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Kristiana Kahakauwila on Writing This is Paradise

Elegant, brutal, and profound—This is Paradise captures the grit and glory of modern Hawai'i with breathtaking force and accuracy.

This is Paradise by Kristiana KahakauwilaIn a stunning collection that announces the arrival of an incredible talent, Kristiana Kahakauwila travels the islands of Hawai’i, making the fabled place her own. Exploring the deep tensions between local and tourist, tradition and expectation, façade and authentic self, This Is Paradise provides an unforgettable portrait of life as it’s truly being lived on Maui, Oahu, Kaua’i and the Big Island.

By Kristiana Kahakauwila

I like to start stories by describing a real object or incident. This helps me fully imagine the sensory details of the story — the texture of a piece of clothing, the lighting in a photograph, the smell of the air. Then I add characters who have to react to these real objects, but the characters must react as themselves, not me. This helps me delve into my characters, think deeply about who they are and what motivates them, and focus on letting them act in ways that surprise even me.

Take “The Road to Hana” as an example. The story is based on a real road trip I took with an ex-boyfriend, and we picked up a stray dog. It really did have fleas, and those fleas really did end up everywhere! But in real life, we laughed off our misadventure and continued on to Hana and had a great camping trip. In fiction life, I can take the kernel of truth — a dog, fleas — and use it to create a narrative that has big consequences. In the story, the animal exposes everything between Becky and Cameron. The characters are forced to face their relationship and themselves, and they are brought to a brink in their lives. No one is laughing. Such extremity makes for good fiction, but I’m glad it’s not in my real life.

On the best writing days, however, I do discover something about myself. For example, in “Portrait of a Good Father,” Sarah thinks, “The fact of his death is plain, and in its plainness, his death becomes real.” When I wrote that it surprised me. I hadn’t meant to write those words; I hadn’t even been thinking of them. But when I read them over, I realized that this is how I really felt. In the end, the story of losing a loved one is always smaller than the loved one himself, is always plain, is always hard to face in its fact-hood. It made me sad to write this sentence, but it also helped me understand something I hadn’t understood before.

Often, my relationship with my characters is like that. I am focused on describing them, on making them seem like real people even though they are fictional, created by my imagination, and then suddenly, these characters draw something out of me that is real, surprising, previously unthought or unacknowledged. Sometimes I think my characters help me know myself better. Or maybe writing does that. Maybe that’s part of why writers write: We see the world, and ourselves in it, anew.

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