Monday, September 16, 2013

This is Paradise ~ Kristiana Kahakauwila

I'm never really sure how to go about reviewing short story collections.  Do I just talk about the collection in general or do I talk about each individual story?  Do I just mention the ones I really liked and how much detail do I give?  It's so hard!  I'd love some insight into how other people deal with this.

This Is Paradise (which I keep calling This Side of Paradise, and I didn't even realize my mistake until I did a Google image search for the cover of the book) is the first print book (as opposed to audiobook) that I've finished since I started my new job so woot for that!  It only took me... five weeks?  Eek!  I would never have heard of this book if it wasn't for Emily's enthusiastic review a couple of months back, but when I got a Barnes and Noble gift card for my birthday last week, I knew I had to snatch it up!  And I'm so glad I did.
This is Paradise is a collection of stories from debut author Kristiana Kahakauwila, a native Hawaiian.  The stories are about life in Hawaii - most of the situations aren't actually unique to Hawaii (a tourist who is taken advantage of, a family who loses a child, a gay man deciding if he should come out to his family) but all are given a different flavor by their setting and the pidgin that most of the characters speak.  The stories are at once familiar and foreign, but always recognizable in the depth of human emotion and experience.

The fact that I felt it necessary to identify Kahakauwila as a Hawaiian and not an American author points to a major theme of the collection - the somewhat insular attitude of Hawaiians.  In all of the stories, the characters are constantly conscious of everybody else's Hawaiian status - if they were born there, if their ancestors were born there, if they left, if they came back.  Tourists are mocked and even people who were born there but don't look Hawaiian never truly belong, while Hawaiians raised elsewhere always have a claim.  As a white woman, this was at times off-putting (it didn't put me off the novel but off any desire to visit Hawaii) but always understandable - Hawaii was essentially colonized, with foreigners imposing a culture, a language, and a ton of resorts that take up a lot of space, and not that long ago.  It's not surprising at all that this is still at the forefront of Hawaiins' memories, creating a constant sense of us versus them.

Kahakauwila strikes a great balance between description and purpose in her writing.  The scenes are all vivid without abundant prose - she gives just enough to bring her stories to life while keeping the focus on what's happening rather than on her own writing.  While the writing didn't blow me away, it also wasn't distracting and fit well with the content.  Her transcription of the pidgin that many of the characters speak was excellent - while it was written in such a way that I could understand it, it was always fully distinct from "proper" English and carried its own cadence, sounding natural despite its foreignness.

While all of the stories are great, three in particular stood out to me:

The title story, "This is Paradise," which is told in the first person plural by three different groups of women who all encounter and are in some way impacted by one white female tourist.  What was intriguing about this story was how all of them women in some way connect with the tourist as women, but always maintain the us/them dichotomy, a distance which is reinforced by the use of the narrative "we."  This story was a little confusing for me because I didn't realize until the end that it was three different groups of women, which created some consistency issues, but I was reading it late at night so that was probably more my issue than anything.  Once I had it all sorted out though, it came together really well.

"Wanle" is about a woman who raises battlecocks (a word that made me laugh every time) and is struggling to find a balance between her sport and her romantic relationship while coming to terms with the man her idealized and murdered father really was.  It was actually the cockfighting that most fascinated me about this one - while it disgusted me, it was also kind of incredible how the woman talks about her chickens - they're her children, not mere tools of her trade.  While I in no way changed my opinion about cockfighting, I appreciated this humanizing perspective on the people who do it.

Finally, "Portrait of a Good Father" moved me to tears, which is actually pretty rare for me.  Of all the stories, this is the one whose Hawaiian setting is the most incidental and whose story is probably the least original.  However, Kahakauwila does such a great job of bringing the characters' struggles and emotions to life that my heart just broke for them and their stifled pain.  It was beautifully done and I felt for each and every one of them.

I don't read short story collections all that often but this one made me wish that I did.  The continuity of the writing style combined with so many varied stories is a pleasure and a nice break from reading long novels all the time.  I definitely recommend it.

4 comments:

  1. Oh, I'm so glad you liked this one, too. Two of the three stories you name were also my favorites. I agree with you re: the narrative voice of This Is Paradise--it was a little confusing at first with the "we". But once I realized it was acting like a Greek chorus, it immediately clicked. And, of course, then it made me more prepared for the tragedy to come.

    The story about the cockfighting was so interesting to me, too. It was the first fictional piece about the "sport" that I read after reading a nonfictional piece about it. Like you, I don't condone the pitting of animal against another for the pleasure of the audience, but after reading about, I no longer demonize it compared to other things like horse racing.

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    1. Ugh, horse racing. How is that legal? And animals in circuses... wait were we talking about books? Because I have a whole other rant ready to go.

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  2. I just finished this last week. Loved it, especially the stories you note, and the final story, The Old Paniolo Way. Wow. Great stuff.

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    1. Yeah, that one is great too. Let's face it - they all are.

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