Kawai Strong Washburn in Conversation With Tommy Orange
On Craft, Failure, and Sharks, Live from Politics & Prose
DC bookstore mainstay Politics & Prose recently featured Kawai Strong Washburn, author of Sharks in the Time of Saviors, in conversation with Tommy Orange, author of There There. The two discuss virtual book events, appreciating connection more than ever, and the miracle of being transported into another’s consciousness through reading. Please consider buying their books from your favorite local bookstore, or through Bookshop.
From the episode:
Allen: Today, we are very excited to welcome Kawai Strong Washburn, celebrating his debut novel Sharks in the Time of Saviors. Kawai was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island of Hawai’i, and his work has appeared in the best of American nonrequired reading, McSweeney’s, Electric Literature Recommended Reading among many others, and he was a 2015 Tin House Summer Scholar and a 2015 Bread Loaf Work Study Scholar, and we are so excited to have him here tonight. Joining him in conversation with Kawai today is none other Tommy Orange, the author of the national bestselling and like, a list of so many awards, his novel There There, is just amazing. So I know this conversation between these two is just going to be beautiful, Kawai is gonna start it off reading for a bit, and then they’re gonna have a conversation. So, please join Kawai and Tommy. Thank you very much.
Kawai: Cool, Thank you Allen. I’ll just read for a couple of minutes, I won’t read for too long. Thanks for everybody that’s here, I know it’s strange for us to be moving into the virtual world for book events and it would be much nicer if we were all in the same physical space together and had the nice energy that comes with that, but, you know, in lieu of having that, it’s wonderful to see so many people here tonight, I think right now the count looks like 78 people logging on which is I think a lot more than I would expect to be at a reading in person, certainly for me, somebody that is relatively unknown. Having said that I’m just gonna read a section from the latter part of the first chapter.
Just to set the stage really quickly for those of you that are unfamiliar of the work, it sets largely on the Hawaiian Islands as well as on the west coast of the United States, and the family which this story revolves around is struggling through a lot of economic hardship. And this section is from the perspective of the mother actually, so I’ll be speaking in the first person from the perspective of the mother, and they have managed to scrape together a little bit of extra money and they are using it to take a tour, like a boat cruise, which is something that for a lot of people on the islands is kinda out of their reach, and so this family managed to scrape together just enough money to do that, and so now they’re on a short little boat cruise together, trying to enjoy some peace and relief from their otherwise troubling circumstances. So I’ll start reading now:
Tommy: Hi, everyone, I don’t think there’s any… many non-spaces, virtual spaces, there’s no segues to be able to read the crowd, but I’m sure that everyone enjoyed that and was wrapped by its incredible end to the first chapter of this incredible book. Hi, out there. Tommy Orange. This is all very awkward and the timing is always a little off and it’s already hard to do, but thank you all for coming. If I could wear noise-cancellation headphones to every live event, I actually would. I actually like having the sound closer, and the other sounds further… I like that part. Ok, so, before we get to the book—thank you for reading that—let’s just talk about, a little bit how, just because of the elephant of the room (everyone very aware of their rooms, probably more than the elephant, because of being stuck in them) how is this time changed your life or how has it not changed your life? Where are we hearing you from? Like, your room, and your place, and the state.
Kawai: Yeah, so I live in Minneapolis, my wife and our children, we live together here. I have a six year old daughter and a two year old daughter, and we live in a house here in Minneapolis. But, you know, we’re fortunate enough… I turn forty in a couple of months and this is like the first house I’ve ever owned, like I have a mortgage. I’ve been all through… most of my adult life by now I just assumed I’d never owned a house, because everywhere I lived it was way more expensive than I ever thought.
Kawai: But this is it…yeah, thanks, man! But yeah, this is the house and this is the space where I work in my day job—I’m a software engineer—and this is also where I write, so, this is where the failure happens, lots of failure [laughs] with few successes. But yeah, you know, to talk about the question you asked at the start, I think that, more than anything first of all, you know, seeing the way that the coronavirus is spreading, there are so many thoughts I have, one of those: that it’s a good reminder of both how fragile the world is and how interconnected it is and also how fortunate I am and my family is, with the fact that right now this is not as big a threat to us as it is to some people. We’re both fortunate enough to still have jobs and to still know that we have food to put on the table for our family tomorrow and things like that, and so many people, that is just not the case.
And I’d like to think that would give us some space to maybe think about how we can maybe change some of the things the way they are in both the States and the world as a whole, the fact that an illness like this can suddenly put so many people in such a precarious position. So you know, I think I always start from a place of recognition of great fortune and privilege that I have to feel any amount of security, however tenuous the current situation. And also, I think the other thing is it reminds me how much I appreciate the connections—like the daily physical and like spatial connections with people. It’s really hard to be locked down in a house and even when you go out in the street, you can’t…there’s this awkward like,
Some of the people I know that have spoken the most about what it feels like to live through this are people that have lived through the Balkan crisis or things like that, are like, oh yeah, so, someone get out our duct tape and like our bleach to get our water purified and things like that. So you know, it’s… we’re just, in some ways, realizing what it feels like for a lot of other people in the world at a lot of other times. How about you? I mean, is it difficult, how does it feel?
Tommy: It’s changed in the sense that I was on the road a lot doing speaking gigs, and now I’m home, and that’s been nice. And like you, I’ve just expected to be a lifelong renter, and now own a home, and it’s in the mountains. And unlike you, I can go outside and go for runs or walks and I probably won’t see anybody. I’m more likely to run into a wild animal like a bear; I’ve seen bear paws-prints around here that are pretty big, and so I’m more afraid to see a being, or like I’m more afraid to see an animal than I am to see a human where I’m running and walking these days. I’m noticing that somehow, I feel like you’re making eye contact with me, I’m having this thing where if I look into the camera I feel like psychopath, if I look at myself—I hate doing that—if I’m looking at you, do you feel that I’m looking at you? Does that feel…I’m looking at your square, does that feel like I’m looking at you?
Kawai: No, you’re looking slightly off to the side, I think the only way you can make it work Is to look at the camera, which is the worst—
Tommy: It makes you look like a psychopath!
Kawai: Yeah, it’s… [laughs]
Tommy: Because for a brief second, you can catch yourself looking at, like there’s a brief lag where you can catch yourself looking at the camera and there’s a psychopath moment.
Kawai: Yeah… [laughs]
Tommy: I’m just trying to cover my face with my notes. With my questions, so let’s move on, sorry. [laughs] Ok, well I just want to say how much I love this book. Your writing is so beautiful and terse and tough, and the story just moves so well throughout, it’s totally unputdownable and bright and prismatic, and you know, takes us through, you know, story of the life of a family. Could you just talk about where these voices come from? When did you start, how long did it take to finish this?
Kawai: Yeah, yeah… so you know probably twelve years ago, the tail end of that chapter, a child being gently carried through the water by sharks was—I don’t know exactly where it came from, and it was so long ago that I’d be making up a story if I had any idea of what it was, I just can’t remember—but I know that the first time the image came to me I was doing other writing, maybe. I think I was just starting seriously thinking about being a writer, but I was writing a bunch of short stories, and the idea of a shark lifting up a child didn’t seem to me at the time like it was necessarily going to lead to any story, but it kept showing up over the course of several months or maybe even two years or something like that. I would just be taking a shower, or washing the dishes, or going for a run, or sitting on a bus or something, and all of the sudden, the image would come back, and it kept coming back so I started asking questions and wondering, well, if this is… well, who is this child being pulled from the water by the sharks and why are the sharks pulling him from the water, that makes no sense, that’s not normally something that sharks do.
And so I started asking all of those questions, and I would ask some of those questions and just put the image and the questions back away, and you know, I guess, my subconscious kept working on it and wanting to engage with it and so finally when I realized it was persistent and the questions started to lead to what I thought were interesting answers or to interesting further questions, and so I started thinking of a family from there. You know, normally when I think of a child, one of the things I start thinking of is, well, who is this child’s family, and that’s what I did with this image, and starting to think about, well, ok, here’s this family, one of them is in the water being carried off by sharks, what does all that mean? And it started to dovetail with a lot of things—you know, I had grown up in Hawai’i and experienced or had been part of my upbringing that suddenly became things that might be viable parts of this and one of those things was the mythology and the traditions of the native Hawaiian people, that are incredibly interesting and are still very much alive to today and influence people’s—you know, the way they interact with the natural environment.
And so some of those things started to dovetail with the questions I was asking about the family and the shark and it just grew from there. And I started working…once I started asking about the family, the question was, well…I think I just decided I wanted to make it a first person rotating perspective among the family because I really like rotating first person perspective stories, it’s really fun, and obviously yours is an excellent example of that. I love being…I think one of the magic things about reading is you can kind of be transported into another consciousness, you get a chance to live a set of experiences through someone else’s eyes. If it’s done well, for a while, you are living someone else’s life, and for me, I think a lot of the novels I have loved the most that use the first person perspective, those consciousnesses never really leave me, they become part of my life. So I knew that I wanted to write in a rotating first person perspective, and then it was just a lot of work to figure out the voices, because I had to make them very, very different from myself and anybody I knew, I really didn’t want to to draw on myself or anybody I knew, so that took a lot of work, to invent the voices and make them feel valid and real.
Tommy: Yeah, same, same for me, in the sense that I didn’t want to base them on real people, but you want to base it on a reality that you know at the same time. Can you talk about from a craft perspective, what were behind some of your choices around two things, because two things struck me the most, just from a craft perspective and a style perspective in the book. It’s very voice-y, in a good way. Sometimes, I hear voice-y used in a bad way, but in a good way, it means strong voices that I know very well. And the pacing is amazing. And there’s this short chapter thing you do, where you’ll randomly move to another character, and you’re like, this one is gonna be three pages. Get over it. And like, it works! It totally works. So can you talk about some of the craft decisions around voiciness and some of the pacing decisions around how you move prismatically around some of these characters, and how all of the sudden you’ll get eight pages and then you’ll get two pages, and you know, can you talk about craft decisions?
Kawai: Yeah, yeah, and some of them I would have to look back through the book if I can recall them, but certainly from a pacing perspective, I think the chapters get a little bit shorter as the book goes on. I think I made an effort to make the earlier chapters long enough that people could kind of settle into each character and feel kind of attuned to that character before I moved on to the next one, but as it goes on and I kind of wanted to keep the plot moving at a good clip and people were familiar with the characters and had kinda had their moment to orient to each character’s world, then I could shift more quickly between them which I think keeps things moving. And having short chapters is always nice, because you feel like you’ve accomplished something, it’s always nice to be like, oh I finished a chapter! I’m doing something with my life! So that part of it is nice as well. So as it goes on, the chapters get a little bit shorter, at least certainly that was generally my intention.
But you know, crafting the voices was difficult for a lot of reasons, because it spans so much time in the character’s lives, and I tried to put a lot of effort into a lot of different things, one of those was to try and have the characters…so they’re speaking, and if it’s past tense in the early part and as it gets later in the book, it moves in the present tense, and so if they’re talking in the first part of the book it’s in the past tense and so they’re able to have somewhat more…slightly more…advanced understandings of where they’re at, and then as it goes on, it moves into the present tense, and so I had to kind of adjust the ways that they were viewing the events, so that they were ones where they didn’t have any retrospective approach to them in the later sections. So that was one thing that went along with it. And then, trying to figure out in a given situation or even when a character has a given plot, I had to spend a lot of time working through grammatical issues and syntax issues, like, well, how would this sound differently for a fifteen year old girl that is not as…sort of, she doesn’t have the same level of code-switching that her older brother does who really wants to throw around slang and kind of drop into the local dialect. You know, how are they going to phrase things differently? How are their minds going to think things differently? So it was a lot of grammatical work.
And one of the other challenges was that a couple of the characters use, they all have varying levels of pidgin that they use, and pidgin is the term for the Hawaiian patois, or the local lingo that’s used there. And they have varying levels of that, and there’s a way that you can render that so that it is most truthful sonically, and I think if you grow up in Hawaii, and you read literature that is local to the islands, people have a pretty standard way of writing it on the page, and that includes a lot of apostrophes, and a lot of spellings that are hard, at least me as a reader, like, visually on the page, it is hard to read. So I spent a lot of time trying for a middle ground where the words still flow nicely on the page and I find too much, like, if there are too many apostrophes and different marks on the page, it starts to break it up in my mind, and so I tried to find a way to make it smooth and still render on some level the right rhythm of the language and that was really difficult as well. And so, there’s a lot of work on a lot of levels. [laughs] It’s a challenge.
Tommy: We were talking earlier about…before we were on live, we were in a virtual green room, so just so you know—it’s just this. And, well, there is a green border around the framing.
Kawai: [laughs] It’s true! It’s true.
Tommy: We were talking about how there are certain readers we’ve read in the canon, where you know, there are certain boating terms in Moby-Dick, and just like, you read it and you get it or you don’t, you look it up or you don’t. A lot of times you can just keep moving past it, and sometimes people think that publishers over explain and you’re compromised and I don’t know, I don’t feel that was the case in your situation. You handled it so that it didn’t have to be a conversation—is that true?
Kawai: So there were certainly conversations about it, especially at the copy-editing level, right? Because the people that are doing the copy editing are literally like, I look at each sentence and try to make it the purest version of the sentence it can be, which is great, because people at the copy editing phase…you always really learn how bad of a writer you are because you can’t use, like you’re using a intransitive verb, like what are you doing? [laughs] Like, I thought I was a good writer, and now I realize I have no idea what I’m doing.
Tommy: I think after like five or six books, you can fight your copy editors, but at first you’re like, you’re right, you’re right, you’re right. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
Kawai: Yeah, but there were some sections where there was a little bit of back and forth on a couple of things and there were some times where they were like is this really what you meant to write? And I was like, that was really what I meant to write, and you have to leave it. Especially for people who are familiar with the dialect, when it got to some of the more syntactic elements of pidgin, like if you’re from the island you’re like yeah man that’s the way it sounds, and if you’re not, you’re like, what is this? And so you know, I tried to strike a middle ground. And there were some cases, I was like, yeah it’s clear, you were right that there’s more clarity if we structure it that other way, so we’re gonna do it that way for this sentence, but this other sentence, we’re not gonna do it that way. So I had to strike a middle ground, at that level.
So I was just going to say that when it came to slang and a lot of…there’s a lot of loan words in there, right? From multiple languages from Filipino, from Japanese, from Chinese, and from Olelo, Hawai’i, which is the native language of Hawaii, and if you grow up in the islands, it’s all just there. It’s just part of the way you talk with other people, and everyone gathers up these loan words from other languages, and a lot of that stuff is in there, and at one point, there was this question of should this be in italics, and things like that. I was very much like, no, it can’t be in italics, because it draws attention to it, and suggests it is a foreign word on some level, and these are not foreign words If you grow up on the islands, and somebody uses a term like ‘okole, or they use, like basura, which is like, kin of, even an adoption of both the Spanish and the Portuguese word for trash because you could say somebody is garbage or does garbage work by using basura, so there are all these words like that, and they’re just part of the way people talk to each other, and they’re not foreign words! And so, there were times when there was a back and forth, when [people] were like, I couldn’t tell, I thought this was a typo because it’s not a word that I’m familiar with, and I’m like yeah, but these characters are familiar with it….so there was a give and take on some of that.
Tommy: Well, even more so, because it’s first person, like on a realism level, this is how people would be thinking or talking, they’d be using these terms, and there would be no explanation. If you had a third person you may have to like explain why you’re not explaining, or whatever. So, speaking of sort of this middle ground and copy editor, and who eventually read this, did you have an audience in mind, in terms of the way you think when you’re writing and you’re revising, do you think of a general reader, do you think of a community that would realistically actually end up reading your work? Just you know, who do you think of, or who did you think of?
Kawai: It’s going to make me sound like a sociopath, and an egomaniac, but just myself, essentially.
Tommy: No, a sociopath would be like, the entire world.
Kawai: [laughs] Yeah, no….I’m not sure if it was Toni Morrison that said this, and I would hate to misquote her, because she is obviously such an amazing literary force, just like a lioness of American letters and world literature in general, but if it wasn’t her, I’m not sure who it was but they basically said, well, if you don’t see the book that you want, write the book that you want, and that was really where I was operating from, I didn’t know if anybody was going to read it. I kind of didn’t know why I was writing it, I still sometimes don’t know why I write, except that I read things that I love and that move me and that kind of imprint themselves on my consciousness and never leave, and I want to do that.
So, when I was writing this, I just wanted some way to create the magic I experience as a reader and just try to do it. I don’t even know why, you know, because there are plenty of books in the world, but I think I was operating under the perspective of, well, if there were a book I wanted to read that I haven’t read, what would it be like? And that was sort of where I wrote from. And I wrote that knowing that…I know that my tastes are not so esoteric that there wouldn’t be anyone else who’d want to read it. I didn’t know how many people or who, but well, my taste, there are people who have similar taste to me that would probably enjoy reading something I enjoyed reading so I’ll just shoot generally for that. But I think it can be paralyzing, or…it’s too hard to calculate that sort of thing, as a writer, to say, I’m going to try and write for this specific audience…well, I take that back, I think that some people can do that effectively, just I can’t do that effectively, I think that it leads to too much second guessing of myself, and I don’t think I’d be able to really write as freely as I would want to if I was worried about targeting one specific audience.
Tommy: Now, in terms of that, what you were saying about—there are tons of books out there, sure, and what would be a book that you would want to see in the world, there certainly aren’t a lot of well-known books about Hawai’i or anything related to it. I can name very few, there is This is Paradise, a short story collection, amazing, she teaches at the school I teach at.
Kawai: Yeah, so good, it’s such a good collection.
Tommy: But there’s not many other works that are well-known, so as a reader, and as a writer—an aspiring writer before you started writing the book—did you feel, or when you started writing the book, did you feel you were writing into a vacuum? Did you feel that you needed to honor certain literary traditions that existed that other people don’t know about? Like, what don’t we know about this whole world, because I know there’s an indigenous world that also includes your experience, but there’s also specific sectors within that. You know, reservation writing vs. urban Indian writing, there were different things that came into my thinking, what was there/what wasn’t, so could you talk about that?
Kawai: Yeah, yeah, so there have been writers over the years from Hawaii, similar to myself, that have written from the perspective of the islands, with that as the central concern. You know, not necessarily coming to the islands as an outsider, or try to look at them as…I don’t know, you could have a lot of situations where the story is arriving at the islands from some place externally and orienting yourself to the islands, and that sort of writing. And there are several writers in the years who have done that, have written from the islands, and I would say, for the islands, and I talk about a few of those in the acknowledgements, and certainly, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, was one of the first writers I encountered. She published, I think she published, her first books in either the really late seventies or early eighties, and I just found one of her books in the public library, or maybe we read one in school when I was in secondary school, and all of the sudden, it was like, full-on pidgin, people living out in the rural parts of Hawai’i, that has nothing to do with beach resorts or vacations or any of that stuff. And I remember being really struck by that, because it felt like the most recognizable version of Hawaii that I ever encountered.
And so she was the first writer that I encountered to have done that. She’s written a lot of books from Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre to Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, and she’s had a bunch of novels like Blu’s Hanging and things like that. She was published, is published by FSG, and I think that, she had made some waves, she got like Annie Proulx blurb on one of her covers so she’s certainly established herself. There’s also Diana Davenport who wrote a trilogy or four books, it starts with
There are a lot of others, you mention Kristiana Kahakauwila, there are a ton of writers, they just don’t necessarily break through the national scene, so I definitely kept their writing in mind, and I wanted to write in a way that felt like it was…it recognized their work and was in conversation with it, and I also found their work as…you know, some of them started out when there were so many less avenues and places for them to go to get that work on a national stage, and so I definitely wrote from recognizing that they had opened doors that hadn’t been opened previously, and that was excellent as well, so.
Tommy: Were you a reader as a kid?
Kawai: I was, yeah. I can’t remember not reading [laughs]. And it was what I used….any time I was in a space that didn’t feel comfortable or safe, I think my first response is to read. That was certainly how I was as a kid. I can think of a lot of situations in which I would find a book and sit in the corner at a party or something like that when I was twelve and my parents had people over at the house or whatever, so.
[Tommy freezes, Kawai reads an audience question]
Kawai: Ok, so we have four votes for this top question: can you tell me about the title? How you chose it and where it came from? This is actually a funny question because I went back and forth between a whole set of different titles, I wanted to figure out a way to kind of tie together some of the thematic elements that were at a higher level, so things were related to faith and heritage and tradition, while also, finding a way to kind of hope the imagery or what was in the title could point to the islands on some level in a non stereotypical way. So I wanted to avoid anything about paradise or flowers, or you know some very standard images of the islands, and so I was trying to figure out a way to have a shark be part of the title, because obviously the sharks factor in very heavily in the book, but they are also a powerful image.
And again, I wanted to speak to some elements of faith and heritage at the same time, and that’s where the savior part came in. I played around with a bunch of different titles, and I swear, the entire publishing process, I kept telling everyone, look, if you guys don’t like this title, we can pick another title, somebody better than me could probably figure out a shorter title, one that’s cooler. I was very self-conscious the title the whole way through, but people kept ignoring me, I was like, do you want to change the title? And people would just not respond to my emails, so I finally just gave up and was like here it is, so.
Tommy: One more question before I move on to the questions that people are asking, and this is a little bit selfish of me, because the reading muscles in my brain, they have totally…they are just out of shape, because I’m reading so much news and I’m so worried and anxious, I’m unable to get them back into shape, because I pick up something and then I’m just sort of…anyway, but I don’t believe this is the right way to be. And you said something earlier in the green room, just about any sort of reaching an information saturation where it becomes useless to keep reading and stuff. And so I think there’s a good argument to be made and I think you should make it just briefly before we move on to questions for reading questions right now for reading fiction right now. I think it’s a really good time to read fiction, and I am going to actively try to do it more, because to me, it’s way more productive and valuable than consuming a massive amount of information about an experience you feel helpless about with an insane tyrant monster at the helm doing whatever, so.
Kawai: Yeah yeah, so there are a couple of different ways I try to approach it, one of ways is to remind me of the pure joy and magic of reading is reading with my daughters, I love reading books with them that are, that really just transport you into a totally different world where there are talking animals and magic, and I know that some of those books are compromised and problematic and not perfect when we look at the cultural…the awakening that’s happening today, sometimes you can read some of these things and you’re like, ehh….there’s some issues of sexism and some weird undertones that we should deal with some of these older books. And yet you could still, you could find ways to enjoy these books, and so there are a lot of fun kids books I’ve been reading, whether it’s a Roald Dahl book or some of the shorter poems that are in some of the children’s collections that we have at home that we read to our daughters, too. And those things help remind me of the ways that literature can be joyful and playful, and there’s always space for joy and play no matter how serious things get.
And I think there was an article, not an article but an essay that Rebecca Makai wrote (and I’m sorry if I’m mispronouncing her last name, I’ve never met her so I don’t know how to pronounce her last name) but she wrote it last year or the year before in Electric Literature, and she was talking about, basically that same question: what’s the point of writing and reading when it feels like the world is on fire, and she was like, people have always done that, right? She gave these great examples of people that were in cells, prison cells that were on lockdown that were learning poetry and remembering it in their heads or people that were in communist Russia, that were essentially on house arrest that would write poems on their paper and show it to people that would come to their house and then eat the paper so there was no evidence that they had written that poetry, and just that, art endures in all of these time periods, and will always be found as valuable.
I think that Curious George, H.A. Wey, and Margaret Wey, I think that’s the name of the two—the couple—they fled the Nazi advance into France on a bicycle that they built by hand and they carried the first curious George manuscript with them. And this is just
Tommy: No that’s great. Well, I would say just before we go to questions, that your book is definitely one that should be read right now. It’s totally engrossing, unputdownable, has an urgency, and it’s beautiful. And it’s not just about being transported; I don’t think this is a time for escapism, this is a time to read stuff that has depth to it, and this is ultimately a book about family, and what it means to love each other and go through stuff that hurts, and believe in magic and not believe in it. It’s a beautiful book. So I’m going to go to questions. Someone’s asking: I’m curious about what interactions the two of us before now, have we crossed paths before?
Kawai: No. [laughs] Right, that’s the first thought. I mean certainly, I will say that I was in the revision stage…my novel was just finished and we were just sort of sending it out to people when your novel
Tommy: And yeah, for my next novel, I feel like my next novel is sort of in conversation with the Sharks in the Time of Saviors. I feel like it’s stuck with me in terms of forming my next novel. Somebody’s asking me: I just finished the audio book and I love the actors. How involved were you in that production, and the selection of the cast?
Kawai: Yeah, so the audio book publisher, I think their name is Recorded Books? Maybe I’m getting their name wrong, you know the people involved in production did such a good job choosing the actors and at the very end, they were like well, here’s who we’re thinking about using, you know, take a listen. And I was just blown away by the selections they made. I was just like, you found actors that really understand the islands. And I think that I looked up the bios of some of the actors and a lot of them had some connection to Hawai’i, even if they weren’t necessarily from there, I think most of them were from the Pacific Islands and things like that, but I didn’t have any real control or say in that for the most part, but the audio publisher did such a great job. And seeing such talented voice actors, and it was my first real encounter with voice actors, and they are just incredible to listen to, I was just like wow, this is quite an art, and one that I would be terrible at. [laughs] I’m so glad I didn’t have to read the audio, I would’ve done such a worse job than these talented voice actors, so I was very excited hearing some of the finished work they’ve done.
Tommy: I’m in the middle of listening to it now, and I think, and you know I obviously read the book first before there was an audio version, but the audio version is fantastic. I’m really enjoying it. Somebody’s asking: I believe you’ve described yourself as an environmental activist, how has that informed your literary work, and/or do you think it has?
Kawai: Yeah, very much so, and that increases over time. I grew up in Hawai’i, that was where I was born and raised, and some of the most meaningful experiences and informative experiences of my youth were in these incredible outdoor spaces that were in many ways sort of wild and untamed. They were sort of off the beaten path and on hidden parts of the island that locals will know about that you can trek to, but they are inconvenient enough and not publicized enough that you can still access spaces that feel very much off the beaten path. And whether that was some place I was surfing, or even skin diving in the ocean without any sort of breathing equipment, or some of the hikes and valleys in the mountains in the islands, I just have this incredible fondness and connection to the natural world, and that comes through in this book, certainly, because I think some of the themes speak towards a relationship between people and the land, and what I consider important about that, and I also sort of put questions to the ways in which the islands have been compromised by more capitalist endeavors, and all the writing I do now, I really take it to the central question of how I can talk even more about the environment, and how it important it is to me, and really, I think the thing that I’m focusing on now in the novel I’m working on now, is a sense of optimism, I really enjoy the opportunity to try and imagine a better world than the one we have, and to try have that be something that shows up in the current novel that I’m working on.
I want people to be able to both recognize the grandeur of the natural world, and also feel hopeful about the fact that we can still make the world a better place, and a place where we have a stronger connection to the natural world. And this is something that I think the majority of indigenous cultures understood because they depended on a strong relationship to the natural world in order to survive. If you didn’t understand tidal shifts and when it was best and worst to catch fish or how to manage a fishery, or how to plant your crops in a way that allowed them to be sustainable then you didn’t survive, and so it’s one of the things—one of the many things—that indigenous cultures valued and understood that I think we can all learn a lot from, and that’s something that shows up in the novel as well.
Tommy: Ok, we only have one more question, and I may ask one last one before we have a closing statement from Politics and Prose. I’m going to answer this one first, because mine is short, Kawai. If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it. Beverly Cleary said that. Kawai and Tommy: what were your favorite books as a child, teen, and or young adult. I’m gonna first speak, because I was not a reader, so I have none. Zero. There’s nothing.
Kawai: Yeah, so these are the ones I always think of, and I think these are the questions that people are like, well, what’s on your bookshelf that would surprise other people. There is a graphic novel series called Elfquest that was written by a husband-wife duo Wendy Pini and Richard Pini, I think the majority of the creative control actually fell on Wendy Pini, and I remember reading that probably earlier than I should have, because there were complex sexual situations that turn up and there were wars that happened in it where there are images of people being impaled on spears and stuff like that, and I think I read it when I was in fifth grade, and so I think I might have been a little bit young, but that was one of the first books that I remember loving and being totally absorbed in it. It’s a graphic novel series, they were shorter works and they got kind of combined into a few anthologies. It’s also one of the first books I can remember reading that had characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, and so there were different groups that had these different physical features in which I could kind of place myself, I could see some characters and be like that character looks like me, and feels like people I know and I think that made it really powerful for me as well.
And when I got a little bit older, I read a lot of science fiction, and some of it was good, and some of it was bad. But another one I can remember being really influential was Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and I think if you’re like, a young boy, in particular, that feels ostracized and that feels a little bit smart, then the main character Ender—you can feel a certain amount of identification with him, so I read that when that when I was in seventh grade, and I remember that being really influential. And, I think some of the books I spoke to earlier like Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s work, where that was work I encountered when I was a little bit older, that was also influential, and there are plenty of other authors as well.
Tommy: So before we go to close by the Politics and Prose people, if you’re comfortable sharing what is next, and maybe just a brief thought on like, what are your hopes given the context, you know, your book should be giving all the attention it deserves in a normal world, but we don’t have that, so what are your hopes for that, and what is next?
Kawai: Yeah, so, you know, the world is what it is, and I think that trying to…resenting any sort of situation that is beyond your control just leads to dissatisfaction and that’s really true just about any situation, right? You enter a place where you have certain expectations or desires for outcome of a given situation and more often than not, that’s not the way things go, and one of the ways that you can really make yourself unhappy is to hold on to that alternate version of the world that you either wished was there or that is too late to make happen; you spend a lot of time dealing with frustration and regret and things like that.
Just, man, life is so short, I just want to be as happy as I can be in any given situation, and one of those ways that you can do that is to really let go of those notions of ‘I want things to be different than they are’ to the extent that you have no control of that and you just have to let it go and the things that you have control of are the things that you have to focus on, and that’s certainly what I’m trying to do right now, and that has a lot less to do with my book honestly than it does with trying to reach out to some of my neighbors that are elderly and I’m concerned might be in compromised situations that they have to go to the grocery store, and all of the local booksellers and people that work in restaurants and people that work in industries that have just seen these massive layoffs all of the sudden, you know, I spend a lot of time donating to food banks and trying to figure out places I can volunteer to support work for relief in the community and those are things that I can do right now that can make a difference.
Beyond that, my book is landing when it’s landing and it finds its readers or it doesn’t, and I try not to spend…it feels weird spending any time promoting it, and so, I have to strike this middle ground where I feel kind of gross talking about my book, like, oh you should read my book when people are like but there’s a global pandemic. I don’t want to read your book. I want to be safe and happy. So I try not to spend too much time talking to about my book, but—
Tommy: Just to say, your book does have a strong chance to make people feel happy.
Kawai: Sometimes, I’m like, if you feel that, you know, now’s the time to read, you’re certainly stuck at home, then you can enjoy my book, it’s going to take you to totally different world than the world you’re in right now, which is nice as well, so, there’s that side of it. Anyway, in terms of what I’m working on now, I have a new novel. It deals with…there are some elements of reincarnation, and it spans two hundred years. It looks at ancient Hawai’i, and it has a whole bunch of it that’s set in the future, kind of post-climate change in the late twenty first century, and I get to imagine all of these cool interactions between the two time periods through reincarnation and stuff, so I’ve been working on that.
Tommy: So you did decide to simplify it in the end.
Kawai: [laughs] Well, it’s at least in the third person, so there’s not a bunch of different voices I have to construct, so I can only focus on one voice, so there’s that.
Tommy: Well, thank you so much for your time, and your thoughts, and for reading, and your book, most of all.
Kawai: Thank you, Tommy. I never imagined that I would be in a situation where you and I would be discussing my book, I thought my book would fade away. [laughs] And I’m such a great fan of your work, and I’m so excited to see what you produce next, and I’m gonna be right there first in line to buy a copy. I’m so glad to see work like yours out in the world.
Tommy: Thank you.
Allen: Thank you both so much. Kawai Strong Washburn, so amazing, and Tommy Orange…you guys were both so fantastic to listen to, and it was great to have you both on the screen. I just want to say Tony Morrison did say, if there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. So you were right there. Yeah, Tony! Thank you both.