Megan Kamalei Kakimoto’s debut story collection Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare opens with a flash piece that acts as a gorgeous prose poem as well as a north star for the constellation of mythologies that follow in the subsequent stories, all centered on mixed Kānaka Maoli and Japanese women. “A Catalogue of Kānaka Superstitions, as Told by Your Mother” details, briefly, various inherited myths that then pop up in the rest of the stories. It’s not narrative hand-holding; it’s immersive, well crafted storytelling that almost has a horror bend to it. Here is what’s to come, the opening whispers, not one warning but a collection of them.
The whole collection is ordered and stitched together with great care, loosely following the cycles of a life, exploring everyday violences, desires, and hauntings along the way. After the prelude of superstitions, we open with a story that begins with a girl getting her period for the first time, ballooning into a years-spanning story full of blood, disordered eating, uncertainty. Sadie, our protagonist, has a violent pregnancy, a violent birth, Sadie disconnected from that which comes spilling out of her. (This titular story, which is also published online in Joyland, pushes my personal agenda for more period blood in literary fiction.)
We then end with a first person story about a widow who begins to see the fractured body parts of her dead wife Haunani in the anatomy of a corpse flower. From birth to death, quite literally, the collection blooms and swells, Kakimoto’s language and wavy, easily smudged lines between the real and the speculative haunting in such gentle strokes.
Nestled in the middle of these bookends are my three favorite stories: “Temporary Dwellers,” about a teen girl whose well meaning but sort of cringey mother welcomes in another teen girl from Kauaʻi where the U.S. Army and Navy have forcibly removed Native Hawaiians in order to test literal bombs; “Aiko, the Writer,” about a writer who ignores her dead grandmother’s warning to never write about a specific myth from her culture; and “Touch Me Like One of Your Island Girls: A Love Story,” about Mehana, a Japanese and Kānaka woman who starts doing on-camera sex work for the prolific white dude porn producer who specifically traffics in porn fetishizing Kānaka women from a racist gaze.
In “Temporary Dwellers,” the young protagonist develops an erotic obsession with her houseguest, and they begin a secret queer love affair. Intimacy and the throes of teen lust and love butt up against the unpredictability and obtrusion of a war the U.S. will not call a war, the violence of occupation displacing “the girl,” this houseguest, who is only ever referred to as the girl, perhaps a wall the narrator intentionally puts up to protect herself, perhaps a wall she never quite penetrates in the first place, never fully able to understand the pain the girl experiences when watching violence unfold on the news against her land and people. Take this scene, which so perfectly captures the push and pull of the story, that flicker of teen desire sitting inside violent context:
In the kitchen, we eat poached eggs and toast with lilikoi jelly and we watch reporters relay the most recent casualties of the bombings, now traveling north: a family of four in the Wailua Homesteads, an elderly couple that refused to evacuate their Anahola home. Toppled horse corpses litter the trail to a Kōloa stable, their bodies distended, swollen with trapped blood. Egg yolk trickles down the girl’s lip, and I have to sit on my hands to keep from swiping at it with my fingers.
The mother doesn’t understand the girl, either, has perhaps a good heart but also self-serving reasons for her “charity cases,” as her daughter regards them. The mother wants the girl to go to therapy; the girl wants to join the resistance coalition fighting for her land. Normal girlhood is impossible, the U.S. military has ensured that. It’s a story that contains many heartbreaks, and the unraveling of the relationship between the girls isn’t diminished or portrayed in contrast to the more serious Imperialist conflict of the story, but rather these things unfold together, in tandem, lives lived against the inescapable backdrop of occupation. Throughout the collection, characters confront colonial violence in myriad ways.
In “Aiko, the Writer,” those forces impact the character’s art and her relationship to it. It’s one of the best stories about the world of writing and publishing I’ve ever read, and it serves as a metafictional meditation for Every Drop. In fact, its central character Aiko is working on a manuscript with the working title A Catalogue of Kānaka Superstitions, a reproduction of the title from the opening of this collection. Her manuscript is haunted. Literally. The pages vibrate on their own accord, alive with the words of her late grandmother who sometimes visits her as a house gecko, warning her against writing of the Night Marchers. But Aiko has been pressured by the white publishing world to perform her own cultural identity, to give white readers more, more, more of herself, of the stories she has inherited in her bones.
This is something I think about a lot as a writer of marginalized identity: where that line is between wanting to celebrate and give visibility to your culture and wanting to protect it from an othering, voyeuristic gaze. Kakimoto threads the needle wonderfully throughout Every Drop, and “Aiko, the Writer” isn’t an explanation or a justification of any of the choices she makes but rather functions more complexly, perhaps even slyly critiquing the non-Hawaiian reader. It’s a sharp indictment of not just the publishing industry as a whole but also the limits of “representation,” of “Own Voices.”
“Touch Me Like One of Your Island Girls: A Love Story” similarly hums with an internal game of tug-of-war for its central character, Mehana, who is both repulsed and drawn to the tale’s villain, Landon Wilder, proprietor of adult entertainment company Get Wild Productions. Kakimoto writes: “She’d hated him for years and followed him around like a tracking hound, desperate to understand him, eager to slit his throat or suck him off.” Later, Mehana observes Landon shaers a similar gap between his two front teeth she possesses. She read somewhere about the fap “often reflected poor early behaviors such as extended pacifier use, thumb sucking, and the vaguely erotic ‘tongue thrusting.'”
Indeed, the story is unexpected and ambivalent in its portrayal of the erotic, both rightfully skeptical of Wilder and the wider world of pornographic tourism of Native bodies but still granting Mehana full, if complicated, agency, the ability to profit off the gaze impressed upon her. The relationship between Mehana and her friend Patti, another one of the Get Wild girls, injects the story with something both deep and wholly straightforward, an understanding kinship in an environment that seeks to cast them in cliched roles. There’s erotic possibility there, so much more potent than the performance they’re selling.
While those are the standouts to me, the other stories in the collection are similarly alive and haunted by possibility, full of characters in slippery relationships. The body horror and ghostly spirits throughout aren’t grisly. There’s a softness to them, much like those whispered warnings of the opening. It’s beautifully constructed from start to finish, and while the stories will get under your skin, it’s a welcome invasion.
Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare by Megan Kamalei Kakimoto is out now.