“You can take the kid out of Hawai‘i, but you can’t take Hawai‘i out of the kid.”
I hear that phrase often as I bust out my thick bubble jacket in 60°F weather, traverse through Seattle rainstorms in my j-slips, and scour the city for decent poke. However, the habits that come from being born and raised in Hawai‘i run deeper than just missing the beach and good rice sometimes. The impact involves the observance and celebration of Hawaiian history and Hawaiian culture. There is a deeper magic to growing up in a heritage-infused island, and Kawai Strong Washburn captures just that in their debut novel Sharks in the Time of Saviors.
The novel tells of a young Native Hawaiian boy, Nainoa, born to a family struggling financially as the sugarcane industry caves. Noa falls off of a boat into the deep oceans off of the Big Island coast and is delivered unharmed by a shark back to his family. His parents, especially his mom, attribute this miracle to the work of the ‘aumakua and old gods of the ‘aina coming back. As Nainoa grows up, he begins to develop supernatural powers of healing leading to concern and anxiety from his parents as they wonder what this means for his future. As Nainoa battles with his instability in himself and what his intentions are with his powers, resentment is fostered and festers in his siblings.
All three siblings eventually head to the west coast of the mainland; Noa, Dean and Kaui pursue higher education and independent life in Oregon, Washington and California respectively. Each of them realize their individual struggles are amplified by their background and feel the nagging presence of the culture they have left behind. Despite being aware of these persistent feelings, none of the siblings are able to tap into and connect with their indigenousness. Not only are the three physically removed from the islands, but mentally and emotionally, their focus and energy no longer offer any room for the spirit of their heritage and the respect it demands.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors holds accurate depictions of typical, non-postcard-like life in Hawai‘i. The detailed, picturesque language leaves no room for misinterpretation or denial of the characters’ truths. Strong Washburn beautifully weaves realism with the mysticality Nainoa and the islands hold. The novel vividly portrays individual pains of each character and how they collectively shape a family’s narrative.
Strong Washburn sheds light on the intimate and elegant nature of Hawaiian mythology proving that its relevance across oceans and generations is more prevalent than meets the eye. With undertones of deep reverence, it is clear that this novel is written by kamaʻāina – someone who lives in Hawaii, or people who once lived there but have moved away- such as the characters in the story. Sharks in the Time of Saviors prompts reflection on the depth of our roots and the power of connectivity through tradition.
Strong Washburn will be doing a virtual reading from Sharks in the Time of Saviors on Saturday April 17, 2021 from 11:00 AM- 12:30 PM at the “Meet the Author: Kawai Washburn Strong Debut Author Book Chat.” Register online.