'Das how was': Da pidgin elegy

Poetry by Lee Tonouchi & Meg Withers

When I turn left on Kahekili Highway near my house on the windward side of O`ahu, I turn toward my son’s baseball practice and many of his games in Kahalu`u.  I also turn toward a community of coaches and parents who, for the most part, speak Pidgin English.  (The language is actually Hawaiian Creole English or HCE, but people in Hawai`i call it Pidgin.) Many dads come from work in the bright green shirts of construction and road-workers; the moms, who speak less Pidgin, still live in its surround.  If I turn right on Kahekili Highway, in the direction of Kāne`ohe Town and highways to Honolulu, toward my daughter’s soccer practices, I drive into a world of local people who, for the most part, do not speak Pidgin to each other.  Kāne`ohe is the suburbs; Kahalu`u is still country.  Baseball has a working class history in Hawai`i, especially among AJA, or Americans of Japanese ancestry; soccer is played in a suburban middle class present untethered to plantation or war histories. While the local bumpersticker that reads “Keep the Country Country” is in standard English, its sentiment is Pidgin.  The response, or “Keep Town Town,” might be read with a local accent, but it’s hardly da kine.  

Pidgin poetry is best known for its humor, its nostalgia, and its self-assertion (writing a poem about writing a poem in Pidgin is not uncommon, even now). Diane Kahanu wrote a poem that also became testimony before the Board of Education in 1987. It begins: “Ho. Just ’cause I speak Pidgin no mean I dumb. Pidgin short, fast, match.” A lot of work (and play) in Pidgin comes out of a comic tradition, typified by the work of Rap Reiplinger in the 1980s and now in books and plays by former stand-up Lee Cataluna. Her collection of vignettes, Folks You Meet at Longs, is very very funny, as is her play, Da Mayah.  You can watch one of Rap’s most famous skits, “Room Service,” here. Even the Bible, translated into Pidgin as Da Jesus Book (2000), sounds funnier than the translators probably intended. The best book of Pidgin poetry, by most accounts, is Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s 1993 volume, Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre (Bamboo Ridge Press); hundreds of people attended the launch.  Yamanaka’s book seemed to promise a renaissance (or belated rebirth, even) of Pidgin literature in Hawai`i.  Instead, it may have been one of moments in literary history when a new literature both begins and begins to end at the same moment.  What was, in the early 1990s, called “local literature,” dominated as it was by local Asian writers, was soon called into question by Hawaiian writers and their advocates, including Richard Hamasaki.  Mahealani Dudoit founded `oiwi journal, enrollment in Hawaiian language courses jumped.  By contrast, the Charlene Sato Center for Pidgin, Creole, and Dialect Studies, founded in 2002, remains ensconsed in a small portable building on the University of Hawai`i-Mānoa campus. This is not to say that communities of Pidgin and Hawaiian speakers are separate; Pidgin is traditionally the language of Hawai`i’s working class, which includes local Asians, Haole (whites), and Hawaiians. Like so much that happens on islands, the smaller they are, the more complicated the linguistic/literary world becomes. 

Lee Tonouchi has done more in recent memory than anyone to keep Pidgin in the ears of people in Hawai`i. He’s written a series of books, including Da Word (Bamboo Ridge Press), Living Pidgin (Tinfish Press), and now Significant Moments in da Life of Oriental Faddah and Son (Bess Press). The word “Oriental” is still used in Hawai`i; on the north American continent it’s considered an insult.  The word still has currency here, as you’ll find out if you read Tonouchi’s poem about going to UC Irvine (he didn’t) and discovering that his Oriental faddah was “Asian American.” Tonouchi is best known as “da Pidgin Guerilla,” an avant-garde of one who argues for a Pidgin department at UHM, and long ago refused to speak or write in any language other than Pidgin. Tonouchi also put together Da Kine Dictionary (Bess Press) a rather glossy, yet quite serious, attempt at creating a lexicon for locals and tourists alike. Tonouchi’s very serious advocacy for Pidgin is delivered with the timing of a stand-up comic; his work is funny when it’s serious, seriously funny when it’s merely funny.

So Tonouchi’s new book of poems, many years in the making, seems to take him and his readers in a new direction.  The collection forms a ficto-memoir of his life. The point of origin for his life as an artist and linguistic guerilla was the moment when, as a small child, he lost his mother in a car crash.  He was seated next to her. This book tells that story, but also tells us why Tonouchi, more than most writers in Hawai`i, is so fascinated by Pidgin.  He was mostly raised by his Okinawan grandparents.  By virtue of their generation they would have spoken strong, “authentic,” Pidgin. That his grandmother coached the author on his Japanese lessons in college and (unknown to him) taught him Okinawan Pidgin instead, is one of the many funny/serious moments in this book. So family, language, and grieving are the central points in this work, and the way in which Tonouchi interweaves these elements strikes me as something new in Hawai`i’s literature.  I’ve not seen any attention to Pidgin poetry and the elegy, but this book is an elegy to family (his father died before the book was published) and — one fears — proleptically to the language that family, like so many others, speaks. Juliana Spahr’s blurb puts it well: the book “also reminds that funny is the straight line made vulnerable."

Tonouchi’s usual pitch, tone, is spoken: he hears and records Pidgin-speaking voices as well as anyone.  A couple of very short poems tell this story.  First, “‘Wot Village You From?’"

Grandma axes my friends
wit Okinawan last names.
I dunno why,
cuz she always gets
when dey tell

Pālolo is a neighborhood in Honolulu, das why laugh.  Then, in a response poem on the next page, comes another village poem, “Wot Village I From”:

Grandma makes me memorize
in case somebody axes
one day, she sez.
Nobody eva does.

Tonouchi’s grandmother clearly made him the family historian, the guardian of place names, of an entire language.  That this poem portrays him as one who knows, but is never asked, may explain why Tonouchi has been so adamant over the years to get his work out.  Fail to ask, and he will tell you anyway.  Oddahwise, pau da culture. Or, in old Pidgin, it “make die dead lidat.” (Make is pronounced “makay” and means “dead.)

Less successful as poetry, perhaps, but part of what is striking about this collection, is the piece, “Da Photo Album My Mom Made,” which is in a very written, literary version of Pidgin.  It’s not spoken by a voice, but by a poet’s writing. In some ways the poem seems a throw-back to work by Eric Chock in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but in Tonouchi’s work it’s something new:

She left me,
as one dying away
one cloth-covered photo album,
with my name stitched
on da cover
in cursive letters.

There’s much to remark on here, like the sad turn on a "going away present."  And there’s the way in which the poet’s mother so carefully wrote his name in cursive, the way she learned to in school, a school that doubtless discouraged the use of Pidgin. The rest of the poem might sound maudlin to anyone who doesn’t know Tonouchi. To one accustomed to his brash wit, it comes as a surprise, however, this naked expression of sentiment, loss, regret. This writtenness.

Meg Withers, who now lives, teaches and writes in northern California, tended bar in Waikiki in the 1980s at the height (depth) of the AIDS epidemic.  Her customers were gay men who dressed in drag; they had already suffered the traumas of self-recognition in a world that did not recognize them. Their suffering was psychological, but as her book, A Communion of Saints, records, it was also physical: the last poem in the book lists more than two dozen “saints and angels” who died. The book is full of voices; I had a University of New Orleans low-res MFA class one summer take on its many voices, and literally call them out from the Mexican rooftop where our class was held.  Many of these are Pidgin voices.  Withers is that rare person, a second-language Pidgin speaker and writer.  So her Pidgin sometimes sounds odd, even to this other second-language Pidgin listener, but she’s recording important, vanished, voices. In a prose poem about “our rella mae,” we read: “i like keep my figure sistah no eat notting for make me fat...i name for cinderella...wait da kine prince charming like dat billy blonde guy tennessee...i like him give me one crystal slippah on my foot” (29). Withers has nestled rella mae’s voice between a quotation from W.S. Merwin (“...one must always pretend something among the dying...”) and another from the Bible (“...i gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them... i hid not my face from shame and spitting...Isaiah 50:6”) (29). The narrative thus moves from hiding to going naked, from acting to playing it straight (if not exactly “being straight"). Her book moves from written quotation to spoken quotation and then back again; these voices enter the same room, could almost be said to overhear each other, as we did in our roof-top classroom in Mexico.

Withers’s book is organized in three parts, appropriate for a volume whose every poem is followed by a Biblical quotation.  The first introduces us to our cast of characters, the second begins to take them away from us, and the third promises a kind of resurrection — not literally, surely, but elegiacally.  Where Milton and Shelley found their lost friends in the very constellations, “ourgirl” (Withers) and her friends find their in the “na po mokole,” as they look out from a seawall:

no mo da kine take money from da tourist jus’ because i can...see in heaven how na po mokole bless us but wit’ love...ancestors watching over us...tell us how to live wit’ grace/wit’ gratitude fo’ gift of life...when old ones give us mana we no mo need worry now...jus’ live da lives in kindness/love fo’ ourselfes/others...ourgirl/keoki walk from wall into the newest world of all...    (54)

Na po mokole is the night rainbow, a ghosted and ghostly presence.  Less tangible than the stars, it’s still a recurring feature of the night sky in Hawai`i, and reminds the poet and her friends of their own shades.  The quotation from Revelation that follows this poem ushers in a “mighty angel” with “a rainbow . . . upon his head.”

I began this commentary by noting the way in which a left turn at the main road is for me a turn toward Pidgin and a right turn a turn away from it.  But there’s a catch, and not just in the exceptions I can think of off-hand (like the people I see in both places).  Because when I sit at my son’s baseball practice or at his games and listen intently to the dads speaking Pidgin to one another (sometimes talking about fishing for opihi and killing pigs that end up in their yards), I hear their sons talk back to them in standard English.  However strong a local accent the son might have, he’s almost never speaking Pidgin.  Nor do the kids speak Pidgin to one another aside from an occasional “you like bat?” This is also true for my daughter’s soccer teammates.  Those whose dads or moms speak Pidgin do not have daughters who speak it back to them. The generation gap is profoundest where it involves a shift in languages. The evidence is circumstantial, but it leads me to fear for the future of Pidgin as a language spoken in Hawai`i.  There are no courses in speaking Pidgin, as there are in speaking and writing Hawaiian or other standard languages.  The national media (to say nothing of video games) spits out a steady diet of anything but. It’s still an outcast, outlier.  And, ironic for a language whose origins were economic — given plantation workers from all over Asia and elsewhere, how do people talk to each other about their work? — the current economies of money and culture do not need Pidgin.  If the local economy is mostly based on tourism and the military, both of them national and international in scope, who needs to speak this peculiarly local language?  And if the Hawaiian renaissance of the past few decades asserts the necessity to revive and use Hawaiian language?  Pidgin finds itself in the no man’s land of Yiddish, caught somewhere between Brooklyn English and Israeli Hebrew. I fear the poems I’ve been looking at are not simply laments for family and friends; they might be proleptic elegies to the language in which they were spoken and written. 


I want to thank Tiare Picard and Donovan Kūhio Colleps for having a look at a draft of this piece, especially at the Pidgin content.  Colleps, who lives in `Ewa, which was a plantation area, writes this important exception to my argument: "Here in ʻEwa, the youngsters speak nothing but Pidgin . . . I mention the docufilm because there is a group of Waiʻanae teenagers ( pre-2010, I think) confirming their love for Pidgin." My status as an English professor doubtless marks my experiences of Pidgin; I can say, however, that I never hear Pidgin being spoken on my campus. I ask students to read aloud from Pidgin texts, and most of them clearly cannot ("cannot" being a Pidgin word) speak the language well.  Tiare Picard was the Pidgin editor for Meg Withers's book when it was in manuscript at Tinfish.


You can hear some Pidgin and learn a bit about the language here.  Kent Sakoda is one of the talking heads; he's a major advocate for Pidgin in the state. Lee Tonouchi also appears, and there are photographs of him with his grandparents. In the comment stream you can see some of the emotions involved in talking about Pidgin, and in who gets to talk. Here are some schoolkids from Waianae talking Pidgin. And more here. And again.

Most contemporary Pidgin literature in Hawai`i has been published by Bamboo Ridge Press.

There have been several “literacy narratives” about growing up speaking Pidgin, including a chapter in Morris Young’s book, Minor Re/Visions: Asian American Literacy Narratives as a Rhetoric of Citizenship (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004).  Another essay/chapbook, Sista Tongue, published by Tinfish Press, is by Lisa Linn Kanae.  Lee Tonouchi’s Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture participates in that subgenre, as well.

There are plenty of YouTube videos of Pidgin being spoken.  Especially recommended is anything by Rap Reiplinger.  Here’s a comedic cooking show. And Kent Bowman from the 1960s.

Lois-Ann Yamanaka reads her poem, “Boss of the Food,” on the United States of Poetry.

To learn about Pidgin grammer, click hereKent Sakoda is a wonderful student and teacher of the language and currently runs the Charlene Sato Center at UHM.

Other Tinfish titles with Pidgin in them include books by Bradajo Hadley, Gizelle Gajelonia, and Tinfish 18.5: The Book, which includes work by Jill Yamasawa, Ryan Oishi, Tiare Picard, Kai Gaspar, and Sage Takehiro. A broadside by Kimo Armitage and Michael Puleloa is free off the website.

I blogged elsewhere about the current state of Local Literature in Hawai`i.  You can find the blog post here.  Needless to say, not everyone agreed with me.  Another blog post came out in 2009, after Tinfish Press republished books by Kanae and Tonouchi. A commentary this length inevitably leaves out acres and acres of historical and cultural information.  So have a look at the resources, and keep looking!