Megan Kamalei Kakimoto’s Debut Book Has the Literary World Buzzing
Her story collection, written outside of working hours at a demanding downtown job, is drawing raves—and feels like a reset for Hawai‘i literature.
A green gecko on the arm of my recliner smiled a Cheshire Cat smile at me midway through Megan Kamalei Kakimoto’s Every Drop Is A Man’s Nightmare, a collection of stories whose cover depicts a woman emerging from a corpse flower. Head already spinning from how Kakimoto has taken the most familiar Hawai‘i cultural tropes, including geckos as returned ancestors, and exploded them into fresh shards of meaning and endless reflection, I thought to myself: “Dude, she’s way ahead of you.”
Indeed. When I texted our most unflinching local author, Chris McKinney, to tell him about her, it was old news. “Fearless,” he replied. Almost as pithy, from well-regarded author Elizabeth McCracken: “Eleven knockouts, one KO for every story.” Months ahead of its Aug. 29 pub date, Every Drop has garnered a Keene Prize for Literature nomination.
Kamehameha grad Kakimoto is Japanese and Native Hawaiian with deep Moloka‘i roots. “I’d always written fiction,” she says. “My mom would buy me notebooks from the store in middle and high school.” She went to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire “not out of malice or intent to leave the Islands permanently, but just to try something new.”
Finishing up her degree, Kakimoto heeded the words of her adviser, Catherine Tudish: “Get jobs, get a little more experience.” This runs counter to the path of most writers in America, who nest in academia’s dovecote their entire lives. “It was incredibly helpful advice,” she says. “I needed the time, to live beyond being a student.”
The characters in Every Drop do feel lived. They work unglamorous, even humiliating jobs, yet their stories crackle with surprises. But to get them right, she had to work through her Native Hawaiian ancestry. At first, “the pressure to write it right, to do justice to it, completely silenced all my interest in writing about Hawai‘i,” she says. “I was really scared about getting it wrong. But I had a slow realization and began to challenge all these ideas of a monolithic Hawaiian cultural experience. They’re just not true.”
From then on, Kakimoto, 29, spun a literary cocoon while working long hours at a large downtown communications firm. “Two of the most influential craft/educational texts that sustained me,” she says, “were Stephen King’s memoir On Writing and [Vladimir] Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, both of which felt like master classes contained within a single text.”
After attending the Kaua‘i Writers Conference, Kakimoto felt ready to go for an MFA, not least for the time it would buy for her work. As a test, she decided that if she couldn’t publish at least one story, she wouldn’t apply. “It took a little while,” she says. Finally, she placed an early version of one of the book’s stories, “Temporary Dwellers,” with Qu, the literary magazine at Queens University of Charlotte. She was accepted into a three-year program at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas, funded by the American novelist best known for, well, you know, which picked up her tuition and living expenses, thus affording her time to write full-time at last.
One day in Austin, she got a tweet from a young agent from Hawai‘i who’d read a story of Kakimoto’s. It would take another year of revision and expansion before the collection was set to publish.
Every Drop has been selected by the American Booksellers Association as a summer/fall 2023 Indies Introduce title.
Deep down, she says, “How it’s been for me from day one is: Write the story only you can write.”