2016 Islander of the Year in Literature: Kaui Hart Hemmings

Prolific island author.
Kaui Hart Hemmings
Photo: Courtesy of Samantha O’hara

Following up on a breakout success, especially one with a Hollywood fairy tale ending, can be daunting for a writer. But, for author Kaui Hart Hemmings, what mattered most after 2007’s The Descendants, and its Oscar-winning 2011 movie, was staying true to character. Not only hers, but the all-too-human people who inhabit her stories and novels. “When I write, I’m only thinking about the character,” she says. “But I’m always looking at the idea of Hawai‘i as a kind of paradise and going against it.”


That may explain the code switch in her second novel, The Possibilities (2014), set in a Colorado ski resort like the one where she spent a post-college year. Those who wonder what happened to Hawai‘i need only adjust their gaze to see it’s about us, too: “I wanted to write about that setting of a resort, a place other people don’t think about other than as a place to play. I wanted to write about the people who live there and work there, the ski bums and waitresses.”


There was no snow and no disguising Hawai‘i in Hemmings’ 2015 Juniors. Not only did the novel return to the Islands, it did so in irresistible, cringe-worthy, reality-TV detail. Chronicling a season of social caste clashes among the Kāhala mansion set, it’s experienced through the eyes of a California girl, Lea, whose Hawai‘i-born actress mother has transplanted them both. Enrolled in Punahou as a junior, Lea is both Jane Austen heroine and flawed, hormone-addled social climber. It’s a tough book, a spot-on portrait of how money often gets what it wants, aimed right at the gut of parents and children alike. 


Hot on its heels came 2016’s acclaimed How to Party With an Infant, the story of a single mother, abandoned by a caddish (of course) San Francisco chef, who must rebuild a social life in the wealthiest and most fad-afflicted zip code of all. Stranded among the new Silicon Valley rich, Mele is part Native Hawaiian and wholly unpretentious, constantly sabotaging her progress with witty if embarrassingly accurate ad libs. Naturally, she’s writing a cookbook (sort of—the chapters keep going off-topic into the weird/erotic and scatological). She’s the kind of best friend you want riding shotgun as you cruise North Shore. Yet, even after the right guy notices her, you know she’s still not going to be all sweetness-and-light at her child’s father’s over-the-top wedding to a (snort) celebrity cheese maker. 


If, perhaps, you’ve noticed a theme by now, something to do with class, money, unequally weighted romances, truncated or not-quite-complete families, then stop. Hemmings disavows any Big Ideas. “I’m trying the worst scenarios, the things that I fear, as a mom, as a human. Then I decide to put that on somebody and see how they deal with it.”


In the process, the mother of two and Maunawili resident illuminates the darker and more private recesses of the heart without ever losing a chance to show, as well, the absurdities that lead us there. Not incidentally for local writers who’ve felt the sting of rejection, she’s also quietly proving you don’t have to live on the Mainland to achieve mainstream success.