Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila

I have a tall stack of short story collections on the "to-read" shelf of my Bookcase of Unread Books. I've read a number of stunning short story collections in the last couple of years. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, The Lone Surfer of Montana Kansas, Postcards, Natasha and Other Stories. None of them were as gut-wrenching, as multifaceted, as damn good as Kristiana Kahakuwila's This is Paradise.

Across six short stories (really, a couple of them, "This is Paradise" and "Portrait of a Good Father," could stand as novellas), Kahakuwila tracks the difference between outsider, native and local on the Hawaiian islands. This is a topic that has fascinated me for a number of years, since I read Zamora Linmark's Rolling the R's.

Race/ nativeness is a major force in Kahakuwila's Hawaii, though it can be overcome with proper respect and caution. In the title story, a guitar player moves from outsider to local in the course of one well-played song, buttressed by his reverence for his family and for the traditions he inherited from them. At the same time, a young girl is kept outside because she doesn't understand (really, can't begin to imagine) how "Paradise" looks to people who live there all the time and deal with tourists tromping through their home.

At the same time, Kahakuwila strikes universal notes of growth, assuming responsibilities, taking a role in the family in a number of her stories. Most of her characters are physically young, setting out on their lives: the girl on the prowl for a fling in paradise; another girl, an aspiring cockfighter following in her dead father's footsteps; a young man (Hawaiian heritage but a mainlander) preparing to propose to his local Hawaiian girlfriend; the granddaughter at her grandmother's funeral.  The rest are emotionally young: the closeted gay son home to watch his father die; the father and husband and lover who bottles up his emotions so deeply that he fails to be adequate in any role. Her men especially are properly stunted, as befits a hallmark tradition of American literature and film.

This Is Paradise goes on sale in July, and it deserves to be in your must-read pile.

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