50 Essential Hawai‘i Books You Should Read in Your Lifetime

Need something to read—or hand to someone who does? Here’s HONOLULU’s first-ever list of the most iconic, trenchant and irresistible Island books, as voted by a panel of literary community luminaries.


50 Essential Hawai'i Books

Illustration by Michael Byers, Photographs by Aaron K. Yoshino



We’ve all got them—the books we pull off the shelf and hand to a curious child, a first-time visitor and that friend who couldn’t be bothered, but suddenly is. They’re Hawai‘i nei’s early texts, histories, novels, pidgin classics, poems and plantation stories.


Repositories of basic and arcane knowledge, books are where bodies and cultures and adventures are buried, only to be exhumed each generation—if lucky readers know where to look. That’s why HONOLULU decided to create this list. It occurred to us that if we could pool our favorite and most influential titles, we’d be doing a favor to readers of the future.


Having such a list will also, we hope, keep these great books in print and bring back a few that lack a current publisher. That’s important because books make the best cultural storehouses; they’re built to last, and to outlast fads and technological “advances.” Ever try to boot up a floppy disk lately?


We know lists can rub people the wrong way, so instead of a canon, with all its associations of assigned reading and exclusion of minority voices and end-of-semester-quizzes, we propose this as a commons. It’s a shared resource like our ocean and ‘āina. It’s a place to help yourself to wisdom, perspective, hilarity, joy and, most of all, a sense of who we are and how we got here.


SEE ALSO: Essential Hawai‘i Books You Should Read: The Next 134


The Criteria

We felt the 50 should include seminal books that ground readers in Hawai‘i’s past and key turning points; reflect the varying contributions of cultures and classes, as well as their clashes; make us laugh in recognition; and allow us to connect with our Island communities.


While it was important and natural that books be selected for their impact and influence, we strongly felt that they must be readable. It’s a subject we know something about, as a magazine with 130 years of attracting and keeping readers from all walks of life. We know from taking the pulse of Honolulu and the Islands that it does no service to the common reader (Virginia Woolf’s favorite term for her imagined audience) to recommend dense or archaic volumes, or works of punishing difficulty. While we were bound and committed to the outcome of the voting, we did ask that our judges keep readability on the front burner. And they did.


SEE ALSO: The Hawai‘i Writer’s Life


The Categories

To organize things, and make the list readable, we came up with a few simple categories: Foundational Texts, to cover the time before and after the arrival of James Cook and European contact. (Cook’s own Journals, by the way, did not make the cut.) History & Social Criticism covers works that changed hearts and minds, often by upending assumptions and pointing out abuses by the powerful. Lucky We Live Hawai‘i reflects our shared life through biographies, talk-story classics and memoirs, ranging from the first comprehensive life of Duke Kahanamoku to Pidgin to Da Max to Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father. Novels & Short Fiction needs no introduction. Poetry is there too.


We were tempted to include children’s and young adult books, but, as important as these are for growing future readers, our judges suggested too many. Instead, you’ll find a list of voter favorites in the May issue of our sister publication, HONOLULU Family, and online.


What Stood Out

Besides James Michener’s Hawai‘i barely making the cut—while Mark Panek’s gritty exposé Hawai‘i outscored it—what stood out was the consciously local, provocative writing that revved up in the aftermath of the 1978 and 1979 Talk Story Conferences. Like a relay race, we see a chain of books coming out, building on each other’s momentum, many by members of or affiliated with Bamboo Ridge, the journal edited by Eric Chock and Darrell Lum; others brought out by Bennett Hymer’s Mutual Publishing, particularly fiction; work by students of University of Hawai‘i professor Ian MacMillan, himself represented by two books; titles published and kept in print by the Bishop Museum Press, University of Hawai‘i Press and Kamehameha Publishing; and grass-roots best-sellers from Buddy Bess at Bess Press and Robert Barclay’s upstart Lō‘ihi Press.


What didn’t we see? Titles by more recent generations—a natural outcome of the time it takes for even good books to become well-known. We did invite two Gen X writers, Christy Passion and Kristiana Kahakauwila, whose acclaimed books barely missed the 50, to short-list their inspirations.


One rising reputation from out of the past is that of O.A. Bushnell, who died at 89 in 2002 but whose books received the fourth-most votes overall. Combining his career as a bacteriologist and microbiologist at the University of Hawai‘i School of Medicine with his literary acuity, ear for pidgin and affection for the hapa-haole world he grew up in, Bushnell wrote gripping and evocative novels and The Gifts of Civilization: Germs and Genocide in Hawai‘i. He was also fondly recalled and praised for a stirring address at the 1978 Talk Story Conference in which he urged local writers to seize the day and write their own stories—as the only way to reject the Mainland and colonial narratives.


Finally, while we said we won’t rank titles, we will recognize the top aggregate vote-getter, who, by a wide margin, was Lois-Ann Yamanaka. Yamanaka and her blazing streak of books, especially the four written one after the other in the 1990s, struck home as instantly recognizable portrayals of a rough-edged, mouthy, diverse and hilarious collective Hawai‘i consciousness. Following Yamanaka in aggregate scoring were Mary Kawena Pukui, Chris McKinney, Bushnell, MacMillan and Gavan Daws.


To close, we would like to stress again that while we call this list essential, we know it’s not the last word. Another 50 in 10 years will undoubtedly reflect another order of priorities and books. Until then, we have two suggestions to make: Millennials, won’t you take up the pen? And, for all of us: Act now and order as many of these as you can, to support local authors and publishing. Fill out your home library—before the next incoming ballistic missile alert strands you in a closet with a dead Kindle.


The Fine Print: How We Chose the 50 Essential Hawai’i Books.


Foundational Texts


1. The Kumulipo

various translations

The Hawaiian creation chant makes everyone’s list. Its epic sweep yet intimate focus on the origins of many familiar local species—including, eventually, humans—gives it a surprisingly modern feeling of unity and relevance. As poetry, it’s sublime; check out these opening lines (translated by Lili‘uokalani): “At the time that turned the heat of the earth, / At the time when the heavens turned and changed, / At the time when the light of the sun was subdued / To cause light to break forth …” Owing its survival to a combination of fortuitous events, starting with it being written down by an 18th-century ancestor of future King David Kalākaua, The Kumulipo is most of all a spiritual live wire connecting pre-Contact Hawai‘i to her people in our own time and place. (Also translations by Martha Beckwith and Rubellite Kawena Johnson.)


2. Hawaiian Mythology

by Martha Beckwith​

Hawaiian Mythology

A childhood growing up in the Islands fed Beckwith’s fascination with its legends, which she collected over decades while also researching and publishing books on Jamaican and Native American mythologies. A student of anthropology pioneer Franz Boas, Beckwith was the first person to hold a chair in Folklore at any American college or university (Vassar). She finally published this monumental and comprehensive work in 1940, at the age of 69.


3. MARK TWAIN’S Letters From Hawai‘i

by Mark Twain

After tasting his first national attention for a short story, 31-year-old Samuel Clemens sailed to Hawai‘i and sent back 25 letters to the Sacramento Union about his experiences. Reading them in sequence is to see Twain shed many of his cultural and racial biases while claiming his arch voice and irreverent outlook—the cornerstones of his future success. In a way, Hawai‘i made Twain; and as a result, the Hawai‘i of 1866 that he describes feels fresh and alive.


4. Six Months in the Sandwich Islands

by Isabella L. Bird

Six months in the sandwhich islands

In the guise of writing to her sister back in Edinburgh, Scotland, Bird recreated her experiences in 1873 Hawai‘i with sound reporting but also a canny understanding of what readers wanted from a most unusual creature: a woman traveling alone in foreign lands. Refreshingly free of the usual heroic male tropes, she lends her sympathetic eye and ear to all she encounters, from volcanoes to kings and common people living in rural isolation.


5. Ancient History of the Hawaiian People

by Abraham Fornander​

Ancient History of the Hawaiian People

When Swedish whaler Fornander deserted his ship in 1844 and took an oath to Kamehameha III, he made his name as a sage counsel in fields as varied as agriculture and public education. His early Pacific voyages and gathering of legends and genealogies in Hawai‘i led to him writing and publishing serial volumes (beginning in 1877) of this influential history that traces the origins and migrations of Polynesians.

6. Hawaiian Dictionary 

by Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert


Starting in 1923, Pukui published book after distinguished book that translated, preserved and/or described aspects of Hawaiian culture, but the 1971 dictionary has probably seen the most use and done the most in furthering the resurrection of the Hawaiian language.


7. The Legends and Myths of Hawai‘i

by David Kalākaua

It’s acclaimed for its readability as well as its combination of oral history and myth with the dramatic events that changed Hawai‘i, including the death of James Cook and the abandonment of kapu and religious rites. But this 1888 book also reveals Kalākaua as a captivating and sophisticated storyteller. He vivdly evokes spiritual beliefs and practices, the probable genealogical origins of his people, and modern political turmoil, while striking an easy and informed personal tone.


8. Hawaiian Antiquities

by David Malo 

Hawaiian Antiquities

“No single Hawaiian-language work has been more influential than David Malo’s Ka Mo‘olelo Hawai‘i,” is a typical appreciation of Hawaiian Antiquities, this one by University of Hawai‘i religion professor and critic John Charlot in 1992. Born in 1795, Malo was trained and educated in a chiefly court, and his observations and recollections (first published in 1838 and then in a fuller 1858 edition) are some of the best available of early Island life and ritual, if filtered through the lens of his later conversion to Christianity. It is source material for many past writers and, undoubtedly, for future generations.


9. Kalaupapa: A Collective Memory 

by Anwei Skinsnes Law 

Kalaupapa: A Collective Memory

Hawai‘i’s experience of the encounter period seemingly reached a place of pure distilled tragedy in the arrival of Hansen’s disease and the creation of the quarantine colony of Kalaupapa. But how it rose to become a refuge of self-reliance—thanks to activist sufferers and their families, aided by the selfless ministry of two future saints—is detailed in these 200-plus hours of interviews with actual residents and the supporting archival documents of the early petitioners who asked for help and to be treated with basic humanity.


10. Ruling Chiefs of Hawai‘i 

by Samuel Kamakau

Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii

Going back eight generations before Kamehameha I, here is Hawai‘i’s story from an indigenous point of view, gathered between 1866 and 1871 from oral histories, chants and knowledge. “No historian, anthropologist, or other scholar of ancient and early modern Hawai‘i can afford to be without this key source close at hand,” wrote noted anthropologist Patrick Kirch as a foreward to a revised edition. Many writers of fiction and poetry cited it as well.


11. ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings

by Mary Kawena Pukui and co-authors

Olelo Noeau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings

The indispensable Pukui touches on so many aspects of Native Hawaiian culture, from luminous translations to careful collections of songs, poems, rituals and records of how previous generations lived. This 1983 volume, the last to be published in Pukui’s life, reads as a valedictory culmination of her ethnographic and linguistic career, describing and making available the poetic genius of the Hawaiian people. (It was her most popular book in the voting.)


History & Social Criticism


12. Hawai‘i’s Story by Hawai‘i’s Queen 

by Lili‘uokalani

Hawaii's Story By Hawaii's Queen

The queen’s own story follows a carefree coming-of-age template that darkens as the aggressive designs of a newly colony-hungry United States and a scheming class of immigrant sugar plantation owners gradually converge. Her increasingly desperate endgame to avoid the overthrow—the first American-sponsored coup d’etat—still has the power to infuriate and inspire demands for redress.


13. And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawai‘i 

by Stephen H. Sumida 

And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawaii

This pioneering 1991 work made a major impact by validating local writing through local perspectives, while using traditional literary criticism to overthrow the establishment’s tired and patronizing assumptions. It’s still an illuminating read for this and also for its clear annotation of debates sparked by the novels, stories, essays, poems and plays that came out after the 1978 Talk Story Conference.


14. Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case

by David E. Stannard

Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow's Spectacular Last Case

The Massie Case of 1931 has not lacked exposure in print and film and even poetry (2016’s What We Must Remember), but the standard, voters agree, is Stannard’s 2005 book. It was published to praise by reviewers for its scholarly rigor and eloquence as well as crucial access, according to The American Historical Review, to “previously suppressed material like the 331-page Pinkerton Detective Agency report (1932) that found the accused Hawaiians innocent.”


15. Land and Power in Hawai‘i: The Democratic Years 

by George Cooper and Gavan Daws

Land and Power in Hawaii: the Democratic Years

It took the combination of a writer-professor (Daws) and a lawyer-turned-journalist (Cooper) to penetrate the tangled web of real estate dealings among the political and powerful in Hawai‘i. Originally published privately in 1985, the book can be slow going. But follow the money and you’ll see how it shook up the state, by calling out the practices and payouts from the days of the Bishop Estate and the old-school Big Five landowners, to the new era ushered in by the Democratic sweep of 1954.


16. From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai‘i 

by Haunani-Kay Trask

Coming together from essays written in the centennial years of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i’s overthrow, this ambitious targeted attack on the systematic abuse of Native Hawaiian rights, culture and political agency made an impact both visceral and immediate. And it’s still being felt, inspiring successive generations of activists and writers with its clear-eyed denunciation of the many ways racism, sexism and imperialism are perpetuated on the land and people of Hawai‘i.


17. Ho‘i ho‘i Hou: a tribute to George Helm & Kimo Mitchell 

edited by Rodney Morales

A spontaneous upwelling, the 100-plus entries in this memorial to the two Hawaiian activists—who disappeared while crossing the ‘Alalākeiki Channel off Kaho‘olawe—became an instant sensation for capturing the moment through the men. Reading its songs, poems, testimonies, telegrams, biographies and letters today, it’s possible to feel anew why and how, after the deaths of Helm and Mitchell, decades of protest broke through federal and state indifference and stopped the bombing of Kaho‘olawe. We also see how the loss of Helm, and all his talents and political energy, fed rather than diminished the movement.


18. Broken Trust: Greed, Mismanagement & Political Manipulation at America’s Largest Charitable Trust 

by Samuel P. King and Randall Roth

“A nuanced story of greed countered by integrity, intimidation met by resolve, and imperiousness vanquished by activism,” as one reviewer wrote, this 2006 expansion of the explosive newspaper exposé goes deeper and provides cultural context of the corrupt collusion of Bishop Estate trustees, the Hawai‘i judiciary and the state executive branch.


19. Fragments of Hawaiian History 

by John Papa ‘Ī‘ī 

Fragments of Hawaiian History

Another touchstone of Hawaiian culture written by one who grew up educated in the old world and was forced to make his way in the new, Fragments is just that—selected articles written by ‘Ī‘ī between 1866 and 1870 for Native Hawaiian newspaper Ka Nūpepa Kū‘oko‘a. By this time, ‘Ī‘ī had a fabled and illustrious career behind him and was compelled to record what he’d seen and experienced before it vanished forever.


20. On Being Hawaiian 

by John Dominis Holt

On Being Hawaiian

The 1964 publication of this 64-page essay marks one of the breakaway moments in the Hawaiian Renaissance. “I am Hawaiian … somewhat by blood, mostly by sentiment,” wrote Holt. “It all comes back to our choice: to live as Hawaiians or not. I believe we still are warriors …”


21. The Value of Hawai‘i: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future 

edited by Craig Howes and Jon Osorio​

The Value of Hawaii: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future

Imaginative and on target, the 31 contributors to this 2010 collection include some of the most incisive activist minds in the Islands, taking on the biggest issues facing Hawai‘i, from economic and social inequality to energy to transportation to Native Hawaiian issues.


22. Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands 

by Gavan Daws

Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands

“Why aren’t all his books here? They’re all brilliant!” was one voter’s comment about author Daws. But if we had to pick one, Shoal rose up out of the sea of writing about Hawai‘i at the right time, 1974, when the need for a fresh, comprehensive and lively post-Cook history was most acute. Daws’ style, deft sarcasm and energetic storytelling still hold readers today.


Lucky We Live Hawai‘i


23. Hawai‘i One Summer 

by Maxine Hong Kingston

Hawaii One Summer

Kingston wrote many of these quicksilver essays for The New York Times while living in Honolulu and finishing what would become her genre-bending best-seller, The Woman Warrior. That book woke the U.S. to an Asian-American experience that would no longer take a polite back seat to anybody on the literary bus. The stories here feel like a distillation of the spirit of the 1978 Talk Story Conference, where her appearance was a highlight. “She has affected more Hawai‘i people in understanding Asian-American identity,” wrote one judge. 


24. Pidgin to Da Max

by Douglas Simonson

Pidgin to Da Max

It feels like a time capsule now, the original bright yellow book with the wildly gesturing locals talking pidgin while making side-eye and stink-eye and even aku-eye at each other. But it delivered the shock of recognition and still feels spot-on and funny, a chronicle of a cultural moment that should not be lost.


25. Pass On, No Pass Back! 

by Darrell H.Y. Lum

Pass On, No Pass Back!

“Only in Hawai‘i” probably best describes these stories, whose unassuming titles—“Victor,” “Horses,” “Toad”—launch readers into their young characters’ stream-of-pidgin consciousness. Cartoons by Lum’s intermediate school classmate, Art Kodani, add deadpan absurdity. A local treasure, where pidgin meets modernism.


26. Folks You Meet in Longs and other stories 

by Lee Cataluna

Folks You Meet In Longs and Other Stories

“No other work celebrates and confronts who we are and how we live in these Islands as well as this collection of monologues,” writes a judge; another notes how the final story subtly reflects the sale of Longs Drugs to the CVS chain, bringing an end to an Island institution—not the store, per se, but the ritual it represented.


27. Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku 

by David Davis 

Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku

The first comprehensive biography of Kahanamoku traces his well-known influence in spreading surfing and professional lifesaving, and his still-astonishing feats as an Olympian, but also as a conscious trailblazer of integration around the globe during a virulently racist era. Sports archivist and author Davis exposes Kahanamoku’s mistreatment by the local power brokers in Honolulu, who led a vicious campaign against the 1912 Olympic gold medal winner that forced him to leave the Islands. (He would sue The Pacific Commercial Advertiser for libel and win.) A must-read for this little-remembered episode and many others, all meticulously documented.


28. Growing Up Local: An Anthology of Poetryand Prose from Hawai‘i

edited by Eric Chock, James R. Harstad, Darrell H.Y. Lum and Bill Teter 

Growing Up Local: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose from Hawaii

A compilation of stories and poems belonging to the genre known as “What school you went?” this banquet of a book evokes cultural epiphanies from everyday rituals (“How to Cook Rice” by Kathleen Tyau), a mother’s folk remedy (“Tongue” by Juliet S. Kono), the self-inflicted wounds of girls who’ve assimilated the pecking order of body types and skin tones (“Carnival Queen” by Mavis Hara) and much more.


29. Hawaiian Son: The Musical Journey of Eddie Kamae 

by James D. Houston with Eddie Kamae

Hawaiian Son: The Musical Journey of Eddie Kamae

This beautifully detailed, revealing collaboration spans the last century as it follows Kamae from newsboy playing ‘ukulele on a loading dock for nickels, to 1940s jazz innovator, to prison inmate, to co-founder of the Sons of Hawai‘i. Then the self-taught filmmaker became Mary Kawena Pukui’s ethnographic scout—roaming the Islands in 10 documentaries that captured songs, backroad musicians, spiritual seers and other vanishing gems of Hawaiian culture.


30. Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

by Barack Obama 

Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

Published in 1995 in a modest edition, this memoir has had almost as improbable a career as the future president from Punahou. Only becoming a best-seller in 2004 after Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, it helped propel him to the Oval Office. By 2011, Time would anoint it as one of its top 100 nonfiction books written in English since the magazine’s founding in 1923. The descriptions of the young African-American wrestling with issues of racial identity and an absent father struck a global nerve; but for Islanders the book is especially loved for its portrait of a local kid from a fractured family thriving thanks to Hawai‘i’s inclusive values and community consciousness—the same aloha Obama would later bring to leading a fractious, divided nation and world.


31. Big Happiness: The Life and Death of a Modern Hawaiian Warrior 

by Mark Panek

Big Happiness: The Life and Death of a Modern Hawaiian Warrior

The author spent five years in Japan following Waikāne’s Percy Kipapa and his rise to become the sumo wrestler known as Daiki—then broadened his book’s canvas as the life of “Big Happiness” darkened and he returned home. In doing so, Panek created a deeply felt portrait of the struggles endemic to dispossessed Native Hawaiians and, after Kipapa’s death, a mesmerizing murder mystery.


Novels and Short Fiction


32. Hawai‘i 

by James Michener

Hawaii by James Michener

“I realize you’ll probably have to include him,” wrote one judge, echoing many. The big blockbuster of 1959 was manufactured to boost the jet-age tourist boom and has not aged well, given its by-the-numbers stereotyping and soft racism. But the legacy of his churning prose and cringe-worthy plot twists—interracial love punished by a tsunami!—must be dealt with by local writers, particularly as many Mainland readers and East Coast publishers still think it’s the best example of a book about Hawai‘i.


33. Moloka‘i 

by O.A. Bushnell


Historically informed, thoroughly modern in style and literary ambition, this 1963 novel starts with a first-chapter shocker—a German doctor suggests human experimentation to King Kalākaua as a path to curing leprosy—then rides the voices of its three narrators into the agony of the Kalaupapa colony, where the heart’s motivations also come in for Bushnell’s intense and unflinching scrutiny.


34. All I Asking For Is My Body 

by Milton Murayama

All I Asking for is My Body

“A declaration of independence … from unjust obligations and servitude,” as critic (and author, see page 48) Stephen Sumida wrote after it came out in 1975, Murayama’s novel confronts the classic double-bind facing Japanese-Americans born and raised in Hawai‘i—how loyalty to community and a patriarchal family system runs counter to individual destiny and self-determination. Like many contemporary residents of the Islands, the characters in this 1930s-era story labor unceasingly for pitifully small wages while carrying the extra burden of inherited debt. To break the cycle, even in modern times, seems to require a miracle—which this story does, in a way, still provide to local writers.


35. Blu’s Hanging

by Lois-Ann Yamanaka 

Blu's Hanging

Three poor, suddenly motherless children struggle to get by in a chaotic world, which unsurprisingly for Hawai‘i and its youth, is inflamed by highly colorful, mordantly comic swaths of ethnic and cultural stereotyping and innuendo. Some people found this shocking, shocking. “Regardless of the controversy, my favorite of her books,” wrote one voter; many concurred.


36. Waimea Summer 

by John Dominis Holt

Waimea Summer

In one slim 1976 book, the outspoken Native Hawaiian Holt masterfully swings from the supernatural to the harshly unsentimental. It’s a coming-of-age story, a coming-to-racial-identity story, a paniolo portrait and a Turn of the Screw-like ghost story that pits good and bad kāhuna against each other. There’s even a gay subtext in this striking and unique work; but soaring above it all is the question of whether Western and Native Hawaiian identities can ever mingle comfortably in one body.


37. The Return of Lono: A Novel of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage 

by O.A. Bushnell

The Return of Long

“First off, please consider O.A. Bushnell, a preposterously neglected talent,” wrote a judge. Winner of the Atlantic Monthly fiction award in 1956, Bushnell’s novel of the fateful encounter between Native Hawaiians and Capt. James Cook marked a breakthrough for local literature written by its people, then recognized and published by a major East Coast press. A kid from a “slum area of town”—Kaka‘ako—Bushnell became a microbiologist and medical historian, while embracing Hawai‘i’s stories with empathy and precision. The Return of Lono was a promising step forward for Hawai‘i lit. But Michener’s book followed it three years later.


38. The Red Wind: Makani ‘Ula 

by Ian MacMillan

The Red Wind: Makani Ula

A haole who marries into a Hawaiian family, adopts Hawaiian values and spends the generations after World War II building canoes, Kenika finds his spirit and world tested and undermined by Mainland America’s consumer-culture values—including drugs—as they swamp the Islands, seduce his children and threaten his beloved Windward O‘ahu.


39. Moloka‘i

by Alan Brennert

Molokai by Alan Brennert

The local writing scene has a reputation for being closed to Mainlanders, for good reason (see the movie Aloha). But voters embraced Brennert’s 2003 telling of the story of Father Damien, Sister Marianne and Kalaupapa. That’s probably because the Southern California-based writer—whose television credits include Star Trek: Enterprise, L.A. Law, The New Twilight Zone and Wonder Woman, as well as a handful of Batman and Wonder Woman comic books—researched the novel for a four-hour mini-series that ended up never reaching the screen. Having been written to be visualized, and laced with well-placed plot points, the story’s power to haunt us is fully realized.


40. Hawai‘i 

by Mark Panek

Hawaii by Mark Panek

In a contemporary Honolulu that feels as soiled and cynical as today’s headlines, a big real estate deal is going down—and in a tsunami of powerful, noisy scenes we watch everyone sell out. Panek’s funny, at times excruciatingly intimate account is informed, he’s said, by hours of interviews with insiders. Certainly there’s plenty that feels familiar in his snap-portraits of politicians on the make, arrogant Chinese investors, rich prep school kids slumming around town, on-the-take Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, cowardly university liberals, white-collar state-job sports-betting strip-bar habitués—not to mention gangsters, bent cops and sex-and-shopping-addicted Daddy’s Girls from Kāhala. When it’s over you’ll feel like you know why things always turn out the way they do.


41. Shark Dialogues 

by Kiana Davenport

Shark Dialogues

A modern epic of the Hawaiian diaspora—the plot follows four granddaughters hailed home by their mesmerizing, indomitable Pono—Shark Dialogues (1994) is as often hailed for its female-driven storyline and insights as for its lyrically adventurous language and tako-tentacled plot. Though Pono’s hard, magic-realism life has raised her and her coffee plantation to success, she’s now old and ready, like King Lear, to dispense wisdom and, perhaps, more. By granting each granddaughter her own life story—one has lupus, another’s a veterinarian in New York City, a third is a lawyer in Australia and a fourth an abused wife of a yakuza—Davenport rejects the tidying impulse of conventional novels. In the process she comes up with something new, a little over the top, and unforgettable. Part of a trilogy.


42. The Tattoo

by Chris McKinney

The Tattoo

Narrated by a new Halāwa prison inmate, Ken Hideyoshi, to a mute white supremacist who’s giving him a samurai tattoo, this 1999 story of fallen lives and twisted, ill-fated loves in the underworld of Honolulu is rediscovered for good reason by new readers every year.


43. Rolling the Rs

by R. Zamora Linmark

“Adventurous in form, courageous in content,” wrote a judge of one of the most-stolen books in local public libraries (to judge from a recent catalog search). The various coming of age stories of adolescent gay Filipinos in Kalihi read “like a poetry slam,” said one mainstream reviewer when it came out in 1995; the fireworks go off as loudly today.


44. In the Time Before Light

by Ian MacMillan

Int he Time Before Light

Published posthumously in 2017, this story is the newest member of the Essential 50. Its protagonist is a commoner kanaka maoli at the time of Contact who survives an epic, bloody and sorrow-filled life only to end up as an old man in Waikīkī, watching yet another epidemic wipe out more of his people. The prose is charged and precise, the battle scenes propulsive and gory, reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy. The cruel irony at the heart of the story is the massive changes that force modernity on this lower-caste boy also allow him to adapt and, inevitably, evolve in knowledge and wisdom. This, however, only sharpens the pain he feels at what has been lost.


45. The Descendants

by Kaui Hart Hemmings

The Descendants

The novel that everyone thinks they know, thanks to a certain movie, is a work of such concision and elegance that it solves the question that haunts, and bogs down, many novels of Hawai‘i: what to do with all our history. Hemmings’ solution is to bury it in the setup—the haole-fied part-Hawaiian husband of a wife on life support discovers her infidelity as he’s about to sell unspoiled family land—and let the story play out naturally and without long-winded digressions. The result is a master class of technique, if a little on the light side for those used to a heavier touch.


46. Da Word

by Lee A. Tonouchi

Da Word

When Lee Tonouchi embraced the movement to stake pidgin’s claim on Hawai‘i literature—as well as to reclaim it from abuse at the hands of non-Island writers—he didn’t go in for half-measures. This 2001 story collection is virtuoso Tonouchi, dealing out comedy and heartbreak in lines that show off how pidgin can be simultaneously spare, recondite and wildly inventive.




47. The Folding Cliffs 

by W.S. Merwin 

The Folding Cliffs

From the first swift lines, the story of Pi‘ilani, Ko‘olau and their son, Kaleimanu—the 1890s family made fugitives by a sentence of leprosy, then pursued into the Kalalau Valley by representatives of the new government that had deposed Queen Lili‘uokalani—unfolds and reforms, readable as a thriller yet built on the historical record and the deeper bedrock of myth and Hawaiian knowledge. Adding savor is the language of Maui-based Merwin, former poet laureate and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, informed by his lifelong interest in the natural world.


48. Expounding the Doubtful Points 

by Wing Tek Lum

Expounding the Doubtful Points

“Writing about the everyday world, without fanfare,” goes a line in the title poem, taken from 11th-century poet Mei Yao’chen and cited as a model. But we should all be so lucky as to experience Lum’s everyday: the wonder a son feels about his mother’s missing breast after surgery, his anger at hearing of a new Charlie Chan movie, a visit to a cousin who stayed behind in China and labors in the fields. From death to babies to politics, the book is a complete experience of a Hawai‘i life and a unique mind.


49. Picture Bride

by Cathy Song

Picture Bride

Any surprise at this preternaturally poised, confident work, which won the 1982 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, has long given way to recognition of a classic. Whether she’s evoking intimate Wahiawā Korean family scenes or inhabiting the mind and eyes of Georgia O’Keeffe, Song paints with a fine-tipped brush—which makes the occasional quiet knife-thrust all the more effective.


50. Saturday Night at the Pāhala Theatre

by Lois Ann Yamanaka

Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre

“This work is the patient zero of local literature,” wrote one judge of this 1993 book. “Everything before it can’t help but sound jejune and quaint and hegemonic. Everything after it can’t help but wrestle with its force.”


THE ROLL OF HONOR: For an additional list of books that just missed the first 50.