My childhood was split between California and Maui. For me, holidays in Hawai`i were not the paradisiacal adventures that honeymooners or movie-goers see.
Rather, they were as average as life anywhere else: I watched cartoons with my cousins, paced the mall with my aunties, followed my uncles as they did house repairs. That’s not to say visits were without the flair of the islands: Family meals often were huge, pot-luck affairs with aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends all in attendance. Fish was always fresh-caught, whether by my uncles or a generous neighbor. My cousins and I snorkeled and swam, and they knew the best spots for both.
In 2006, prior to enrolling in graduate school at University of Michigan, I had written stories mostly set in Southern California. But for Christmas that year I visited Maui for the first time in nearly a decade. I realized how far I had drifted away from the part of me that was Native. I didn’t remember much Hawaiian history; I couldn’t recognize words in the Hawaiian language. I hadn’t eaten poi (pounded taro root) in several years. And mostly, I felt culturally separate from my paternal family, despite their efforts to re-introduce our traditions to me.
When I returned to Michigan in January, I began to sketch stories vaguely located in childhood memories of the islands. Those stories won me a summer grant to conduct research in Hawai`i, and a year later, after graduating with my M.F.A., I moved to Honolulu.
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At first, I befriended mostly fellow transplants—outrigger paddlers, classmates in my beginning hula class, the servers I worked with at Brasserie du Vin, a downtown restaurant. I realized that being of the islands doesn’t always mean being Hawaiian. That said, I was also befriended by Native Hawaiians, and they introduced me into Native communities: I pounded poi in Nanakuli, I joined the Hawaiian Civic Club of Honolulu, and I learned (at last!) to surf.
One other reason I moved to Hawai`i was to be close to my paternal grandmother. I didn’t write much in my first year out of graduate school – I was too busy living in and exploring Hawai`i – but when my grandmother died, I began to write in earnest again.
First, I wrote “Thirty-Nine Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral into a Drinking Game,” which combined my research of the missionary influence on the islands with the contemporary traditions of a Hawaiian funeral. Next I wrote “Portrait of a Good Father” and “This Is Paradise.” The stories came quickly, one after another. The voice of Wanle whispered to me for months before I wrote her story, but by then I knew I had a collection and that the landscape of contemporary Hawai`i was my main character.
My goal for the stories was to undo the myth of Paradise while still honoring the beauty of the islands and, more importantly, their people. I wished to draw out Hawai`i’s complicated nature, its anger, its sadness, its generosity, and its sense of history reverberating into the present.