When Kristiana Kahakauwila was a kid, her classmates would come back from vacations in Hawaii, gushing about their adventures surfing and swimming with dolphins. Kahakauwila returned home from trips to Hawaii saying, “I watched cartoons with my cousins for a week.” “What place did you visit that wasn’t where I was?” she wanted to ask the other children.
Kahakauwila, who is half-Hawaiian, visited her father’s family there often from her childhood home in southern California. In the title story of her debut collection, This Is Paradise, which explores its characters’ varied and complex relationships with the islands, she writes, “Hawai’i is no fantasyland.”
“When you take away the scrubbed surface,” Kahakauwila says, “there’s something dark there, there’s something scary, there’s something exciting, and there’s also real emotion there, and there’s a complexity that is present. I think we expect that complexity from the places we live and we don’t expect it from our vacation spots. But our vacation spots are where other people live.”
The childhood seeds of Kahakauwila’s impulse to make sense of her heritage took some time to coalesce into a full-fledged desire. Though her family had visited Hawaii often in those early years, the trips tapered off, and by college, Kahakauwila had stopped visiting altogether.
At the University of Michigan for her master’s in fine arts, that started to change. She started the program writing stories set in Southern California: “They were concerned with race, they were concerned with ethnicity and culture, but they weren’t my stories, really,” she says. But the university, it turned out, had a fantastic Pacific Studies program, something she hadn’t known when she decided to attend. Through her classes, she began to realize that she had been exploring her central concerns—“ethnicity, race, being hapa”—through other cultures rather than her own. “I gradually came to figure out it was me to begin with,” she says.
At the same time, Kahakauwila’s grandmother fell ill, and her family began to visit Hawaii again. “The way I phrase it, I was coming back to my Hawaiianness on a lot of different levels,” she says.
Kahakauwila spent the summer between her two years at Michigan in Hawaii, and decided to move there when she graduated. During her second year there, while visiting her parents in California, Kahakauwila’s grandmother passed away. She and her father flew back to Maui.
“I came back form the funeral, which had been so different from anything I had experienced, and I started writing “’39 Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral Into a Drinking Game,’” she says, referencing one of the stories in her collection, which advises, “Sneak a swig when the pastor asks everyone to hold hands and confess the sins in their hearts.” “And then it was just this kind of energy that pushed me from there into ‘Portrait of a Good Father’ and ‘This Is Paradise,’” she says. “I mean, I had drafted all the stories basically within a year, and then spent a second year editing them and making them what they were.”
In “Wanle,” the protagonist, who carries on her late father’s devotion to cockfighting as she discovers painful truths about his life, says, “My dad used to say cockfighting was in his blood: The Chinese in him liked betting, the Hawaiian liked fighting, and the Filipino liked birds.” Kahakauwila says this line came from one of her uncles, but reflects her own sense of piecing together an identity. “I think my experience, at least—but I suspect a lot of other bicultural or multicultural people—have had to at least go through a phase where they’re piecing together bits of themselves, as if we’re a big shattered vase and we have to figure out where everything goes before we’re built up into ourselves again,” she says. “On one hand, I’m always breaking that down. At the same time, I’m hoping that it’s becoming more and more integrated into just one self.”
Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York.