On the west side of the island of Kauai, Hawaii, in the small, unincorporated community of Hanapepe—a historic town that was inhabited by the native people of Hawaii, also known as K ānaka Maoli, for centuries before James Cook arrived in 1778—is Talk Story Bookstore. This is the United States’ westernmost bookstore.
I found the bookstore by accident. My boyfriend and I, in Hawaii to celebrate the marriage of dear friends, had decided to take a drive along the perimeter of the island. We had in mind another “westernmost” landmark, Kauai Island Brewing, as our vague destination. Thanks to my phone’s poor GPS, we ended up missing our turn for the brewery. We found Hanapepe, instead.
The bookstore sits at the end of Hanapepe’s main street; as we inched down the road before sunset, the shop’s hand-painted facade appeared. Located next to the abandoned Aloha Theatre, the building was once home to the Yoshiura Store, a mom and pop food and clothing market that closed in the late 1980s.
Ed and Cynthia Justus, owners of Talk Story Bookstore, moved to Kauai in 2002 and opened the store in 2004. The store’s current signage is salvaged from an old Borders that closed in 2011, effectively making Talk Story the only general interest bookstore on the island.
On the day we visited, I shopped alongside a mix of local and tourist customers. It was busy, especially for a late Sunday afternoon. Ed was working the sales floor, and was kind enough to walk me through the “Local Authors” section.
“I think the books that sell the best, as far as fiction goes—Hawaiian fiction—are the ones that capture the feel of Hawaii, the feel of the culture, that essence that makes it not American,” says Ed.
That essence is richly diverse, as well as historically unjust and tragic. On Ed’s recommendation, I left with a novel called Shark Dialogues by, as he put it, Hawaii’s most well-known author, Kiana Davenport. I took with me a question, too—what does it mean to be a “local author” in Hawaii, this distinct nation encased within a state?
Not all Hawaiian authors live in Hawaii, and just because someone is a “local author” doesn’t mean they are a Hawaiian author. As of the most recent US Census Bureau statistics available for Hawaii from July 2017 , Hawaii’s total population today stands at around 1.4 million, with only 10.2 percent of that population constituting persons of Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander lineage alone. That’s less than 150,000 people.
Meanwhile, as of the 2010 US Census , 1.2 million people across the country identified themselves as being “Native Hawaiian” alone or in combination with one or more other races of Pacific Islander groups. Most Native Hawaiians live off-island—Hawaii has a significant diasporic community, growing since Hawaii was first invaded in the 1700s.
Later, I emailed with Kiana Davenport, who is currently based in New York City. “Our history—forced and illegal annexation, imprisonment of our queen, total destruction of our kingdom, and mass theft of our native lands by the white sugar oligarchy—is a unique story in all the world,” she wrote to me. Davenport’s mother is a full-blooded Native Hawaiian woman who met Davenport’s father, a white man from Alabama, when he was a sailor in the US Navy stationed at Pearl Harbor.
According to Davenport, her mother’s ancestry traces back to Hawaii’s first Polynesian settlers, who arrived in Hawaii almost two thousand years ago from Tahiti and the Tuamotu Islands. Her father traces his ancestry to John Davenport, the Puritan clergyman who co-founded the American colony of New Haven, Connecticut in 1638. Protestant missionaries were the American constituents who led the American invasion of Hawaii almost a century later.
“Any contemporary Hawaiian writer either addresses that tragic history directly, or in the subtext of their novels,” says Davenport. “Native Hawaiians, whether living at home or elsewhere in the world, carry those transgressions in their hearts.”
Of the 1,225,195 people nationwide who identified as being Native Hawaiian (which, for perspective, constitutes less than half a percent of the entire US population) more than half of that demographic identified as being Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander in combination with another race, meaning more than half of Native Hawaiian persons are mixed, or “hapa,” i.e. a person who is partially of Asian or Pacific Islander descent.
Kristiana Kahakauwila is a Native Hawaiian author who was raised in Southern California. She is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University. Her first book, a short story collection called This is Paradise, was published in 2013.
Kahakauwila’s father is Kānaka Maoli and her mother is of German and Norwegian descent. Growing up in Southern California (where Kahakauwila’s father moved for college, met Kahakauwila’s mother, and stayed), Kahakauwila says she and her family did “a lot of back and forth” between their home in Southern California and the Hawaiian islands of Maui and Oahu, where some of her aunties and cousins live.
As a child of the Hawaiian Diaspora, how Kahakauwila’s frames her identity as a Hawaiian author has evolved over time.
“I usually emphasize that I am a hapa author,” she says. “In Hawaiian, [hapa] loosely translates to mixed. I think it’s important to emphasize that I’m mixed, and I think that also opens up certain kinds of spaces for folks who are younger than me, whether they’re writers or students or just mixed-raced kids on an island trying to figure that out. It is a political move on my part to claim that space, rather than just saying I’m Kānaka Maoli.”
The stories in Kahakauwila’s This is Paradise explore life from the perspective of “someone who is betwixt and between something,” she says.
“I’ve definitely had younger people respond to that, because I think it’s a pretty common feeling, she says. “If you’re off-island and you’re indigenous, you feel that sense of loss, being far away, and if you’re on-island and you’re mixed, or not indigenous, you can sometimes feel like you’re not enough. My stories deal with that because it’s something that I’m interested in.”
Hawaii exists in the limbo of being both the fiftieth state and an independent nation that’s still trying to find its way back to the political independence it lost during its illegal takeover.
Native Hawaiians are the only indigenous group in the United States that does not have political sovereignty. In 1893, the US overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy, forcing Queen Lili ‘ uokalani to abdicate the throne. The overthrow of Queen Lili ‘ uokalani was the brainchild of a group of American businessmen and sugar planters who were displeased with her decision to reinstate a version of the Hawaiian constitution that restored power to the monarchy (previously reduced by her predecessor and brother, King Kalakaua, under pressure from the British monarchy). Queen Lili ‘ uokalani also reinstated voting rights for Native Hawaiians under her new constitution, angering many of Hawaii’s white businessmen, who had the goal of overthrowing the monarchy and seeking annexation by the United States via their 13-person Committee of Safety. By the time Hawaii became a state in 1959, reparations for the illegal takeover had still not been made. Presently, the US has not responded to Hawaii’s push for independence with any support.
“What that means for the literary scene is that it can be really fraught at times,” Kahakauwila says. “There’s still a lot of anger and resentment and hurt and because there hasn't been a reckoning with that or a reconciliation with that—certainly not with the US government and not with the folks who amassed a huge amount of land and money in the 1800s and still hold that land, money, and power.”
Though Davenport’s iconic novel, Shark Dialogues, was first published in 1995, its chapters first started appearing in various literary journals and anthologies as early as 1990.
“When I began to write, my only goal was to tell the stories of Native Hawaiians, and our culture—our urgent issues such as environmental degradation, poverty, racism—as well as our heroic and ancient history as fearless nomads who crossed the Pacific with nothing to guide them but waves and stars,” says Davenport. “When I began to be published I found myself categorized as part of a community of ‘global voices’ . . . I am more a portraitist of Pacific peoples caught in the prevailing winds of change.”
Davenport’s fiction is a product of the cultural renaissance that the islands went through in the 1970s and 80s, during which the Islanders reclaimed their Kānaka Maoli culture—its history, as well as distinct cuisine, art and religion—and independent identity in favor of the hyper-touristic identity many still associate with Hawaiian life. Kahakauwila’s work, and the work of her contemporaries, more specifically represents the new guard’s attention to how place, especially fraught place, affects identity, whether the author of such explorations lives on or off-island.
“Kaona,” an intellectual approach to interpreting literature—and one explored by Kahakauwila’s colleague, Brandy Nālani McDougall, in a book earlier this year—helps us think about the evolution of contemporary Hawaiian literature over the past several decades. Nālani McDougall is an indigenous Hawaiian author and an assistant professor in the American Studies Department at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa who specializes in Indigenous studies.
“Within our contemporary Hawaiian literature, kaona’s continuance signals our cultural, and in some cases, political strength and perseverance,” Nālani McDougall said over email. “It also demonstrates our authors’ love for Hawaiian culture, language, and land and their insistence on Hawaiian aesthetics and rhetoric.”
Nālani McDougall describes the cultural practice of kaona as similar to sharing a private joke.
“Within contemporary Hawaiian practice, kaona is often comprised of or refers to forms of cultural knowledge, symbolism, and experience,” she wrote to me over email. “However, those who can’t access such knowledge can still appreciate the literal meaning (a beautiful image, maybe) and may not even know the kaona is there (though they may sense it, just as you would sense a private joke you’re not in on). Only those who are ʻōiwi (‘of the bone’) or are otherwise familiar with such knowledge and experience will be rewarded with a deeper appreciation of layers of meaning, the literal and the metaphorical, symbolic, or allegorical.”
As Nālani McDougall explains it, and the work of Kahakauwila’s, Davenport’s, and others demonstrates, kaona is an ancestral practice that is apparent in Hawaii’s literature, music, hula and everyday conversations.
With close to 10 million people traveling to Hawaii each year, a majority of whom are tourists not “of the bone,” appreciation of contemporary Hawaiian literature is a crucial gateway to this fraught paradise.