In a stunning collection that announces the arrival of an incredible talent, Kristiana Kahakauwila travels the islands of Hawai'i, making the fabled place her own. Exploring the deep tensions between local and tourist, tradition and expectation, façade and authentic self, This Is Paradise provides an unforgettable portrait of life as it’s truly being lived on Maui, Oahu, Kaua'i and the Big Island.
In the gut-punch of “Wanle,” a beautiful and tough young woman wants nothing more than to follow in her father’s footsteps as a legendary cockfighter. With striking versatility, the title story employs a chorus of voices—the women of Waikiki—to tell the tale of a young tourist drawn to the darker side of the city’s nightlife. “The Old Paniolo Way” limns the difficult nature of legacy and inheritance when a patriarch tries to settle the affairs of his farm before his death.
Exquisitely written and bursting with sharply observed detail, Kahakauwila’s stories remind us of the powerful desire to belong, to put down roots, and to have a place to call home.
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This Is Paradise
Midmorning the lifeguards fan across the beach and push signposts into the sand. The same picture is on all of them: a stick figure, its arms aloft, its circle head drowning in a set of triangle waves. CAUTION, the signs read. DANGEROUS UNDERTOW.
We ignore it. We've gone out at Makaha and Makapu'u before. We've felt Yokes pull us under. We are not afraid of the beaches and breaks here in Waikiki. We are careless, in fact, brazen. So when we see her studying the warning, chewing the right side of her lip, we laugh. Jus' like da kine, scared of da water. Haoles, yeah.
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-striped hotel towel labels her for what she is.
So why do we look at her as we pass? Why do we notice her out of the hundreds of others? Do we already know she's marked, special in some way?
At the high tide line Cora Jones and Kaila Ka'awa pull on rashguards to protect against the trade winds, which are wailing this morning. The rest of us pretend we don't have chicken skin. We strap our leashes to our ankles, careful to piece the Velcro together, and then we jump on our boards and feel them skim across the surface of the water. Arching our backs, our hips pressed into hard fiberglass, we dig the water with our hands. We raise one foot for balance, and because we know we are silhouetted against the horizon, we hold our heads high, we point our toes. Our bodies curve upward, like smiles, beckoning those on shore to follow.
When we look back, the tourist girl is approaching the ocean's edge. She walks into the water, the small waves lapping at her feet, ankles, knees, chest. We see her dip her shoulders into the whitewash. We don't tell her to stay away from the retaining wall in front of Baby Queens or that today the current is moving from 'Ewa to Diamond Head. We paddle, and in a moment, we've left her behind.
Only local folks leave us money, placing it on top of the television in an envelope with the word "Housekeeping" printed across the front. We split the cash, tucking it into our shoes where management won't look for it.
We, the women of Housekeeping, get left other things, too, but by accident. The Japanese leave behind useful items: tubes of sunscreen, beach floaties, snorkel gear, unopened boxes of cereal, half-filled bottles of American whiskey, brand-new packets of travel tissues decorated with Choco-Cat and Hello Kitty, which our youngest girls love. The tissues we take. Even when management checks the pockets of our uniforms, they never think to confiscate packets of tissues. We don't get in trouble for bringing those home. The rest we throw into trash bags or hide on the bottom shelf of our carts to leave at the loading dock for night security. Management doesn't check their pockets.
What mainland Americans leave behind makes us blush: used condoms under the bed, a turquoise bra with thick cups like soup bowls, pornographic magazines. We find a single blue sandal, a hairbrush tangled with yellow hair, a vibrating toothbrush, a stuffed bear with a missing arm and glass eyes. Such intimate pieces to forget.
Today we have been cleaning rooms for five hours, since six in the morning. Tucking the bottom sheets at least eight times, disinfecting the sinks and bathtubs, vacuuming the dark brown carpets. We have cleaned twelve rooms and have eight more to go. We pause in the hallway. We don't have time to rest, but we do anyway, just for a moment. The door to room 254 is open, and we watch a young woman tie a white wrap around her waist. Her polka-dot bathing suit is damp and turns the white fabric sheer, the red dots shining through like mosquito bites. She catches us watching her. "You don't need to replace the towels," she says, smiling. "Conserve water." Her teeth are coins, flat and shiny. We want to tell her to wear a thicker skirt, but it's not our place to speak to guests.
A young man appears from behind the wall and walks around the foot of the bed: "I already left mine on the floor."
The girl rolls her eyes. "Then pick it up," she scolds. She turns to give us an exasperated smile, and we are reminded of our eldest daughters: impatient with nonsense, bossing their brothers, keeping the house. This girl, like our girls, is the type a mother can depend on to do things: drive Grandmother to a doctor's appointment, cook breakfast for Papa, dress and feed the babies before school. We smile back at her. We feel as if we can trust her.
The young man finally emerges from the bedroom--shoelaces untied, hat pulled low over his eyes--and she smacks him lightly on the arm. "You take longer than a girl," she says. She laughs, a light, tinkling giggle. He laughs. They look at us, so we laugh. At the end of the hall, she turns and waves at us. We nod, small smiles tightening our lips, and then we enter the room to make the beds.
We think of her for the rest of our shift, chuckling at her bossiness and cheer. When we return our carts, the manager doesn't bother to check our pockets, which makes this a good day, and we decide the American girl has brought us luck.
The hotel is strict about a great number of our activities. They have rules on how to store the carts, what time to punch in, what time to punch out, how to answer the phone (always start with "Aloha"), how to arrange the pillows on the bed, how to report suspicious activity. The last rule was created to fight terrorism, though we wonder what kind of terrorists would stay in Waikiki. In fact, we don't entirely understand this rule or trust it. It seems designed only to make trouble for us. We've heard stories, after all, stories about workers like us who tried to obey the rule. Stories like the one about Janora Cabrera, who saw a man pressing a woman against a wall and reaching up her skirt on the penthouse floor. Janora told her shift manager about what she had seen. The shift manager reported it to the night auditor, who deferred to the daytime manager. Together, they reprimanded Janora. "You are only to report suspicious behavior," they told her. "You are not to involve yourself with our guests' lives."
Our shift ends at two in the afternoon, and we exit the hotel from the basement, a hot tunnel that smells of dryer sheets. This is where the housekeeping office is located and where we are kept, tucked away from the visitors who wander in and out of the front lobby. From here we cannot hear their sandals clap against the polished marble floors nor see their eyes widen as they first glimpse the Pacific through the glass windows of the lanai. We exit onto a sidewalk spotted with old gum stains and the faint red splatter of a spilled shave ice.
At the bus stop, waiting to go home, we laugh with one another. We talk of our husbands and our children. How fast they grow, our little ones, how quickly they move through school, through friends, through clothes. Already the youngest speak more English than we do, and the eldest make plans to go to college. We're proud of them, scared for them. We want them to go. We want them to stay in the house to help us. We even want, in some small part of our hearts, to send them back home to Pohnpei or Yap or Kosrae so they can really learn what it means to be one of us. Already they are American.
On the ride home, our shoulders ache and our shoes feel tight around our swollen feet. We close our eyes and let the bus's air-conditioning wash over us like a wave.
We tap the gas pedal, then hit the brakes again. Our cars lurch to a stop. Our heels and briefcases slide across the passenger seat, and one shoe drops to the floor with a hollow thunk. As successful career women we left work feeling powerful, but the traffic at Kapi'olani and Kalakaua has ended that. We might be the ones chosen to mold our islands' future, but we're stuck like everyone else, our cars moving at the speed of poi.
We stare into the four-story convention center, its glass walls lending the impression of a squared fishbowl. A dental convention is in town, and we watch as a cluster of attendees crowd the escalator. On the ground floor they shake hands and exchange business cards. One of them reaches into his plastic goody-bag to show off a collection of maps, pamphlets, and lastly some travel toothbrushes, which causes riotous laughter among the group. We are not privy to the joke, but our mouths are sticky from nine hours at the office. We could use those toothbrushes right now.
We could also use massages and an end to this traffic. Esther Lu could use a glass of wine, which she would sip on the couch when she finally reaches her condo. Laura Tavares would like two hours of television, preferably the Food Channel. The rest of us want a personal chef. Lacking one, we'll probably call our parents and see what they're having for dinner, which we do on more evenings than we'd care to admit. One more benefit of returning home to the islands.
Despite our tendency toward culinary laziness, our exhaustion is not allowed to overtake us this evening. Tonight, we're celebrating. Laura just submitted her proposal for a LEED-certified resort on Maui, and we hear her firm will win the bid; Kiana Naone was promoted to Politics Editor at the Honolulu Advertiser; and Esther will take the lead on a high-profile murder case that all but promises her making partner in a year. After years of part-time jobs and student loans and late nights with a desk lamp's yellow light on our books, we've made it. Or are making it. Or are close to saying we will make it.
It doesn't hurt that we're from here. We are considered by our peers to be local women who've done well, left but come back, dedicated their education and mainland skills to putting this island right. We speak at civic club gatherings and native rights events. We are becoming pillars of the island community. We are growing into who we've always dreamt of being. But sometimes, late at night and alone beneath the hand-stitched Hawaiian quilts we can finally afford to purchase, we wish we had followed our law and grad school boyfriends to D.C. or Chicago. We could have foregone being pillars. We could have been regular women.
Meeting room doors are flung open and dentists stream from the fishbowl. The day's activities at the convention center are ended. The dentists cross the Ala Wai Canal, swarm the bridge on Kalakaua Avenue, and the traffic stands completely still as our cars are consumed by a mass of people armed with travel toothbrushes. Some jackass honks his horn like it's going to move the herd. The dentists all look so similar, with their neatly cut hair, ruler-straight teeth, and habit of striding with purpose, as if their assistance is urgently needed elsewhere. We can't help but wonder which of them are single.
In this moment of exit, their spirits high from presentations on the latest anesthetic or whitening solution, the dentists forget where they are. Hawai'i has less tropical flavor than they recall from the morning, less exoticism, less beauty. Waikiki has become like any other city strip. We'd like to tell them that Waikiki is nothing more than a succession of Hyatts and Courtyard by Marriotts, Cheesecake Factories and Planet Hollywoods, Senor Frogs and dingy Irish pubs with names like Murphy's and Callahan's. We'd like to tell them the real Hawai'i is elsewhere, hidden in the karaoke bars on King Street and on Waimanalo's ranch lands, in the view of the Mokes from Pillboxes and along the beach by Dillingham Air Strip, the portion of North Shore where only locals camp. We could tell them, but we say nothing.
Our cars inch forward. We stare out the windows, bored. A woman in a polka-dot bikini and pareo is shopping in one of the ABC convenience stores. Why do women from the Continent think they should shop in their bikinis? She buys two bags of Kona coffee, four boxes of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, a string of cheap Pacific pearls, and a stack of postcards featuring various beaches all bathed in the reddish light of the same sunset. Her brother--same ski-jump nose, same narrowly set eyes--holds up a T-shirt, pointing proudly to the central image: a hula girl wearing a coconut bra, grass skirt, and lei. The hula girl's skin is fair, haole skin, and we're not sure if this makes the image better or worse.
The light changes. Our cars inch forward again. We return our gaze to the dentists, whose spouses are waiting for them in front of numerous hotel lobbies. The spouses are tired and hungry and pink as boiled shrimp from their day at the beach. The kids--all ages--are bored or playing video games or asking when they can next swim in the hotel pool. We pretend that, if on vacation ourselves, we would act differently--hike Koko Head, attend a bon dance, visit the Palace and learn about the Hawaiian monarchy--but deep down, we know we'd do the same as they: venture no farther than the nearest Starbucks.
In front of Denny's, one of the kids whines, "I wanted Mickey-ear pancakes," and the mother says to her husband, "Next year, Florida." We want to tell the boy we understand: Hawai'i lacks a Toon Town and roller coasters. And outside of Waikiki, the native dress seems suspiciously similar to what's on sale at Macy's. Hawai'i is no fantasyland.
Men fill the Lava Lounge the way sand fills a tidepool: at the edge of the rock walls and then creeping toward the center. A game is on--at the Lava Lounge, a game is always on--and a spontaneous moan issues from the bar. The men's faces tilt upward, in the direction of the big-screen TVs mounted above the top-shelf liquor, and their arms are crossed in such a way that their beer rests in the crooks of their left elbows. They speak to each other out of the corners of their mouths, analyzing plays and players and, maybe once, a woman who crosses their field of vision. They are not immune to us, but they aren't ready to pursue us yet either. In the meantime, we order dinner and describe the waves we caught this morning.
Reading Group Guide
1. “This Is Paradise”:
In the story “This Is Paradise,” Kristiana Kahakauwila employs the first-person plural point of view (the “we”) and then shifts that “we” among three groups of women: young surfers, career women, and Polynesian hotel workers. Why might the author choose to tell this story from a plural point of view? Why might she offer the perspective of more than one group?
2. Two main themes in this story are blame and the acceptance of responsibility. Who do you blame most for the tragedy that occurs? Do you feel each woman, or group of women, accepts enough blame? Do any need to accept a greater weight of responsibility?
Wanle’s relationship with her birds might be seen as one of a mother with children. She not only feeds and cares for them, she hums to them, speaks to them, and loves them. Yet, she also presses them into violence. How does the story build sympathy for a character who engages in this kind of violence?
4. When Wanle learns the truth about her father, she still goes through with the fight with Mr. Oh. Why do you think she does this? Have you ever felt compelled to follow through with something even when the conditions of the situation changed?
5. Discuss how Wanle’s relationship with language evolves over the course of the story. Why does Wanle think so much about language?
6. “The Road to Hana”:
In “The Road to Hana,” Cameron has grown up on the islands but isn’t kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian). Becky is kanaka maoli, but has grown up in the continental United States. What difficulties have each of these characters faced by growing up in a culture that doesn’t always accept them? How has their upbringing influenced their perspective of the islands?
7. Why does the tension between Cameron and Becky become focused on the dog? Could another incident—a flat tire, a car accident, a cat, etc.—have had the same effect?
8. “Thirty-Nine Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral into a Drinking Game”:
This story is written in the second-person point of view (the “you”). Why might the author use “you” instead of “I” or “she”?
9. In Rule 38, the narrator says, “You have one more name, another branch of family to whom you belong. One more from which you can’t escape.” How does the story examine the tension between familial belonging and pressure, acceptance and expectation?
10. “Portrait of a Good Father”:
In “Portrait of a Good Father,” the story opens and closes with a description of a photograph. Discuss how the physical representation of Keaka changes over the course of the story. How do his physical characteristics help you better understand his interior motivations and emotions?
11. The story is narrated, in turn, by Sarah, Grace, and Joon. However, the final section allows the reader direct insight into Keaka. What is the effect of seeing multiple female perspectives of Keaka? Why might the author introduce Keaka’s point of view in the final section?
12. “The Old Paniolo Way”:
One of the central questions of “The Old Paniolo Way” asks if a long-held secret should be revealed to a dying loved one. Maile, Albert, and Pili each have different answers for this question and act accordingly. With which character do you most agree? Discuss your reaction to Pili’s ultimate decision to tell the truth.
13. In the penultimate scene, Joe’s daughter sings “Ku'u Home O Kahalu'u,” a popular contemporary Hawaiian song written by Jerry Santos and first performed by the group Olomana. The lyrics include the lines:
Last night I dreamt I was returning
and my heart called out to you
to please accept me as you’ll find me
Me kealoha ku'u home o Kahalu'u.
For many native Hawaiians living off-island, the song captures the tension of returning home. How do the lyrics of this song underline the themes of this story? How does the sentiment expressed in this song echo across the collection, and its characters, as a whole?
14. All stories:
Kristiana Kahakauwila said of writing this collection: “For the first time I had to let my stories access all my anger, my sadness, my confusion, my hopefulness. My characters, if they’re raw, are so because I was raw. I had never written at such a brink before. I had to come to terms with what it meant to be hapa, half-Hawaiian and half-haole.” Where do you see the characters coming to terms with their heritage? What do you think the author is ultimately saying about being “hapa,” or of a mixed ancestry? Where do you see a rawness of emotion in these characters and/or stories?
15. Discuss how language—pidgin, Hawaiian, English, and the blending of these vernaculars—is used in the stories. Why do some characters use only one kind of language while others “code-switch” in order to fit in with different groups of people?
16. Discuss how This Is Paradise has affected your view of Hawai'i. What do you find surprising in Kahakauwila’s depiction of the islands? What do you find familiar?
A Conversation with Kristiana Kahakauwila, Author of This is Paradise
How has your own experience in Hawai'i shaped your writing? Is there a character in This Is Paradise that you identify with in particular?
In Hawaiian, the word "hapa" loosely translates to "part" or "half." I'm ethnically hapahalf Native Hawaiian and half Caucasian. Moreover, I grew up in California but spent holidays and summers on Maui with my paternal family, so I'm also geographically hapa. I wouldn't have considered myself local until I moved to Honolulu. Now maybe I'm hapa-local.
I explain all this because my experience of Hawai'i has occurred in parts and on multiple levels: as a native and as a foreigner, as a local and as a visitor, as a Hawaiian and as a Caucasian.
My characters reflect this multiplicity of experience. "The Road to Hana" probably offers the most explicit discussion of this theme, but elsewhere characters such as Sarah in "Portrait of a Good Father" and Pili in "The Old Paniolo Way" struggle to find their place in Hawai'i. And I think they realize, as I have, that they don't need to be restricted to one place, one relationship with the islands. They can occupy multiple spaces, have multiple relationships with their homes and their own histories. In one way or another, each of the characters is reflecting a part of me.
Why did you decide to write about Hawai'i and your characters through a short story format?
I find the short-story form challenging. The focus, the brevity, the tightness requirednot only of the plot, but of the actual linemakes the short story like a diamond. It glitters only when put under the highest pressures. By contrast, the novel is wonderfully expansive, with multiple themes and an ensemble of characters intersecting in numerous, unexpected ways.
I think my stories engage both forms. Some of my stories are like mini-novels, weaving together numerous motifs or employing several perspectives. But then, as in classic short fiction, structure is provided by a singular focus: in this case, on place. Hawai'iits beaches, its ranch lands, its urban centersis so central it becomes a recurring character.
So, the short-story format allowed me to hem in the novelistic expansiveness while still offering a vision of Hawai'i that is nuanced, complicated, and layered; in other words, one that mirrors my experience of the islands.
Are there any particular short-story collections or novels that you relied on while writing your book?
A common Hawaiian saying is, "Look back into the future." I wanted my stories, though set in contemporary Hawai'i, to be ever aware of the past, so historical texts like Queen Lili'uokalani's Hawai'i's Story by Hawai'i's Queen and David Malo's Hawaiian Antiquities were important to my process. History licks at the edges of these stories.
I also read Amy Hempel and Alice Munroe. Hempel's brevity and her way of implying emotion without stating it was a lesson for me. Munroe, too, keeps an emotional distance, but her craft is different, and she manages these huge leaps in time with such deftness. Reading The Love of a Good Woman was like short story-writing bootcamp.
Finally, I listened to a ton of Hawaiian music. I borrowed my parents' CDs. I bought old LPs. Traditional chants, himene (Christian hymns), and popular Hawaiian music by the likes of Eddie Kamae and Sons of Hawai'i and Olomana added texture and emotional landscape.
You mentioned that a couple of your stories are told from multiple perspectives. Why did you choose to inhabit several characters in a single story?
In many ways fiction is more truthful than textbook history. Textbook history pretends to be objective, but it isn't. Fiction admits to its subjective nature; moreover, it takes into account the emotional and psychological effect of an event. In many ways, only narrative can fairly engage both historical record and the humanity behind that record. The stories in this collection are ones that not only suit me personallyas someone fascinated with multiple versions and personal perspectivesbut also ethically, as the stories bring to light viewpoints perhaps previously ignored or unknown.
In the title story, the first perspective comes from a group of young surfer girls whose collective voice is brash, sassy, even angry. With a voice that strong, were you afraid readers might be intimidated?
I'm never afraid of a strong voice, but I was nervous about leading the collection with the title story. Those surfer girls are queen bees. They intimidate me!
When I was deciding which story should go first, I thought of how sometimes friends return from a vacation in Hawai'i and say, "The locals weren't very friendly. Why?" I realized, this is one experience people have of Hawai'i. So why not start there? Why not start with this negative impression, and then move to explain and complicate it?
I also loved how sassy those local girls are. Real titas, as my aunts would say. But for all their bravado and power, they are still young girls. They are experiencing a tragedy for the first time, having to question their role in it, having to ask themselves who they are. The story closes with them, and while their voice is still strong, it's not as harsh. As the girls evolve, so does their voice, and this allows a reader to better understand and empathize with them.
Speaking of voice, one of the ways your characters identify themselves is via their use of language. Why did you choose to layer in these different vernaculars and usages of language?
Language carries history with it. In my grandparents' generation, children were beaten if they spoke Hawaiian in school. So Hawaiian wasn't taught to my parents' generation. Pidgin, then, becomes central to the Hawaiian experience; it's a hybrid language that comes from the plantations, where Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and others first mixed. Pidgin is the plate lunch of languages.
I wanted to capture how important pidgin is in Hawai'i, and I wanted to pay homage to this language and its development, which one could see as parallel to the development of the islands. On Big Island the pidgin is really thick, and they use different vocabulary, often heavily colored by paniolo (cowboy) lingo. In Honolulu, the pidgin accent is lighter, less inflected. I grew up hearing Maui pidginmostly Wailuku/Kahului kind, different from even the Upcountry pidgin that someone from 'Ulupalakua or Makawao might use.
For me, "Wanle" delves most into this play with language. The title character chooses to tell her story in a more academic English, but she captures dialogue in pidgin, and the thickness of the accent shifts depending not only on who's speaking, but how emotional the character feels. For me, that was the ultimate expression of pidgin and what it could do, and Wanle embodied the possibilities of being fluent in both academic English and pidginjust as she's fluent in both her father's world and her own.
Did you have to do any research to write these stories?
I did endless research on pidgin. I felt I had to get that right. I'd read pidgin grammar books (they exist!) and then I'd call my dad and have him read lines of dialogue for me, tell me if it felt right on his tongue. He was a great editor!
I wanted to get the details right in the action, too. I surf, so that's not research per se, but when I was editing "This Is Paradise," I'd paddle out and think, Is this how the girls would arch their backs? Do the waves really move in the ways I said they do?
Similarly, when I was finalizing "The Old Paniolo Way," I visited both a cow ranch and a horse farm in Nebraska City, Nebraska, where the respective owners showed me how their operations worked and introduced me to their herds. I was in Nebraska in January with the ground frozen solid and I was telling everyone it was research for a book on Hawai'i. They laughd hard at that.
Who have you discovered lately?
I just finished David Bajo's The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri, which was one of the sexiest books I've read in years. And then I was able to read an advance copy of Ben Stroud's Byzantium: Stories, which debuts this summer. His historical fiction is stellar; Cuba comes alive in smells and textures!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I thoroughly enjoyed this book! Kahakauwila's masterful writing offers a fresh literary experience, and I look forward to more from this author.
Not for the faint of
Beautifully written. Makes me feel like I am part of each story. I am anxiously awaiting her next book.
An insightful view into the people and culture of Hawai'i from a writer who knows and understands the beauty, the history and the tensions of the Islands.
poorly written. couldnt really get through the first story.