When people on the mainland ask me where I’m from and I say “Hawai’i”—pronounced with a sharp ‘okina, the way it’s supposed to be pronounced, not the way mainlanders do, smoothing it out so they don’t trip over it—their eyes always widen, like, Wow. And no matter which of the five or so rotating responses comes next (“I’ve always wanted to go there!” and so on), there’s always, suddenly, a valley between us. On one side is their sense that, by virtue of where I’m from, there’s something special about me. On the other is my sense that they might actually be right about this, but not in the way they think they are; there is something special about growing up in Hawai’i, but I couldn’t even begin to describe it to them in all its distinct richness.
Kawai Strong Washburn’s debut novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, speaks out of this valley. The Big Island–born writer fills the chasm with lush, pidgin-laden descriptions of Hawai’i as a place, but also as a culture and a spirit that follows its people for life. For those from Hawai’i, moving to the mainland means that, due to almost a century of escapist mythologizing by Americans, nearly everyone around you will misunderstand the place you’re from—and therefore will likely fundamentally misunderstand you. Washburn’s novel is a corrective to these mischaracterizations, a novel so thoughtfully written that American audiences will realize how not only their understanding of Hawai’i but also their understanding of themselves has been corrupted.
The novel begins with a miracle. When a young Native Hawaiian boy named Nainoa falls off a boat near the coast of the Big Island, a shark returns his body unscathed, gently cradled in its lethal jaws. In Hawaiian culture, some sharks are ‘aumakua—ancestral deities—so the explanation seems clear, albeit incredible: Nainoa has been blessed by the gods.
The Hawai’i that Washburn so vividly describes is swollen with indigenous mythology so that everyday life becomes a fertile ground for ancestral intervention. But Sharks also shrinks the distance between realism and magic: the power of the ‘aina constantly crashes up against the reality of being a disenfranchised indigenous inhabitant of long-stolen land. Just before Nainoa’s encounter with the shark, the sugarcane plantation that employs his father—and most people on their side of the Big Island—shuts down, plunging the family into what will become decades of financial misfortune. So, shortly after the incident, the family migrates to O‘ahu, away from familiar beaches and valleys, toward new work. Nainoa matures and begins to develop supernatural healing powers, but as his parents become increasingly concerned with his divine destiny, his older brother, Dean, and younger sister, Kaui, nurse thorny resentments toward him.
Meanwhile, Nainoa struggles to shoulder the burden of evolving into the savior he senses he’s supposed to become, even though he’s unsure exactly whom to help or how. When Kaui accuses him of thinking that his healing powers make him superior, he gets overwhelmed and insists that she could never understand. “I think I’m supposed to fix it,” he says. Kaui thinks he’s referring to their family, but he’s actually talking about Hawai’i—or “maybe even more than Hawai’i.” But when word of his abilities spreads, he starts his healing work at home, curing neighbors in exchange for cash.
Eventually, all three siblings ship off to various parts of the West Coast in search of opportunity and escape. Kaui studies to become an engineer, Dean hustles for a pro basketball career, and Nainoa works as an EMT. With a knowing attention to the details that mark the alienation of life on the mainland, Washburn describes their experiences as a perpetual ache: the silences that haunt phone calls home; the disdain for dirty haoles; the realization that the rain in a place like Oregon hits colder when the water where you’re from is always warm, and the loneliness that accompanies that; the frequent, sudden tugging you can’t explain, swelling deep in your belly, urging you to return. For Nainoa and his siblings, though, it’s about more than just missing home. It’s as if their Hawaiian ancestors are constantly banging at their psychic doors, asking them to recognize their heritage’s distinct gifts. But Washburn’s characters are too caught up—and, at this point, too out of touch with their own indigenousness—to answer the knocking. One night, while practicing on the basketball court, Dean describes that knocking as “almost like there was voices in my head, chanting… That same king feeling in my chest, ancient and big.” Just like his siblings, he doesn’t know how to hold on to it. Obsessed with American metrics of success like good grades and games won, and besieged by the ubiquitous pressure to achieve, the three continually lose sight of their people’s past.
In this way, Sharks blooms into a tale about colonialism’s rippling effects and the pains of diaspora. When Washburn’s characters return to the beaches and valleys they left behind, they encounter reminders of a time when Native Hawaiians lived cooperatively and self-sufficiently on their land—before white settlers stole everything, before the plantations closed, before there were any plantations at all. In a vision, Nainoa sees “Waipi’o Valley, its rivers, then lo’i paddies of kalo stalks growing plump and green, swarming the valley bottom, and there my family is among it all, with many families…” Washburn contrasts this history of collectivism with the Western mandate of individualism that infects Americans today, many islanders included. As the kids’ mother, Malia, describes, that mandate was a catastrophic development. “[Ships] from far ports carried a new god in their bellies,” she reflects, “a god who blew a breath of weeping blisters and fevers that torched whole generations, a god whose fingers were shaped like rifles and voice sounded like treaties waiting to be broken.”
Nimbly rotating between Nainoa’s, Kaui’s, Dean’s, and Malia’s stories, Washburn intertwines their perspectives like the strands of an intricate lei. In this way, he wraps us up in their personal struggles to figure out if they have what it takes to set themselves apart—from their family, from their underprivileged home, from their widely misunderstood ancestry. But right when you find yourself rooting for them the hardest, Washburn unravels what they’ve built, reminding us that setting oneself apart is inherently a selfish pursuit. At the end of Sharks, Washburn leaves readers to wonder if the Western values we bring to the reading experience—for example, an investment in personal growth and achievement, which the bildungsroman has taught us to expect—lead us to misunderstand who the protagonist has been the whole time. Through a subtle bait and switch and a fantastical portrayal of Native Hawaiian culture’s communal spirit, Washburn gracefully pushes us to rethink our understanding of what makes a character meaningful to a story. In doing so, he rethinks storytelling altogether. Ultimately, you may also ask yourself if you’ve misunderstood your own narrative all along—and if you’ve had the audacity to think you’re the savior when really you’re one small part of a much larger and longer story.