“A Melancholy Outlook on Hawaii Culture, or Not?” by Amy K. Vegas

Posted: January 2, 2013 in Vol. 2: Fall Essays 2012

wild meatGrowing up in Hawaii is not as pastoral as some outsiders may believe.  Thanks to politics and advertisements trying to bring in tourist revenue, Hawaii and its culture have been subjected to many stereotypes such as being a “paradise,” where everything is perfect.  Hawaii is a beautiful place to grow up in, but the images portrayed by mass media are superficial.  Some famous authors, such as Mark Twain, have written about Hawaii, and still, not many have written books depicting the culture or the every day life of individuals who live here; rather, Hawaii’s exterior beauty seems to be of the utmost importance.  Lois-Ann Yamanaka, a local writer and author, takes on the task of portraying the hardships that individuals who grow up in Hawaii face in everyday life.  In her novels entitled Blu’s Hanging and Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, Yamanaka presents her readers with a touching, yet raw story about two different families, and their struggle to survive Hawaii’s not so often seen life. Through reflecting on Hawaii’s cultural discourse, Yamanaka is not perpetuating a hegemonic, oppressive surrounding for minorities; rather, she is showing how identity comes from embracing unstereotypical norms.

Some people say that Lois-Ann Yamanaka perpetuates hegemonic power because her novels do not portray the type of inspiration to Hawaii’s culture that critics would like to see, but what these individuals fail to see is who Yamanaka is as a writer, is the same message that she portrays in her novels.  As Edgar Schneider supports in his work, The Dynamics of New Englishes: From Identity Construction to Dialect Birth, “English is the world’s leading language…it has been damned as a ‘killer language’, responsible for the extinction of innumerable indigenous languages, dialects, and cultures around the globe”(233). Through this quote, one can see that Yamanaka does not perpetuate hegemonic Standard English, the Standard English that is known to be responsible for destroying countless cultures; she challenges the cultural hegemonic power in her novels, which to break it down, are layers of social structures and norms that are imposed on minorities by the ruling class. These norms of speaking Standardize English are deeply embedded into Hawaii’s culture and Yamanaka drives to write in the forbidden pidgin dialect in hopes of transcending Hawaii’s culture and ultimately portraying pidgin as a linguistic identity.

Lois-Ann Yamanaka portrays the use of Hawaiian Creole English, most commonly referred to as “pidgin,” in all of her works.  Although some critics may see this as a weakness when constantly trying to live up to the hegemonic Standard English, Yamanaka portrays pidgin as a way of self-empowerment, agency, and a way of inspiration for her characters in her novels.  There are many things that can be depicted through the use of pidgin, the portrayal of historical context in Yamanaka’s novels can be seen as one of them.  Considering that Hawaii was a place of hegemonic takeover, as America overthrew the Hawaiian Monarchy, many immigrants flocked here in hopes of maintaining a better life.  Although they came in hopes of “freedom” as the American Dream states, these immigrants were subjected to a life of plantation work.  Majority of these workers were fresh-off-the-boat as we would say nowadays, and “because of the importation of different ethnic groups as labor, including white ethnics (e.g., Portuguese and Puerto Ricans) in addition to the Asian groups…a pidgin language developed on the plantation as a rudimentary form of communication” (Young, 409), as Morris Young addresses in his work entitled, Standard English and Student Bodies: Institutionalizing Race and Literacy in Hawai’i.  When considering Young’s quote above, these immigrants had no other choice but to find a way to understand one another and create a whole different language aside from Standard English just to survive.  Literacy in this sense shows how much this word is ambiguous, yet when constituted under a White hegemonic power, literacy tends to oppress and marginalize individuals who cannot fully surround themselves within the Westernized Standard English norms. Individuals who worked on plantations spoke “pidgin” to get through their workday, and also as a form of self-agency to survive oppression by the White hegemonic power.  This pidgin forms the foundation in Hawaii’s linguistic identity, and seeing that this language stems from Hawaii’s historical context, it is not hard to see that language is a major aspect to a community’s cultural identity. 

Being that the use of pidgin can bring back memories of a time that consumed the lives of many hard working individuals one can see how Yamanaka may be preserving the hegemonic language structure in Hawaii’s culture as Gladys Nubla justifies in her article, The Politics of Relation: Creole Languages in “Dogeaters” and “Rolling the R’s”, that, “Hawai’i Pidgin is a stigmatized language, having been banned from public instruction from 1898 to 1986 in favor of Standard English” (Nubla 203).  With that being said, one can see that Yamanaka does not preserve the hegemonic Standardize English, all her novels are written in the pidgin dialect and she deconstructs the stigmatization about the pidgin language which can be seen through her novel, Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers.  As Lovey attends Mr. Harvey’s English class, she and her classmates are lectured again (as the text would suggest that this has happened fourteen previous times within that year) that they must, “Speak Standard English. DO NOT speak pidgin. You will be only hurting yourself” (Yamanaka, Wild Meat…10).  Through this excerpt one can see that Mr. Harvey symbolizes the hegemonic standard of speaking Westernized English, and while observing this lecture, it is not hard to see that literacy here stands for more than just language, but it somehow stands as a marker.  Speaking pidgin marks Lovey and her classmates as outcasts of hegemonic society as Mr. Harvey says, “You will only be hurting yourselves.”  These children have to censor themselves and refrain from speaking pidgin, and because of this, the children are, in a sense, denied of their basic human rights to express themselves through their native language. Mr. Harvey’s declaration that the children will only be hurting themselves shows that individuals who are accustom to speaking pidgin are marginalized and this marginalization stems from hegemonic White power.

Despite the fact that parents still tell their children nowadays that they shouldn’t speak pidgin because it is not “proper,” Yamanaka shows how hegemonic Standard English takes away “the self”/identity of a person, and can do so to a community and a culture as a whole if it is not brought to attention. Pidgin is just as much embedded into Hawaii’s culture as cultural hegemonic power is as suggested by Lovey further into the chapter, “[…] nobody looks or talks like a haole…Nobody says nothing the way Mr. Harvey tells us to practice in class” (Yamanaka, Wild Meat…11).  With this being said, if cultural hegemony were to take its full course, cultural identity would be lost in Hawaii.  The way that Yamanaka deconstructs this oppressive outlook on pidgin and Hawaii’s culture in which it encapsulates, can be see when Lovey’s father reveals, “[…] you better learn how for talk like one haole like me…‘Yes sir uh-huh, I am quite capable of speaking the haole vernacular’…you damn right I can talk straight English” (Yamanaka, Wild Meat…168).  This gives the reader a sense of self-empowerment through the use of the pidgin language.  When considering that pidgin was formed because most plantation works did not learn Standard English as their first, native language, Yamanaka gives her readers an understanding of the complicated notions that individuals face when constantly constricted by hegemonic power.  While depicting this, Yamanaka offers a paradox between living within the linguistic constraints of the dominant class and expressing one’s identity; she offers a sense of being able to have “the best of both worlds,” for not everyone can possess the ability to speak pidgin and Standard English, for Hawaii and its culture.

While reflecting on what Lovey’s father revealed, one can feel as if the pidgin in which Yamanaka’s characters speak, not only transcends them as individuals living in an already oppressed state of cultural hegemony, but that pidgin can be used as a self-agency and can transcend the culture of Hawaii as a whole.  Although Yamanaka portrays Lovey coming from an oppressed society, she also shows that the oppressed can life themselves up from that oppression and determine their own identities.  Through pidgin, Yamanaka depicts a collective identity that is circular; on one hand, individuals define the community, and on the other, the community thus defines the individuals.  When recapping earlier analysis, one can see that Lovey’s father has come to understand that if he has to give in to hegemonic power, he does not have to change his identity or the way in which he speaks.  Even if Lovey and her classmates are consistently reprimanded for speaking pidgin in the classroom, Lovey goes on to learn that her identity does not have to be determined for her by the dominant culture; she has a choice to determine her own course of action, her own self agency, and in the end of the novel, she finds that speaking pidgin is a part of her identity and her cultures identity, and this forms the basis of the collective identity for the community that she lives in.

The use of Pidgin can also be seen in Blu’s Hanging, when Ivah must attend a parent-teacher conference for Maisie with Miss Tammy Owens.  As Ivah enters and sits in Miss Owen’s classroom, Miss Owen tells Ivah “[…] we need to speak to each other in Standard English for the duration of this conference.  I find that the Pidgin English you children speak to be so limited in its ability […]” (Yamanaka, Blu’s Hanging, 59).  Again speaking pidgin defies hegemonic standards, and Yamanaka shows here that this hegemonic power views pidgin in a negative light.  Morris Young expresses that pidgin is, “[…] the shared language of people whose lives were also marked by their racialization as Other” (Young 408).  Pidgin is only seen as oppressive because hegemonic power has used this to define, to label non-white individuals, as the “Other” in a hegemonic society and culture. Ms. Owen can also symbolize how cultural hegemony has tried to silence the marginalized individuals in Hawaii’s society. The character of Ms. Owen symbolizes hegemonic power because through out the novel she is constantly lecturing Maise for wetting her pants, and suggests that she be placed in a special education class since she barely speaks.  If Ms. Owen was a decent teacher and not immersed within the structures of White hegemonic power and standardized English, she would have taken the time to aid Maise in discovering her voice rather than silencing her.  The same can be said about the cultural hegemonic White power in Hawaii’s society.  We see more and more how privileged White individuals tend to oppress and silence the native voices of underprivileged individuals in Hawaii’s society based on the dialects they use and they way in which they speak.

Yamanaka does not use or portray her characters in a negative light even if they do speak Creole English. She shows how the oppressed can really make the best of what they have in life and use their language, no matter how negatively it is viewed upon, to surpass the stereotypes and the norms of society that were imposed on them.  Stemming back to the fact that pidgin was created in order to survive, one can see how the characters in Blu’s Hanging use pidgin as a way to survive the hardships they face in every day life.  The three characters form a type of microcosm community with each other, since they are all they really have. It seems as if Ivah, Maisie, and Blu use language as a way to protect them from the harms in their community since they do not have a maternal figure to look out for them and their father is rarely around.  This can be seen not only in the way that Ivah defends her sister Maise against Ms. Owen, who drives Maisie’s silence, but also in the way that these characters speak pidgin, and write standard English.

In the community that these characters live in, it is necessary to use language in order to survive. The way in which Blu uses language to survive can be seen through the way that he writes his poetry in Mrs. Ota’s class. Blu’s poetry is not necessarily fluid and it does not follow basic rhythmic patterns as one can see as Mrs. Ota writes, “C-/D+. Presley did you look at my examples on the board? Do you see how poetry should flow and rhyme?…Good Luck” (185).  Rather than embracing Blu’s authentic writing and artistic side, Mrs. Ota wants him to conform to writing in Standardize English, and through the way in which she said “Good Luck,” it seems as if this teacher has already marginalized Blu because he cannot surround himself within the hegemonic norms of speaking and writing Standard English. Blu also goes on to say that, “I no like my poems be like hers one” (186), thus Yamanaka gives readers a sense of the struggles marginalized individuals face with the constant problem arising, self-identity versus social norms, in this case through the use of language.  The only way for Blu to get a good grade was to ask Ed the Big Head to help him write his poems, and sure enough, Mrs. Ota wrote on his paper, “ Wonderful!…Your rhymes are perfect! A+” (186).  On one hand, by Mrs. Ota saying “Your Rhymes are perfect,” reinforces the stereotypes about the pidgin language and the way in which individuals are supposed to surround themselves in the hegemonic standard norms of Westernized English, on the other hand this also shows that Blu made the best of what he had and, in a sense, transcended through the use of language.  He used language as a way to survive the institution of the education system, but at the same time he still spoke pidgin; so like Lovey, Blu learned that he could chose how to rise from being oppressed, and like Lovey’s father, Blu learns that he can give into this hegemonic power without it stripping away his identity.

One can also see how Maisie transcends from the hegemonic power that consistently tried to silence her, using language as a means of survival and protection.  As discussed earlier in this paper, Maisie was almost silenced in the institution of education.  If we take Maise’s character as an allegory, we could relate this back to how pidgin was silenced all those years being banned from schools, ultimately silencing individuals who spoke this dialect.  One can see Maisie uses language as a form of survival and protection when she writes in dog feces on the walls of Uncle Paulo’s house, “MaLeSTeR HaNG i KiLL You HuMaN RaT” (251).  Maisie could not confront Uncle Paulo, and she rarely spoke, but the use of written language gave Maisie a voice.  Maisie wrote in the way that she wanted to and this way does not conform to the hegemonic Standard English way of writing. Just by Yamanaka showing this quote written by Maisie, one can see that she voiced her thoughts to the community about what happened, and also she wrote this on the wall of Uncle Paulo’s house as a way of protecting her brother, Blu.  Maisie voiced to the community what happened and as the text goes on to say, “Uncle Paulo scrubs with Brillo, fast and furious, checking to see who’s looking, his walls stained for life” (251).  This shows that not only is he labeled as a child molester to his community, but also that Maisie, a girl who rarely said a word, has a voice and that language can be ever lasting. Language is the only thing that can define one, as we see that Uncle Paulo is stained for life by the language that Maisie used, and one can also define themselves through language and define the type of language they want to use; as Maisie used her own language to convey her thoughts, and rather than speaking, wrote in her own, unstereotypical way to give herself a voice.

Ivah, the main character, takes on the motherly role watching over her siblings Blu and Maisie. Ivah tries defending her siblings against the perverted men in their community such as Mr. Iwasaki, an old Filipino man, who tries to molest Blu, as well as Uncle Paulo who eventually rapes Blu.  Ivah learns from these experiences that being silent only makes the three siblings prey to other individuals who try to regain their lost power due to the hegemonic power marginalizing them. Mr. Iwasaki tries to regain his oppressed manhood through luring boys into his yard to molest them, and Uncle Paulo tries to reinstate his oppressed manhood by raping Blu and having sex with other girls in the community.  As Ivah pulls Blu away from Mr. Iwasaki, who was physically touching his genitals and exposing himself to her and Blu, she find that she cannot say a word.  Instead, “A stream of urine comes down [her] legs as [she] drag[s] [Blu] quickly across the sidewalk” (20).  Ivah learns through Mr. Iwasaki, who “doesn’t speak English” (20), that language is important and the lack of language equals a lack of self and a lack of power over one’s life. It is even stated that Mr. Iwasaki must make noise and bribe boys with candy as an attempt to communicate to the outside world.  I believe that Yamanaka writes in pidgin to show her readers the importance of language in general, especially pidgin language that gives individuals in Hawaii a linguistic identity where individuals who live here are in a constant melting pot for all other ethnic groups as discussed earlier in this paper with plantation workers.  Granted, Yamanaka does not write her novels fully in pidgin, but she does show that one could have the best of both worlds, and if we all have to give in to some aspects of hegemonic power, we can do so without losing our identity, or our linguistic identity.

Yamanaka deconstructs the stigmatization of the pidgin language through the use of her character Ivah. For many years pidgin was banned from the education system in favor of Standard English, and through her works Yamanaka reinscribes a voice to Hawaii’s people that cultural hegemony has stripped them of.  When addressing this fact that pidgin was banned from 1898 to 1986 as Gladys Nubla would assert, one cannot help but think that individuals who spoke this language were destined for a life of economic and social disadvantages. Yamanaka critiques the stereotypical views of this by showing that Ivah obtained a scholarship to a prestigious private school in Honolulu (Mid-Pacific Institute).  After learning through her experiences with her siblings that language is power, she finds that the best thing for her, as well as her siblings, is to take the opportunity that presented itself and obtain a high form of education.  Although it is not every day that an individual gets a scholarship to attain a prestigious education, the message that Yamanaka is giving here shows that it is not impossible to achieve even if one speaks pidgin.  Yamanaka shows that Ivah learns that silencing her voice, her native voice as well, can cause more damage to her and her siblings. This can also be viewed in the context of linguistic identity, Yamanaka portrays pidgin as a source of “voice.”

Although Yamanaka’s novels may consists of many elements leading an individual to believe that she depicts the on going oppression of hegemonic power for minorities in Hawaii’s local culture, Yamanaka brings her readers novels which reflects on this and turns the table of hegemonic Standard English on its head showing that the real power anyone truly has can be found in themselves and through their native language, pidgin.  By showing readers that the main characters in her novels can overcome their hardships in an already cruel and oppressed society, Yamanaka gives inspiration to Hawaii’s culture as well as forms a linguistic identity. Through Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, Yamanaka shows that although pidgin was (and still is in some aspects) a stigmatized language, that the use of pidgin by her characters plays a part in their self-identity, and a community linguistic identity. These characters found their agency through the use of speaking pidgin, and formed their own identities through this dialect. Lovey show that even if one is oppressed, one can still rise above that oppression and not let the oppressive dominant culture form one’s identity; one has a choice to determine ones own course of action, and self agency. Through Lovey’s Father, one can see how Yamanaka portrays the hardships individuals face when trying to form their personal identity while being constrained by hegemonic power.  One sees that the message portrayed by Yamanaka, through Lovey’s Father, is saying that if one has to bend to fit some of the needs in a hegemonic society, one does not have to lose one’s self, or one’s language identity. Through Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging, one can see how language can operate in diverse ways.  Ivah, Blu, and Maisie all have their own individual problems with either speaking or writing Standard English, but what is still predominate is the uses of Pidgin in which they speak.  All three characters use language in a different way, but they still use language as a way to survive, just like how the plantation workers had to create pidgin just to survive hegemonic power.  Blu uses language to survive the education system, Maisie uses the written form of language to protect her brother and give herself a voice, and Ivah learns that being silent can cause more harm then good, and learns that language is powerful.  Yamanaka may have complicated the notion of pidgin in Blu’s Hanging, but still, the bottom line is that these children learn how to use language to their advantage without having the hegemonic Standardized English form their identities for them.  Blu writes poetry in his own way, he only asks Ed the Big Head for help in order to survive the institution of school; Maisie learns to have a voice through her written language, and she does not write in Standard English; and even if Ivah speaks pidgin, she learns the importance of language and goes to a private school, but it doesn’t change her linguistic identity.  As far as perpetuating a hegemonic, oppressive surrounding for minorities, Yamanaka does not do so. Since pidgin has become a forbidden language, Yamanaka uses pidgin in her novels as a way of portraying a linguistic as well as a cultural identity for Hawaii, and she at the same time offers her readers an insight into the complications that individuals face in trying to balance out their identities while surrounded by hegemonic standards.  Yamanaka shows through her novels how identity comes from embracing unstereotypical norms, and that hegemonic power does not have to form one’s identity, linguistic identity or a cultural identity.

Works Cited

Nubla, Gladys. “The Politics of Relation: Creole Languages in “Dogeaters” and “Rolling the R’s”” MELUS 1st ser. 29 (2004): 199-218. JSTOR. Web. 19 Mar. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4141802 .>.

Schneider, Edgar W. “The Dynamics of New Englishes: From Identity Construction to Dialect Birth.” Linguistic Society of America 2nd ser. 79 (2003): 233-81. JSTOR. Web. 26 Apr. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4489419&gt;.

Yamanaka, Lois-Ann. Blu’s Hanging. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997. Print.

Yamanaka, Lois-Ann. Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996. Print.

Young, Morris. “Standard English and Student Bodies: Institutionalizing Race and Literacy in Hawai’i.” NCTE 4th ser. 64 (2002): 405-31. JSTOR. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.  <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3250745 .>

Written for Prof. Amy Nishimura’s ENG 440: Major Author


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