36 Books Blog: Kawai Strong Washburn

Kawai Strong Washburn, author of Sharks in the Time of Saviors: A Novel

Novel & Short Story category, sponsored by College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University

Each week leading up to the 33rd annual Minnesota Book Awards announcement, we are featuring exclusive interviews with our 36 finalists. You can also watch the authors in conversation with their fellow category finalists here.

In a year defined by a pandemic and its fallout, virtually everything about our lives has changed in some way. How has COVID-19 impacted your writing habits and preferences? Has the unique zeitgeist of the past year influenced your writing output in any ways that you can pinpoint?  

With both of our children at home for a very large portion of 2020, I had to forfeit much of my writing time. What normally are sacred morning hours I can reserve for my writing–from about 5:00am to 6:30am–became hours in which I worked my desk job before beginning time taking care of my children. As the year went on and George Floyd was killed, it became that much harder to feel any sense of personal power or optimism for the value of art. I spent most of the latter half of the year looking for further opportunities to be involved in my community, and it wasn’t until late in the year that I felt I was able to get back into a strong creative space. 

Would you tell us one or two things about your finalist book that you are particularly proud of, and why? (Sure, it may feel a bit un-Minnesotan to say so, but it’s not boasting if we ask!) 

My novel took ten years to write. I’m proud that I was able to persevere, particularly while raising a family and working multiple jobs. I’m also particularly proud of the fact that President Obama read it and considered it one of his favorite books of 2020. 

What do you hope that your audience learns or takes away from your book?  

I hope it expands the reader’s understanding of Hawai’i, and that readers might also find themselves reconsidering our relationship with the natural world. 

Minnesota enjoys a reputation as a place that values literature and reading. If this sentiment rings true for you, what about our home state makes it such a welcoming and conductive place for writers? 

Excellent funding for the arts through organizations like the Minnesota State Arts Board, the McKnight Foundation, the Loft Literary Center, and many others; great universities, theaters, and independent bookstores. Several exceptional independent book publishers (Coffee House Press, Graywolf, Milkweed, to name a few). Many talented and generous authors at various stages of their careers, often working directly with underrepresented communities and emerging authors to increase visibility and representation. 

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer with an interest in your category? 

Don’t focus on sales, awards, and online ratings. Recognize the type of books you love to read and what that means about the type of art you want to create, and then make it, regardless of how others may or may not receive it (you can’t control that, anyway). 

Tell us something about yourself that is not widely known! (It doesn’t have to be about your writing.) 

I used to train in mixed martial arts, with an unrealized goal of becoming an amateur fighter. 

Kawai Strong Washburn was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island of Hawai‘i. His work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired ReadingMcSweeney’s, and Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, among others. He was a 2015 Tin House Summer Scholar and 2015 Bread Loaf work-study scholar. This is his first novel.