Buzzed Books #5 by Alise Hamilton
Taking Setting off the Sidelines
Many authors, from James Joyce to Annie Proulx, have used place as a device for linking stories. Debut author Kristiana Kahakauwila follows in that tradition with six stories set across the islands of Hawai’i in her new collection, This is Paradise.
This is Paradise as a collection explores, as you may expect, themes of home, tourism, race, authenticity, and “outsiders vs. insiders” (both within the context of a community and individual families). All of these issues spring from a natural tension built into the setting.
Kahakauwila utilizes setting in her stories in every possible way. Maui, Oahu, and Kaua’i are as layered and complex as the most important characters. And characters respond to their surroundings by either like feeling that they deeply belong, or that they never will. In “Wanle,” the main character is woman who has followed her father’s path of cockfighting. Like her father, murdered years ago, she raises, trains, and fights her birds with great dedication. Like her father, she speaks pidgin. Her motivation comes from notions of both honor and revenge, notions tied strongly to heritage and place. To understand this character, it is critical that we, the reader, understand where she is from. And when her lover asks her to give up cockfighting, corrects her English and asks her to speak differently, “properly,” the reader needs to understand the importance, not just of family, but also of home and place to understand what this character’s lover is really asking her to give up.
The title story is told in a wonderfully original and complex structure: in the plural first person from a variety of groups—young surfers, hotel workers, and businesswomen heading home from work as they independently observe and cross paths with a tragic young tourist. The three groups allows the reader to see Waikiki through three distinct points of view, and the beautiful beachfront neighborhood transforms from a daytime oasis, to an everyday place of business and commerce, to a place with a dark nightlife, and finally back again. In the end, of course, Waikiki is not simply one of these places, but all of them at once—and often at odds with itself.
Setting does not just offer characterization and put our characters feet on Earth, it can work to raise the stakes. Setting, a story element too often ignored, can serve as the central conflict.
No matter where the story is set, I’m excited to read whatever Kahakauwila has in store for readers next.
Pair with: the Crown Royal found in Junior’s refrigerator
Alise Hamilton (Episode 7, essay) earned her MFA from Lesley University and holds a BFA in creative writing, literature, and publishing from Emerson College. Her short fiction appeared in the Francesca Lia Block-edited anthology Love Magick.