PERSONAL: Born in Kalihi, HI.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fiction fellow, Bunting Institute, Radcliffe College, 1992–93; fiction grant, National Endowment for the Arts, 1992; O. Henry Award for short fiction, 1997–2000.
(Contributor) Charlie Chan Is Dead (anthology), Penguin (New York, NY), 1993.
Shark Dialogues (novel), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1994.
Song of the Exile (novel), Ballantine (New York, NY), 1999.
House of Many Gods: A Novel, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2006.
Short stories have appeared in periodicals, including Story, Hawaii Pacific Review, Seattle Review, Ikon, Honolulu Magazine, and New Letters.
ADAPTATIONS: Song of the Exile was adapted for audio cassette, Recorded Books, 1999.
SIDELIGHTS: Kiana Davenport is a Hawaiian native of mixed ethnic heritage whose historical fiction, while set in Hawaii, is usually considered to rise above the level of regional fiction. Her prose style has been variously considered by critics as overblown or as lushly beautiful as her tropical island setting. In her first novel, Shark Dialogues, Davenport offers the sweep of Hawaiian history from the nineteenth century to the present, focusing on four mixed-blood cousins whose fearsome grandmother summons them back to the family coffee plantation. "Throughout, the rich culture of the islands permeates this unashamedly romantic saga like the fragrance of a tropical flower," observed a reviewer for the Washington Post Book World. At the narrative center is Pono, the cousins' grandmother, whose magical powers include shape-changing and whom they equally respect and fear. Through the story of how each cousin reconciles herself with her Hawaiian roots as well as with Grandmother Pono, Davenport interweaves tales of nineteenth-century whalers, the history of Hawaiian labor unions, the treatment for victims of leprosy, and the appearance of historical figures such as Queen Lil'uokalani and U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "Between wars, plagues, uprisings and earthquakes the book has a surfeit of events," remarked a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, "but for the most part Davenport juggles the elements admirably." Although Nation contributor Mindy Pennybacker stated that Shark Dialogues "swims in deep purple prose," this critic also added that, "at her best, Davenport delivers local experience in her own raw voice."
For her second novel, Song of the Exile, Davenport topped the ambition of her first book by setting her story against the backdrop of pre-World War II Hawaii and Paris, wartime Shanghai, and the postwar struggle for statehood in Hawaii. Grandmother Pono reappears as a secondary character from the first novel, but the story centers on star-crossed lovers Sunny and Keo, who fall in love in Honolulu in 1939. Keo leaves Sunny to play jazz, first in Louisiana and then in Paris. After Sunny travels to France to join him, the Nazis prepare to march on Paris and ultimately the lovers are separated again. After their newborn daughter dies, Sunny leaves France for Shanghai, where she hopes to find the sister her father abandoned many years before. Instead, she is kidnapped and forced, like thousands of other women and girls, to become a prostitute servicing the sexual needs of Japanese soldiers. "Her harrowing plight … [is] described in searingly graphic detail," noted a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, who asserted that "there seems to be no real recovery from this level of atrocity, and Keo's story cannot equal Sunny's in intensity." Davenport taps into themes of racial disharmony and the history of jazz as the narrative focus shifts to Keo and his postwar search for his lost love. The conclusion of the story finds Keo and Sunny reunited, along with their families, just as Hawaii achieves statehood, with its ambiguous promise of change. Faye A. Chadwell commented in Library Journal, that "the suffering, tragedy, and survival of these lovers remains the haunting, mesmerizing centerpiece" of the novel. Although some critics accused Davenport of occasionally falling into the kind of overblown writing usually characterized as purple prose, Booklist reviewer Vanessa Bush proclaimed of Davenport's first novel: The author "writes profoundly of human relationships, lyrically of jazz, and insightfully of racial issues in this incredible novel."
Davenport continues investigations of the history and culture of Hawaii, a discussion of race issues, and family relationships with her 2006 novel, House of Many Gods: A Novel. As in Song of the Exile, Davenport blends two stories of love: Ana is a Hawaiian, abandoned by her mother, who has managed to get a medical education and become an emergency room doctor. Nikolai is a Russian documentary filmmaker who was orphaned as a small child. The two meet during a hurricane in Hawaii and then when he is forced to return to Russia, Ana must determine whether she will let her long-estranged mother help her become reunited with the man she desperately loves. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found this work "a lush, ambitious novel that delves deeply into familial conflict and forgiveness." On the other hand, a Kirkus Reviews critic thought this third novel was "sometimes evocative, often rambling." However, other reviewers had a higher assessment of House of Many Gods. School Library Journal reviewer Jackie Gropman called it a "beautiful love story," while Booklist contributor Vanessa Bush noted that Davenport "again works magic with evocative descriptions of place … and poignant portraits of humans with all their flaws."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, November-December, 2000, review of Song of the Exile, p. 79.
Booklist, May 1, 1999, Vanessa Bush, review of Song of the Exile, p. 1596; December 15, 2005, Vanessa Bush, review of House of Many Gods: A Novel, p. 22.
Glamour, May, 1994, review of Shark Dialogues, p. 188.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1994, review of Shark Dialogues, p. 230; November 1, 2005, review of House of Many Gods, p. 1156.
Library Journal, April 1, 1994, review of Shark Dialogues, p. 130; May 1, 1999, Faye A. Chadwell, review of Song of the Exile, p. 109; December 1, 2005, Susanne Wells, review of House of Many Gods, p. 111.
Nation, October 4, 1999, Mindy Pennybacker, "Decolonizing the Mind," p. 31.
Ploughshares, fall, 1994, Katherine Min, review of Shark Dialogues, p. 241.
Publishers Weekly, March 21, 1994, review of Shark Dialogues, p. 54; June 7, 1999, review of Song of the Exile, p. 69; October 17, 2005, review of House of Many Gods, p. 40.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 1, 2006, Christine Thomas, "Radiating from Oahu," review of House of Many Gods.
School Library Journal, April, 2006, Jackie Gropman, review of House of Many Gods, p. 168.
Washington Post Book World, August 6, 1995, review of Shark Dialogues, p. 12.
Curled Up with a Good Book, http://www.curledup.com/ (October 16, 2006), Anesha Capur, review of Song of the Exile.
Small Spiral Notebook, http://www.smallspiralnotebook.com/ (October 16, 2006), John A. Mangarella, review of House of Many Gods.
Wesleyan University Web site, http://www.wesleyan.edu/ (October 16, 2006), "Kiana Davenport."