Back to the Island

In her new novel, Radcliffe fellow Kristiana Kahakauwila examines heritage—and water—in Hawaii
Kristiana Kahakauwila. Photo by Melissa MahoneyKristiana Kahakauwila. Photo by Melissa Mahoney
By Sarah Sweeney

To make poi, that smooth, sticky staple of Hawaiian cuisine, taro root is first pounded and then mixed with water. But what if water—for drinking and irrigating the taro patch—is rapidly disappearing?

During a trip to Maui in 2010, Kristiana Kahakauwila RI ’16 read about the lawsuit that would inspire her current novel in progress, “To Weave With Water.”

Born in Long Beach, California, the hapa (mixed) daughter of a Hawaiian father and a mother of German-Norwegian descent, Kahakauwila was schooled in both sides of her heritage. But the archipelago and its culture captivated her, and after earning an MFA from the University of Michigan, Kahakauwila moved to Honolulu, where she worked multiple jobs and found a “lived perspective,” she says.

That perspective informed her first book, This Is Paradise: Stories (Hogarth, 2013), a collection exploring the complexities of contemporary Hawaii, a place where the old and the new conspicuously collide. But her latest work will go further.

Inspired by the story of a cadre of local taro farmers who sued the state, county, and others over a network of ditches that were diverting millions 
of gallons of water from their wetland farms to
 an arid side of the island, home to acres of sugar plantations, Kahakauwila began researching how the ditches came to be. She dug deep into what she calls a “rabbit hole” of plantation colonialism and capitalism. But the story is also personal for her.

“The whole reason for doing this is to tell one story of Hawaii, a story that comes from a place on Maui where my ancestors are from,” she says.

Photo by Melissa MahoneyPhoto by Melissa Mahoney

Known as the East Maui Irrigation System, the ditches were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, primarily by Japanese workers. Nearly 
a century later, the resulting water loss threatened not only the ecosystem and the food supply, but the very fabric of Hawaiian culture.

“In Hawaii, we say that taro is our older brother,” Kahakauwila says.

Hawaiian cosmology posits that the first taro plant sprouted from the grave of the stillborn child of Earth father Wākea and his daughter Ho`ohōkūkalani. Their second child was the first Hawaiian.

“One of the things that’s so moving to me in this narrative is that in a moment of profound grief and loss emerges something new and sustainable,” says Kahakauwila. “This group of taro farmers inspires me in part because their story echoes this origin narrative of the Hawaiian people. They’re taking from more than a century of loss and creating something new and sustainable for future generations.”

“To Weave With Water” will serve as a bridge for these narratives—a multigenerational tale spanning the period from the conception of the ditches to modern-day Hawaii. But the ambitious historical novel she is writing has often felt unwieldy, Kahakauwila readily admits. While she was at Radcliffe as the Lisa Goldberg Fellow, Kahakauwila drafted most of the novel. She also received the help of three Radcliffe Research Partners—Mira Hayward ’17, Kaipo Matsumoto ’17, and Christina Qiu ’19. This “dream team,” she says, met once a week to pore over research and translations and the ethical issues surrounding “using stories from a culture that’s often had its narratives stolen or manipulated.”

“What I want to do feels beyond my grasp,” says Kahakauwila, “and that’s terrifying. But it’s thrilling, too, and it tells me I’m on the right track.”

Sarah Sweeney is a writer and a poet. 

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