Interview with Native Hawaiian Author Megan Kamalei Kakimoto

Native Hawai­ian author Megan Kamalei Kaki­mo­to is a rare lit­er­ary gem: aMegan-Kamalei-Kakimoto sto­ry­teller of YA (young adult) and adult sub­ject mat­ter that is authen­ti­cal­ly root­ed in Native Hawai­ian life experiences.

Her USA Today Nation­al Best­seller, Every Drop is a Man’s Night­mare, is a short sto­ry col­lec­tion that review­ers describe as “power­ful com­ing-of-age sto­ries that prove it is pos­si­ble to be many things, all the time, all at once” (Author Amy Hempel), “rich and wise, hum­ming with con­fi­dence” (New York Times Book Review), and “a blaz­ing, bod­i­ly, rau­cous jour­ney through con­tem­po­rary Hawai­ian iden­ti­ty and wom­an­hood” (Blooms­bury Publishing) 

We are so pleased to talk sto­ry with Megan today.

Alo­ha kaua e Megan. Con­grat­u­la­tions on your new book! For those who haven’t met you, please tell us a lit­tle about yourself?

Maha­lo nui! My name is Megan Kamalei Kaki­mo­to, and I’m a Japan­ese and Native Hawai­ian writer liv­ing in Hon­olu­lu. I recent­ly received my MFA at the Mich­en­er Cen­ter for Writ­ers, where I stud­ied both fic­tion and screen­writ­ing. Aside from my life­long pas­sion for writ­ing and read­ing, I’m also a run­ner, a sta­tion­ary cycling enthu­si­ast, and a proud pet mom to a kolo­he dog and queen-of-the-house cat.

Where did you grow up? What high school did you grad from? 

I grew up in Maki­ki and grad­u­at­ed from Kame­hame­ha Schools Kapālama

Me, too! Go War­riors! Can you share a bit of your upcom­ing short sto­ry col­lec­tion, Every Drop is a Manʻs Night­mare? With­out giv­ing too much away, what is it about? 

Every Drop is a Manʻs Night­mare is a col­lec­tion of 11 sto­ries cen­ter­ing native Hawai­ian and hapa iden­ti­ty, female sex­u­al­i­ty, local super­sti­tions, and the last­ing wounds of col­o­niza­tion. Many of the sto­ries lean into the spec­u­la­tive, and at their heart are unique­ly Hawai­ian expe­ri­ences that play out in a con­tem­po­rary landscape.

Cov­er, Every Drop is a Man’s Night­mare by Megan Kamalei Kaki­mo­to (Blooms­bury, 2023)

What inspired you to write these sto­ries? Is there any par­tic­u­lar sto­ry that speaks to you? 

I’ve always loved writ­ing short sto­ries and liv­ing in their world of brevi­ty and sub­tle­ty. These sto­ries in par­tic­u­lar came to me over a long peri­od of time (the first sto­ry I began around 2015, I believe) and emerged out of a love and admi­ra­tion of our Hawai­ian com­mu­ni­ty and par­tic­u­lar­ly the mana and feroc­i­ty of our women.

In terms of sto­ries that speak to me, I’d say “The Love and Decline of the Corpse Flower” has a spe­cial place in my heart, in that it came to me almost ful­ly formed. I felt an instant affin­i­ty for the women in this piece, and knew right away I want­ed to do right by them.

I love that sto­ry, too. What was your favorite part of writ­ing your col­lec­tion? What was most challenging? 

My favorite part of writ­ing this col­lec­tion is also my favorite part of writ­ing sto­ries in general—I love liv­ing in the lan­guage and tak­ing the time to play with my sen­tences. Usu­al­ly on the line lev­el is where char­ac­ters first emerge for me, so see­ing how these women slow­ly start­ed to reveal them­selves in the collection’s many sto­ries was such a pleasure.

The biggest chal­lenge I faced was more of an inter­nal strug­gle in that for many months I feared how these sto­ries would be received by kāna­ka read­ers. I so bad­ly want to make native Hawai­ian read­ers proud, which cre­ates a twofold emo­tion­al response for me, in that I also have lots of anx­i­ety around dis­ap­point­ing them. While I know there’s no uni­ver­sal or mono­lith­ic Hawai­ian expe­ri­ence, I couldn’t help but feel par­a­lyzed by the fear that the expe­ri­ences I was writ­ing into through these sto­ries sim­ply weren’t valid, and this brought a lot of pres­sures to sto­ries that were still in their infan­cy. I real­ly had to work through this fear for a while, and some­times it still creeps up.

Oh, yes, I under­stand the pres­sure. What char­ac­ter­is­tics do you love best about the pro­tag­o­nists in Every Drop? Are they mod­eled after spe­cif­ic people?

I just love messy women and see­ing them be messy on the page! I also real­ly admire when char­ac­ters in fic­tion are afford­ed the full range of their human­i­ty, which I tried to do for the women in Every Drop. While none of the women are mod­eled after spe­cif­ic peo­ple, there are so many strong, resilient, messy women among my friends, fam­i­ly, and com­mu­ni­ty who I’m sure have seeped into these char­ac­ters with or with­out my knowledge.

What was the jour­ney to get­ting Every Drop pub­lished like? How long did it take to write your book? 

It’s strange — the jour­ney feels both incred­i­bly long and very com­pressed simul­ta­ne­ous­ly! There’s a pret­ty wide range in terms of when these sto­ries came to be; I began a few of them as ear­ly as 2015, while one I wrote as recent­ly as 2021. I had been nurs­ing the major­i­ty of the book’s sto­ries for many years before I was able to con­ceive of them as a col­lec­tion. Then COVID hit, I began my MFA at the Mich­en­er Cen­ter for Writ­ers remote­ly and real­ly got to work on curat­ing a col­lec­tion and tak­ing it very seri­ous­ly. I signed with my agent Iwalani Kim in April 2021, after which we spent over six months revis­ing and pol­ish­ing the sto­ries before she went out on sub­mis­sion. The book sold at auc­tion fair­ly quick­ly after that.

Why did you become author? Have you always want­ed to be an author?

Yes, it’s the only thing I’ve ever want­ed to be and hon­est­ly like­ly one of the only things I’m good at! In all seri­ous­ness, I’ve tak­en art­mak­ing seri­ous­ly since I was a child and always knew I want­ed to do some­thing in the lit­er­ary space. For a while, I dreamed of becom­ing a jour­nal­ist, then a nov­el­ist. Read­ing wide­ly and being exposed to so many incred­i­bly gift­ed authors was what pro­pelled for­ward my pas­sion to become an author myself.

What do you enjoy most about writ­ing? What are some of your great­est challenges? 

I love the play­ful and gen­er­a­tive space of start­ing a sto­ry. Before any pres­sure is put on it to become the thing it wants to be, there exists a sense of end­less pos­si­bil­i­ty that just thrills me. I think one of my great­est chal­lenges is learn­ing when to end some­thing. I have a ten­den­cy to over­write (which is why I also take so much time with the revi­sion stage), and it can be hard for me to see an end­ing clear­ly because I often just want to keep going with a char­ac­ter, a world, an atmos­phere, etc.

What are your hopes and dreams for the year and beyond in terms of your pub­lish­ing career and what you would like to see pub­lished in the future? Can you share a bit about what youre work­ing on next?

I would love to see the sto­ry col­lec­tion wel­comed into the larg­er lit­er­ary land­scape, par­tic­u­lar­ly because there are so few works being pub­lished on a large scale by native Hawai­ian authors. There are plen­ty of books writ­ten about Hawaiʻi and Hawai­ians, but few have been penned by Hawai­ian authors, and it’s real­ly impor­tant for me to cham­pi­on Indige­nous writ­ers and their work.

In terms of future projects, I’m on con­tract with Blooms­bury (my pub­lish­er) for my first nov­el. It’s ten­ta­tive­ly titled Blood­sick, and while I won’t give too much away, I can share the book is invest­ed in the top­ics of moth­er­hood, men­stru­a­tion, and anxiety.

What beliefs are your work challenging? 

One of the beliefs I hope my work chal­lenges is the afore­men­tioned idea of a mono­lith­ic Hawai­ian expe­ri­ence that stems from a lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Hawai­ian expe­ri­ences in con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture. I also hope to push against the idea that Indige­nous char­ac­ters in fic­tion should be rep­re­sent­ed well and admirably—this expec­ta­tion ends up strip­ping them of so much of their human­i­ty. Instead, I want­ed these sto­ries to cham­pi­on char­ac­ters who made bad deci­sions and said the wrong things—and were ulti­mate­ly still capa­ble of receiv­ing and return­ing love.

What advice would you give an aspir­ing writer?

Take plea­sure in the work. It’s easy for writ­ers to aspire to pub­lic­i­ty and rave reviews and awards, but no exter­nal recog­ni­tion can com­pare to the plea­sures of a ful­ly real­ized sto­ry. A writ­ing career also takes a lot of grit, per­sis­tence, and patience, so it’s impor­tant for you to locate your love and inspi­ra­tion first and fore­most in the work itself.

What’s your online pres­ence like? Do your read­ers con­tact you? What do they say? 

I have a hum­ble online pres­ence, most­ly in the form of my web­site and Insta­gram. A few read­ers have con­tact­ed me with over­whelm­ing­ly kind things to say about the col­lec­tion, which tru­ly means the world to me. When the read­ers in ques­tion are kāna­ka, my heart absolute­ly soars. 

And now a few niele ques­tions, if you’d like to answer. Who is your biggest supporter?

My par­ents are my biggest, longest run­ning sup­port­ers, with­out ques­tion. My part­ner Van has also been in my cor­ner since day one.

Is there a fun fact youʻd like to share about your­self with readers?

Since book pro­mo­tion began, I’ve become obsessed with tak­ing sta­tion­ary rhyth­mic cycling class­es as a stress relief and now can­not imag­ine my life with­out it!

What kinds of sto­ries do you enjoy read­ing? Any favorites?

I love sto­ries that yield deep insights into what it means to be human and in a body. I also grav­i­tate toward sto­ries that sub­vert my expec­ta­tions, are play­ful on the line lev­el, and demand an atten­tion to the lan­guage, some­times so much so that I must return to them again and again. Just a few sto­ry col­lec­tions that stand out to me: The Vis­it­ing Priv­i­lege (and espe­cial­ly “Hon­ored Guest”) by Joy Williams, Sab­ri­na & Cori­na by Kali Fajar­do-Ans­tine, Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz, Sing to It by Amy Hempel, and most recent­ly The Sor­rows of Oth­ers by Ada Zhang.

This has been so fun! Maha­lo nui, Megan, for talk­ing sto­ry and shar­ing your man­a’o with us. Our best wish­es always for your con­tin­ued suc­cess! To learn more about Megan and to read more of her work, vis­it her web­site and fol­low her on Insta­gram.

Images cour­tesy of Megan Kamalei Kakimoto

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