It isn’t hard to see why the history, politics, and geography of Hawaii have drawn in so many writers – some with roots on the islands that comprise it, others from around the world. The history of Hawaii, from its time as an independent nation to its status as the fiftieth state of the U.S., has plenty of fascinating and compelling moments. And Hawaii’s political iconoclasm, which was recently referenced in controversial remarks by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has placed it at the forefront of a number of sociopolitical debates in recent years.
Hawaii has also been the location for a host of powerful literary works, from classics that explore the islands’ history to insightful works of nonfiction that explore their culture and the art that has emerged from them. Here’s a look at seven of those books that memorably span past, present, and future.
Given Hawaii’s geographic distance from the rest of the United States, a number of writers have found it to be a valuable setting for tales of people seeking escape or reinvention. Swan Huntley’s new novel follows an estranged family as they relocate to Hawaii, where one of them forms a bond with a yoga teacher that inexorably heads into psychologically uncomfortable territory.
The plots of Kiana Davenport’s novels draw upon the history of the islands of Hawaii, spanning vast stretches of time and juxtaposing the personal with the political. Her 2006 novel, House of Many Gods, spans several decades, beginning in the 1960s, and encompasses shifts in Hawaiian history and politics – including the devastating effects of Hurricane Iniki in 1992 – along with the changing fortunes of post-Soviet Russia.
Dan Kois’s entry in the 33-1/3 series of books on albums focuses on Facing Future, an album best-known for its cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which seemed ubiquitous in film and television a few years ago. Kois digs deeply into the life of musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, the music scene out of which he emerged, and his place in Hawaiian art and culture. The result is a fascinating book, and one that reveals a complex artistic and political life.
Kaui Hart Hemmings
Kaui Hart Hemmings’s acclaimed debut novel, The Descendants, was first published in 2007 and reached a massive audience via Alexander Payne’s award-winning 2011 film adaptation starring George Clooney. It tells the story of the complex dynamics within a family descended from Hawaiian royalty – and its protagonist’s struggle with the revelation of his comatose wife’s infidelity. The result is a powerful narrative that focuses on memorable landscapes, both emotional and external.
In his latest essay collection, Jeff Chang touches on a host of subjects, including abuses of political power and the rise of grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter. But by the end of the book, Chang has also delved thoughtfully into questions of (and his own experience with) Hawaiian history and identity. With this conversation’s placement in the book, Chang ties these questions into larger debates currently going on within the United States about race and culture, leaving the reader with plenty to ponder.
The Complete Uncensored Edition
James Jones’s 1951 novel is set in Hawaii in the period leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into the Second World War. It was based in part on his own experiences there: Jones was stationed in Hawaii at the time of the attack. This novel, which won the National Book Award in 1952, is considered to be a classic, and was made into an award-winning film in 1953. This edition of Jones’s novel adds some material that was cut by his publisher after its initial publication.
David Mitchell’s fiction crosses the globe, telling an increasingly intertwined narrative that encompasses compelling narratives set in different centuries and with a memorable cast of characters. In his breakthrough novel, Cloud Atlas, he offers visions of the past, the present, and the future – including, hauntingly, a long sequence set in Hawaii after the collapse of civilization, where the residents live tremulous, violent lives. It’s a powerful vision of where a post-technological society might go – and a chilling warning to those of us reading in the early twenty-first century.