Season of Stories: ‘Wanle’ by Kristiana Kahakauwila

This was one of the most interesting of the stories I received through the Season of Stories initiative. As someone from the UK, I have very little knowledge of Hawaii and so stepping into this world was fascinating for me. This was definitely one of the stories that had me eager to read the next installment, and I’m considering getting hold of the full collection of Kahakauwila’s short fiction from which this piece comes.

‘Wanle’ tells the story of the eponymous narrator, her relationship with a man she refers to as ‘the Indian’, and her desire to win a bird fight against a man who wronged her father. Through Wanle’s eyes of hindsight, we see the breakdown of the relationship between herself and the Indian as they argue about the place bird fighting has in her life. Throughout the narrative, however, we see that bird fighting is only the surface issue for this couple: Wanle is driven by a need to prove herself as reliable to a family feeling a deep anger and shame for the past; the Indian is driven by an innate fear that he will become the violent man his father was. This tension bubbling under the main drive of the narrative leads the story to a conclusion that takes the reader very much by surprise.

There is no doubt that Kahakauwila is a talented writer, bringing to life a vivid and multicultural town filled with fleshed-out characters: as a reader, I came away feeling that even the characters mentioned in passing seemed to have a whole story behind them. In many ways this is a very internalised piece, focusing on two characters and their struggle to make a relationship work when neither can put the past behind them; yet Kahakauwila manages to find a strong balance between the introspection of the narrator and the action of the narrative that means the reader never feels that they have been told what is going on. I was engaged from start to finish, and the horror of the Indian’s action at the end made me gasp out loud at my desk.

This was another story the installment format worked well for, although I think I would enjoy it as much had I read it in one go. I think this was one of the longest of the stories, so each installment felt almost like reading a chapter of a novella over lunch: there was a lot to take in. That worked for me, although I wonder whether it might not have worked so well for people who had less time to keep up with the installments. I definitely want to read more of Kahakauwila’s writing in the future.

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