Shark Strong: Join Da Shop’s Virtual Q&A with 2020’s Breakout Novelist Kawai Strong Washburn

With raves from “The New York Times,” “Vanity Fair” and, ahem, HONOLULU, Washburn’s “Sharks in the Time of Saviors” has become an international publishing phenomenon. The virtual event is this Saturday at 3 p.m.

The buzz came out of left field: an email from book industry bible Publisher’s Weekly noting a bidding war had broken out in London over foreign rights to a novel by a Hawai‘i writer. Notices and reviews from Australia came next. These were followed by news that one of New York’s most prestigious publishing houses, Farrar Straus & Giroux, was actually the house responsible for bringing out the title. The LA Review of Books did a story. Vanity Fair did an online story. The New York Times gave a glowing review. The great avant-garde lit mag of New York City, Bomb, did a story. And, of course, we at HONOLULU did our story—need it be said, before the others.


Soon the questions started: Who is Kawai Strong Washburn? And, do you have a copy of Sharks in the Time of Saviors?



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This Saturday you can find out what the hoopla is all about and, through a live chat, ask Washburn a question or two yourself. The Honoka‘a native’s Q&A will be the debut virtual event for Da Shop in Kaimukī, the bookstore founded by Buddy Bess of Bess Press. You can register for the free 3 p.m. event at Or, visit Da Shop’s website to register at Submit your questions throughout and the moderator (me) will pass them to Washburn in real time.


You can also order the book from the Da Shop website. These days it’s best to avoid Amazon, which has deprioritized books and consequently has put authors and bookstores in quarantine.  


Kawai Strong Washburn
PHOTO: Courtesy of Crystal Liepa

I Zoom-storied with Washburn last week as he was in mid-crest of a rare, almost unique wave of attention and applause for a debut Hawai‘i writer. COVID-canceled appearances were being replaced by radio interviews and online sessions as accolades poured in. Eloquent but reserved, the 40-year-old father of two hasn’t been a presence in the local writing scene. Since graduating from Honoka‘a High School at 18, where his father is a longtime music teacher, he’s lived away, combining an IT career with climate and environmental policy advocacy. He’s worked overseas and in D.C. Newly relocated from the Bay Area to Minneapolis last year, he’s a tired father as well as a writer with formidable gifts of language and invention.


Most impressive perhaps is his writing isn’t for writing’s sake, but in service to the working-class post-sugar society of the Big Island and then urban O‘ahu—and to the Mainland diaspora of Native Hawaiians. (Perhaps not coincidentally, he doesn’t have an MFA.)


In her New York Times review, Imbolo Mbue says, “this may be his debut, but he proves himself an old hand at dissecting the ways in which places—our connections to them, our disconnections from them—break us and remake us.”


And, later: “This passionate writer cries out for us to see Hawai‘i in its totality: as a place of proud ancestors and gods and spirits, but also of crumbling families and hopelessness and poverty.”


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


The subject of Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a part Native Hawaiian family on the Hāmākua Coast. The cane-worker father is laid off just when baby Nainoa, conceived in Waipi‘o Valley, is saved from drowning by a herd of sharks. His mother believes he’s The One, a Hawaiian savior, and as locals flock to receive his healing touch, the ultimate “You were Mommy’s favorite” struggle is launched for brother Dean and sister Kaui. Money and gifts flow in and both sustain and corrupt the family.


From there the storyline enters spoiler territory (I’ve left out several just to get this far). I’ll just say the surprises are definitely earned, the language stirs admiration and the pacing is swift. The observations of the natural world are worthy of an Annie Dillard or Rachel Carson (happy Earth Month!).


Of course, there can’t be an honest book about Hawai‘i that doesn’t engage in politics, and Sharks is no exception. Washburn is not Native Hawaiian—something he’s made clear from the onset—but an African American Caucasian who started out life embedded in the culture and conditions of Hawai‘i, from Honoka‘a to Kalihi to the diaspora community of the Pacific Northwest.



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Washburn has said he wanted to write a book that he would read and like. In doing so, he’s written one many readers will enjoy—albeit at times the way you do a scary roller-coaster. It’s not for the timid. (Or maybe it is, and will prove eye-opening.)


For our local or local-spawned writing scene, 2020 so far is turning out to be the bust-out year that HONOLULU feared only last August might never come again. Instead, in the past six months we’ve seen Susanna Moore’s Miss Aluminum, Vicky Heldreich Durand’s Wave Woman, Scott Kikkawa’s Kona Winds, Thuy Da Lam’s Fire Summer and Elmer Omar Bascos Pizo’s Leaving Our Shadows Behind Us. And now, Sharks in the Time of Saviors.


Our writers rising to the challenge has got to be inspiring for all of us doing the same in our lives. Also, on a personal note, I think I found my older brother’s birthday present.  


Register for the Q&A at and tune in live this Saturday, April 25, at 3 p.m.


Read more stories by Don Wallace