|Kristiana Kahakauwila, photo by Katty Wu|
Kristiana Kahakauwila is the author of the story collection This Is Paradise. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University, and she lives in Bellingham, Washington, and in Hawaii.
Q: Why did you select This Is Paradise for the title of your story collection?
A: The title of my collection came from one of the stories. In the story “This is Paradise” a young tourist woman, Susan, is observed by three groups of women-- local surfer girls, Micronesian hotel workers, and Hawaiian career women.
When, just before the story’s climax, Susan proclaims that this is paradise-- the clubs in Waikiki, the city streets, the beaches that local surfers find dull-- the reader understands that the notion of paradise, and of Hawai'i, is complicated.
The stories that follow, which include “Wanle,” about a young woman who inherits her father’s legacy in the cockfighting world, and “The Road to Hana,” where a pair of lovers discover, on a visit to Maui, that their relationship is not what they thought, all contribute to the remaking of the idea of paradise.
Q: What are the most common images of Hawaii, and how realistic are they?
A: I don’t want to negate the idea of the beauty of the islands. In so many ways Hawai'i is a paradise, with its lush mountains and ocean life, but it’s also a place where real people live and work and struggle to survive.
Another part of this paradise myth is that Hawai'i is a land where beauty is for sale. Think of the image of the hula girl, her skin lightly tanned, her waist whittled, her breasts plump.
This image sexualizes Hawai'i, and its women, and one of its most sacred forms of storytelling (the hula), all in the name of commercialization.
I have a moment in “This is Paradise” that reflects upon this stereotypical hula girl image, but I also have moments in the other stories where Hawaiian families enjoy watching a child or tutu (grandma) dance and share the art. I wanted to contrast the stereotype against what’s real for me.
Other images of Hawai'i might include palm trees, beaches, and surfboards. I’m always worried when a place is seen through only a few images. Hawai'i isn’t all beaches and surfing.
For me, it’s about family, friends, talking story, gathering together to eat some really good smoked boar or fresh fish, sharing time together... and surfing. So, in the book, I wanted to offer that sense of fullness, how Hawai'i might start with some of these images, but it’s so much more.
Q: Which writers have particularly inspired you?
A: I read a lot of Hawaiian writers and history, and certainly this history peeks out at the edges of my stories. Queen Liliuokalani’s Hawai'i’s Story by Hawai'i’s Queen is very moving to me, and I love Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth-Century Hawai'i by Isaiah Walker, both of which are nonfiction.
Fiction writers I turn to include Amy Hempel, whose minimalist style inspired “The Road to Hana,” and Alice Munro, who is a master of creating deep, thoughtful characters and whose storytelling influenced “The Old Paniolo Way.”
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Now, after reading all that history, I’m working on a historical novel. The backdrop is a real water rights lawsuit on the island of Maui. But the heart of the story is a fictional Hawaiian family whose adult children must come to terms with the secrets of their childhood.
I’m always thinking of inheritance and legacy, what we carry from our parents and grandparents and ancestors. So this current project is a way for me to imagine that coming into the present time.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb