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American literature is unique in the number of voices and cultures it conveys, giving it the power to transform opinions and challenge stereotypes in both obvious and subtle ways.  Christa Smith Anderson explains that the Hawaiian islands' language variation including Pidgin and Creole is at odds with Standard American English.

The islands borne of fire have erupted in literary activity. Hawaiian natives and immigrants are, for the first time, finding a place of distinction in how they are documenting languages and dialects that once were marginalized.

In his foreword to 2002’s Island Fire: An Anthology of Literature from Hawaii, writer James Houston  says, “What has changed is the perception that anything indigenous to these islands does not deserve to be at the beginning of a literary collection, or even somewhere in the middle, but belongs at the end, as an afterthought, as an ‘alien’ presence.”[1] Houston refers to the 1961 anthology, A Hawaiian Reader, that opens with the words of an English sea captain approaching the islands. The words of people who are native to the islands come later; those selections that are grounded in the folklore of the islands come at the anthology’s end, where James Michener noted, in his introduction, they belonged because the language was “alien” to the “modern world.”

Pidgin is language shared by Hawai'ians who may be separated by lines of class and ethnicity

As with common history and values, Pidgin is language shared by many Hawai'ians who may otherwise be separated by lines of class and ethnicity, according to Darrell H. Y. Lum. Lum defines this Pidgin more precisely as Hawaii Creole English, in the introduction to the 1998 collection Growing Up Local: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose from Hawaii.

Lois-Ann Yamanaka makes the politics of speaking Pidgin clear in Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers. “We gotta try talk the way he say. No more dis and dat and wuz and cuz ‘cause we only hurting ourselfs,” says Lovey Nariyoshi, the novel’s Japanese-American narrator, to her friend and classmate, Jerry. Lovey and Jerry have a teacher who tells students that to amount to anything, they have to stop speaking Pidgin. “You're speaking a low-class form of good Standard English. Continue, and you’ll go nowhere in life,” Mr. Harvey warns, and demands: “Speak Standard English. DO NOT speak pidgin. You will only be hurting yourselves.” (p. 9)

This denigration of Pidgin brings shame to Lovey: “I don’t tell anyone, not even Jerry, how ashamed I am of pidgin English. Ashamed of my mother and father, the food we eat...” But Mr. Harvey’s demands are not impossible. Lovey can talk like Mr. Harvey wants if she plays “pretend-talk-haole. I can make my words straight, that’s pretty easy if I concentrate real hard. But the sound, the sound from my mouth, if I let it rip right out the lips, my words will always come out like home” (p. 13).

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Chock, Eric, Bill Teter, James R. Harstad, D.H.Y. Lum, eds. Growing Up Local: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose from Hawaii. Honolulu: Bamboo Ridge Press, 1998.
  • Harstad, Cheryl A., and James R. Harstad, eds. Island Fire: An Anthology of Literature from Hawaii. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Curriculum Research and Development Group and University of Hawaii Press, 2002.
  • Journal of Hawaii Literature and Arts. Bamboo Ridge Press.
  • Yamanaka, Lois-Ann. Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.

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Christa Smith Anderson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia. After several years producing and writing television news, she is now a federal government employee by day and a fiction writer the rest of the time. She received the 2002 Cynthia Wynn Herman Scholarship from George Mason University and has published non-fiction in So to Speak, a Feminist Journal of Language and Arts.

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  1. Houston, James D. "A Foreword." Island Fire: An Anthology of Literature from Hawai'i. Eds. Cheryl A. Harstad and James R. Harstad. University of Hawai'i Curriculum Research and Development Group and University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2002.

Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York