Book-Lovers All Over America Can’t Get Enough of Hawai‘i’s New Genre Writers
These aren’t your grandmother’s romances, kid sister’s sword-and-buckler fantasies or Michener middlebrows. By owning local subjects—and losing the kitsch and cultural gaffes—Island writers are winning national audiences.
Who do you think had the best-selling title at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport bookstores in 2018? James Patterson? Stephen King? Dan Brown? John Grisham?
Nope. The travelers’ choice was Maui’s Sara Ackerman for Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers, a woman-centric genre novel set in 1944 near Camp Tarawa, the U.S. Army’s invasion training complex on the Big Island.
A genre usually finds large audiences by leveling humanity, making our experience safe and predictable (and white). But that isn’t the goal of Sweet Pies, or of Ackerman’s much more ambitious second novel, The Lieutenant’s Nurse. When I first met the author at the Camp Mokulē‘ia Writers Retreat in 2016, she confided she chafed at launching as a genre writer, but felt she could change perceptions. And she did with Sweet Pies.
Starting with a 50,000 print run where a typical local press might do a few hundred, The Lieutenant’s Nurse is in the medical genre: a patriarchal-doctors-vs.-intelligent-nurses rouser. On the November 1941 boat over to Honolulu, Eva, a disgraced anesthesiologist nurse, trips over a who-started-Pearl-Harbor plotline—and into a love triangle. During the bloody hell of Dec. 7, she battles spouting arteries and biased surgeons to save men from obsolescent practices while dealing with two men’s hearts, one of which is twisted and dark.
War also informs For a Muse of Fire, Heidi Heilig’s third fantasy novel, about a traveling puppet-troupe family. To survive a revolution, young Jetta must catch the king’s eye at a performance for his daughter’s wedding. As Jetta awakens to love and its betrayals in a demimonde full of forbidden sights, sex work, louche cantina operators, spies and informants, Heilig’s crystal-clear prose evokes Hawai‘i, Indonesia and maybe Honolulu’s Chinatown.
Oh, and did we mention that her superpower is putting on gamelan-style puppet shows animated by dead souls?
This is a bust-out work by the Kahalu‘u girl (whose painter-writer mother, Diana Hansen-Young, dragged her off to Brooklyn as a high schooler to chase her own star). It’s getting a big, deserved push; feel free to add your shoulder to the wheel.
Calling Alan Brennert a genre writer doesn’t quite seem fair, given his impeccable craft and gift for scene and dialogue. Sui generis might be better for the master of the midlist Island family saga.
His latest, Daughter of Moloka‘i, follows the baby, Ruth, born at the end of Moloka‘i, a 50 Essential Hawai‘i Books (May 2018) pick. Her story continues as her Kalaupapa parents give her away, the first child born to a leper couple to be returned to society in anyone’s memory. Spurned by locals, adopted by Japanese immigrants, Ruth joins them on an epic journey.
Book a long weekend for this one and hold the calls, please. We’re reading.