8. A book written in Australia/Oceania : Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport
List Progress: 28/30
I wanted to use a book from the Pacific Islands for this category this year, and debated whether Kiana Davenport’s 1994 novel Shark Dialogues really counted. After all, it’s a Hawaiian novel, and Hawaii is part of the United States, and therefore North America, right? But in that question, I had unwittingly stumbled into one of the central themes of Shark Dialogues: how American and white (or “haole”) forces have overwritten and erased Hawaiian identity for over one hundred years. Shark Dialogues is a multi-generational story of one native Hawaiian family, starting before the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani in 1893, and continuing down the family’s legacy and into the modern sovereignty movement of the 1990’s. At the center of the story is Pono, the family matriarch, and four of her granddaughters, women who feel divorced from their identities and tossed to the winds, and need to find their own paths back to their home and themselves.
It has been a long time since I’ve read something quite like Shark Dialogues, with its wide scope and rich texture. In some ways it reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its sprawling family tree and dips into the fantastical (though that book tends far more towards magical realism). While not everyone is given equal ground, the handful of characters who are centered feel incredibly full and developed. The main granddaughters are Ming, a Hawaiian-Chinese woman dying from lupus; Rachel, a Hawaiian-Japanese housewife married to a Yakuza boss and living in the lap of luxury; Vanya, a Hawaiian-Filipino lawyer and activist fighting for sovereignty; and Jess, a Hawaiian-white veterinarian trying her best to assimilate on the mainland. The cousins all spent summers growing up together and watched over by the forbidding and mysterious Pono, who holds secrets about their family history. It is a great set-up with many lines of cultural, familial and racial tensions at odds with each other, and it makes for a tense reading experience.
There are definitely some things that could be tightened up in this book. Even for a generational epic, it feels a bit bloated at almost 500 pages, many of those pages spent on some very strange sexual scenes. And some of the side characters are skimmed over so much as to almost be distracting: when a character’s grandmother and cousins are a bigger part of their funeral than their children or spouse, it feels a little off-center. But on the whole, this novel took me on a journey through a part of indigenous history and present that I knew almost nothing about and made me feel it deeply. It is a lot to dive into, but deep enough to be worth the jump.
Would I Recommend It: Yes.