Welcome to Camp ToB 2020, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books. This summer, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2020—two books per month, two weeks per book—that the ToB fandom chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel and talk it out on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress. At the close of each month you’ll decide which of the two books advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you’ll pick one of our three finalists to win an automatic berth in the 2021 Tournament of Books.
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Rosecrans Baldwin: Welcome back, everyone, as we jump into our second week of discussing Sharks in the Time of Saviors, this time focusing on the book’s second half. Which opens with one hell of a big twist that profoundly shapes the rest of the novel. Before we get into that, let me introduce this week’s Activity Leader, Merie Kirby. Merie, can you tell us a little about yourself?
Merie Kirby: Well, I will start with a story that might tell you a little about how I connect with this book. My name is pronounced “merry” and in fact it is an old spelling of that word, a spelling Chaucer used. My mom chose it because it meant “happy” and if my name were happy, then surely I would be too. Magically, it worked. A grad school professor once told me I was the only happy poet she knew. I think she meant it in a nice way.
Rosecrans: A creative writing professor making a backhanded compliment, what a surprise! How about you as a reader, writer, worker?
Merie: In my beloved day job I teach interdisciplinary classes at a university, usually rooted in the humanities, but not always. Like so many of us here, I read a lot, and I will graze on any genre. I write poems, which mostly take place at the juxtapositions of daily life, natural science, and mythology. I’m the mother of a kid heading into high school this fall, and I’m married to a composer.
Rosecrans: Well, before we get into the second half of the book, how did the first half strike you?
Merie: Starting with Malia’s voice worked for me because it also introduced that earlier mystical moment of the night marchers on the night of Noa’s conception. Then, when the sharks save Noa and bring him to the boat, I’m ready to believe that. He’s already been associated with something uncanny. Actually, this book made me think about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, in that intentional deployment of something unworldly or magical right at the beginning to reset your expectations.
Rosecrans: Yeah, we’re being instructed to enlarge our world a little—there’s a very quick sense that we’ll be taking in both a sense of communal spirit and actual spirits, plus colonialism, individualism.
Merie: I don’t think there were really aspects in the first half that were less persuasive so much as aspects I wanted more of in the first half. But now I think that I was really buying into the perspective of other characters in the book: putting everything on Noa’s shoulders and wanting more from him—more miracles, more information, more savior-like behavior. Like everyone else in the book, I was perhaps missing the point.
Rosecrans: That’s a great point. I felt the same way, and admired the techniques the novel used to get me there. It’s also a good segue because the second half of the book… Well, did Noa’s death take you by surprise?
Merie: So surprised!
Rosecrans: Fucking surprised!
Merie: Horrified! How on earth can the book go on?!
Rosecrans: Disappointed! Sad! Pissed!
Merie: But when I looked back at that moment and that narrative choice, I started to see what (I think) the book wanted to show me, and that what I had expected from the book was not actually what the book wanted to talk about. And that I found thrilling.
Rosecrans: Me too, though it took me a minute. Same as you, by that point in the novel I had put the book on Noa’s back and was excited to be carried into the jungle. Then he died. He fucking died. And I just didn’t see how, for a moment, this novel that I had loved until that point could continue being the book I wanted it to be—a novel that would explore, I don’t know, Noa’s powers and his family’s rupture, and also meanwhile heal the islands, save the South Pacific, send a shark tornado to the White House while fixing the climate crisis, whatever. Now the novel would not be any of those things. I kept going, but I was disgruntled for a while. And then, gradually, finally, I began to see what the book was showing me, and yeah, I was back to loving it, but now on the book’s terms, not mine. For me, that ultimately made it even better.
Merie: I find that I often have to return to this question—am I asking something from this book, this poem, this film, that it never intended to give me? Sometimes the answer is no, it actually is not delivering what it promised. And sometimes it is me focusing on the wrong thing. I have to admit, I love when a novel surprises me like Noa’s death surprised me.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
In 1995 Kailua-Kona, Hawai‘i, seven-year-old Nainoa Flores falls overboard into the Pacific Ocean. When a shiver of sharks appears in the water, everyone fears the worst. But Noa is gingerly delivered to his mother in the jaws of a shark, marking his story the stuff of legends. Noa’s family hails his rescue as a sign of the favor of ancient Hawaiian gods—a belief that appears reinforced by Noa’s puzzling new abilities. Now Noa, working as a paramedic in gritty Oregon neighborhoods, attempts to fathom his expanding abilities; in Washington, his older brother Dean hurtles into the world of elite college athletics; and in California, risk-addicted younger sister Kaui navigates unforgiving academic and wilderness landscapes to forge her independence from the family’s legacy.
Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.
Rosecrans: To me, much of the book, to put it a little basically, was about searching for identity—the identity of the islands historically and present-day for the locals; the different experiences of a diaspora; the different ways to be siblings or parents in a family, and different ways to be lovers, competitors, exiles, rescuers—in the second half, searching for Noa, everyone also searching for themselves and one another, to discover what this family may become in his absence. Does any of that ring true for you?
Merie: So, yeah, that part about the search for identity does ring true for me. But more than that, I see the novel as being about a search for collective identity, the necessity of identity within community.
Rosecrans: That’s a great point.
Merie: Everyone thinks the sharks saved Noa because he is special. However, Noa himself keeps saying he thinks it is something bigger, something that involves possibly all of Hawai’i, and at least everyone in the family. Dean remembers him saying “Maybe when the sharks pulled me up…it wasn’t just me they were saving…Maybe it’s about our whole family” (page 265). So, did the sharks save Noa, or did the sharks restore the wholeness of the family?
I think about this especially with Kaui, who seeks belonging even as she fiercely fights to distinguish herself in San Diego. Ultimately she finds herself—in both senses—back at Honoka’a working to create, in essence, a self-sustaining ecosystem that serves as a model for other farms on the island. And it is almost as if through finding that place for herself, she finds herself and her family, her family’s ecosystem begins to be restored, too.
Rosecrans: I had a really strong communion of feeling between myself and Kaui by the end—her grief, her willfulness. Same for Dean, though more for his sense of emptiness.
Merie: I wanted something similar for Dean, and I did feel like in the end I didn’t have as good a sense of if Dean felt he really had found his place, his community. To me the book says you need both—you need your individual identity and you need your identity within community. At the end of the book, I feel like Dean is missing that latter part, and I feel like Kaui is still not quite entirely there with the former part, but she is on her way. She’s going to get there.
Rosecrans: Thematically, I often enjoyed how the book often found ways to include higher authorities, things that can expand our personal narratives—history, myth, faith, the cult of college basketball. Sarah Burke’s excellent, personal review of the book in The Believer got into this much better than I’m doing here; thanks to camper Cassidy for pointing it out. Merie, what themes or storylines did you connect with best?
Merie: The sibling dynamics were so well done—I’m the oldest of three myself, and those currents of love and resentment and allegiance felt accurate. All the parts about myth and faith in Hawaiian figures—“the edges of the natural world, which humans never have access to” as Malia describes it (page 216)—were electric for me. Plus, there was so much of the writing that I loved, like the incantation of “Because” phrases that begin chapter 29 and mark Kaui’s return to Hawai’i, and all of the last chapter when we finally hear from Augie.
I do wonder if these things outside of ourselves are truly outside of us. When we belong to them, don’t they become part of our interior? To me, this is what makes Dean’s fall from grace so painful. Not that he has lost something outside of himself, but that he has lost something that had become a part of him, integral to his concept of himself. That space becomes impossible for him to fill, and is exacerbated when he also loses Noa. (The last lines of the book, Augie’s realization at the end, I would say has an answer to this, of course.) What did you think about where we leave Dean?
Rosecrans: I felt hard and fell hard for Dean. Moreso in the second half, with Noa gone and Dean roaming the mountains looking for him. I really empathized with the path things took, and I appreciated the shard of hope we get at the end, in the phone conversation, to suggest he could find his way back. But I’m still worried. Who will Dean become without Noa, his mom, everybody else?
Merie: I have so many worries about Dean!
Rosecrans: Yup yup yup. So, you’ve mentioned several lines and moments you liked on a sentence level. As a poet, what did you think of the writing generally and how it functioned? Are you lyrically inclined or averse? I liked Chico’s comment last week, that the prose was poetic without going purple.
Merie: I really appreciate lyricism when it fits the story, or the moment of the story. I felt like this novel’s lyricism shone most when deep inside the characters’ thoughts: Malia when she and Augie come upon the graveyard, Kaui when she is climbing or working on the farm, Noa bringing that dog back, Dean on the basketball court, that final chapter.
Rosecrans: Final question, because we’re going to ask everyone in a moment to vote on which book they preferred this month—did you read The City We Became?
Merie: I didn’t read The City We Became, but I am a big fan of Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy! I actually came to her writing through her cousin, W. Kamau Bell, because he talks about her in his autobiography.
Rosecrans: In that case, how is Sharks sitting with you, now that we finished?
Merie: So, this is also the point where, in class, I always ask, “What haven’t we talked about yet, that you think we should have?” And I have to say that one of the aspects of the novel that I found meaningful was living with and within this Native Hawaiian family for a brief time. The book manages to touch on things like postcolonialism, poverty, Hawaiian history and language and culture, racism, LGBTQ visibility and homophobia, the paltry paths out of poverty available to this family, the family structures that sustain them, the way dreams don’t always come true despite hard work, eviction practices, and so much more.
Rosecrans: A graduate seminar! Well, thank you, Merie, for joining us and sharing so much. Any final thoughts?
Merie: I have a LGBTQ+ identified kid, who is a lifelong shark fan and reading this novel now, and the scene where Van tells Kaui she is gross just broke my heart—and that it leads into Kaui’s ongoing guilt over abandoning Van at that moment—a completely plausible and understandable response!—placing her in danger of sexual assault, doubles that heartbreak. I knew the book was not going to give me Kaui in a healthy and loving relationship at the end, but that didn’t keep me from wanting it. I believe it’s in her future. Just like I choose to believe Dean is going to come home eventually.
Rosecrans: You and me both. Thanks again, Merie. Folks, we’ll see you in the comments, but don’t forget to cast your vote for which of June’s novels you preferred. Next week we’re on vacation, but we’ll return on July 8, announce the “winner” from June, and then Andrew Womack, my partner in all things TMN and ToB, will lead us through the first half of The Night Watchman. Happy reading.
The Camp ToB 2020 Calendar
- June 3: The City We Became through page 214 (finish chapter 7)
- June 10: The City We Became to the end
- June 17: Sharks in the Time of Saviors through page 191 (finish part 2)
- June 24: Sharks in the Time of Saviors to the end
- July 1: VACATION
- July 8: The Night Watchman through page 227
- July 15: The Night Watchman to the end
- July 22: Such a Fun Age through part two
- July 29: Such a Fun Age to the end
- Aug. 5: Writers & Lovers through page 165
- Aug. 12: Writers & Lovers to the end
- Aug. 19: Weather through page 99
- Aug. 26: Weather to the end
- Sept. 2: Announce summer champion