Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins (Riverhead Trade; 304 pages; $16).
This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila (Hogarth; 240 pages; $16).
The best stories are those suffused with colorful, detailed settings—tales in which place is not only vital but a central component of the narrative. When a writer gets it right, the setting becomes a character itself. And that’s when the magic begins.
Two story collections emphasize the significance of place and herald the arrival of two powerful and confident women writers. In her collection of stories, Battleborn, Top 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honoree Claire Vaye Watkins swallows the folklore of the American West, chews it up, and then spits it back out as she brilliantly reimagines the region. Conversely, Kristiana Kahakauwila, Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University and a native Hawaiian, captures the essence of Hawaii, its people, and its cultural traditions in her debut story collection This Is Paradise.
Battleborn consists of ten bold and gritty tales. Watkins takes us from Gold Rush to ghost town to desert to brothel and weaves such passion and intensity into each story that she leaves us breathless. Her keen insight and gorgeous, lyrical realism bring to mind literary greats like Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx. More than any other writer of the American West, Watkins leaves an indelible mark.
Watkins does not shy away from the personal in her collection. The author confronts the mythology of her own family history, a legacy that includes notorious killer and cult leader Charles Manson, in what is perhaps her best piece entitled “Ghosts, Cowboys.” Her father, Paul Watkins, was one of Manson’s followers whose main responsibilities included wrangling new girls for Manson. In exposing her life and the stigma of her father’s past, Watkins bares herself before us, allowing us to witness both the rawness of her past and her faith in readers. It takes guts for an author to write herself into the narrative. Her candidness makes this collection rare and beautiful.
From the American West we venture to Hawaii, the setting of the six stories in Kahakauwila’s haunting and compelling collection This Is Paradise. Kahakauwila reveals the conflicting world that is Hawaii—old vs. new, tradition vs. modernity, and “native” Hawaiian vs. tourist. Hawaii, or at least Kahakauwila’s Hawaii, is a place of opposition, and the author does a splendid job of getting to the heart of both the state and its people. This Is Paradise is as majestic as Hawaii’s last queen, Lili’uokalani.
In the titular tale, “This Is Paradise,” Kahakauwila uses the first person plural (“we”) to tell the story of a young, carefree American tourist who gets a taste of Hawaii’s dark side from the perspective of the women of Waikiki. Their distinctive voices inject emotion into the story, easily making it one of the strongest in the collection. Here, Kahakauwila’s dazzling writing is reminiscent of Julie Otsuka’s formidable novella The Buddha in the Attic. Kahakauwila then explores the almost double life of a woman seeking revenge in the cockfighting ring in “Wanle.” In “The Old Paniolo Way,” Kahakauwila illumines a son coping with the imminent death of his father and struggling with his own identity. Deeply flawed characters and achingly real situations give This Is Paradise a universal appeal.
In their short story collections, Claire Vaye Watkins and Kristiana Kahakauwila prove that as much as we shape our world, that place, in turn, influences us. Watkins was born in Death Valley and raised in the desert of Nevada; Kahakauwila was born in Hawaii and raised in Southern California. Whether the focus is on the American West or modern Hawaii, these tales have extraordinary power and meaning because of the place in which they are set.