Thoughts on book publishing, editing, contemporary poetry, dementia, administrative memos, and teaching by the editor of Tinfish Press.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Contemplations on Contemplations on Pidgin Culture, or Re-publishing LIVING PIDGIN, by Lee Tonouchi (2002, 2009)
One evening during the nearly interminable Pony League baseball season this spring, my husband and I were engaged in a heated conversation about our nine year old son's baseball team, which practiced or played seven days a week--too much, in other words. I don't remember exactly what we were talking about that evening, but I do recall that we looked at each other and laughed, realizing that we were speaking in Pidgin (or Hawai`i Creole) English. Not "proper" Pidgin, mind you, but an approximate version, full of intonation and short sentence(s). "Pidgin short," goes a poem well known here, by Diane Kahanu; "just cuz we speak Pidgin no mean we dumb," it concludes. How had this conversation come to pass between a white man who had grown up in Hawai`i but does not speak da kine and a white woman who came here twenty years ago, publishes Pidgin literature yet cannot edit or speak it well?
The community of local children's baseball is one in which Pidgin is the coin of the realm, or diamond. It's largely a working class world; many dads come to practice and to games in the bright yellow and orange shirts of road construction crews, carrying dust on their boots, exchanging handshakes and howzits before the game. Most of the dads, and all of the moms, code switch; to me they speak standard English, and to each other they speak Pidgin. Sangha's primary coach, who had a field of dreams out back of his house (a batting cage, with a machine that worked so hard it would stink of burning rubber, a partial infield grass, a couple of hitting stations, and an "outfield"), did not code switch. A middle-aged man who had been star quarterback of the Castle High School football team in his youth, he speaks only Pidgin. He might slow down a bit for me, but not much.
One of Tinfish Press's most important publications has proved to be Lisa Linn Kanae's Sista Tongue, a mixed genre memoir / academic essay boldly collaged by the designer, Kristin Gonzales Lipman. After reprinting the first edition several times, Tinfish recently released a second edition of the book. Despite the striking format and innovative method, Sista Tongue sets Pidgin in an accepted historical context. Kanae details attacks on Pidgin, early middle and late, the history of Pidgin and standard schools in Hawai`i prior to statehood in 1959, and the emergence of a powerful Pidgin literature from the 1970s until the turn of this century. She amplifies her history with the story of her brother's struggles with language, making an analogy between assumptions that he was handicapped and assumptions that Pidgin speakers are socially and economically "disabled." Pidgin, for Kanae and most residents of Hawai`i, is a marker of working class life, restricted opportunities, and suppression by the state DOE. It is also (in reverse) a marker of who's an insider and who an outsider. You speak Pidgin, you're an insider. You speak standard, you one haole outsider. If you are the latter and you try to speak Pidgin, you violate a boundary that is more than merely linguistic. And that is why my husband and I had our Pidgin conversation in private. In public, we know to stick with standard, or an inflected standard that bears witness around its sonorous edges to our many years here but does not claim for its speakers the status of local or insider.
Baseball dads and moms speak Pidgin to each other; coaching on and off the field is done in Pidgin. But the kids speak differently from their parents, not simply to adults like me but also to one another. Their chatter owes more (as my husband points out) to the video games and television and music they're drenched in to their interactions with coaches and family elders. I won't go so far as to say that most of them do not speak Pidgin, but they do not speak it as often or as vividly as their parents. The intonation of their speech is flatter, their verbs more standard. I was surprised to hear my son say, "I like bat" one day, and he always uses the Pidgin "for" instead of "so" ("I'll get the water for you can boil it," for example). All children use the word "much" instead of "many": "I have too much pages to read" is typical banter. But otherwise he and his local friends do not speak full-on.
This is where the work of Lee Tonouchi seems at once valedictory and visionary. When Tonouchi was a grad student at UHM, he made a vow never to speak or write in standard English again. He wrote his essays in Pidgin, filled in job apps in Pidgin, became "da Pidgin guerrilla." He began agitating for a department of Pidgin at the university; later he put together a Pidgin dictionary. In a move fascinating to me (for obvious reasons), he also removed, at least rhetorically, the boundary between insider and outsider by suggesting that Pidgin be taught to non-Pidgin speakers. Where resistance to Pidgin is invariably described as the resistance of the dominant culture to speakers of a non-dominant language, Tonouchi turns the issue on its head. He describes a class in which the main resistance is to Pidgin interlopers. In "Da Death of Pidgin?" he quotes a girl who refers to speakers from the Mainland who are "soooo off." Tonouchi continues:
A lotta people I know make fun of "Try go no like stay come la'dat braw" [odd Pidgin with a midwestern accent]. But wot's wrong? If we can accept grandma-grandpa kine Pidgin, Korean Pidgin, Filipino Pidgin, Nanakuli Pidgin, Kaua`i Pidgin, Hawai`i Kai Pidgin (get you know), den why are we so quick to judge--why do we automatically rejeck haole Pidgin?" (31).
Tonouchi quotes the comedian, James Grant Benton, making the point in 1997 that the insider/outsider lines were blurring, and that "haole Pidgin" represents the collapse of binaries. "So you include, you include da guy. Das anoddah variety of Pidgin, haole Pidgin. And everybody happy" (31). I don't know that everyone is happy when they read this sentence, but Tonouchi has moved from the proposition that Pidgin may be dying to a possible solution. Let everyone speak their own version of Pidgin--throw open the categories--and Pidgin will come back to life. This is not, strictly speaking, analogous to arguments about Hawaiian, that students in immersion schools do not speak the Hawaiian of their elders. But it does promise a way to keep Pidgin alive. You need more Pidgin speakers? Admit everyone into the club! The potential dangers are obvious; if everything is Pidgin, then nothing might be.
Ultimately, Tonouchi is less interested in who speaks Pidgin and why than he is in the developing what he terms "Pidgin culture," or a constellation of arts and viewpoints beyond the usual consideration of sociological and grammatical features. He aims to join other such cultures (from Jamaica, for example) in a parallel revival of what Edward Kamau Brathwaite called "Nation Language." While this part of his book is less fleshed out than the essays and poems that precede it--essays and poems that involve a call to Pidgin arms/wings--it offers us a possible future. In the nine years since Tinfish first published Tonouchi's small book, UHM has not created a department of Pidgin, although there is a Charlene Sato Center for the study of creoles, founded in 2002 and now ably run by Kent Sakoda, co-producer of Pidgin Grammar with Jeff Siegel. And, while discussions of the relative merits and demerits of using Pidgin in the schools come up with alarming predictability and (often) ignorance in the local media, there is less talk of Pidgin in my department these days. Instead (is that the word?), the move to recognize that Hawaiian is already the official language of the state of Hawai`i, seems paramount. In the academy, if not in the local community I participate in as a parent, Asians are often construed as settlers, or more like haole than like Hawaiians. It's called Asian Settler Colonialism, which has its own take on "local culture" as more destructive than creative. Pidgin is seen more as a diversion than as a crucial element of Hawai`i's culture. Tonouchi addresses this: "My greatest fear is dat people going try posit Pidgin culture against Hawaiian culture and see dem as competing. I tink both can cooperate togeddahs as partners in resistance" (44).
While the subject of Pidgin attracts fewer decibels than there were only 10 years ago, I would argue that the conversation is still well worth having, in Hawai`i and elsewhere. See Barbara Jane Reyes's blog for more on how that last conversation might begin. Hawai`i surely does not need to be a monolingual, or a bi-lingual, state. There are at least three languages that signify Hawai`i to itself, languages that sometimes collide, sometimes overlap, often compete for attention, but each carries tremendous meaning. Pidgin's substrate, its grammar, is more like Hawaiian than like English, even if most of the words these days are American. It may seem frivolous for me to say that, insofar as I think Pidgin thoughts, they are mostly about baseball. But, as a lifelong baseball fan, that is not as trivial to me as it might be to someone else.
Re-publishing Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture at this juncture is a way both to point back and to look ahead. It's an odd book in many ways. As my former mail carrier told me (he was a great reader of Tinfish Press publications, which I passed on to him for Christmas), the Pidgin in Tonouchi's book is "long winded." "I could shorten his sentences for him," he told me. Perhaps this is because while the book is in Pidgin, it's also academic. Unlike Kanae's book, which separates out the personal (rendered in Pidgin) from the academic (in English), Tonouchi tells it all in Pidgin. And, while his plans for Pidgin's future may seem utopian, especially in an era when existing disciplines are being cut back, this book will help us remember that there such a future might yet be possible.
The new edition of Living Pidgin will be available later in the summer. The book will be redesigned slightly by Michael Y. Cueva to accommodate digital printing, and that means the cover by Ryan Higa will be in fuller color than before. Look to our website for details in a month or so: http://tinfishpress.com
[Editor's note, 6/27: I added an image of the color cover at the top.]
My books include Aleatory Allegories (Salt), And Then Something Happened (Salt), Memory Cards & Adoption Papers (Potes & Poets), Dementia Blog (Singing Horse), Memory Cards: 2010-2011 Series (Singing Horse), A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry and edited collections on John Ashbery (Alabama) and on multiformalisms (Textos), the latter with Annie Finch. Tinfish Press recently published Jack London is Dead: Euro-American Poetry of Hawai`i (and some stories), which I edited (2013). My newest book is volume two of Dementia Blog, "She's Welcome to Her Disease" (Singing Horse Press, 2013). Tinfish Press can be found at tinfishpress.com