Books & Culture, Hawai'i

Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors: The Luminous Debut Set in Hawai’i You Missed Because of the Pandemic

Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors came out last March, just as the pandemic shutdowns began in Hawai’i, where I live. In the panic that followed, freelance clients let me go, and I worried if I breathed too deeply outside, I might get sick. The heavily-touristed streets of Waikiki emptied out. The beachside bars went quiet. Without tourists to rent lawn chairs and umbrellas, the beaches looked like beaches again. Without sunscreen in the water, the sea turned clearer. Stingrays returned to the reef. The whole world was at once suffocating a bit, and also exhaling, and anything new was bound to get buried under the death tolls, the panic, and the relief of a frenetic world gone suddenly quiet. It’s almost ironic that Sharks in the Time of Saviors got lost beneath the panic, because the book is about erasure, about the real Hawai’i, about what happens when the ancient myths don’t quite survive, but are remembered nevertheless in bits and pieces. It’s also a story about what happens when the myths resurface. What happens when they are reconstructed? What does this do to individuals, to families? As the pandemic pressed on, and it became clear the tourists were not returning, those of us who remained here got a blessed glimpse of the real Hawai’i, Hawai’i as it had been before all the commotion. For the first time in probably more than a century, locals relaxed on the white sands of Waikiki. Fathers taught their sons to fish on empty shores, wading in shallow sharp coral beds with nets. The beach boys, who had some time on their hands, taught their friends how to surf, and a new crowd populated the lineups.

Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors is set in the real Hawai’i, and tells the story of Nainoa, a boy saved by sharks as a child, who later develops mysterious healing powers. Hawaiian spirituality permeates the book, but the gods exert a pressure on the narrative from without, a deep history that guides the story, but nevertheless remains largely mysterious to the narrative and to the characters themselves. And so this story is one of erasure. What happens when economic change erases jobs? What happens when children seek to reclaim a culture they never quite knew firsthand, but had in them all along?

But Sharks in the time of Saviors is so much more than a story of lost culture, it’s a story about how we have all lost our connection to the earth. Ancient Hawaiian culture relied on close observation of the natural world and natural cycles. After all, the world fed us, clothed us, kept us warm, if only we listened and paid attention to it. But this is true everywhere, not just in Hawai’i. Across the nation, we have lost touch with the natural world and have paid the price. During the pandemic, many of us finally came to face the cost of our way of living, and some have once again turned to nature for answers.

The story in Sharks in the Time of Saviors is about learning how to listen. The tale puts us square in Hawai’i on the Big Island just as big sugar industry leaves. Much of the story is shaped by the personal struggles that followed in the wake of the economic changes that came about by the fall of big sugar. We encounter a Hawai’i left behind, as the world moved on to cheaper producers of sugar and cheaper forms of globalization. The class disparities between the tourists who have “two pairs of clothes for every day of vacation” are a stark contrast to the Flores family counting dollars at the dinner table, barely able to afford food, hardly able to find work.

The book doesn’t present us the marketed version of Hawai’i presented in the tourist brochures. But there is a moment when Nainoa returns home after a long time away from home and he tries to “visit the island like I’m a tourist…[to] feel the collective rhythm of conflicting desires and states of being, to try and think of Hawai’i as a place that I don’t owe anything to.”

This is an important critique. Isn’t that the problem with modern day tourism? You visit a place to escape your life. You visit a place because it presents you with no real obligations. You visit a place because it has something to offer you. What would tourism look like if it came with obligations to the place and people? What would tourism look like if tourists had to give something back (and I’m not talking about money going to a resort), rather than just take?

I grew up in Miami, Florida and when I moved to Hawai’i, I didn’t harbor illusions that the islands were some paradise devoid of poverty, addiction, mental illness, income inequality, institutional racism, boredom, and everything else on sale in the mainland. I’d seen the glossy tourist brochures of South Beach, a world as distinct from my childhood it might as well have been Mars. The Miami of my childhood wasn’t all blue waters and Ocean Drive. It was shootings at midnight, overcrowded classrooms, clipped coupon dinners, mosquito hikes in the Everglades, kids drowning themselves in the drainage canals. But I nevertheless felt called to Hawai’i by a desire to be closer to the land, a desire to be connected to that which fed me. It would take me too long to explain the consequences of that calling in one place and time, only I can say that Kawai Strong Washburn’s book confirmed something for me about my purpose on this planet, in a way that is entirely mysterious. I could never see Hawai’i as a place to which I had no obligations, and that fact alone is a gift that continues to unfold in my own life. Perhaps I am not so different from the White people Nainoa encounters when he ventures into the woods to find his way back home: “We don’t have a religion,” explains one of the White people living in a cabin off the land, “but the land is something.”

Somewhere in Hawai'i. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Somewhere in Hawai’i. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

The early and later sections of the book are set on the Honoka’a coast. I spent some time there several years ago, and Washburn’s magical realism lends itself well to the haunting and deeply powerful landscape of Waipi’o Valley. The coast is home to some of the most sacred sites in Hawaiian culture, home to deep power that I hesitate to write about for fear of trespassing where I don’t belong. Though Washburn doesn’t explicitly go into much place history or delve too deeply into the pantheon of Hawaiian gods, the unspoken history exerts a kind of pressure on the book, that builds as the story progresses. I believe Washburn’s choice to not delve deeply into the ancient history of each place is intentional; it lends a credibility to the characters who hold a strong connection to their home, but who also find themselves alienated from it by the forces of history and colonialism.  

The uncertainty of one’s origins is a theme that permeates the book. Washburn writes: “There was a voice inside you, wasn’t there, a voice that was not yours, you were only the throat. The things it knew, and was trying to tell you—tell us—but we didn’t listen, not yet.”

Washburn asks us what we might become if we listened more closely. He writes: “That’s the problem with the present, it’s never the thing you’re holding, only the thing you’re watching, later, from a distance so great the memory might as well be a spill of stars outside a window at twilight.” What if we listened to what the earth, and land, and sea, and fish, and animals were trying to tell us? What if we listened to ourselves, to our own internal resistance to our current way of doing things? What if we tried harder to listen to our truest callings?

Time passes and we turn “each other into the sort of people we wanted to become.” This can be both a good and bad thing. My hope for Hawai’i in the wake of the pandemic, is that we ask more of ourselves going forward, all of us. Tourists, and those of us who live here. “People think force and power is the same thing, but really force is what you use when you don’t got power.” What if we found power again? What if we didn’t have to turn off who we are in order to work hard for good? What if we could learn to live and listen to the earth again, and give it what it needs?

I’ll end with this, the words of one of the characters in the book, Kaui: “Something is alive all over my body now. Something like a hula that won’t stop dancing. ‘There’s something here,’ I say. ‘I can feel it. Something big.’” I feel it, too. It’s in the ground, in the plants, in the fish, in the sea. It’s here. “I hear it this way, a language of righteousness and cycles, giving and taking, aloha in the rawest form. Pure love.”

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University. She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed. When you buy an independently reviewed book through my Bookshop links above, you not only support local bookstores, but also this blog, a labor of love.