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Magical Realism Meets Hawaiian Diaspora

The literal magic is front-loaded in Sharks, but some of the best magic comes toward its conclusion, with Washburn pushing us to broaden our conception of what is magical. It is a welcome debut.

I picked up Sharks In the Time of Saviors because of its cover. They say you’re not supposed to do this — choose a book by its cover — but I don’t completely agree. 

Artists and designers put serious work, real artistry, into telling stories with jacket design. With Sharks, Rodrigo Corral (jacket design), Matt Buck (jacket art – pictured), and Na Kim (jacket lettering) have created something unique and visually arresting. I won’t undervalue their craft by acting like I didn’t grab Sharks on a complete whim from a display near the checkout line at my local Barnes & Noble, on my last bookstore visit before non-essential businesses were closed.

Their work is beautiful and befitting of Kawai Strong Washburn’s powerful debut. Bravo to all involved.

Sharks In the Time of Saviors is a Hawaiian spin on magical realism — a fresh entry in the genre — and, by the end of the novel, Washburn has challenged us to rethink what constitutes magic in the first place. In interviews, he has said that he spent ten years writing and revising, unsure if his work would ever reach readers.

I’m glad it did. 

The plot is better left to the reader, but Sharks is ultimately literary fiction and family drama, with Washburn laying out the story roughly chronologically through shifting perspectives and narration from members of the Flores family.

Instead, I want to focus on themes. 

Full disclosure: I have never even visited Hawaii (or San Diego, or Spokane, or Portland) and I am about as haole as they come. 

[haol·e /houlē/ noun DEROGATORY (in Hawaii) a person who is not a native Hawaiian, especially a white person] 

Oxford Dictionary

Even so, I thought the economic tension that simmered beneath the surface was one of the most interesting and relatable facets of the novel. 

Washburn shows us a Hawaii conflicted by its economic reliance on an industry that is stamping out native culture and permanently altering its land. And we see characters conflicted by a visceral connection to their homeland — with all that that encompasses — and the reality of needing to leave for the mainland in order to seek opportunity. 

As I progressed through the novel, I found those themes to be more universal than I initially realized. 

Coming from the part of the U.S. where the industrial rust belt meets the Appalachian coal belt — where our access to our river is impeded by a long-closed factory, where we willingly crack our earth to extract natural gas and to employ the people displaced by the long-closed factory and the longer-closed mines, where it’s nonetheless beautiful and alluring from somewhere deep in my DNA — I couldn’t help but find myself drawing parallels. 

And I think it takes a remarkable type of writer to craft something that is uniquely of their cultural voice — and Sharks is uniquely Hawaiian, or perhaps more accurately, uniquely of the Pacific Islander diaspora — and also relatable and thought-provoking beyond it. 

It shows that Washburn is plumbing real depths, both in his setting and in his development of fully fleshed out, human characters. 

Is it perfectly even? No, but maybe that’s okay or even intentional. Life is not linearly climactic and events weigh differently based on timing and perspective. If Kaui’s early college love affair feels a bit cliché to the reader, it isn’t hard to suspend disbelief and understand that it feels earth-shaking for her, a barely-twenty-year-old separated from her family. 

The literal magic is front-loaded in Sharks, but some of the best magic comes toward its conclusion, with Washburn pushing us to broaden our conception of what is magical. 

Magic can be a subtle connection to the land. Magic can be feminine, found in the shy little sister as much as the golden-child-brother. Magic can be regenerative agriculture, or a family coming back together. Magic can be “the drift of the world underwater” or “the cool rain the thirsty soil reclaims” or “the beat that drives the hips of the hula.” 

Or all of the above. And, not or. 

If you liked The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent take on magical realism, or classics like One Hundred Years of Solitude or The House of the Spirits, or books connected to mythology in the vein of Madeline Miller, I suspect you’ll also like Sharks In the Time of Saviors

It is a welcome debut. 

Enjoy Sharks with a Mai Tai if you’re looking to bring some island flare (and hard liquor) into your quarantine.

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