novel about water rights set on the island of Maui. An associate professor of creative writing at Western Washington University, Kahakauwila earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and a BA in comparative literature from Princeton University, and was the 2015-16 Lisa Goldberg Fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study.