Talk Story

When Hawaiians get together, they talk story. That is to say, shoot the breeze or tell tall tales. Kristiana Kahakauwila talks story. She comes from a long line of storytellers: grandparents, parents, uncles, aunties and cousins who shared their histories with her.

Kahakauwila’s debut collection, This Is Paradise, is the story of the Hawaii that lies outside the big resorts and the people who keep it alive. The cowboys who raise horses on the Big Island. The cockfight pitters on Kauai. The housemaids and gardeners who keep up appearances on Oahu.

Tourists are, at best, a necessary evil. They bring money into Hawaii but they also drive up prices. They see danger in a little surf but not in a man with prison tattoos. The local surfer girls have names for people like that.

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’ da kind, scared of da water. Haoles, yeah.

Kristiana Kahakauwila,“This Is Paradise” in This Is Paradise (Hogarth Press 2013)

A Sense of Belonging

Haole is a Hawaiian term that once meant white person. Nowadays, it’s used to refer to anyone who isn’t a native. Much of This Is Paradise is absorbed by the question: who is native? In “The Road to Hana”, a white man born and raised in Honolulu sees himself as more Hawaiian than his girlfriend who was raised on the mainland.

Mainlanders are strange folk. They can’t speak pidgin. They don’t buy a surfboard until they reach adulthood. These must be issues Kahakauwila herself faced. She was born and raised in Long Beach, California, spending summers with family in Maui, until finally moving back to Hawaii as an adult.

In addition to being both of the island and the mainland, Kahakauwila is also hapa. That is to say, of mixed Hawaiian, Norwegian and German ancestry. Like haole, hapa used to be a derogatory term. But to be hapa is to be Hawaiian.

My dad used to say cockfighting was in his blood: the Chinese in him like betting, the Hawaiian liked fighting, and the Filipino liked birds.

Kristiana Kahakauwila, “Wanle”


Kahakauwila is intent on reversing the gaze normally taken on Hawaii. Rather than privileging the visitor over the resident, Kahakauwila focuses on the locals. But life on urban Oahu is different from rural Kauai. So Kahakauwila also takes us to Maui and the Big Island.

This is where Kahakauwila excels: the sounds, smells and tastes that ground us in Hawaii. In “The Old Pianola Way”, a saddle blanket of dark blue waves undulating through a turquoise sea, rough in the way wool can be is a gift of love. In “Portrait of a Good Father”, a wife will forever associate the scent of tuberoses with betrayal.

Kahakauwila is also a dab hand at craft. Her title story “This Is Paradise” uses the unusual first person plural voice to offer a chorus of perspectives on the fate of a foolish tourist. My favorite story uses the difficult second person narrator and the form of a listicle. “Thirty-Nine Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral into a Drinking Game” is both clever and moving. For Kahakauwila, writing this story must have felt like coming home.

Understand that your grandmother is in heaven now, and heaven has fighting cocks and Heineken, poi and dried ahi, your uncles’ teasing and your aunties’ cooking and your cousins laughing with you when you talk. Heaven is them acting like this is where you belong, and if that’s what haole pastors call hell, then thank God you finally got here.

12 Jan 2020 | Karen Kao