Tourists don’t see the Hawaii unsparingly yet lyrically depicted in Kahakauwila’s debut collection.
“It’s like Hawaiians are all pissed off,” says vacationing Susan in the title story. “They live in paradise. What is there to be mad about?” Plenty, affirms a chorus of three different groups of women: the housekeeping staff laboring for a pittance in the hotels; the local girls who can’t afford housing thanks to unbridled development; and the professional women who have “dedicated their education and mainland skills to putting this island right.” Each group observes Susan at various stages of her visit, which goes badly awry when she picks up a local in a bar; for all their irritation with clueless tourists, they feel an uncomfortable kinship with her. Ambivalence and ambiguity are characteristic of Kahakauwila’s nuanced work. In “Wanle,” a young woman who believes she is honoring her dead father by training and fighting birds knows that she has provoked her gentle Indian lover to revert to the violent ways of his own brutal parent—and it’s all the more awful since she’s learned that her father cheated in fights. The collection’s best story, “Portrait of a Good Father,” depicts a troubled marriage, the other woman and the devastating impact of a child’s accidental death with tender compassion for all parties, wringing powerful emotional shocks from the misunderstanding of a single word and from the musings on an old photo that open and close the tale. “The Old Paniolo Way,” in which a gay son returns from San Francisco to nurse his dying father and face his sister’s resentments, is more obvious, but it too makes the point that lives in “paradise” are just as complicated as anywhere else. The author’s assured use of both pidgin and standard English mirrors her characters’ uneasy feeling of straddling two worlds: a timeless one in harmony with nature and a commercial, modern one that is both invasive and enticing.
Finely wrought work from an impressive new talent.