Sunday, November 27, 2011

Local Literature is Dead. Long Live Local Literature! R. Zamora Linmark, Janine Oshiro and new writing from Hawai`i

I used to torture my students by asking them to define the word "local." They would quickly realize the pitfalls of talking about the word, especially to someone like me who, by virtue of her monolingual standard English and her pale face, was resolutely not local. For "local" usually referred to someone of Asian or Hawaiian descent who grew up in Hawai`i and spoke da kine Pidgin English (more properly Hawaiian Creole English). It was also a class marker, indicating someone who was working class, rather than the wealthier haole (outsider, white person). But I'd ask the question because we'd be reading "local literature," or poems, stories, novels, plays, by writers like Eric Chock, Darrell Lum, Gary Pak, Marie Hara, Lois-Ann Yamanaka and others. Knowing the definition allowed us to explore the ways in which these writers used local culture and language, sometimes pushing against its boundaries, but usually referring back to the plantation days, when locals and haole were set apart. Bamboo Ridge Press was the primary purveyor of local literature; the term grew to be defined by a certain style, content, and manner. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, this was a revolutionary move; by 1990, when I arrived in Hawai`i, it was still seen as suspect to teach the stuff. It just wouldn't fly in New York, which was how you defined "universal."

Lee Tonouchi was once a budding local writer, the rightful descendant of Eric Chock, Joe Balaz, Rap Reiplinger and the other comedians. Tonouchi burst on the scene in the 90s as a funny writer who insisted on writing only in Pidgin; he famously got his M.A. in English at UHM writing only in Pidgin and then taught at KCC and HPU in Pidgin and then wrote essays about being a Pidgin speaker and a dictionary that archived Pidgin words and phrases. He was a second generation Bamboo Ridge writer. They published his book Da Word, which took local literature from the plantation to the local mall, where most people had gone after statehood and the demise of agriculture in the islands. His Pidgin was infused with phrases like "it's da bomb," whose origins seemed more continental than Hawaiian. But still, here was the local, transmogrified.

Tonouchi's new book is called Significant Moments in da Life of Oriental Faddah and Son (Bess Press). He will launch the book this Wednesday. I've read the book, as I was asked to write a blurb for it (it seems dozens of us were!), but it's been a while. I'm not going to use this space to review the book's content, but to remark on the way it's being publicized. The local is dead. Even if Lum begins his remarks with the word "local," as in, "Locals know that we are Orientals, not Asian Americans which is why we could never speak of ejaculation, losing a mother, or enemas to our Oriental Faddah. Tonouchi speaks what we never said but wished we had to our own father, mother, and grandparents." But then the vocabulary shifts; even though Lum will end his blurb with an assertion that Tonouchi "speaks for us all," most of his blurb refers to Tonouchi's Okinawan roots: "His work is more than a confessional, a treatise on Okinawan pride, or just a tribute to his ancestors. This crafty humorist captures the innocence and wonderment of our youth trying to explain the world in the kind of twisted logic that seemed to make so much sense at the time. Check out his explanation of why Spam is the SUPER Okinawan food." In the "About This Book," we read that, "it's the essence of being an Okinawan in Hawai`i." In the brief bio, we read that Tonouchi is "one full-on 100 percent Uchinanchu yonsei."

This is not really news. The term "local" was always problematic, never as inclusive as its proponents claimed. Furthermore, some of Hawai`i's writers did not want to be included in it. After a mid-1990s confrontation between Bamboo Ridge and critics who claimed (with justification) that the journal published mostly local Asian writers and largely ignored Hawaiian and Pacific Islander writers, Bamboo Ridge began putting out issues devoted to local Korean literature, local Filipino literature, and--finally--Hawaiian drama. The Hawaiian journal `oiwi was born, and Hawaiian language and culture really took off at the UH and elsewhere. Since then, Bamboo Ridge has published local Asian, Hawaiian, and white writers (Ian McMillan, at least, though not as white) in recent years. McMillan, oddly enough, may have entered the field as one of the last "local writers," since there is as yet no "white writer" category here. If "local" was not a pie that everyone wanted to claim, this new pie was sliced relentlessly. But Tonouchi had been Da Pidgin Guerrilla for so long, so strong an advocate for the language that marked the local as the local, that it's hard to see him breaking out the ethnic marker. He's now Okinawan.

While the breaking-up of local literature was perhaps necessary, the way it happened is not without its own problems. And so what becomes of "local literature," now that it's something of a dead (or at least somnolent) metaphor? As one local writer said to me once, it's not entirely a good thing to take a category that created a cross-ethnic group and defined writers according to where they were born and raised and what language they spoke, and to chop it up into so many new segments, defined by nationality, ethnicity, blood. Where did local literature go? Might we want to recuperate some of its power to the world we're living in, which is not tied to the agricultural plantation, but to the tourist plantation and to international capital (as the APEC summit showed us recently)? I think it may be possible, if we re-frame the local as something more like glocal (awful word) or at least as a literature that looks off-island for inspiration and--yes--for content, argument, and audience. Something like Linton Kwesi Johnson's work (hardly cutting edge at this point!), which addresses itself to the world in a local language, or like some of the slam poets in Hawai`i, who address world issues like global warming and violence from their perch in Honolulu. Many, if not most, global problems exist here--are often magnified by our isolation and small size--so why not take on globalization, climate change, linguistic and species extinction across the boundaries we so easily assign ourselves? There are also those "universal" issues that have taken such a beating, like existence, old age, dying, death, survival.

I have two very different books on my desk. One is by a prominent writer who grew up in Hawai`i, wrote an important book while a student at UHM, and then moved away. The other is by a lesser known writer (this is her first book) who grew up in Hawai`i, left for many years, and has now returned. The first writer, R. Zamora Linmark, writes about culture, language, queerness; the second writer, Janine Oshiro, writes about loss, death, the ecstasies or discoveries that trauma makes possible. Neither one is a local writer, according to the old definition. And yet they offer what might be termed the global-local, or the diasporic-local, in the case of Linmark, or the spiritual-local, a place-bound wisdom writing, in Oshiro's case. I do not want to make too grand an argument based on poetry found in these two books, but I'd like to suggest that they may point us in a direction that is neither "local" in the old sense nor "ethnic" in the newer one.

Linmark's writing contains the higher quotient of the (old) local in it. He writes in Pidgin, often, and about growing up in Hawai`i. He offers us Manoa graveyard and Thomas Square, the UH Warriors (ne Rainbows), their coach, Filipino plantation workers. [That link is to a blog post I wrote on Linmark's response to Coach McMackin's slur against homosexuals in a press conference at Notre Dame.] He translates Frank O'Hara's encounter with the sun on Fire Island into an encounter with a coqui frog near Hilo, Hawai`i. He plays with Lorca, but sets the poem in Hawai`i. He also writes about the Philippines, often in verse that more resembles Robert Browning's writing than Lois-Ann Yamanaka's; his dramatic monologues have a lot of the Last Duchess in them. There's something old-fashioned about many of Linmark's poems, not so much in their content as in their craftedness; he makes his poems well. But Linmark's new book, Drive-By Vigils, published by Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn, New York (ah, he's made it to New York City, after all!), as were his first two volumes of poetry, is not an instance of local literature. It is something else. It's also a book that includes Hamlet, Montgomery Clift, Charles Bukowski, meditations on growing older (turning 40), Anderson Cooper, world travel, and many many other topics. We could frame the Hawai`i poems using the global ones as markers, or do the opposite, but neither direction quite works. Linmark lives in all these locations, actual places and identities and languages, and he's hardly alone in that. If he hears Lorca in the voices of local boys, then Lorca is there.

Janine Oshiro doesn't name her places in Pier (Alice James) but Hawai`i is one of them, Iowa another. Portland is in the mix, too. There's an oblique reference to Hawai`i's plantations in "Intermission," which is more about peeing than about relations between ethnicities or classes. Her uncle speaks to her as she pees in the cane field.

"Say excuse me, girl,
before you go in these fields.
You never know what came
before, you never
know who's there." (42)

Here, Hawai`i's agricultural, economic history is not fact, or story, but a haunting. Instead of making the move much local literature did, that of recounting just what DID come before, just who WAS there (even if it exists in the imagination of those too young to know), Oshiro moves into the realm of spirit. Her poems come out of the death of the poet's mother when the poet was a child. The house in which they lived is appropriate to the subject of haunting, spirit, because it's set in a climate in which everything comes apart, no matter how material it might be. In "Relic," she writes about the impermanence of her mother's life in terms of the impermanence of the things in her mother's house:

An astonishing number of
harmful things can happen
to objects made out
of paper: foxing,
excreta of insects,
lux--that is to say,
our bodies rust. (31)

She reverses the field of metaphor. It's not that engines are like us, but that we, like engines, come apart. Oshiro grew up in the back of Ahuimanu Valley (here she is on the porch of that house) where I often take bike rides. It's an area where everything is always moist with humidity, rain. Mold, mildew, these are cousins. If they're not cared for, houses sink into the earth, their single-wall wood constructions precarious as thought, as the categories we invent, consume, and then throw away. They become relics, which means they no longer serve practical purpose, are rendered holy.

Neither Linmark nor Oshiro is a local writer; Linmark's roots are in Honolulu, Manila, and San Francisco, while his shoots spread to Spain and elsewhere. Oshiro's roots may be here, but her poems do not name this place, do not speak its local vernacular, seem more interested in its spirit than its substance. These are not critiques but possibilities. Hawai`i is at once a location--one fervently self-attached, at that--and the nexus of many other locations, actual and spiritual. What Linmark and Oshiro show us, in very different ways, is how we might begin from Hawai`i to include other locations, other languages, other ideas in the frame this place offers us. It's an exciting move away, and yet back, exclusive and then in- . In another, similar, context (and with more polemical force than I can muster), Stuart Kelly writes, "Scotland might be about to enter the world. Hopefully its newest writers will want to see what the world has to offer." Substitute Hawai`i for Scotland and you might be onto something.

My hunch is that Lee Tonouchi's new book, while seeming to re-define him as Okinawan, will prove more expansive than the PR promises. While Tonouchi is moving into narrower ethnic territory, his work is gaining in emotional force. Where he used to write about going to the mall, the difficulties of speaking Pidgin, and made fun of local foibles, he is now writing--for the first time, I think--about his mother's death when he was a child. In that, and in other ways I look forward to discovering at Wednesday evening's reading, I suspect his work has more in common with Janine Oshiro's than one might think. The after-life of local literature may be something more akin to world.

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