The Making of Essential Hawai‘i Books: The Next 134
Our hope with running a list like this is to cast a much-deserved spotlight on Hawai‘i’s best stories and authors.
We know there will be questions. The first, for many—for both the 50 Essential Hawai‘i Books You Should Read in Your Lifetime and the Essential Hawai‘i Books You Should Read: The Next 134—is, why start a list at all?
We get it. For all the good it might do, making a list like this can raise hackles, hurt feelings. We personally know people who are the vital centers of literary life whose books didn’t make it. First, practically, a list is vital for authors and bookstores. We know it will come in handy for parents and grandparents, book clubs, teachers, academics, journalists and reviewers—and future list-makers. We know that after our first piece ran in 2018, publishers were encouraged to bring back out-of-print titles. We suspect that with the Essential 50 in hand, several New York editors and agents also began looking at Hawai‘i with a new respect.
Here’s an example. “I’m an editor-at-large at Audible,” Susie Bright wrote us recently. “And I know the biggest secret in Hawai‘i: It is full of bookworms.” Bright recalls her time living in Hawai‘i when she’d “run down to Woolworth’s and head straight for the books and magazines.” She welcomed the chance to come back, in a literary sense, to pick out some local titles. Change has come, she writes, “thanks to the cadre of Pacific Rim and Hawaiian diaspora actors who have independently organized in the theater and show business world and pushed for visibility and casting power. It’s really been a big deal.” This filtered over to publishing, and, “when I gathered with listeners and actors who wanted to make the Islands’ best stories come alive in audiobooks, it was the ‘List’ I turned to.”
Thanks to Bright, Audible, the large audiobook company owned by Amazon, has picked up the rights to a number of local books so far. This puts money in authors’ and publishers’ pockets, but, even more important, gives their titles exposure to a much broader audience than they’ve ever had. For many books, offers like Audible’s come years if not decades after publication, essentially resurrecting them.
In the end, the list is us, talking to each other. No algorithm can replace the honesty, enthusiasm, regional knowledge and personal investment of a word-of-mouth recommendation; that’s what keeps books alive.
Try Buy Local
You can double, even triple the impact when it comes to Hawai‘i’s status as a center for unique regional literature and storytelling. And our stories were being told long before the grand publishing centers, New York and Boston, even existed, 800 years before the Declaration of Independence. Although you can’t carbon-date them, the chants, songs and myths of the Native Hawaiians stretch back across the Pacific to their origins in greater Oceania.
With a heritage like that, preservation requires a periodic refreshing of the sources. But, besides a list, our lit scene also requires something equally hyperlocal and specific: bookstores.
Three bookstores and their staffs in particular contributed to the first 50 and the 134: Basically Books in Hilo (Christine Reed), da Shop in Kaimukī (Lani Lee) and Nā Mea Hawai‘i, now in Ward Center.
At the latter, Maile Meyer lives and breathes to create space for Native Hawaiian arts and culture to flourish. Her enthusiasm and sales platform have played key roles in bringing back out-of-print books, and she carries older books too, even used ones; anything to keep the flame flickering. But in 2008 in the midst of the Great Recession, Meyer had to close her beloved Native Books, though Nā Mea Hawai‘i (“All Things Hawai‘i”), the local arts and crafts showcase and shop at Ward Center, continues to carry a curated selection.
We asked what books mean to her personally. “Knowledge exchange and storytelling/sharing in Hawai‘i nei continues in so many new ways and forms,” she writes, citing sources from hula to board games to the Internet. “But for me it’s not how I access knowledge but how I remember it and integrate it into my essence every day. And I love the repetition and the human scale and intimate nature of turning a page; there will never be a replacement for that experience in my book.”
Now, she writes, “Native Books has woken from its long slumber with Chinatown digs in the old Pegge Hopper building at Arts & Letters. Post-pandemic fearless, we have lots of books”—2,500 at last count—“housed in a browsing space that also includes an art gallery and two floors of public programming space.”
As might be expected, the 134 books of Part II contain more recent titles. The latest, all from 2022, are Joseph Han’s breakout debut, Nuclear Family, followed by award-winning poet No‘u Revilla’s Ask the Brindled, and Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise.
That three books from this year landed on the list must mean something, but on closer inspection each is an anomaly: Yanagihara already was a global bestselling author and an acclaimed editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine; her new novel debuted atop the Times bestseller list. Revilla’s book is one of five winners of the National Poetry Series Open Competition, conferring publication by venerable indie Milkweed Press. Han published with Counterpoint, another long-established and thriving indie press, in Berkeley, and his novel’s success came from old-school booksellers and advance reader buzz, followed by reviews, including ours.
One who has always risen to the challenge is social realist novelist Chris McKinney, who landed his first New York publishing contract with Soho Press for his futuristic debut sci-fi noir, Midnight, Water City (2021), after six novels and a co-written memoir published by local Mutual Publishing. It made several best lists and a sequel is in the pipeline.
Stalwarts & Surprises
Top scores for Part II start with the 37 Roll of Honor titles that sit at the top of the new 134. Here are 2018’s next-highest vote-getters: Journals of Captain Cook, Typee by Herman Melville, Stories of Hawaii by Jack London, and poems by Christy Passion, Still Out of Place. Votes also piled up for Kiana Davenport, Lois-Ann Yamanaka and McKinney, but with multiple titles to choose from, their clout was diluted. Still, each landed a second book: House of Many Gods, Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers and Boi No Good, respectively.
In the new poll it became clear that the 2018 list had missed titles that 2022’s voters now consider mandatory. Tops for quite a few was Westlake, the posthumous poetry collection of Wayne Kaumualii Westlake published in 2009, 25 years after his death. Comfort Woman by Nora Okja Keller scored high this time, but in 2018 seemed to suffer from a category error—comments suggest its Korean setting may have disqualified it.
Several other Part II titles connect directly with diasporic roots and traumas, just as Keller’s does. None is more epic or wrenching than poet Elmer Omar Bascos Pizo’s Leaving Our Shadows Behind Us, a biography in poems from his Philippines childhood to a life at hard labor that included involuntary servitude in Saudi Arabia.
The most popular titles this time around tend to separate themselves by three or more votes from the rest. At the top with Keller and Westlake are the two 1950s noir crime novels by Scott Kikkawa that feature a Japanese American detective returned home from the horrors of WWII: Kona Winds and Red Dirt, both published by Bamboo Ridge.
Close behind Kikkawa (and a good companion volume) is Juliet S. Kono’s harrowing Anshū, the story of a Japanese American girl who ends up trapped in Japan during the war; voters also gave encore shoutouts to Hilo Rains, her poetic history of family and community. The real surprise of the entire poll is Cook Real Hawai‘i: A Cookbook, by Sheldon Simeon and Garrett Snyder—it was first on a couple of lists.
Votes clustered around more titles by Davenport and McKinney, so instead of breaking them out we’ve grouped a couple of novels each under single entries. Still, McKinney’s 2021 sci-fi noir Midnight, Water City clearly earns its own slot.
A bookseller favorite is the Hāmākua Coast’s Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors, brought out by a prestigious New York imprint and on Barack Obama’s summer reading list. Surprising and heartening are the many votes for a debut collection, Calabash Stories, by Jeffrey Higa, and for Cathy Song’s linked story collection, All the Love in the World. Almost lost in the pandemic fog, both get a lot of love for their small-scale, local-centric family focus. Curiously, both authors are also poets, like Kono. Song is the winner of the 1982 Yale Younger Series for Picture Bride, Higa the audacious creator of 2022’s The Pidgin Inferno, a comic retelling of Dante’s epic recast with locals including the Kealohas and Loyal Garner, with Higa guided by his Virgil, Rap Reiplinger.
A definite salute is due Eric Chock, co-founder with Darrell Lum of Bamboo Ridge, for having edited so many anthologies that made the list. Our local anthologies are some of the best places to find new and almost-forgotten treasures.