An exclusive Authorlink interview by Diane Slocum

Sharks in the Time of Saviors

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Kawai Strong Washburn

Seven-year-old Nainoa falls from the boat while his family is on an excursion off the coast of Hawaii. When sharks appear, the situation seems even more tragic. But to everyone’s amazement, the sharks rescue Nainoa.  The idea that his rescue must have been through the intervention of ancient gods is reinforced when he develops the ability to heal with his touch. As Nainoa’s family reacts to his abilities in different ways, it is hard to tell if it is a blessing or a curse. His brother, Dean, and sister, Kaui, resent his special attention and all three siblings struggle once they travel to the mainland for college and jobs. When tragedy strikes, they must deal with the meaning of family and heritage. 

AUTHORLINK: What was the first idea that started you writing this story?

WASHBURN: An image of a shark rescuing a child from drowning. From there it became a question of who that child was, who their family was, and what situation had put the child in the water.

AUTHORLINK: What was the evolution of your title?

“The idea of salvation (from socioeconomic distress, from historical injustice, etc.) factors heavily in the story…”

WASHBURN: As sharks and what they represent are central to the plot, they seemed like a good way to indicate both setting and the position the natural world occupies in the story. The idea of salvation (from socioeconomic distress, from historical injustice, etc.) factors heavily in the story and also provides commentary on contemporary histories of the United States, so I landed on that as a powerful word, too. But I only arrived at those choices after playing with many alternate titles that tried to convey the same things.

AUTHORLINK: How did you learn about the Hawaiian folklore and legends?

WASHBURN: Being born and raised in Hawai’i, I grew up with them as part of my life. They were all around me. I did revisit some of my favorite books of myths and legends of the islands to validate and deepen my understanding of them, however.

AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to write and how much of your story and characters changed as you worked on it?

“It took ten years to write. The story changed significantly, both expanding and contracting…”

WASHBURN: It took ten years to write. The story changed significantly, both expanding and contracting over the course of numerous drafts. The characters became deeper, more refined, and their interior language changed; most of the characters oscillated between more and less sympathetic as I tried to find a complex middle ground.

AUTHORLINK: What do you hope we come away with from exploring your characters and their heritage?

WASHBURN: First and foremost, a broadened horizon of what it means to be human, simply from having lived in the head of someone else for a time. But equally important is a better understanding of the relationship between Hawaii and the continental United States, and the ways in which the latter can be a largely inhospitable place for people of color.

AUTHORLINK: Your characters are critical of haole. What would they wish we would do to avoid being Ugly Americans?

WASHBURN: Many things, but it all starts with history. Hawai’i was a sovereign kingdom before it was forcefully subjugated by a combination of greedy white businessmen and the government of the United States, and this theft was reinforced with policies designed to annihilate the people and culture of the islands while simultaneously exploiting the land. People who want to visit the islands should ask themselves if there is a way they can visit that deconstructs that legacy. Who is your money going to when you come here? What demands are you making of the place and people, and what privilege are you exercising that comes at the expense of locals and the native population? Everything shouldn’t be available and convenient and comfortable, whether that means foregoing a visit to a place of natural beauty that is otherwise considered sacred, or passing on coarse approximations of cultural practices (such as lū’au) that have been misappropriated. If you’re someone that hasn’t visited but wants to engage with the place from abroad, you can start by rejecting all forms of media that present the islands as an exotic paradise packaged for foreigners, or as a simple backdrop for selfish foreign fantasies. Instead, seek arts and culture produced by the people of these islands, the sort of things that require work from you as opposed to work from everyone else.

AUTHORLINK: As a native of Minneapolis, I can’t help but wonder how you landed there. It’s about the opposite of Hawai’i in many ways. How did that happen?

WASHBURN: My wife and I have moved around a lot in our adult lives, often driven by the types of work we’ve wanted to do (and where those industries are located). Family has also been a pull, which was part of what brought us, formerly, to California. But the socioeconomic impossibilities of living in California, combined with the already vicious effects of climate change on the region drove us to leave, a decision I regret sometimes. My wife’s family is here in Minneapolis, while my family is scattered all over the United States…so we ended up here out of a desire to have a social safety net, particularly for our children.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

“I’m hoping to write an ‘optopian’ (neither dystopian nor utopian) novel, a realistic vision of the world we could build…”

WASHBURN: Another novel. It spans roughly two hundred years in a fictional island, from a pre-colonial era to a climate change future; elements of reincarnation (the two main characters share a soul across that time) and human-environmental relationships take center stage, along with sacrifice and courage. I’m hoping to write an ‘optopian’ (neither dystopian nor utopian) novel, a realistic vision of the world we could build given all the challenges before us. I’m tired of nightmares and bleak futures, and without a better guide to the world we want, it’s that much harder to get there.

About the author: Kawai Strong Washburn was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of the island of Hawai’i. He left at 18 to attend college in Portland. He has worked in software and as a climate policy advocate. He has been published in Best American Nonrequired Reading, McSweeney’s, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and others. He was a 2015 Tin House Summer Scholar and a 2015 Bread Loaf work-study scholar.