Dakine wit' Lee Tonouchi: Da Pidgin Guerilla

Text Misty Sanico
Art Will Caron

Through more than 20 years of writing, author, playwright and poet Lee Tonouchi has been on a crusade to help perpetuate Hawaiian Creole English, better known as Pidgin. Writing exclusively in Hawaiian Pidgin, Tonouchi’s work often tackles issues of family, race and identity making him a notable figure in contemporary local literature.

Featured in the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, Tonouchi’s pidgin-infused work is resonating with audiences abroad as well as at home. His last book, Significant Moments in Da Life of Oriental Faddah and Son won the 2013 Book Award for poetry-prose from the Association for Asian American Studies, and his play Three Year Swim Club was performed by East West Players in Los Angeles.

Sometimes referred to as “Da Pidgin Guerilla,” Tonouchi is also author of Da Word a collection of Pidgin stories, and Dakine Dictionary. His most recent play, Echoes of Dat Red Guitar, opened with great success at Kumu Kahua Theater in the Summer of 2015. Tonouchi is a graduate of the University of Hawaii (UH) at Mānoa.

Summit (S): What made you start writing Pidgin in the first place?

Lee Tonouchi (LT): Up ‘till I went college, I nevah even know had guys writing in Pidgin. Jus by chance, I took “English 256: Poetry and Drama” from one professor Rob Wilson who wuzn’t from hea, but he wuz using one Local creative anthology alongside works by Shakespeare and Faulker. Da book wuz called The Best of Bamboo Ridge and inside dea had one poem by Eric Chock called “Tutu on da Curb.” I wuz blown away cuz dat wuz da first time I seen Pidgin literature and we wuz studying ‘em in college so I wuz all like, ho, as means you gotta be smart, brah, for study Pidgin. So dat started me on my path tinking dat maybe I could write Pidgin too. And I supah lucky I had Rob Wilson, cuz back in da early ‘90s wuzn't common practice for use Local literature as part of da curriculum. I had choke planny friends who grad UH and dey nevah have no Local literature nahting.

S: How were people initially critical of your use of Pidgin in your writing, and how did you respond?

LT: Lotta people might say you no can do dis or dat with Pidgin, but how many of dem wen actually chance ‘em? Dat wuz my tinking process when I started writing, not only my creative pieces in Pidgin, but my critical papahs too. If any professor wuz small kine skeptical it could be done, den I jus’ responded by turning in awesome Pidgin work. Anoddah day, anoddah A. Das da how.

S: Where did the moniker “Da Pidgin Guerrilla” come from?

LT: Lotta people refer to me as da self-proclaimed Pidgin Guerrilla, but das incorreck. Only loser people give demselves one nickname, brah. “Da Pidgin Guerrilla,” das one name dat wuz bestowed upon me. Back when I wuz going college UH in da ‘90s, da newspapah wen go do one story ‘bout me and dey quoted one of my old professors who said someting like, “Lee, he’s like a Pidgin guerrilla.” Den when my friend Lisa Kanae saw dat, she told everybody in our writing group, “Lee’s not “A” Pidgin guerrilla, he's DA Pidgin Guerrilla.” And das how da name stuck.

S: Why is it important to write pidgin?

LT: Cuz Pidgin people like be represent. Das our language, li’dat. But no need only be writing. No need be only books, or plays, or movies. All forms of creative expression can be Pidgin. Like how I wen go argue in my book Living Pidgin, Pidgin no need only be related to speech. People can create Pidgin food, music, dance and art too. And maybe get lotta people already doing dat, but dey jus not consciously tinking of their work as Pidgin, yet.

Tonouchi poses for photos outside the Pearl City public library.

S: What role does it play in the landscape of Hawai‘i literature?

LT: Ten+ years ago when I wuz starting my 300-level Pidgin Literature class at Hawai‘i Pacific University (I taught ‘em several times since den, but I semi-retired now) some OG Local writers wuz questioning why I wuz even doing dat for, cuz dey already wen fight for have Literatures of Hawai‘i classes in college. So, for dem, wuz like da battle wuz pau already. So I jus toll ‘em Pidgin literature stay one part of da Hawai‘i literatures and, maybe 30 years ago, nevah have ‘nuff for warrant one whole class jus on dat, but tanks to their efforts, now we can have one whole class on jus Pidgin Lit.

S: Who are some of your favorite pidgin writers/advocates/educators?

LT: Interesting you wen go make dat distinction. Jus da oddah year I wuz talking story with one of my Pidgin heroes. I wuz kinda bummed when he wen go make da off hand comment about how he wuzn’t really into da kine Pidgin advocacy. To me dat wuz funny kine. Cuz jus da fack you write in Pidgin, das already one political ack, no? By writing in Pidgin, you automatically get designated as being one Pidgin advocate. I wuz all like, “wow lau lau, so you like write Pidgin, but you no like fight for your right for write Pidgin?”

S: Who or what should we be reading if we’re interested in Pidgin history and writing?

LT: Das two diff’rent genres, brah. If I had for choose one good primer for Pidgin history you should check out da Pidgin Coup’s position papah, “Pidgin and Education.” Get ‘em online. An’ den for writing Pidgin, I would suggest studying all da works of Pidgin you can find. Sometimes newer Pidgin writers, dey tink dey creating someting totally original but, cuz dey nevah read everyting dat came before, dey no realize what dey wrote might be all played out already.

S: Give us some quick tips to help writers create more authentic Pidgin dialogue.

LT: I tink helps if you know Pidgin, and if you get one good ear. Probably da best ting you can do is for base your dialogue on top Pidgin talkers you know in real life. Sometimes when I watch Hollywood try do Pidgin, I’m all like, “brah, you dunno nobody or what?” Either dat or dey jus trow in couple Pidgin vocabularies hea and dea for add color. And usually for doing dat dey get all proud of demselves. My tinking stay like, “wow, so you used da word ‘slippahs’ instead of ‘flip-flops,’ big deal. You give couple crumbs to da Pidgin people and what, what you like us do, trow one pahdee?”

S: What are you working on now?

LT: Of da choke planny projecks I doing now, looks like da one das closest to being pau first is my Okinawan children’s picture book projeck with artist Laura Kina. Da two of us stay really in-sync so some super awesome ideas came outta da colab process. Through da process, we decided for set da story in da ‘80s, so da ting get lotta hidden easter eggs from ‘80s pop culture, as well as stuff das particular to Hawai‘i in da ‘80s.

S: How is Hawai‘i Pidgin changing?

LT: I used to say I thought Pidgin wuz jus changing. Today’s Pidgin might incorporate more hip-hop and less Hawaiian like da old school kine Pidgin.But den some experts tell dey tink Pidgin stay dying. And I admit get some days when I tink maybe dey right, especially when I see so much young people trying so hard for lose their Pidgin. So den I wondah if mo’ bettah all us experts come to da consensus and tell dat Pidgin stay definitely on life support. If we do dat, maybe people going question, “hey isn’t dis someting dat makes us unique, do we really wanna lose part of our culture?”An’ den maybe das going spark da action wea mo’ people might wanna revitalize, celebrate and perpetuate Pidgin.


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