Books: From Russia, with Aloha

The epic House of Many Gods skillfully connects an ice hut on the subarctic tundra with a lanai bulging with 'ohana.
Davenport will be reading from her book on Feb. 16, at 12:30 p.m. at Bestsellers, 1001 Bishop St. 528-2378.

She will also be doing booksignings at Borders, Barnes & Noble and Borders Express in Honolulu that week, and then will do signings on the Neighbor Islands.

Part love story, part social commentary, House of Many Gods, Kiana Davenport’s latest book, comes out this month from Ballantine. Set largely on the Wai’anae coast, it’s a vivid read—blood-red dirt, teeth scraping bone, the moans of childbirth.

Davenport was raised in Kalihi and graduated from the University of Hawai’i. Her writing has garnered a fellowship at Harvard-Radcliffe, Pushcart Prizes and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and her previous books, Song of the Exile and Shark Dialogues, were bestsellers translated into 14 languages.

Much of Davenport’s new book is autobiographical. The main character, Ana, is abandoned by her mother, and later survives breast cancer. "Though I have never had cancer, I felt terribly abandoned as a child," Davenport says, when her full-blooded Hawaiian mother died of cancer at a very young age. Her hapa heritage might explain some of the book’s themes of duality, of tandem experiences and two distant shores.

Ana’s love interest, Nikolai Volenko, is based on Rostov Anadyr, who Davenport met when he was shooting a documentary about nuclear contamination on Pacific islands. "Shortly after the Chernobyl disaster in l987, Rostov returned to Russia to film the aftermath of the meltdown," says Davenport. "He was due to return to Hawai’i to complete his film. I never saw or heard from him again. No one has." Like Ana, Davenport searched for her friend in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Of her depiction of a lawless Wai’anae coast, with drugs and gangs, Davenport explains, "I wanted to paint a portrait to show how it was, and how it is improving. I was told I should not write about it, that people would be upset. And I told them, ‘Don’t tell me what to write.’ That just incites me."

Author Kiana Davenport traveled to Russia to research her latest novel. photo: Frank Morgan/courtesy of Ballantine

Davenport took about five years to complete House of Many Gods, but it was world events, not the writing process, that slowed her. "Sept. 11 stopped me cold. I lost four friends. I couldn’t write for over a year. I wasn’t sure I’d ever write again. I feel this was a small coup that I finished this book."

Davenport lives in New York City and in Hawaii, on the Big Island. She did extensive research in Russia—drinking vodka night after night with her interview subjects, she says, "as long as my visa lasted."

"The more I researched, the more I saw similarities with Hawai’i. It seems strange, but there’s a history of monarchies and of admiration for the Europeans. [Westerners] cast out all of our ancient gods, just like the Russians weren’t allowed to practice religion." And, like Hawai’i, Russia straddles two cultures, with Europe on its western borders and Asia to the east.

In House of Many Gods, Ana’s mother eventually returns to her daughter and to Hawai’i. Her reasoning will sound familiar to many Island readers: "I missed pidgin, the language of my childhood. I felt like my tongue had been cut out. And I missed Nanakuli magic. Boar-hounds singing up jade mountains. Peacocks sobbing in trees. Folks who knew me, my history."