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Pidgin at HPU: An Interview with Lee Tonouchi

by Chezarae Neilson


You might hear it when walking to classes, in malls, or at the bus stop…Pidgin, of course. It’s everywhere in Hawai‘i. People of all ages speak it (and maybe you’re one of them). Now HPU is giving you a chance to experience more Pidgin than ever. First, HPU hosted a reading with Hawai‘i’s Pidgin Guerrilla, Lee Tonouchi, April 29. And this summer, HPU will offer Pidgin courses that have never been offered at any university.


ENG 1801 Beginning Pidgin, will be taught by Kent Sakoda, co-author of the recently published book Pidgin Grammar: An Introduction to the Creole Language of Hawai‘i. And ENG 3806 Pidgin Literature will be taught by the Mastah of Comic Disastah himself, Lee Tonouchi.

I told my grandmother how wonderful I thought it was that times were changing and that society was coming to accept Pidgin as a language like English. She replied, “No make sense you take dis class. No good you not goin’ learn anyting.”

I couldn’t believe she was using Pidgin to lecture me about Pidgin’s lack of value.
Pidgin is a language. Doesn’t language evolve? We accept that people use many different languages to communicate, so why can’t we accept Pidgen as one of them?

I needed to know more about Pidgin, so I decided to talk to Lee Tonouchi, whom the Honolulu Weekly has called “one of the state’s most outspoken and revolutionary rebel theorists.” Founder and co-editor of Hybolics, a journal that features Pidgin writing, Tonouchi is the author of Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture. His short story collection, Da Word, won the 2002 Ka Palapala Po‘okela Award from the Hawai‘i Book Publishers Association.

What is Pidgin Literature?

I tink I more hardcore than oddah guys. I wuz axing around, seeing wot oddah teachers might consider for be Pidgin literature, jus for kinda see. Seems like most would include anyting dat had Pidgin dialogue as one part of Pidgin literature. For me, I tink das da old school definition—maybe if we wuz making dis class 30 years ago, den we would be hard up for material so we might haff to include stories dat had Pidgin dialogue for decoration and maybe some poems wit little bit Pidgin sprinkle insai. But, new school is we get planny materials now wea da WHOLE TING stay in Pidgin. We can afford for be mo’ choosey. Basically so long as da ting stay predominantly in Pidgin den get chance I might use ‘em. And by predominantly I mean way mo’ than 51%.

What authors will you cover this summer?

Of course, since dis Pidgin, I cannot in good conscience not have any audio/visual material. Cuz Pidgin is very performance oriented. So da class going get one mix of materials from people like Booga Booga, Darrell Lum, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Bradajo, Andy Bumatai, Da Pidgin Guerrilla, all kine.

How do you think non-Pidgin speakers will do in the class?

Wen I wuz going up da university, I wuz English major, so I had for take lotta British Lit courses. I not British, but I got “A.”

Growing up I was taught that Pidgin was a language used by the uneducated, and I was strongly discouraged from using it. So, are a lot of people are going to be surprised to see Pidgin taught at a university?

I tink slowly da times is changing. Wen I went UH, I encountered my first Pidgin poem. Dis wuz around 1991 or 1992 around. Wuz for one 200-level survey of literatures class. Up till den, I nevah even know had guys who wuz writing in Pidgin. I wuz blown away. I thought WOW, we studying Pidgin. And we studying ‘em in college. Ho, you gotta be smaht for learn Pidgin. Since dat time I seen local literature grow. Get Hawai‘i Writers classes. Get Pidgin Creative Writing, of which I wuz part of da first graduating class. And now I doing my paht for help ‘em grow sa’more. Dis da first time evah dat we going get Pidgin Literature and Pidgin language classes offered anyplace. I convinced Kent for teach da Pidgin language one.

Do you think Pidgin will change in the university setting?

Naturally. Wenevah anyting in da wild is captured, da ting going change. I tink so long as Pidgin exists both in da wild and in captivity, den should be okay. Captivity going help for ensure da survival of da species.

Humor and childhood are strong themes in Hawai‘i’s literature; is it the same with Pidgin literature?

For lotta Hawai’i people dey associate Pidgin wit small kid time and hanabata days. I tink dis cuz for those people who make dat association, for dem, dey made conscious effort in their lives for try lose da Pidgin as dey wuz growing up. Ass why from their perspective, Pidgin is not someting das part of grown up peoples’ lives. But I dunno how much you can get rid of someting dat wuz once truly one part of you. One time one reporter wen tell me, “I don’t talk Pidgin.” So I toll her, “Das Pidgin, ah?”

Any advice to Pidgin speakers who might feel ashamed or hesitant to speak Pidgin in public?

No sked, chance ‘em.




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