A da Shop bestseller and staff favorite, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, is set on the Hamakua coast of Hawai‘i Island, where author Kawai Strong Washburn was born and raised. The novel chronicles the saga of the Flores family in a way that, as author Marlon James says, "old myths clash with new realities, love is in a ride or die with grief, faith rubs hard against magic, and comic flips with tragic so much they meld into something new."
Sharks in the Time of Saviors received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and was recently long-listed for The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Bess Press publisher Buddy Bess called the book "truly a masterwork."
We’re so very excited to continue our da Shop Talk series with bestselling author Kawai Strong Washburn to discuss his debut novel, the challenges of representing Hawai‘i to a national audience, and what he misses most about Hawai‘i all the way from Minneapolis where he currently resides.
Let’s start with a throwback. Can you share some memories about growing up in Honoka‘a? Did a sense of nostalgia drive your research and writing of Sharks in the Time of Saviors?
KSW: I remember skateboarding down winding hills above and behind the county rec fields, the same hills I'd run later in high school cross-country and soccer training. I remember the steep road that drops below the main street, by the post office, that used to lead to a macadamia nut processing facility and an old baseball field. I played some games at that baseball field and later remember hearing about two groups of high school kids that planned (and then executed) a bloody fistfight after school there one day. I remember how the classic movie theater on main street went through a revival (still exists today), and how cool it seemed to suddenly have a movie theater in our town. I remember going to the elementary school fair we ran every year to raise money, with things like a ring toss and a dunk tank, and other fun local events like Western Week, where the town celebrates its Paniolo heritage--cowboys in full regalia, plus this whole budoir/saloon dress up thing, along with a huge parade. I remember riding my bike six miles each way into town with some friends when I was in sixth grade so that we could play arcade games at the one place in town that had them.
In writing about Honoka'a for this book, I don't think I was driven by a sense of nostalgia as much as a sense of humanity. I was raised in Honoka'a, and so whatever it was or wasn't for me as I grew up, it was still my home, one that isn't really represented in the literary imagination, so I felt compelled to write about it. Furthermore, having been born and raised there I was driven by a recognition that Hawai'i occupies an important place in my understanding of the world, while at the same time representing an important (and often unheard) story about what the United States has been and will be. Those were the sorts of considerations that compelled me to write, as opposed to a sense of nostalgia.
I love the title of the book and the cover, which was designed by the talented Rodrigo Corral of MCD. The cover is absent of common visual images associated with Hawai‘i and even the title itself doesn't blatantly identify the story as being rooted in Hawai‘i. Can you speak to the idea or process behind the cover design and the title?
KSW: Given Rodrigo Corral's previous work, I trusted him and the whole visual art team to convey the book's material. I also got the sense early on that my editor and his team understood the book well enough that they wouldn't let it be misrepresented visually. Throughout the entire publication process I've been very sensitive to trying to work within the bounds of my place in bringing the art into the world, meaning I tried not to step on anyone's toes, micro-manage the process, or offend anyone by being unreasonably possessive. I still made it very clear as often as possible that I didn't want the cover to contain any of the stereotypical images of Hawai'i: flowers, palm trees, hula kahiko in silhouette, profiles of women's faces (typically of a vague ethnicity) with flowers in their hair, etc etc.
The title came about as a result of trying to convey some of the main themes of the novel: Ideas of salvation and the Messianic narratives that misrepresent U.S. history, along with the ways in which people look for saviors in times of crisis (when a strong community is really what's needed). I wanted the title to point to all of that, while also engaging the readers' thinking (thus the juxtaposition of sharks and saviors). The title ends up working on a lot of levels, but I'm still not sure if I'm 100% in love with it. I don't think I'm very good with titles, and I dread having to come up with them.
You and the book have received so much (well-deserved!) positive press from The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Kirkus Reviews just to name a few. I imagine (if Spider-Man taught us anything) that with great power (or press) comes great responsibility. Have you experienced any challenges from having written such a high profile story about a historically underrepresented perspective for a national market?
KSW: Yes, there have been plenty of challenges, mostly the same challenges anyone faces when they write an underrepresented perspective. Chief among these is the supposition of a monolithic people of the islands and therefore the misbelief that I can somehow speak for all of the islands, as some sort of ambassador, rather than being just one voice among many. Additionally, because there's so much autofiction in the world, and many writers craft protagonists and settings that roughly mirror their own experiences, there's often a confusion between me as a writer and the characters on the page: an idea that, at some level, some or all of these characters must be me, and I endorse or believe the same things as them or am somehow trying to pass their story off as my own biography. Nothing could be further from the truth. There's also the additional work I have to do with meeting people at their level, when it comes to their biases or understandings of Hawai'i; occasionally people make offhand comments about the islands, have strange questions, or (even in reviews) make statements about the book that I don't necessarily endorse or agree with, but I try to take those moments in context, understanding that most of them don't come from a place of antagonism as much as unfamiliarity with the place and its people.
Has there been anything surprising to you about a national perception/knowledge of Hawai‘i or you as a local author (even in 2020)?
KSW: It surprises me how little most Americans know about Hawai'i. I've had a lot of people tell me their exposure to the islands is limited to a few television shows (the number of people who have mentioned either Magnum P.I. or Hawai'i Five-O is...painful), or a few movies. A lot of readers will talk about Michener's Hawai'i as their primary literary encounter with the place, if even that. Very few people really understand the colonial history, annexation, and the socioeconomic and political realities that have resulted from that history. It was part of what drove me to write the book.
You’ve spoken a lot about the magical realism elements in the book and about recognizing the genre expectations readers may bring to their experience, but you chose to preserve ambiguity in some of the mythical elements. I’m curious if growing up in Hawai‘i, where myth/mysticism are woven in the collective local consciousness, influenced your eventual story path or other aspects of the book.
KSW: Absolutely. One of the primary desires I had was to try and write a version of Hawai'i that celebrates the mingling of multiple worlds--the spiritual and the corporeal--while paying homage to the legendary heritage of the islands. The idea of no "barrier" existing between the corporeal and spiritual is very present in a lot of cultures, although not within the dominant culture of the United States; thus, embracing that idea as part of the story was another way to question and undermine the dominant culture. At the same time, I wanted to use those "magical" elements to talk about bigger themes--faith, salvation, redemption, capitalism and colonialism, etc etc--and so it was necessary the magic exist in a form that, rather than making the story feel unrealistic or fantastical, made the story's thematic elements that much stronger.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors has lived its entire published life in a pandemic. Instead of touring or having in-person conversations in bookstores, you've connected with readers and booksellers virtually. What has that been like?
KSW: Both good and bad. I have been able to participate in more events than I probably would have otherwise, given I work full-time, have volunteer activities, and am raising two children with my wife. I've also been able to appear with some incredibly talented authors that (I'm guessing, because of how famous and therefore busy they are) I probably otherwise wouldn't have been able to appear with. But at the same time, these many virtual events have been an inferior way to interact with readers and writers, in my opinion. They all start to feel the same, due to the medium, and there's never enough time to really engage directly and fully with any one person. I miss the physical presence of other people, the chance to talk story with readers and other writers outside the confines of a virtual event. I really miss physical spaces not feeling lethal.
You made an awesome playlist for Sharks on Spotify, you share about music often on social media, I’m curious if music is a big influence in your writing or what role it played in Sharks.
KSW: I typically write wearing noise cancelling headphones and total silence. I especially can't write while listening to any music with lyrics, I guess because of the way my brain engages with the lyrics and my own words simultaneously. It's the same when I'm doing focus work more generally, though. I'm rarely able to let music just be background music, maybe because I come from a family of musicians. However, music influences my own life considerably, and is part of the way I process and engage with the world, and so all the different artists that have been a part of my life as a listener come with me when I come to the page. Ideas or feelings I have that have been expanded as a result of listening to music are rendered that much more richly when I start writing about them.
What are you excited to see or hope to read from other local writers and future storytellers about Hawai‘i?
KSW: The majority of the stories about Hawai'i that I've encountered outside the islands are still written from the perspective of outsiders, with Hawai'i and its people generally as a backdrop for stories of others. There's little sense of the heritage, history, and dynamic contemporary culture, or the ongoing push and pull between the American identity and the island's own unique identity. But there are a lot of local writers I've seen through the University of Hawai'i press, along with several anthologies and literary magazines, that are starting to publish their work on larger and larger platforms. That's happening at the same time that more local authors are entering formal writing programs, where the tide is starting to turn in terms of what's considered a "publishable" story. It's everything from children's books starring local kids to steampunk fiction set in pre-annexation eras, exciting and unique work that could never be written anywhere else but Hawai'i and deserves a larger readership.
What are you reading these days?
KSW: I have an advance copy of a book called Rain Heron, by Robie Arnott, published out of Australia. It's slated to come out here in the states in February and so far it's been the perfect book I needed to be reading right now: mythic and fast-paced and tightly plotted, concerned with the natural world and our relationship to it and each other while simultaneously reading like a thriller. I'm also working through The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, an all-encompassing history of Native America, from first contact between European explorers and the first nations of this land, through to the present day. It's an incredible work of art and scholarship and a necessary historical corrective.
When you finally (FINALLY!) get a chance to come home, what’s on your list of things to do/see/eat?
Mahalo to Kawai Strong Washburn for the gift of his time and words. You can connect with Kawai at his website for more information about his work. Kawai's debut novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, is available for purchase at our online shop.