Write How You Like Write: Representing Hawai’i Creole English as a Literary Participant
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In June of 1977, just ten years after the U.S. Supreme Court banned all laws prohibiting interracial marriage, my father, who is of Japanese-Chinese descent, married my white mother. If there were no longer any sweeping legal impediments, then perhaps their marriage raised an eyebrow or two in ‘concern’? Well, no, but not because preconceptions had changed with the times; rather, at the time of their marriage and before, no preconceptions existed. The reason was simple: Theirs was a quiet ceremony held at Wailuku Union Church on the island of Maui in Hawai’i, one of the few states that had never passed anti-miscegenation statutes to begin with.Almost as soon as it was possible — beginning with the white missionaries arriving in the 1820s — people have intermarried in Hawai’i.
Almost as soon as it was possible — beginning with the white missionaries arriving in the 1820s — people have intermarried in Hawai’i. In fact, there were so many instances of marriage-based acculturation over such a long period of time that a study of interracial coupling had been conducted by The University of Hawai’i in 1937, forty years before my parents exchanged vows. As if to remember its placement in a wider, less tolerant history, the study’s introduction includes the strange presage that, “All kinds of things can and do happen on islands.” Citing insularity, which apparently “encourages individuality,” the introduction goes on to later repeat, lest the reader forget, “…it is true that one can never tell what will happen on an island.”
Following their wedding, my father settled into his job as a letter carrier while my mother tended house. Soon, my brother was born, then me. As birth stories go, mine begins early on a Monday morning in May of 1981. With my mother in labor, my father snapped into action gathering what they had pre-packed for their time at Maui Memorial Hospital. He then called his mother to ask that either she or his sister, Yoonie, watch over my two-year-old brother, as was the plan. The old rotary phone rang several times before a tattered voice answered, belonging to the only person awake at that too-early hour: my father’s grandmother, a 90-year-old woman affectionately known as Obaaban.
“Herro?” she said into the receiver.
“Baa-ban,” said my father, “Where’s mama?”
“Mama go holo holo.” Click.
My father called again.
“Baa-ban! Where’s Yoonie?”
“Yoonie moi moi.” Click.
My father tried a third time –
“Baa-ban, go get Yoonie!”
There was a brief pause on the other end and then a setting down of the receiver. My father could hear the shuffle of his grandmother’s old geta slippers as she made her way down the narrow hall. Yoonie eventually made it to the phone, then the house, and my parents hurried to the hospital in time for me to be born a short while later.
It is a favorite story of my mother’s. When she tells it, she does so by inflecting her Standard English with what is known to linguists as Hawai’i Creole English (HCE) but lovingly referred to by island locals as “pidgin.” As is often the case, I grew up drawing from both worlds without much awareness — it was all I knew.
Obaaban, whose given name was Mie, died a few years later when I was three, leaving me with a single remembered moment, less a sustained memory than a visual flicker. We were in the small kitchen of my grandmother, the third daughter (out of four) with whom Obaaban lived. There was room enough for only two chairs, one of which was pushed up against a wall. Obaaban sat on this chair with her back so hunched her forward gaze was fixed to the floor. Her still-dark hair was pulled into a low bun and the polyester dress she wore hung loose as a bag on her bony frame. The few times she spoke, she did so using Japanese and Hawaiian in a rarefied pidgin common among the Issei, or first generation of Japanese immigrants who came to Hawai’i to work in the sugar cane fields. But at the time of my memory, that generation was long gone. With no one to understand her, Obaaban spoke less and less. At 93 years old, she was the last of her kind passing her final days on what my three-year-old brain imagined was the “lonely chair.”
As an adult, I asked questions my family answered with basic information. Mie was born in 1891; she lived in Niigata, Japan, until she came of age; she sailed to Maui as a picture bride; she married a man named Kotaro; she bore seven children; she worked her entire life for Hawai’i Cane & Sugar; she died at 93. But my curiosity lies in what I cannot know and so must imagine, a version of reality slightly askew.
I imagine Mie as a servant in a wealthy horse trader’s home. Because she is obedient, she is chosen to become the bride of the horse trader’s second son who was banished to Maui for misdeeds. On the day Mie meets this second son, the day she is married to him, she knows she will never love him. Her life is spent in the cane fields performing backbreaking work through her many pregnancies. Seven children in all are born — three boys, four girls — and in the end, when she buries her third son with only daughters looking on, she believes she is cursed.
All of which may be true, or at least partly so. Imagination for me has always been about the spaces in between, a sort of filler that completes a picture. If what we know is the jaggedness of the ocean floor, then imagination is the body of water that defines what is hidden and what is seen.
In thinking about the language of my great-grandmother, I used to try to imagine what it is I think she might’ve said had she possessed the words. But lately I’ve come to feel this thinking might be misguided, or worse, egocentric. Perhaps I should be imagining a way for me to possess her words, not the other way around. Perhaps those words still exist, albeit in an altered form, persisting through time like a legacy waiting for me to recognize it as such.
Though it has been spoken throughout the islands for more than a century, the U.S. Census Bureau announced its incorporation of “Hawaiian Pidgin” as an official language on November 3, 2015.
The American Community Survey, on which the five-year census was based, found that more than 100 languages are spoken throughout the islands. And out of the roughly 327,000 people surveyed, only 1,600 said they spoke pidgin at home. So if “Hawaiian Pidgin” is just one language in a long list of them, with data supporting only a fraction of existing speakers, then why does official recognition matter, I wondered?
The easy answer is that, without recognition, pidgin remains a ‘non-option’ for native speakers who either speak it exclusively or rely on it to some extent every day. Those 1,600 individuals who claimed pidgin as their language have in essence allowed a new box to exist for future survey participants, a box I imagine will be checked by far greater numbers in surveys to come.
The other part of the answer is more difficult because it is less hopeful. Prior to “Hawaiian Pidgin” existing as an option, pidgin speakers were compelled to skew self-information in order to fall within survey parameters. Being “official,” those parameters presented options not only “viable” but existing. This sent the unconscious yet inherent message that pidgin was not vital enough to be “real,” leaving its speakers vulnerable to the stigmatization that their language was at best just “casual talk” appropriate within the confines of family and friends and at worst “lazy talk” of the uneducated working class perpetually defined by the colonial subjugation of their ancestors. In short, without official recognition, pidgin has no future, only its past.
Like all things interwoven, Hawaii’s linguistic evolution cannot be separated from its long and tangled history with sugar. Beginning in the 1830s, the limited commercial enterprise between the Hawaiian Kingdom and the United States was in need of new product beyond those of the flagging whaling industry. Sugar was in contention, but needed serious capital to finance the leap from experimentation to profit. Eventually, as western settlement along the Pacific Coast increased, business heads began to turn curiously to Hawai’i as a potential source of revenue.
King Kamehameha III welcomed the attention. He proposed and secured The Great Mahele of 1848 which abolished the feudal system of the day and established what was needed to lure investors: private ownership of land. But for the Hawaiian people, privatization was as foreign a concept as the profit-seekers who out-maneuvered them to either purchase or lease most of the land, a veritable death knell for the native population.
The commercial disruptions of The American Civil War brought about The Reciprocity Treaty of 1876, a trade agreement allowing sugar exports from Hawai’i into the U.S. tax-free. With a market secured, sugar production exploded and it soon became the new imperative to bolster industry with a pliable workforce. Contract laborers from all over the world were brought to Hawai’i and with them came a flurry of new languages: Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, Filipino, just to name a few. A lingua franca formed to facilitate communication between the segregated camps, as well as with plantation employers. And just as quickly as these workers settled into family life, their interwoven languages transitioned from something makeshift to something more durable. The pidgin they’d spoken out of necessity and had acquired as a second language, they passed to their children as a native tongue.
Along with the sister who was born after me, my brother and I attended the same public schools, starting with Pukalani Elementary. Perched along the slopes of Haleakala, the campus — portable classrooms, jungle gym, basketball courts and soccer fields alike — featured a spectacular view of the entire island unfurling before us, so perpetually gorgeous as to be flagrant. Of course I never really looked.
Like the other kids, I was too busy playing in the dirt with my bambucha marbles, or trying to be the best at Chinese jump rope, or running to be first in the lunch line. Though there were students eligible for “free lunch,” most of us came from working class families who could afford the forty-five cents. But all of our parents drove beat-up cars and wore uniforms to work. We all shared ukus (our word for lice) and didn’t know that some people considered it a “poor person’s” affliction of which to be ashamed. For us, it wasn’t a matter of if or when we would “get ukus” but how many times in a school year.
Though we didn’t always see it as such, the differences between us kids were highlighted in our very names — for every Charlie, Julia, and Douglas, there was a Va’amua, Myces, and Eha. For every blonde head, there were fifty dark ones of varying shades. Our teachers were similarly diverse: Mr. Karimoto, Mrs. Chang, Mrs. Ogle, Mrs. Magalanes, Kapuna Maxwell.
The one glaring difference was in the realm of scholastic achievement. There were those kids who spoke (or at least could speak) “proper English” and those who spoke pidgin. I can still remember a classmate saying conspiratorially, “We friends, yeah?” Or, when a teacher scolded one of the boys for a misdeed, “I promise, Mistah, I nevah do um!” Or one kid taunting another with, “You! Some stupid, you…” We, my siblings and I, were given a slight “advantage” with a white woman for a mother, and so wouldn’t be caught dead speaking pidgin (though we could) in a formal setting. Kids like us, who could speak “properly,” were somehow programmed to think of those pidgin-speaking kids as “dumb” and those who wrote in pidgin, the very “dumbest” of all.
In a recent conversation with my brother, who is now 37, he recalled when the tables turned. From the time he entered high school, he worked bagging groceries and stocking shelves at the local grocery down the street from us. There, it felt like a fireable offense to not speak in pidgin. It was a matter of respect for the older generation who worked as cashiers or in the kitchen (mostly women), as well as a matter of masculinity when it came to the bosses (mostly men). Pidgin was — still is — an important social marker indicating who is local and who is not. My brother even recalled how he once encountered a fellow employee at her second job as a bank teller, and how she spoke “proper English” there, but “turned on da pidgin at da store.” The financial realm had somehow surpassed the commercial in formality, indicating an even more nuanced complexity to the “insider” system.
For whatever flawed reason, I myself grew alongside other kids believing that while I wasn’t superior to them, my ambitions were. I passed my childhood dreaming of the day I could leave for “The Mainland.” I didn’t want to be stuck with the “blahlas” who loitered at the beach, protecting the pavilion and shore break that amounted to their whole world. I graduated from Maui High School, turned eighteen, and took my leave right on schedule. Eventually, I would receive a bachelor’s degree from a liberal arts school, even enjoy a stint studying abroad in Scotland, but mainly passed my early adulthood in Southern California working various jobs that were all equally unfulfilling.
In August of 2013, I arrived to the big sky of Texas. Ten years of working and waiting, dreaming and despairing, had resulted in the shocking good fortune of acceptance to a graduate program at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin (named for and financed by James A. Michener, author of the legendary tome, Hawaii, which I will address later). “MFA Candidate in Fiction” is what followed the email signatures of the other fellows. It sounded unreal as it applied to me; it felt off-limits to someone older than most of her peers, someone as fearful as she was under-qualified. I’d never called myself a ‘writer’ before. How could I speak aloud, let alone proclaim with gusto, something as private and personal as a hoped-for dream? I somehow fumbled my way through orientation and a week of classes only to find myself faced with our first real assignment as incoming fellows.
Straight away, the program whisked us wide-eyed students into a conference course with an instructor of international repute. I’d never heard of the man before, but quickly learned he was as prolific a writer as he was beloved by the literary community. The two-week intensive course involved him instructing us through the works of other writers such as John McGahern, James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy and Elizabeth Bishop. In addition to this, we were each scheduled for a private, one-on-one session with the instructor to discuss our own individual writing — all of which terrified me.
Prior to the instructor’s arrival, I had turned in a story for him to read in advance of our meeting. Set in a time before I was born, the story is an imagined recounting of a young man from Maui on the day he is to leave for basic training during the Vietnam War. In writing it, I drew heavily from my childhood memories of growing up on the island and relied mainly on sensory recall as filtered through my adult eyes. Very few people had read the story, let alone someone of the instructor’s illustrious stature.
He burst onto the scene, a short man with a medium build whose energy and vitality belied his age. I first observed the busywork of his hands, both of which continually ran along the gleam of his baldpate in a worried cradle or nervous rub. Hanging at his neck was a pair of red-rimmed spectacles that could be pulled apart at its center and brought together again by a little click of a magnet. Off and on and up and down those spectacles went like a dance partner for his hands. He’d pull the lenses apart only to lower his eyes to the text moments later with that unforgettable click, click, click. All of this movement, along with his particular lilt set to the tempo of his storytelling, made me dread the day I’d sit before him exposed. But a part of me was also excited. “Maybe he’ll really like your story,” said my husband in an effort to bolster me. “Maybe he’ll recommend it for publication…you never know.”
On the day of our scheduled meeting, I wore a red and white checked dress with my favorite brown leather sandals. Bright and cheery was my thinking. I arrived to find the instructor sitting in a back room, waiting. He kindly ushered me in and arranged me before him in a straight-back chair. After a minute or two of exchanging pleasantries, he turned his attention to the page in a grand display of getting down to business.
He took a moment to review the first few lines of my story and familiarize himself with his earlier reading of it. His hands crept up to his head in what looked to me like a dismal and worried gesture. “Right,” he said. In one fluid motion, he flung back into his adjustable chair and raised his arms to link his hands behind his head.
“The thing is, I don’t really know what any of this means,” he said with such pained sweetness it took a moment for me to understand what was happening.
He slowly went through each sentence, pointing out what made very little physical sense to him, and by time we’d reached the end of the first paragraph, our session was more than halfway over. My cheeks were hot with shame. How could I have thought that something other than this might’ve happened? How could I have allowed myself to hope in that way? Of course he leveled his criticisms with such grace and affectation, I could only scribble down his words with a weak hand I was forcing to work. When he realized we were nowhere near the end of the twenty-five page story, he skipped to the point he ultimately wanted to make. In order to do so, he attempted to read aloud a paragraph that seemed extremely troublesome to him:
“Howzit, young man!” said Flora, the waitress who spoke for everyone.
Ebo gave a small smile, sat on a stool at the counter as if it was any day other than this one. Flora set down a mug for coffee, pivoted her body like a sprinkler as she wiped the counter. Her hair, a manapua bun sitting plump on the curve of her head, had never been let down, the coif of her fringe sprayed stiff for years. She had never been anything else, which was a comfort.
“Big day today,” she said, as much to the counter as to Ebo. “We is proud of you, young man, I can tell you dat. You go get’m and say you is born and raised Happy Valley. We make’m good in Happy Valley.”
Another section appeared to bring him even greater personal discomfort.
“Gotta ask you someting,” said Ebo, standing now to ask Daddy squarely. Daddy pivoted back down onto the bench seat, set his elbows to his knees, and hung his head between his shoulders. Ebo, in turn, leaned against the Ford so that like two reluctant dance partners, they’d traded places.
“I know what you like ask,” said Daddy. “Some kine advice, I know. Soljah to soljah. But only get one ting fo say…” Daddy looked up, settling his gaze seriously into the middle distance. Ebo hadn’t anticipated this. He gently pushed off from the Ford, stood tall and waited.
“Duh ting you gotta do,” said Daddy, “is…no die.”
Here the instructor leaned in close and spoke in a whisper. “Does he really need to say, ‘no die’? What I mean is, would he really say it exactly that way?”
I thought about it then, really thought, and imagined what my father, my uncles, my brother, what any of the men from home would say and how they would say it. I surprised myself by summoning the last of my energy and courage. “Yes,” I said, “he would say it exactly that way.”
The instructor pressed himself back into the embrace of his chair, trying to work out an answer to the apparent puzzle of me. “Here’s the thing,” he said as he leaned forward and rubbed his head, “when you write in dialect like this, it tends to be a little too political, you see. I worry about it sounding a bit demeaning to your characters. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”
I said that I understood, thanked him for his time, and left.
According to most sources, HCE is currently spoken by nearly half of Hawai’i’s population, though it feels to me — and probably others who are born-and-raised — that the numbers should be higher. Even so, HCE has never been a written language in possession of a recognized orthography. Because of HCE’s long history of representation as a non-standard variety of English, even a deviant form, it has lacked the political and educational conditions for standardization. Without it, HCE is considered a literary dialect rather than a literary language, leaving its writers bereft of any wider appreciation.
One criticism leveled at the use of HCE in literature is that it is unreflective of the range of its speakers, “[functioning] to characterize not heroic figures, not even mature adult ones, but children, idiots, bums, and assorted antiheroes and buffoons.” Another concern pins HCE as a regional expression alone, limiting it to “provincialism” and “parochial insularity.” All of which leads to the perception that HCE poses limited appeal and traps writers into an under-appreciated corner where they can only wonder: Is it possible for writers from Hawai’i to create a literature of wider and lasting literary merit?
I’ve played my own part in relegating writers from Hawai’i in two unforgivable ways. Firstly, beyond a cursory knowledge of Roughing it in the Sandwich Islands, Mark Twain’s account of Hawai’i in the 1860s, and James Michener’s blockbuster, Hawaii, published in 1959, the same year of statehood, I had no idea Hawai’i had a literature of its own — by its own people — until very recently. Though local literature had never been taught to me in school, I had also never asked or looked.
Once I did, I found that the literature of Hawai’i exists not only as a heritage, but also as something ongoing, with forward movement, which is also vitality. My initial dip soon became a full-body submersion into unexpectedly deep waters: from Milton Murayama to Darrel H.Y. Lum; from Marie Hara to Lee Cataluna; from Lee A. Tonouchi to Eric Chock; from Kiana Davenport to Christina Kahakauwila and beyond. There were so many writers to dispel my earlier loneliness, I found myself needing to streamline my efforts from “local literature” into “literature that spoke to one local.” Meaning me — just one island-born, non-native reader who was humbled to find so much to admire from those gone before and those who now carry the torch.
If my first mistake was failing to recognize the presence of local literature, then my second had everything to do with my placement in it. As the act of writing is itself often prohibitively difficult, I’d kept the rules very simple — write what you hear. But since we often write in hopes of being read, writing becomes a public act, and when presented to the world, it is fair for that world to expect thoughtfulness of you. By having no real consciousness as to why I was writing what I was writing, and more importantly how I was doing it, I failed a basic test of intention: having an aim to guide my efforts.
Following my one-on-one meeting with the instructor, I hurried back to my house to write down the lesson I thought he was trying to teach me. I spent the rest of that afternoon scribbling furiously into my journal certain self-admonishing phrases such as, “be more adult” and “be less provincial.” I vowed to be “serious” going forward and to not rely on HCE as the thing that might make my writing “interesting.” On and on it went, this “call to be better,” this “illumination.”
And so I stopped incorporating HCE into my writing for the next year or so until I read a saying by Elbert Hubbard that struck me as true: “To avoid criticism, one must simply do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” In my mind, this nothingness sounded a lot like the silence of past generations who literally lacked the words to be understood. And to me, silence sounds a lot like shame. Without meaning to, the instructor had tapped into this deep-seated and familiar sense of shame that caused me to recoil as a way of preserving some small measure of self, or perhaps the small sense of self I had. But by avoiding HCE, by refusing to do the work of parsing its literary functions, I was actively perpetuating the imposed silence — even the “plantation mentality” — of my ancestors, the very people who labored their whole lives so that I might have the luxury to choose to be something else, perhaps even someone vocal.
Of course with time comes perspective and after a while, I could only feel grateful to this instructor for what he had given me, which was essentially me. More specifically, he’d given me good reason to discover the aim of my writing so that the act of writing might be suffused with and protected by more serious intention. Soon, what had felt like a liability became an asset; what had been shameful, turned into celebration; what I had seen as criticism was now an opportunity.
With regards to HCE’s literary viability, the question for me personally had always been: was it a problem of literary scope or the presentation of my writing? Having taken the first steps to finally learn something of Hawai’i’s literature, I understood that others had met with similar resistance and had long been working out a response. So I knew — perhaps I’d known all along — the problem was my execution.
This led to my layperson’s examination of a few linguistic features local writers employ. So basic was my search that I cannot presume to illuminate even the most casual of readers here. More to the point is the wider problem of orthography. Whereas one writer might spell the word “bumbai” (by and by), another might spell it “bumbye.” The word for father might look like “fada” or “faddah.” And still yet, the word thought can be viewed any which way: tot, tawt, taught, etc. Because HCE relies on the orthography of Standard English, the perception is such that HCE remains a “simplified” and “reduced” form. Without the existence of standardized spelling, HCE has no autonomy, and without autonomy, there will always be hierarchy.
But if the collective challenge for writers of HCE is standardization, then the individual challenge must be narrower. As writers who employ HCE, do we lean toward Standard English wherever possible in order to appeal to the widest audience, choosing “I seen him” over “I wen see’m”? Do we avoid using apostrophes suggesting elided consonants and vowels, as in “What foh?” versus “What fo’?”? Is the question, how far do we compromise? Or is it that any compromise will eliminate our chance at creating the distance needed to move from dialect to language?
Delving further into methods of implementation, there is also the question of point of view, or rather the difference between dialogue and narration. The latter is typically expressed in third person, past tense, while the former, being more intimate, is mainly in first person. Because HCE is primarily reserved for character dialogue, writers often face the decision of how heavily they should lean on the Standard English for narration. Lean too heavily and they run the risk of creating such a distance from HCE as to render it jarring. But lean too lightly and readers are conscious of having entered the realm of “otherness” to a distracting degree.
In my own work, I’ve tried to utilize HCE for third person narration, which I found unusually challenging. The research I looked to gave a fascinating reason as to why: When using HCE as standard narration (i.e. 3rd person), it becomes public rather than private discourse. By attempting to use HCE as a means of expressing what has been conventionalized through Standard English, HCE stops being the thing it was created to be: a specific means of identifying against the mainstream. And so what feels truest for me is this: HCE belongs in someone’s mouth, otherwise it is possibly just the author — in this case, me — trying for an effect and sensing my own presence too heavily, which leaves less room for others. In the end, I simply missed the character I usually have to spend so much time imagining as my speaker in order to say anything in HCE at all.
Though I had initially set out to find answers to the infinite questions a writer of HCE — or any dialect — might face, it would seem the questions are unanswerable, if only because they need to always be asked. And the few answers I believe we can hope for are only ever found in what writing we accomplish. This writing is nothing more than a series of decisions that amount to a process reflective of our specific efforts. Because writing is not a buttoning-up, but a disrobing until there’s only you and the story of how you specifically give shape to your skin. It is the stamp of your choosing, carved and fashioned through work, the surface of which meets up with ink and presses to paper a perfect representation of what it is to be alone with yourself in space and time.
Or so I believe on good days.
Most of the time, I just worry. I worry about the utter blankness of the page, about whether or not any words will come. And if those words do come, will they even add up to ideas? Or is it that what few ideas I have actually outweigh my skill set for expressing them? Who really knows — I’m just like anyone else: stuck. Only where I am stuck feels like the space between two places — between motive and process, between cultural identity and ethnic, between writing that turns from Standard English and writing that perpetuates it. But maybe it’s exactly somewhere within this divide that story actually lives. Again, who knows?
For now, I am content to try for a new story, one where I happily re-imagine my great-grandmother, Mie. She is sitting in her chair, not lonely and waiting to die, but alone in the garden of her mind. While there, perhaps she sees a three-year-old girl and whispers to her how she should one day grow up to describe it.
Romaine, S. (1994). “Hawai’i Creole English as a literary language.” Language in Society, 23, 527–554.
Sumida, S. H. (1991). And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawai’i. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.