It all started with a place. La Libertad is a bizarre and fascinating beach town on El Salvador’s Pacific Coast. It’s home to a world-class point-break, as well as a serious crack cocaine epidemic. I spent a lot of time there in my early twenties—back when it was still below the surfing radar and I was a Peace Corps volunteer about 50 miles away. The beauty and the grit of La Lib, with its mix of surfers, fishermen, drug dealers, and addicts is something I always wanted to write about.
I published a short essay here on TNB about it several years ago, but I had a harder time working it into a novel.
Why were you so hung up on this one beach town?
That’s a good question. I don’t consider myself a nostalgic person, but my time in El Salvador is something I’m a bit obsessed with. I loved the country, right away. And I loved the lifestyle that I had there—working hard in the campo, and weekend surf trips to La Libertad. I loved my friends there—both the Salvadorans and the other volunteers.
All of the expats who surfed in La Libertad back then had a sense that we were experiencing something special. The waves were so good, and at the time they weren’t crowded. You didn’t have to know much about surfing to realize that it would all change, that hotels and surf competitions and so on would show up soon enough. But we had no control over that, and we had no money of our own to invest. So our only option was to enjoy the hell out of it, for as long as we could.
Incidentally, La Lib is completely different now. I’ve not been back in many years, but it sounds as though I would hardly recognize that part of the coast. It’s even more developed than we imagined.
In our last interview, I interrogated your decision to write through a female first-person narrator. Now, you’ve gone and done the same thing again, with Malia, the central character of Kilometer 99. Is this the only way you know how to write?
I hope not. The funny thing is, when I consider all the fiction I’ve worked on, it still feels as if I’ve only ever created two female narrators—not so many, considering. It just so happens that they’re the protagonists of the two novels that actually saw the light of day.
In the case of How the Mistakes Were Made, it had to be done. There was no story if there wasn’t a female narrator. In this new book, I had more trepidation. I definitely didn’t want people to think it was some sort of gimmick. But in the end, Malia made the story work. It all came together once she appeared.
Let’s talk about Malia for a moment. She’s part Hawaiian and part Japanese-American, is that correct?
Yes, and from Honolulu originally. She goes to El Salvador as a Peace Corps volunteer, has her work literally upended by the 2001 earthquake, and decides to quit in order to head out on a surf trip.
What made you want to write about a character with that background?
‘Want’ is not the right word. Like I said, I struggled to write about La Lib for so long. Malia stumbled onto the page one day, and seemed to snap everything into focus.
I needed a character who was a good surfer, but who also had a certain degree of indifference. That led me straight back to Hawai`i. In my humble opinion, the Hawaiian surfer is the best surfer in the world, but also the one who is least interested in all the trappings of surfing. In California and elsewhere, surfing is an identity, a manner of dressing and speaking. That’s not so much the case in Hawai`i.
So is this a book about El Salvador or about Hawai`i?
Certainly, it’s set in El Salvador. Only about two chapters are set in Honolulu. But as I said, Malia’s perspective informs the entire book.
As it turns out, her background offers insight into not just surfing, but also into tourist development, land tenure, even sugar plantations. As an Asian/Pacific Islander, she complicated the expectations regarding gringos or Americans that the Salvadoran characters possessed. Right away, she made the situation more interesting.
How do you feel, writing about these places—El Salvador and Hawai`i—as an outsider?
I feel conflicted, always. It’s not something I take lightly. That’s probably why I had such a hard time writing about La Libertad. I was uncomfortable with a lot of the tropes of travelogues and expat novels.
It was much more terrifying to write about Hawai`i—even though I’ve now spent twice as many years in Honolulu as I did in El Salvador. But El Salvador is a place that’s been ignored by American readers, by English-language readers, for far too long. Too few novels are set there; there should be more books about it—good books, bad books, and everything in between.
Hawai`i is a whole different situation. All sorts of mainland writers, filmmakers, and advertisers have trafficked in images of Hawai`i—in a whole mythology of Hawai`i—for decades. I certainly didn’t want to be part of that. I hope I got a few things right, or that I showed another side of the place.
Hawai`i has it’s own literary tradition, and so many amazing writers—of fiction and other forms. I certainly don’t think anyone needs me to speak for this amazing place, nor would I ever try to. It’s more that Malia’s background helped me tell the story that I wanted to tell.
Is Malia based on anyone in particular?
No, not exactly. To some degree, I was thinking of the Asian American volunteers I served with in El Salvador, and how they were often viewed with suspicion by the locals—not considered authentically American. Her nickname comes straight from that. I think I also gave her some of the wanderlust that I often find in my Honolulu students, that desire to see the world—a strong but vague desire. Her surfing style is, I suppose, inspired by the strangers that I see in the breaks here on Oahu. I hoped to capture the way that the ocean rewards grace and composure over brute force. Somebody like Malia—who might seem slight or frail upon land—is powerful and capable in the water.
What about her Peace Corps work?
That is based on my own experience, to some degree. I was involved in with a large, gravity-flow water system, like the one that Malia tries to build. And I did see it severely damaged in the 2001 earthquake.
I’m not an engineer like Malia. The damage that I witnessed turned out to be more repairable than it initially appeared. But that sense of losing a huge body of work in an instant, that was drawn from what I went through.
What else about the 2001 earthquakes worked their way into the novel?
Those earthquakes left a big impression on me. Part of the issue was that the quakes just kept happening. Scientists and government officials constantly told us that the worst was over, that there would only be mild aftershocks and the like. Instead, the earth kept moving—day after day, for months. It was literally unsettling. After a while, I couldn’t tell the difference between real and imagined tremors. It became clear that the so-called experts either didn’t know anything, or were simply placating us.
But the most important thing about those quakes was this: I’d gone through an intensive training session that explained all the difficulties of working in development, specifically in rural El Salvador. One of the problems they noted over and over was a mentality referred to as fatalism—a tendency to accept circumstances rather than try to change or improve them. In the aftermath of the earthquake, people like me saw all of our best laid plans turned to dust. The Salvadoran campesinos—many of whom had already survived natural disasters, civil war, refugee camps, and so on—had to teach us about accepting fate.
In that way, the earthquake was a reversal of sorts. It exposed the hubris involved in our development work, the selfish personal aspirations that we had tied up in it. That’s a realization that informs all of Malia’s decisions.
What is it about surfing that you wanted to write about?
Learning to surf in La Libertad was life changing. There was no surf industry there—no shops, no clothes, no magazines. Even the boards were third-hand cast-offs from earlier visitors. I was in awe of the traveling surfers who passed through in trucks or vans, coming up from South America or down from Mexico after months on the road. It all felt very much like an alternative lifestyle, probably the way it did to surfers who came to Hawai`i in the sixties.
I think Malia sums up my feelings pretty well, when she talks about the way that surfing emphasizes the present, doesn’t try to be an investment in a better life down the road. As I get older, I appreciate that aspect of it even more. I find that my critical faculties have crept their way into almost everything else I once enjoyed: writing, reading, music, film, all kinds of art. It’s nice to have something that’s purely enjoyable, that I’m not trying to be great at, and that’s fleeting.
TYLER MCMAHON is the author of the novels Kilometer 99 and How the Mistakes Were Made. He is the editor of Hawaii Pacific Review. He teaches writing at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu. More info at www.tylermcmahon.net.