Intensely personal at its core, Kawai Strong Washburn’s debut novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, is, fundamentally, about the Flores family, a Filipino-Hawaiian family trapped under the collapse of their sugarcane plantation. At its most ambitious, Sharks is about a place, a culture, and a people, paved over by haole ways and means.
It begins like this. The Flores family opts to celebrate a small victory with a tour out on a glass-bottom boat. Nainoa, the middle child, affectionally known as Noa, falls into the water. He’s seven years old, and suddenly surrounded by sharks. His mother, Malia, dives in to rescue him but, miracle of miracles, one of the sharks has delivered him to safety, cradled in its jaws like he was one of its pups. Malia understands then and there that Noa is special. And he is blessed with a very unique power. Blessed, and cursed.
What does this mean for the family? It means, perhaps, they can capitalize on this. Perhaps Nao’s power can help the family crawl out from their desperation. But it’s not that simple nor is it that kind of power. Soon, the Flores children — Dean, a gifted and hard-charging athlete resentful of the attention given his brother; Kaui, smart and sarcastic in equal measures; and Noa, struggling to understand his role in all of this — are scattered across the mainland. Should everything go according to plan, the children will eventually return to their homeland, as conquering heroes, as saviors of their family. Of course, things do not go according to plan. They rarely ever do.
To reveal any more of the book’s triumphs would be to spoil one of the most richly imagined and evocative debuts in recent memory. Suffice it to say, tragedy strikes, and the family struggles to find their way forward, each member searching for a new purpose in life, with varying degrees of success. The writing is dazzling, captivating, all-seeing. The language is lyrical and lush and also muscular and gnarled. The story itself is told, via alternating chapters, through the first-person perspective of each character, their individual voices rendered so completely as to leave no doubt that this is a living, breathing family, idiosyncratic, unique unto itself.
To say I found the novel to be impressive is an understatement. I was enthralled by the world captured in its pages and, once I turned the final page, found myself wanting more, wanting to understand where the novel came from, how it was birthed, the challenges faced while writing it, and how it balances the real with the unreal. It had, very much so, cast its spell over me, and I wanted nothing more than to speak to the writer who conjured it. Via email, I spoke to the man with all the gifts.
J. DAVID GONZALEZ: I’ve always been interested, especially of debut authors, when the moment came when they realized they wanted to become a writer. What was that moment for you?
KAWAI STRONG WASHBURN: Probably 2007, during my first year as a graduate student in public policy at Columbia University. I was taking a cross-disciplinary fiction workshop led by an MFA student. I read Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son and for whatever reason — my state of mind, the amount of time I’d already spent dabbling in writing, a romantic breakup I was in the middle of enduring — I read that book and felt: Yes, this. Whatever this is doing to me, I want to do it, too, and with my own words.
What can you tell us about the genesis for this book? Was there a particular idea from which this book sprung? What was the initial seed of this story?
I wish I had a compelling story, but an image just spontaneously appeared in my head: a child in the water, gently carried to the surface by sharks. I have no idea where it came from. But because I don’t want to pretend serendipity drove the whole endeavor, what happened next was that I shelved the image for years and interrogated it subconsciously. It would come back to me when I was washing the dishes or showering or sitting on the bus. I started to think of the image in the context of what I’d observed and felt growing up in Hawai‘i, and how those ideas and experiences might be connected to the image. Once it seemed viable and necessary, I started to write.
The family at the heart of this novel — Malia and Augie, and their children, Noa, Dean, and Kaui — are all so incredibly realized, each voice so distinct from each other and yet so clearly a family unit. What were some of the challenges you faced when writing their voices? Did you start with one character and the rest followed suit? Did you work on each character independently and then weave their story through the book? What exactly was your process?
This was one of the biggest challenges (among many). It took a lot of work to get each voice distinct and true. From the initial image and brainstorming work, I had a sense of the family and their “origin story,” as it were, so then it became a question of asking what that event would do to each of the characters. How would they react differently, and what might that mean about who they’d each become as a result? With a few basic ideas, and a general sense of what the next several scenes would be, I worked through each character separately for the first quartile of the story. After that, with a lot of hard questions and revision, I felt like I had a decent enough grasp on each character to start naturally rotating through them, especially because I’d been able to build a general sense of the plot by that point.
The decision to break up the book according to the various family members really helps capture the dynamic of the family and their relationship to each other. Was this an organic decision that arose through the writing process, or were there false starts until you came to this narrative decision?
Once I knew it was going to be about a family, a rotating first-person perspective form became particularly appealing. First person with a distinct voice remains my favorite mode of fiction; I feel like I’m being transformed into another consciousness. If it’s done right, that new consciousness never really leaves me, even after the story is over. It’s that sort of transcendent experience that makes literature distinct from other storytelling forms, whether the stage or the screen or the microphone, and since I didn’t know if I’d ever have another shot, it’s what I strived for in this novel. At the same time, there’s pressure (particularly as a debut author) to make your book short, and thus each character’s chapter had to be another step forward in the plot.
Obviously, a sense of place is incredibly important to Sharks in the Time of Saviors. What were some of the aspects of Hawai‘i that other books get wrong, and what were some of the aspects that you felt obligated to render in your novel?
Getting it “wrong” is a strong way to phrase it, but assuming the reader (or viewer, in the case of television and film) is non-native and therefore needs/deserves to have Hawai‘i calibrated toward their sensibilities, or presenting Hawai‘i as a packaged, exotic fantasy for pleasurable consumption, a backdrop for an otherwise familiar story — it’s that gaze, you know? You can always feel the bias behind the gaze. I wanted to reject that, hard. I also wanted to describe the economic struggle of living in the islands, something that most non-natives don’t typically recognize. The same socioeconomic dynamics that are in play across the entire late-modern-capitalist United States are at play in Hawai‘i, too.
Noa’s ability seems trapped somewhere between magical powers and some cruel twist of fate. It’s a power that is not always at his disposal. What were some of the challenges you faced in writing a “magical” character, in an otherwise very grounded, real-world novel?
First, there was the very real fear that I was creating/reinforcing a Hawai‘i version of the Magical Negro. But that sort of stereotype typically operates within the confines of a novel that’s already failing culturally in a lot of other ways, and that wasn’t, in my mind, the case with what I was writing. Beyond that, it was a question of both language and outcome. The supernatural experiences needed to be rendered in a language that was heightened without being overly dramatic. It couldn’t ever feel like the reader was stepping into a Marvel comic book. But the outcome of those experiences also had to feel ambiguous, at some level, so that the reader could question whether the “magic” really was magic, or just a particularly optimistic interpretation by a given character.
There’s a great deal of pidgin spoken throughout the novel. Was there consideration regarding how a reader unfamiliar with the language would experience the book? How did you balance the reality of characters’ voices with the clarity required for a reader to understand?
Yes, this was another one of the novel’s major challenges, one I was still confronting in the final days of copyediting! The pidgin you find in the novel is an adapted form. I tried for a simulation of the rhythm and sound, without tripping the reader up with too many apostrophes, contractions, and grammatical reconfigurations. It’s something that’s always been hard for me when reading, say, Zora Neale Hurston or Keri Hulme, among others. The result for my novel is something much less thick than what you’d encounter in Hawai‘i; my novel also doesn’t conform to the standard rendering of pidgin on the page, partially because of personal preference. For instance, most people in Hawai‘i expect to see “da kine,” where I preferred “d’kine,” or the expected “boddah you?” where I preferred “bother you,” et cetera. It was a hard tightrope to walk, and I probably fell off in a few places.
Care to describe the research process for this book? Was there a great deal of research involved, or did you only use it sparingly?
All of the settings are places I’ve visited enough to feel comfortable using in the novel. I had to do a lot of research about prison systems and emergency medicine, even though I have experience with the latter and friends that have experience with the former. I also spent a bunch of time revisiting ancient Hawaiian mythology, stuff that I’d encountered in various forms as a kid but hadn’t engaged with directly in decades.
Lastly, if readers of Sharks in the Time of Saviors are interested in further discovering books about Hawai‘i and/or the South Pacific, which would you recommend?
I would say:
This Is Paradise, Kristiana Kahakauwila.
Kahakauwila shows us contemporary Hawai‘i from a variety of angles, ranging from a cluster of urban, mixed-race women navigating Honolulu after dark to locals fighting roosters in upcountry Maui. Kahakauwila does this all while displaying a full range of literary craftswomanship: for example, a story in the second-person-declarative describing a drinking game, where the subtext behind the game’s rules is where the reader finds the actual story.
Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing, Pacific Rim, 2009, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, ed.
This collection of the work of four indigenous poets includes two writers from Hawai‘i and two from Alaska, which I particularly enjoy — I found the voices complemented, echoed, and expanded on each other very effectively. Themes range from relationships between people and the earth to the interplay between America at-large and the people of its colonized states, and everything in between.
Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai‘i, Hokulani Aikau, Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez, eds.
Formatted to roughly resemble a tourist guide, this volume is made up of writing, visual art, transcribed oral histories, and a variety of other expressions of contemporary life in Hawai‘i. It provides a very strong contrast to the colonized narratives that dominate popular ideas of the islands and is especially worth reading before/during a visit.
Pidgin to Da Max, Douglas Simonson
Here’s a historical illustrated dictionary of Hawai‘i’s English patois (commonly referred to as “pidgin”) that is indelibly linked to my youth, so much so that I can still recall the exact place and time in which I flipped through some of the pages. The illustrations are hilarious, the definitions at their most enjoyable when their contrived formality is juxtaposed against silly (but appropriate) example usage. It feels like a celebration of a particular moment in Hawai‘i that has since largely passed.
Hawaiian Mythology, Martha Beckwith
Epic tales of the gods and ghosts of old Hawai‘i. An enthralling, comprehensive volume of centuries’ worth of mythology from across the island chain.
If you could go back in time and deliver to the younger version of you, the one about to embark on the writing of his debut novel, one piece of advice that you wish you had known back then, what would that be?
Get the writing done, but when you’re not writing, don’t write. When you’re out on a bike ride, or hiking on a ridge above the Pacific Ocean, or chasing your kids across the field, live in that moment. Be bludgeoned with the complete wonder of the world, right now, while you’re still in it.
J. David Gonzalez continues to work on his novel and short story collection. He lives in Los Angeles, where he works as a bookseller.