THIS IS PARADISE a powerful exploration of lives lived in the Hawai’i that tourists don’t see

This is Paradise cover art Kristiana Kahakauwila by Katty Wu

This Is Paradise: Stories

By Kristiana Kahakauwila

Hogarth Books, 2013

238 pages, $16.00

The cover photograph of Kristiana Kahakauwila’s This is Paradise depicts a miniature hula dancer on a car’s dashboard; through the dirty windshield we can see blurry headlights in a nighttime street scene. David W. Dellinger’s photo is the perfect visual for Kahakauwila’s stories about the real Hawaii: beyond the tourist images and fantasies of Hawai’i lies a real place, where island residents live and love, dream and die, and struggle desperately against economic, cultural, and ethnic forces beyond their control.

These six stories are suffused with a bittersweet sadness for what could have — or should have — been, for words unsaid, emotions unexpressed, and customs misunderstood. Kahakauwila is the daughter of a Hawaiian father and German-Norwegian (American) mother and grew up in Long Beach, California. She made frequent trips to Hawaii (mostly to Maui) to visit family and was thus occasionally immersed in the local culture, but she was essentially a Southern California girl. Her ethnic and cultural heritage positions her ideally to write about the two Hawai’is, the tourist version and the locals’ version, with both objectivity and sensitivity, as well as insight and compassion.

I’ve long been fascinated with people who simultaneously exist in two races, religions, or cultures or who alternate between them. The tension between the two, the expectations of others (whether family members or society generally), and the individual’s desire to have a unified identity are ripe with the type of conflict that can make for great stories and novels. So I was intrigued with the premise of This is Paradise and, having lived in Honolulu from age 10 to 12,  curious to see how Kahakauwila would address the issues of being hapa-haole (“how-lay”) and living in both California and Hawai’i.

Could a young writer, in her first collection of stories, manage the challenge of depicting and making sense of these tensions? At the same time, could she capture Hawai’i’s own divided identity as tourist paradise and home to a wildly diverse population? I needn’t have worried. Kahakauwila has written a stellar collection of stories in which she faces these issues head on without blinking.

The collection opens with the title story, which may well be the best summation of how Hawai’i is experienced differently by tourists and residents. Three groups of narrators — surfer girls, hotel housekeeping employees, upwardly mobile professional young women — tell the story in the first-person plural “we.” These characters are connected by their interactions with and jaded observations of one young female visitor. “The tourist girl is white. They’re all white to us unless they’re black. She has light brown hair, a pointed nose, eyebrows neatly plucked into a firm line. She wears a white bikini with red polka dots. Triangle-cut top, ruffled bottom. We shake our heads at her. Our ‘ehu hair, pulled into ponytails, bounces against our necks. Our bikinis are carefully cut pieces with cross-back straps and lean bottoms. We surf in these, sista. We don’t have time for ruffles and ruching. But she does, like every other tourist. Her blue-and-white hotel towel labels her for what she is…. So when we see her studying the warning [sign], chewing the right side of her lip, we laugh. Jus’ like da kine, scared of da water. Haoles, yeah.

The “tough girl” surfers are fascinated by this one young woman, for reasons that mystify them. Why should she stand out from all the other tourists? Is she somehow “marked”? That night they encounter her again in the Lava Lounge on the Waikiki strip: “[w]here else can we go for a strip of bars and clubs?” They eat, drink, and observe the typical mating dance. “She keeps glancing around the bar, sizing up the men and the plastic tiki decorations. The night’s possibilities widen her eyes. We want to make fun of her, but she possesses a certain girlishness that awakens our forgiveness. It’s not her fault she’s haole.”

Susan is there with her younger brother, who is trying to keep a watchful eye on her. The girls overhear her whispering to her brother. “Everyone talks about aloha here, but it’s like Hawaiians are all pissed off. They live in paradise. What is there to be mad at?”

“We look at each other, and we feel the heat rising in our faces. Our families are barely affording a life here, the land is being eaten away by developers, the old sugar companies still control water rights. Not only does paradise no longer belong to us, but we have to watch foreigners destroy it. We have plenty aloha for someone who appreciates. We have none for a girl like this.”

The night is long, stretching into the next morning, when the girls return to the beach for a sunrise surf session. There they are surprised to see Susan yet again, for the third time in 24 hours. But something has changed; something happened last night. Hawai’i was not what Susan expected it to be, dreamed of, longed for. It was much more, and much less.

As if the opening story were not powerful enough, Kahakauwila follows it with what might be the best story in This is Paradise. “Wanle” puts us inside the life of a young woman who is following in her deceased father’s footsteps as a legendary cockfighter. As with the tourist girl in the title story, Wanle bears the burden of her illusions. Unlike Susan, Wanle is unaware of the reality of her circumstances and of her father’s life. Kahakauwila depicts the lives of locals who live, work, and play well off the Waikiki strip and whose lives are unaffected by the omnipresent tourists. This 40-page story is both a coming of age story and a love story, and it serves as a perfect counterpoint to the title story. By the time I’d finished these two stories, I knew I was in the hands of a young master (“mistress”?).

“The Road to Hana” finds a young couple driving the notoriously long, narrow road on Maui, giving them plenty of time to talk. Cameron is the son of parents from Minnesota, but he was born and raised in Honolulu and considers himself a local. Becky is from Las Vegas, but her parents are Hawaiian and her powerful connection to the islands leads her to move there, where she meets haole Cameron. Is he haole (which also means “mainlander” or “foreigner”) or is he local, Hawaiian? What does it mean to be Hawaiian? Is Becky Hawaiian even though she grew up on the mainland? Are her parents and relatives, and their culture, enough to make Becky one of them? She looks Hawaiian, but Honolulu is not her home, as it is to Cameron. The road to Hana is as twisty, unpredictable, and dangerous to their relationship as it is to the inattentive driver.

“Thirty-Nine Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral Into a Drinking Game” was the first story Kahakauwila wrote, and it is clearly autobiographical (at least in part). Rule 8 states, “With your degree in English, your aunties expect you to deliver the most grammatically correct homage to your grandmother. Take this responsibility seriously. Your copyediting skills are all you have to offer your family. After all, you were not born on Kaua’i. You weren’t even born in Honolulu. No, you were raised a California girl, like your mother before you. She is haole. White. A foreigner. This makes you hapa haole. Half foreign…. You cannot hula or play the uke. You do not speak pidgin. You never add the right proportion of water to poi. But you can summarize your grandmother’s life in a five-paragraph essay, complete with thesis and topic sentences. And for this, you owe yourself a drink.”

How can a reader not love this woman? As a former English major who was under-employed for the first few years after college, I know the bittersweet feeling of being educated but not yet accomplished or respected by family members. Because, you know, you can’t actually do anything.

Kahakauwila reveals some of her family history in Rule 29. “Understand your dad was different from the outset. Hand him a beer. After all, to be a boy and to diverge; to watch football but not play it; to keep the books for your grandpa’s market instead of unloading the trucks; to leave the island for boarding school; to want to go to college on the mainland, with only one child to his name, and a girl at that, is to cease to want what men want. Your father is absent from your uncles’ stories not because he left, but because he was never of Kaua’i in the first place. Because he was in his own world. Because he is Hawaiian but no local.”

The last two stories in This is Paradise are actually, like the stories I’ve read recently by Molly Antopol and Alice Munro, compressed novels. “Portrait of a Good Father” and “The Old Paniolo Way” are the richest and most complex stories in the book. In 43 and 66 pages, respectively, Kahakauwila unfolds an entire world that could easily have been developed into a novel and yet seems complete as a long story.

“Portrait of a Good Father” is more accurately a portrait of a marriage, that between Keaka and Grace. Their son, John, arrives ten months before they are married. Daughter Sarah is born nine months after the wedding. They would appear to be a happy, even ideal young family. But tragedy intervenes, and Keaka and Grace respond in different ways. The result is their very own Kilauea volcano residing among the three of them. I hesitate to say more about this story, which is so layered in its character development and the narrative’s movement through time that I don’t want to spoil a single aspect of reading it.

“The Old Paniolo Way” tells the story of thirty-something siblings Pilipo (Pili) and Maile, whose father, Harrison, is slowly dying of cancer. Maile is the devoted daughter who has remained on her family’s Big Island ranch all her life, while Pili left for college on the mainland and settled in San Francisco, where he owns a very successful marketing business. In returning to the island, Pili returns to his painful past and has to decide whether, or how, to resolve some of these issues with his father. Should he burden his father in his final days just to free himself from the past and clear the slate for the future, or is that simply selfish? What will his future entail? Will he come home permanently to run the ranch with Maile? What does Maile want, from Pili and for herself? The hospice nurse, Albert, is ostensibly there to assist Harrison but he arguably provides more help to Harrison’s son and daughter.

Kristiana Kahakauwila has written a remarkable collection of stories that provide a great service to readers in showing the many sides of the real Hawai’i, the one in which Hawaiians live and tourists inhabit only briefly. This place and its people are far more intriguing than the version presented to the outside world by advertisers, marketers, and other promoters. I encourage you to spend some time in Kahakauwila’s Hawai’i.

Author photo by Katty Wu


Guest blogger Kristiana Kahakauwila on The Writer’s Family Tree: A Tribute to Joyce Carol Oates

kahakauwila   This is Paradise cover art

Win a SIGNED COPY of Kristiana’s brilliant short story collection, THIS IS PARADISE!

Simply comment below with the name of your mentor (or the writer you’d like to be mentored by) AND share the link to this essay on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, etc. and you’re entered. A winner will be randomly selected by number generator on Dec. 31. 

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Kristiana Kahakauwila is one of the brightest lights among young writers, one who is in my “5 Under 35” category (even if the National Book Foundation hasn’t chosen her as such yet). Her first book, 2013’s This is Paradise, is a compelling look into the lives of people who live in Hawai’i, the land of so many others’ dreams. She pulls back the curtain and shows us the real Hawai’i and real Hawaiians. Although her father was born and raised in the islands, her mother is Norwegian-American, and Kristiana was raised in Southern California (though she often visited family in Hawaii). She earned a BA in Comparative Literature at Princeton and an MFA from the University of Michigan. 

She has worked as a writer and editor for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado, and Highlights for Children magazines and taught English at Chaminade University in Honolulu. An assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University, Kristiana splits her time between Bellingham, Washington and Hawai`i.

This is Paradise was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Summer 2013 selection of the Discover Great New Writers program, as well as for the Target Emerging Author program. 

Recently I returned to Princeton University, my alma mater, to celebrate the retirement of Joyce Carol Oates, who was my creative writing instructor and undergraduate thesis advisor, and has remained a mentor. A collection of her former students, spanning more than two decades of teaching, spoke of Oates, her influence, and their own work. Walter Kirn, who wrote Up in the Air, detailed the oddity of seeing one’s fictional self represented by George Clooney; Jennifer Anne Kogler described the frenzied responses of her YA fandom; Pinckney Benedict debated the term “regional fiction” in his warm Appalachian drawl. Each writer had a completely different aesthetic and set of interests, yet we all had Oates— her teaching, her editorial sharpness, and her presence.

Several themes arose from this disparate group of writers. One, that Princeton was a socially awkward endeavor for all of us, and that as undergraduates we felt, in one way or another, outside of the social constructs of the university. And yet, this “outsiderness” influenced our writing, shaped our observational skills and ability to empathize, and made us more resilient to criticism. Too, we all owed a debt to the teacher we were honoring, for her early support of our work (and of us, as nascent humans) and her insistence on the two-fold goal of excellence and production. (The woman publishes a book-length project annually and still finds time to Tweet! She embodies productivity.)

The third theme of the event was that of lineage, of feeling—even in one’s outsider-ness—a part of something larger. To read Oates is to read her early mentors, which included the works of Faulkner, Thoreau, and Dickinson. More than that, to read Oates and be taught by Oates is also to read and be taught by her students. I was introduced to Benedict’s crystalline stories in Oates’s class, first read Jonathan Ames’s hilarious essays as I was graduating from college, and discovered, more recently, Julie Sarkissian’s fantastic plays with voice. In reading these authors I deepened my understanding of place, humor, irony, point of view, and other craft techniques, both those particular to these writers and those influenced by our teacher. After the retirement party, when I returned to my own classroom, I was reminded of how significantly Oates shaped my pedagogy and how my students, in years to come, will continue the growth of this writerly family tree.

I am fortunate to have studied directly with Oates, and I delight in the time I spent in her presence. But I am not bound only to her influence. In fact, I can take a cue from Oates, who had no direct contact with her models. We choose our mentors, and even if we can’t know them in person, we can know them through their work.

JCO Fest 11-7-14Former writing students of Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton pay tribute to her guidance and inspiration at her retirement in November 2014. L-R: Christopher Beha, Walter Kirn, Oates, Kristiana Kahakauwila, Pinckney Benedict and Jonathan Ames. Photo courtesy of Kristiana Kahakauwila

I have, for many years, adored the writing of Michael Ondaatje. I’ve never met him, and can’t imagine I will, but he has become a mentor of sorts. When my prose lags or becomes too dry, I turn to his and read a few pages to remember what lyricism and poetry can sound like in fiction, and what narrative can do in poetry. I recently learned that Ondaatje studied under John Berger, so I’ve decided to read Berger. A new project for the new year! Similarly, when I discovered a conversation between Colum McCann and Ondaatje (in conjunction with the PEN World Voices festival in 2008), I set upon reading McCann. No surprise, I found his novels to be lyric, imagistic, transportive, and otherworldly– just as I find Ondaatje’s.

The choreographer Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit, calls this method of studying along lines of lineage or influence “scratching.” In one of the many excellent exercises in her book, she encourages artists to “read archeologically.” By reading backwards in time, moving from a contemporary work to a text that predates it (sometimes via the author’s direct mentors but also around the author’s themes, style, obsessions, and sources) a reader can travel alongside the writer. We can glimpse the evolution of what will become the artist’s style, genre, philosophy or other artistic hallmark, and if we read back far enough, we often find an idea in its embryonic, unadulterated form. Then, if we dare, we might borrow that idea, attend to it, and make it our own.

What I love about Tharp’s exercise is the reminder that we can place ourselves inside any artistic lineage we please. We do not have to be born into a lineage, nor do we have to luck into a classroom led by a master. Instead, we choose a writer we love, we read their work, and then we look to who inspired them, and whom they inspired. We read our way into that lineage, and by reading deeply, with engagement and breathless wonder, with admiration and a critical eye, by focusing on craft as much as we do the tidal shifts of our own emotional response, we teach ourselves how to write like those we love.

A Conversation with Mary Vensel White on THE QUALITIES OF WOOD

Mary Vensel White  tlc tour host

See my review of The Qualities of Wood here. And be sure to enter to win a copy of The Qualities of Wood (details in the review).

The Qualities of Wood is your first novel, but if you’re anything like most writers, it’s not the first book you’ve written. Can you tell me about your writing background leading up to this book?

I started out as many writers do, I suppose, with a diary or notebook. But when I think about what influenced my writing from early on, I always think of reading. Yesterday, I saw a quote by Sandra Cisneros, who claims she became a writer not because she went to school but because her mother took her to the library. I’d have to claim the same: my journey to writing started with lots of books, and the library, and a mother who read. And you’re right, TQOW is the second novel I completed. The first is called Sissy Longlegs and it’s about a young woman who tracks down her biological mother, thereby altering the path of the three women involved—the girl and both of her moms. I still think it’s pretty good, actually, and maybe one day I’ll do something with it. I had no formal writing training, although my degrees were in English so there was lots of reading and literature analysis.

Most readers aren’t familiar with your publisher, Authonomy, which is a new venture of HarperCollins. How did you come to be published by Authonomy? 

I came to in 2010, I think, and posted part of my novel for critique and feedback from other writers. The site offers a review by a HarperCollins editor for the five most supported books each month. By March of 2011 I had received my review, which was quite positive. Up to that point, few books had been published by HC as a result of being “discovered” on the site. I realized that, but still thought it would be helpful to have a professional opinion. Plus, the collateral benefits of participating in the site were great—meeting other writers, giving and getting advice on writing, etc. I actually had an offer from a small press for the book around the time I got my review from HC. Shortly after the review, I was contacted by Scott Pack, who had just taken over the Authonomy site and coincidentally, was the editor who initially reviewed my novel. They were planning to start a digital-first imprint, he said, and wanted my book to be the first. They hoped to publish 10-12 titles a year and from those, take a few to print based on performance. And so, mine has eventually become one of the digital editions that will now be in book form too.

What was unique about the experience of being an Authonomy author?

After all this time, I would have to say that the very best part of being published via Authonomy is the network of friends and support I’ve gained through the process. Writing is such an isolated vocation and it’s been great to share the pitfalls and triumphs within the community. I’ve made some good business connections and some great friends through Authonomy. And I truly believe that participating in the site by critiquing and ingesting the critiques offered to me really improved my editing process and enriched my perspective in many ways.

What inspired the characters and plot of The Qualities of Wood?

When I wrote the book, my husband and I had just moved to Chicago. It was my first experience living in a big city and I started thinking about the ways setting can influence people, especially an urban surround vs. countryside. Would people behave the same in both? Would they be more in touch with their natural, or animal side, when surrounded by the natural world? Really, the first inspiration for the book was the thought of Vivian’s airplane touching down amidst that unfettered green, the expanse that would possibly cause her to look beyond her previous, day-to-day hassled existence in the city. As for the plot, I was very interested in playing around with the notion of genre, of writing a mystery that wasn’t really a traditional mystery, but more the story of the greatest mystery of all: the human condition. In the same way that things perhaps aren’t what they seem for Vivian, they wouldn’t be for the reader either. That was my goal.

I enjoyed the complicated nature of Vivian and Nowell’s four-year-old marriage. They are close, but often struggle to communicate and experience many misunderstandings. Vivian has too much time on her hands and not enough occupying her mind since she’s not working. Nowell is prickly, secretive, and defensive, which makes him a more complex creation and also inherently suspect in the mysterious goings-on. I’m interested to know how this relationship developed in your imagination and during the writing of the book.

I was pretty newly married at the time, and thinking about the break that occurs between childhood and adulthood. At some point, we try to figure out our childhoods and move forward and yet, most of our relationships seem to relate, one to the other. Marriage is a big step that can really force this break, as we join or really, create a new family and leave behind the old one. I wonder, sometimes, about perception and whether any person can truly understand another. The brief separation and move from city to country disrupted Vivian and Nowell’s marriage and made them see each other in a new light. This is an endless process in relationships, I think, but maybe the first big shift for them.

I was impressed by how quickly you established a sense of foreboding and how consistently you were able to maintain it. You had me figuratively crossing my arms and examining the motives, body language, and behavior of every character (even Katharine!). Early on, I was wondering whether the residents of the town were going to turn out to be straight out of Twin Peaks or just regular ol’ people from a small town. (For the record, I live in a town of 15,000 about 20 miles outside of Bakersfield.) How do you go about creating that feeling and mindset in the reader? What’s the key to establishing and controlling tone, which is so crucial in a book of this kind?

There’s something about small towns that make them desirable locales for fiction. I am no stranger to Bakersfield because I grew up in Lancaster, which had a population of 37,000 in the 70s before the aerospace boom propelled it towards its current numbers. But it definitely felt like a small town when I was growing up. The Antelope Valley Fair was the biggest event of the year; we had one movie theater and no shopping malls. In TQOW, the small town setting helped in terms of controlling the tone of the story. Vivian feels somewhat cut off from things, with only so many sources of stimulation coming her way. Writing the story from her perspective was key, too. Because she is suspicious and becomes increasingly agitated, the reader feels that way.

I loved the use of the woods behind the Gardiners’ house. They act as a buffer between their property and the land of the laconic and seemingly threatening Mr. Stokes. Chanelle Brodie’s body is found there, which is central to the story because it sets the plot in motion. And, of course, we can’t ignore the powerful symbol of the woods in stories like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” Can you describe the meaning of the woods and what you had in mind in making this location so crucial to the novel?

Again, it comes back to setting for me. It was the primary impetus for the book and I wanted the surroundings to be almost like a character within the story. The woods symbolized a literal break from Vivian’s existence within the house and the grass-covered land surrounding it. A different setting, a different world, a place where maybe people behave differently. A place where the natural world is difficult to ignore because it looms overhead and presses up against you. Growing up in the desert as I did, it was easy to build this wooded, leaf-filled land into something larger-than-life, to imagine it as somewhat idyllic yet dangerous too.

Are you considering setting a novel or story in Orange County, for instance, in Newport Beach or Laguna Beach? I’m surprised that more novels aren’t set in these distinctive locales, with their unique sub-cultures and strong sense of place.

Actually, I just finished a collection of stories set in southern California. The setting has to meld with the project and for this one, southern California’s unique structure, with its patchwork quilt of cities connected by freeways, seemed a perfect complement to the stories, which are about the unlikely connections between people and how archetypal stories can be upended in a modern setting. Some of the characters live in LA County and some in Orange County; I know people like to think these two are so distinct and separate and yet one bleeds into the other in cities like Anaheim, Huntington Beach, Cerritos. And I think there may be more stories set in California than you think!

What books and/or authors have inspired you, both as a reader and a writer?

See Mary Vensel White’s guest blog post about the book that changed her life.

The writers who cause me a shiver of excitement with the release of a new book (or new translation): Per Petterson, Kent Haruf, Marilynne Robinson. These three could write about toast and I would be enthralled, probably. My favorite books include Anna Karenina, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and as you know, Lolita. Biggest influence on the writing of TQOW: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Book that would have most influenced TQOW, had I read it before writing: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. And three books I read recently and highly recommend, all story collections (read more short stories!!!): This Close by Jessica Francis Kane, This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila and Burning Bright by Ron Rash.