Kristiana Kahakauwila, Hawaiian-American writer, college professor, and surfer girl extraordinaire, is the artsy Smart Girl to watch out for. Praised by author Joyce Carol Oates, ELLE magazine, and the New York Times, her debut short fiction collection, This is Paradise, has soared higher than the island palms, even snagging a spot onO Magazine’s book list.
But contrary to what the title suggests, Kahakauwila’s collection is more about the reality of Hawaii, not its well-loved paradise. In six stunningly revealing stories, Kahakauwila defines the island’s poverty, land disputes, cultural traditions, and family ties that are often trivialized and swept under the surf by the tourist industry.
“For me, there was always an urgency to write about real Hawaii. I wrote about Hawaii in undergrad and graduate school, then actually moved there to write about it…For instance, when I started to learn how to surf as an adult, I remember watching a group of Hawaiian girls closely. Those girls owned the waves. They seemed so angry at my presence, territorial. I tried to fit in with these girls but it wasn’t until I teased one of them that they let me into their group. I realized that it was because I had changed in my approach, I’d become more Hawaiian,” Kahakauwila reflects.
Experiences like these, involving an improved understanding of the islands and Islanders themselves, infuse This Is Paradise. But perhaps more important to Smart Girl readers, is the other element of self-discovery present as well.
Native Hawaiian on her father’s side and Caucasian on her mother’s, Kahakauwila grew up far away from her island roots, displaced from one half of her identity. It was a desire to understand where she belonged and a passion for observing and recording the world around her that began her writing.
“When I was in High School, my mom had me join the Polynesian Club. She thought it’d be good for me. I was a really small teenager and that club was all massive football players, and gorgeous, tall Tahitian woman. I remember walking in on the first day and really feeling like I didn’t fit in. After that, I remember writing in my diary, trying to figure out what it meant to be “brown”, but not to be Latina or Tahitian or African American,” Kahakauwila said.
Much of This Is Paradise was born in the year Kahakauwila lived in Honolulu, after graduate school. This was the first time Kahakauwila, who was born and raised in Southern California, had spent an extended amount of time with her Dad’s side of the family in Maui.
“When my grandmother died and I went to her funeral I had never been with my Hawaiian side of the family for an event like that. I had always felt so separate, but they took me in,” she explains.
That experience inspired an email to a friend and then ultimately the story ‘Thirty-Nine Rules For Making A Hawaiian Funeral into A Drinking Game’ that is one of the funniest and most poignant stories in the This Is Paradise. One Amazon reviewer writes, “though funny, that story reveals the glory and shame of being Hawaiian.”
It is an acceptance of that “glory and shame,” and a pride for its place in her identity that is key in Kahakauwila’s success. As she says, “Luckily, by staying true to the things I care about and am, I’ve been able to make a public mark.”
So what’s her advice to those of you out there striving to cultivate your authentic selves?
“Be patient, you can’t just choose to grow into yourself, you have to give it time…and have a place to be honest with yourself. For me, it was my journal. But maybe for you it’s when you’re doing your sport or art,” she said. And to those of you out there wishing to become writers, she says, “Keep a journal, write everything down, everything. The practice of recording and seeing the world helps you get there.”
Yet the journey is never over, Kahakauwila is still growing into herself, bettering her writing and continuing to explore how Hawaii is, “a real and whole place, not a fantasy.” Currently, she’s working on a historical fiction novel about a family pitted against each other in a Maui water rights court case. “It’s like Edward P. Jones the Known World meets the movie Chinatown,” she says. Be sure to keep a look out for This Is Paradise on bookshelves now, and for more of Kahakauwila’s groundbreaking work in the near future.