Literature scholar finds her voice in Pidgin
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Book Editor
Eleven years ago, Lisa Linn Kanae left a good, stable job as an executive secretary, a safe "little kingdom" with a desk and a door and a regular paycheck. Her goal: a bachelor's degree.
Eugene Tanner The Honolulu Advertiser
Lisa Linn Kanae quit her job to take a literature class and is now an author and teacher herself.
Eugene Tanner The Honolulu Advertiser
She remembers looking over the syllabus of a literature course she would take and thinking that she'd never be able to handle the work.
What she didn't know was that she was about to fall in love not with a person, but with literature and writing.
Her face lights up: "Oh, it was just so wonderful to learn stuff. I never thought I would love it so much. There was something about reading a story and then writing about it ... that opened up a whole new world for me."
Kanae's first book, the just-released chapbook "Sista Tongue" (Tinfish, $10), is about her first love: language.
It's a brief social history of Pidgin English in Hawai'i intertwined with a personal story about a little brother who was a late talker and was stigmatized for it.
Within its pages, Kanae has created what she calls a collage of poetry and prose, layered and patchworked in such a way as to entice and require the reader's careful attention, especially as presented by graphic designer Kristin Kaleinani Gonzales.
Now Kanae, 41, joins a generation of Hawai'i writers whose work flows easily between Pidgin English and Standard, whose ideas and views were shaped by growing up in a multicultural society (she is Hawaiian-Chinese-Japanese-Filipino) as plantation days gave way to a tourism-driven economy.
A graduate of Kaimuki High School who got her master's degree from the University of Hawai'i in 1999, she teaches literature and writing to community college students who enter her "Pre-College Communication" class with little understanding of the things so dear to her.
Seeing young people discover Hawai'i in local literature, and open up to the idea that you can find real life in books, is a fresh joy.
"Sista Tongue" is a chapbook, a slim literary volume given fresh punch by graphic designer Kristin Kaleinani Gonzales.
Kanae recalls how she carefully graphed out the three strands she would weave together: speech defects, her brother's story and the social history of Hawai'i Creole English. "I didn't want just to write another paper. I wanted to do something on the artistic side that could pass as an academic paper," she says. She succeeded. The paper, which she was asked to read at a graduate students' conference, became known in experimental writing circles at the university.
Susan Schultz, editor of the poetry journal Tinfish, suggested that Kanae rework the piece into a chapbook a short, bound volume, literary and often boundary-pushing.
Kanae, who had completed her degree, rescued the paper from a file and spent some months reframing it. "It's very different from the original. I'm so glad I had several years to fix it," she says cheerfully.
The book really took on a new life when Kanae's words were married to the vision of graphic designer Gonzales. The two never actually met until the artwork was done. (Then, appropriately, they sat down over plate lunch at Kenny's in Kalihi.)
Gonzales toys with various sizes of type, causes excerpts from scholarly journals to appear as though they've been photocopied and clumsily pasted in the book, runs rules through the copy, drops in photos of mouths and lips and teeth.
"There are going to be some people who won't like it," Kanae says but it's clear she doesn't mind.
She thinks the in-your-face design fits the book's message.
"It's such a ... I don't want to say subversive " She pauses, and comes up with "challenging" to describe her premise admittedly not new that Pidgin English should be celebrated rather than stigmatized and stamped out.
It was this language, she says, that allowed plantation workers to communicate, band together and eventually force the plantations to offer them better treatment.
Today, she says, "It's almost cool to speak Pidgin."
She sometimes encounters students who, when they read Pidgin literature, protest that it's bad English. "I don't say anything, I just sort of let them discover the truth for themselves," she says.
Unlike her friend Lee Tonouchi, Kanae says she is no "pidgin guerilla." "Sista Tongue" blends Pidgin and Standard English, as does the collection of personal essays she's working on now.
"I'm one of those people who go in and out (of Pidgin), and I think that's fine." In fact, the book is about speech in general, and how we are characterized in others' minds by the way we speak.
Writing teachers speak of "finding your voice" something that we all have to do. Kanae recalls how, when she first began writing, she wrote "awful" poems that rhymed, and tried to copy the Southern accents of Flannery O'Connor, her favorite. She received predictable: "Write what you know."
She answered, "What I know isn't in books."
And that, of course, is precisely the point.
"Sista Tongue" is available at Native Books & Beautiful Things or directly from Tinfish. Contact Susan Schultz at firstname.lastname@example.org.