Our hope with curating a list like this is to shine a much-deserved spotlight on Hawaii’s best stories and authors.
OWe know there will be questions. The first, for many – both for the 50 essential Hawaiian books you should read in your life and the Essential Hawai’i Books You Should Read: The Next 134-is, why start a list at all?
We understood. For all the good it might do, making a list like this can cause irritation, hurt feelings. We personally know people who are the vital centers of literary life and whose books have not survived. First, practically, a list is vital for authors and booksellers. We know it will be useful for parents and grandparents, book clubs, teachers, academics, journalists and critics, and future list builders. We know that after our first article 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 have also started looking at Hawai’i with a newfound respect.
Here is an example. “I’m an editor at Audible,” Susie Bright recently wrote to us. “And I know Hawai’i’s biggest secret: it’s full of bookworms.” Bright recalls her time living in Hawai’i when she would “run to Woolworth’s and head straight for books and magazines.” She welcomed the chance to come back, in a literary sense, to choose some local titles. The change came, she writes, “thanks to the cadre of Pacific Rim and Hawaiian diaspora actors who independently organized themselves in the world of theater and show business and pushed for visibility and casting power. It was a really big deal. It trickled down to the publishing and, “when I got together with listeners and actors who wanted to bring the best stories of the islands to life in audiobooks, it was towards the ” list “that I turned.”
Thanks to Bright, Audible, the major audiobook company owned by Amazon, has so far secured the rights to a number of local books. This puts money in the pockets of authors and publishers, but, more importantly, gives their titles exposure to a much wider audience than they ever had. For many books, offerings like Audible arrive years or even decades after they were published, essentially resurrecting them.
Ultimately, the list is us, who we’re talking about. No algorithm can replace the honesty, enthusiasm, regional knowledge and personal investment of a word of mouth recommendation; this is what makes books come alive.
Try to buy local
You can double or even triple the impact when it comes to Hawaii’s status as a center for unique regional literature and storytelling. And our stories were being told long before the great publishing centers of 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 native Hawaiians trace back across the Pacific to their origins in greater Oceania.
With such a heritage, preservation requires periodic refreshing of the sources. But, besides a list, our lit scene also requires something just as hyperlocal and specific: bookstores.
Three bookstores and their teams in particular contributed to the first 50 and 134: Basically Books in Hilo (Christine Reed), da Shop in Kaimukī (Lani Lee) and Nā Mea Hawai’i, today at the Ward Center.
In the latter, Maile Meyer lives and breathes to create a space for Native Hawaiian arts and culture to flourish. Her enthusiasm and sales platform have been key in bringing out-of-print books back, and she also offers older books, even second-hand; anything to keep the flame flickering. But in 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession, Meyer had to close her beloved Indigenous books, though Nā Mea Hawai’i (“All Things Hawai’i”), the Ward’s storefront and local craft shop Center, continues to carry a curated selection.
We asked what the books mean to her personally. “Knowledge exchange and storytelling/sharing in Hawai’i nei continues in so many new ways and forms,” she wrote, citing sources ranging 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 the intimate nature of turning a page; there will never be a replacement for that experience in my book.
Now, she writes, “Native Books has awakened from its long slumber with the Chinatown digs at the former Pegge Hopper building at Arts & Letters. Post-pandemic, Fearless, we’ve got plenty 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.
SEE ALSO: Essential Hawaiian Books You Should Read In Your Lifetime – The Next 134
As you might expect, the 134 books in Part II contain more recent titles. The latest, all from 2022, are Joseph Han’s breakout debut, Nuclear familyfollowed by award-winning poet No’u Revilla ask the brindlesand that of Hanya Yanagihara In Paradise.
That three books from this year landed on the list must mean something, but on closer inspection, each is an anomaly: Yanagihara was already a worldwide bestselling author and acclaimed publisher of T: The New York Times Style Magazine; her new novel debuted atop the Time list of bestsellers. Revilla’s book is one of five winners of the National Poetry Series Open Competition, awarding publication by the venerable indie Milkweed Press. Han published with Counterpoint, another long-established and thriving independent press in Berkeley, and the success of her novel came from old-school booksellers and buzz from advanced readers, followed by reviews, including our own.
One who has always risen to the challenge is social realist novelist Chris McKinney, who landed his first New York publishing deal with Soho Press for his first futuristic noir sci-fi film, Midnight, city of water (2021), after six novels and a co-authored memoir published by local Mutual Publishing. It has made several best lists and a sequel is in the works.
Followers and surprises
The high scores for Part II start with the 37 honor roll titles that sit on top of the new 134. Here are the next highest voters of 2018: Captain Cook’s Diaries, Type by Herman Melville, Hawaiian Stories of Jack London and Christy Passion poems, Still out of place. Votes also piled up for Kiana Davenport, Lois-Ann Yamanaka and McKinney, but with multiple titles to choose from, their influence was diluted. Yet each landed a second book: House of several gods, Wild Meat and Bully Burgers and Boi not goodrespectively.
In the new poll, it became clear that the 2018 list had missed titles that 2022 voters now consider mandatory. Tops for a number was West LakeWayne Kaumualii Westlake’s posthumous poetry collection published in 2009, 25 years after his death. comfort woman Nora’s Okja Keller scored high this time, but in 2018 he seemed to suffer from a category error – comments suggest his Korean frame may have disqualified him.
Several other titles in Part II tie directly into Diaspora roots and trauma, as does Keller’s. Nothing is more epic or heartbreaking than that of the poet Elmer Omar Bascos Pizo Leave our shadows behinda biography in poems from his childhood in the Philippines to a life of hard labor that included involuntary servitude in Saudi Arabia.
The most popular titles this time around tend to separate by three votes or more from the others. At the top with Keller and Westlake are Scott Kikkawa’s two 1950s noir detective novels which feature a Japanese-American detective returning home after the horrors of World War II: Kona Winds and Red earthboth published by Bamboo Ridge.
Right behind Kikkawa (and a good companion volume) is Juliet S. Kono’s harrowing Anshu, the story of a young Japanese-American girl who finds herself trapped in Japan during the war; voters also shouted again at Hilo is raining, his poetic story of family and community. The real surprise of the whole survey is Cook Real Hawai’i: A Cookbookby Sheldon Simeon and Garrett Snyder—it was first on a few lists.
The votes clustered around several Davenport and McKinney titles, so instead of separating them, we grouped a few novels each under unique entries. Yet McKinney’s 2021 sci-fi noir Midnight, city of water clearly earns its own place.
One of the booksellers’ favorite books is Kawai Strong Washburn’s from the Hāmākua coast. Sharks in the time of saviors, published by a prestigious New York publishing house and on Barack Obama’s summer reading list. Surprising and encouraging are the many votes for a first collection, Calabash storiesby Jeffrey Higa, and for Cathy Song’s collection of related stories, All the love in the world. Almost lost in the pandemic fog, the two have a lot of love for their small-scale, locally-focused family home. Curiously, the two authors are also poets, like Kono. Song is the winner of the 1982 Yale Younger Series for bride photoHiga the daring creator of the 2022 Pidgin Hella comic retelling of Dante’s epic revamp with denizens like the Kealohas and Loyal Garner, with Higa guided by his Virgil, Rap Reiplinger.
A definite salute is due to Eric Chock, co-founder with Darrell Lum of Bamboo Ridge, for editing so many of the anthologies that made the list. Our local anthologies are some of the best places to find new and nearly forgotten treasures.
SEE ALSO: 50 Essential Hawaiian Books You Should Read In Your Lifetime