A conversation with Kristiana Kahakauwila about THIS IS PARADISE

Kristiana Kahakauwila - photo by Brandon Ng

I’m undermining the idea of the scrubbed-up Disneyland of Waikiki and, in the stories that follow that first one, I believe I’m offering Hawai`i as complex, beautiful in that complexity.

Kristiana Kahakauwila published her first book, a collection of stories, in the summer of 2013, to positive reviews. She grew up in Long Beach, California and went on to earn a BA in Comparative Literature at Princeton and an MFA at Michigan, before teaching at Chaminade University in Honolulu. She is currently an assistant professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Her website can be found at http://www.kristianakahakauwila.com/.

1. Some of your stories involve the idea of being hapa-haole. It’s not just the ethnic aspect of your heritage (your father being Hawaiian and your mother being white/German-Norwegian), but that you basically grew up as a mainlander in Southern California, with brief stays in Maui. Having lived in those two places myself (and in the same general proportion of time), I can attest to how completely different the cultures are. You must have felt like both an insider and an outsider at the same time.

I’m fortunate that my parents are invested in each other in every way– in each others’ families, in their cultures, in their preferences for things like rice for breakfast (my dad) and lefse for all occasions (my mom). In other words, I didn’t feel divided or pulled in any way by my parents or by my extended family. That said, I spent a lot of years off island when I was living on the East Coast, and moving to Hawai`i in 2008 was definitely an effort to discover the islands for myself, to find a life as a Hawaiian and as a local. I felt an outsider in many ways– mostly because I had been away for so long– but my family has always made me a part of the`ohana. I’m fortunate that my relatives in Hawai`i and on the Continent have supported me, and my coming into a fuller understanding of my Hawaiianness has been because of their love and openness and honesty.

2. At what point did you sense the contrast between the Hawaii as viewed (or imagined) by tourists and the real Hawaii, where regular people live, love, go to work, raise families, etc.? What were your initial impressions in this regard?

When I was a child, my schoolmates would come back from Hawai`i and have all these stories about learning to surf and hiking Haleakala and going to museums, and I’d be like, cool, I watched cartoons with my cousins. That contrast between the tourist’s Hawai`i and the local’s Hawai`i started early. But when I lived in Waikiki the differences became more stark, as I saw how Hawai`i was marketed and sold to the Continental United States, and abroad. A lot of people write about this more directly than me– Jane Desmond, Lani Teves, to name a few. I’m using their ideas and riffing on them in my title story. I’m undermining the idea of the scrubbed-up Disneyland of Waikiki and, in the stories that follow that first one, I believe I’m offering Hawai`i as complex, beautiful in that complexity. My cover suggests this, too. The dashboard hula girl is backlit, set in relief, thrown into question. As contrast to that, in real life I sometimes see an auntie in her mu`umu`u doing her grocery shopping and I think, now, there’s a beautiful icon of the islands.

3. When did you realize you had found your style, your voice, and your distinctive insight into Hawaiian people and their lives?

I found my voice with the first story I wrote for the collection. I had written for years prior to producing the stories in THIS IS PARADISE. I wrote a collection of stories for my undergraduate thesis at Princeton. I wrote a novel draft for my graduate thesis at University of Michigan. Those were great “practice books” but I knew they didn’t have the urgency that they needed.

When I wrote the first draft of “Thirty-Nine Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral into a Drinking Game,” I found “it”: the humor, the anger, the sadness, the hope. The whole canoe. I’ve said in other interviews that I felt I was writing from a precipice. I wrote at the edge of understanding myself, my relationship with Hawai`i, my relationship with history and with the present moment on the islands. I wrote all of my stories from that same place. I find that place terrifying– to be that honest, to look so acutely– but I also find it thrilling. Just like peering over the edge of a cliff.

4. How did you manage to get the pidgin English dialect of the locals so perfect? It brought back very powerfully the melodic speech I used to hear every day. Clearly you didn’t grow up in California speaking this way.

When I was a child, I spoke both Academic English and pidgin. My parents and I would be on Maui and I’d speak pidgin and then we’d come back to California and it would take me a few weeks to adjust back. By the time I was ten or so, though, I wasn’t able to make those switches anymore, and I lost the pidgin. When I moved back to Hawai`i as an adult, I picked up some of the pidgin cadences again, enough to draft the dialogue. And then I asked my dad to “fact-check” all of it. He speaks pidgin. It gets thicker when he’s on island, of course, but he can turn it on when he wants.

Kristiana Kahakauwila by Allison Wagner

5. The title story, which opens the collection, strikes me as the definitive story of modern Hawaii. It covers so many kinds of people and aspects of life in Honolulu and yet it is done in such a concise and compelling fashion. It almost seems like it’s putting the myth of tourist Hawaii to rest. What was your objective with the title story? Did you always have the multiple narratives in mind? What about the coming together of the various groups of characters at the end?

I’m fascinated with the first person plural, the “we” voice. The tension between an individual and a group, between the individual who wants to belong and also must separate, strikes me as particularly true to the familial and communal experience of the islands. I then added another element and created a series first person plural, with these rotating “we” voices. I always had these three narratives in mind, these three perspectives triangulating this single, young tourist woman. I wanted to see the central character– Susan– in as many ways as possible, to give her a complex study and opportunity to rise above that initial impression of her as “just” a tourist. She’s more than that. She’s all these women. She’s what forces them to look at themselves, to question what connects them to others, and in the end I think the story comes to place where the women are connected by their womanhood, and that transcends their self-selected grouping.

6. I love “Wanle” for the strong sense of character, place, and subject matter. Cockfighting seems so Hawaiian to me. Yet the theme of a young woman who idolizes her father (and wants to follow in his footsteps) but eventually has to face up to the fact that he was not the man she thought he was is so universal. What spoke to you first in creating this story, the subject matter and setting or the universal theme?

For Wanle, I heard her voice first. I wrote that opening and then I just sat on that story for months, hatched it, so to speak. I let her powerful first person voice lead me, and I just followed. I feel that’s a rare moment as a writer, to have a character be so powerful that you have the sense that you’re merely recording her story, that the story exists outside of you. That said, I was thinking about legacy, about fathers and daughters, about language, and about a pan-Native experience when I was writing the story. So my own concerns did come into play in the story, but Wanle remains this incredible woman to me.

7. The response to This is Paradise was very positive, as far as I can tell. What pleased you most about its reception and what, if anything, surprised you?

I’ve been fortunate to see the stories received in a really universal way. I’ve had readers from all over the country come up to me and say that “39 Rules” was exactly like their family. I’ve had others say that they abhor cockfighting, wanted nothing to do with it, even to read it– and then they found themselves feeling protective of Wanle, found themselves loving her. I’ve most enjoyed my connection with readers, hearing their responses, hearing them love these characters as much as I do. … Oh, and seeing my name in Elle magazine was super cool. I’ve subscribed to Elle for years!

8. What is your working and writing routine? Do you have a certain place where you write? Does living in Bellingham, Washington give you the kind of distance to see Hawaii and your characters more clearly?

Being on the mainland does give me a kind of needed distance. When I’m on island I do research and I can write historical fiction about Hawai`i. But when I’m there, I’m in it. I’m with my family. I’m cruising with my friends. I don’t process that until I take a step away from the place, and then I can write Hawai`i with a greater clarity. I love the land, the water, the culture, the people. I need distance to create more objectivity.

9. With your last name, appearance, and the subject matter of your first book, I assume that people generally view you as “Hawaiian” and have certain expectations in that regard. But, as you said in one interview, your Norse blood runs strong, too. What surprises people about you that runs counter to their stereotypes?

People are typically surprised that I am part Norwegian. They also tend to be surprised that I was a volunteer firefighter for awhile. I’m quite petite. The idea of my hauling around ladders and chainsaws is always good for a laugh.

I try to be really open about the fact that I’m hapa, mixed Hawaiian and German and Norwegian. I also want to be clear from the start that I was born and raised in California. It’s important that I not claim anything I’m not. That said, I think that by straddling cultures and place and ethnicity and race– in other words, by being hapa in every sense– I am able to write Hawai`i with both intimacy and distance, with subjectivity and objectivity, with a deep passionate defensive love and a remove that allows for critical analysis.

Kahakauwila Paradise

10. What books about Hawaii (whether fiction, history, or cultural analysis) have you found most informative for your work or simply enjoyable to read?

Where to start? I love Queen Lili`uokalani’s memoirs. Haunani-Kay Trask’s From a Native Daughter was formative. Lois-Ann Yamanaka is challenging but fulfilling reading. I read and re-read Brandy Nalani McDougall’s book of poetry, The Salt-Wind. I also look to other Oceanic writers, especially Epeli Hau`ofa, Sia Figiel, Patricia Grace, and Robert Barclay.

11. Author appearances are more popular than ever. How do you make a reading or other presentation interesting for both the audience and yourself? What are your goals at such events?

I want my appearances to be genuine. I want to talk to readers, and I want them to talk to me. I’m fortunate that I’m an extrovert, so I get energized by being with people, and then to be with people who have read and loved my work is just mind blowing. I’m totally excited and grateful and in the moment of it all. I try to read passages that feel new to me– sometimes I haven’t read them for awhile, and sometimes I’m having a new emotional reaction to them. Other times, if asked, I don’t read but give a talk, and then I want the talk to connect to the place or people to whom I’m speaking. I want everything to feel fresh– to the audience and to myself.

12. Which writers have inspired and influenced you? Why/how? Favorite books?

Michael Ondaatje’s lyricism is a huge influence. I keep his books in my nightstand. I read a lot of poetry, and W.S. Merwin’s The Folding Cliffs and The Shadow of Sirius are endlessly inspirational for their beauty of language and representation of the islands. Alice Munro, Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, Junot Diaz. I love good story-telling and boldness. I don’t want an author to apologize; I want them to do and go where no one else dares.


One comment

  1. I’m reading ‘This is Paradise’. Loving it. I grew up on an island on the west coast of Canada and did a lot of leaving and coming back. Relating to so much in your stories. Thank you.


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