The Contemporary Pacific 16.1 (2004) 211-212
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Sista Tongue, by Lisa Linn Kanae. Designed by Kristin Kaleinani Gonzales. Honolulu: Tinfish, 2002. ISBN 0-9712198-2-6; 64 pages, unnumbered; photographs, bibliography. US$10.00.
Writing in Hawai'i Creole English or Pidgin has at least thirty years of tradition behind it. What is generally considered to be the first book in Pidgin, Chalookyu Eensai by "Bradajo" (aka Jozuf Hadley), was published in 1972. In the years that have followed, there has been a sort of renaissance of literature written in Pidgin in Hawai'i.
Lisa Linn Kanae's Sista Tongue is one of the more recent books to both participate in and analyze this scene (another interesting book is Lee Tonouchi's Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture, also published by Tinfish in 2002). Kanae is a Hawai'i writer with firsthand knowledge of this renaissance and also one of the editorial assistants of 'Oiwi, a groundbreaking journal of Native Hawaiian literature and art.
Sista Tongue is a "chapbook" of about sixty pages. Kanae begins with a story about childhood, a story about her brother Harold-Boy, who was, she explains, a late talker "who couldn't articulate certain words or speak in complete sentences until long after the 'normal' expected age." Because Harold-Boy is a late talker, people make fun of him; he has to go to a special school; and he grows up to be kind, but shy. This story of Harold-Boy is mainly, but not exclusively, written in Pidgin. Next to it, Kanae tells her own language story, mainly in standard English but with occasional interjections in Pidgin, such as "Badda you?" She writes, "My genealogy can be traced back to Japanese pig farmers in HappyValley, Maui; Chinese and Filipino immigrant plantation workers; and Native Hawaiians from the island of Hawai'i; however, I am not fluent in any of my ancestors' native tongues. Instead I speak both Standard English and Hawai'i Creole English, or 'Pidgin.'" As Kanae tells her own story, she also tells a brief, scholarly history of Pidgin, a language created out of the intersection between the various immigrant languages that plantation workers brought to Hawai'i and the already present Hawaiian language. Mixed in with this, in what I cannot help but read as homage to Korean-American writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, are a series of quotes from various linguists describing things like how the tongue works.
Kanae's take on Pidgin is unapologetically supportive and counters years of linguistic belittlement by what Kanae calls "cultural elites." Near the end of her essay Kanae states, "Resistance is an intrinsic element of Pidgin." And after listing a number of Hawai'i writers such as Darrell H Y Lum, Tonouchi, Joe Balaz, and Lois-Ann Yamanaka (her [End Page 211] list is much longer and more inclusive) who "perpetuate the language and its message of resistance through literature," she then notes that their literature "both criticizes and heals the inferioritycomplexesand self-loathing that was created by cultural elites." One way to read Sista Tongue is as a reply to the recent critiques of the Pidgin literary scene by writers such as Candace Fujikane, Rodney Morales, Dennis Kawaharada, and others. These critics have complained that some of the major works of the Pidgin literary scene, especially those associated with the mainly Asian-American Bamboo Ridge Press, have been more complicit than resistant. They have pointed out that much of this literature is nostalgic and not attentive to more important issues, such as the continuing occupation of Hawai'i by the United States. I do not think this critique could be applied in any way to Sista Tongue. (Kanae's work with 'Oiwi also demonstrates an attentiveness on her part to how literature is an important arena for political education and resisting colonialism.) But if there is one limitation to this otherwise excellent book, it is her insistent celebration of the resistance of Pidgin without mentioning the complications, such as the debates about race in Yamanaka's work, which factionalized Hawai'i's writing communities in the 1990s...