"Controversial adventures in 'paradise': bully burgers and pidgin: Hawaiian Lois-Ann Yamanaka wrote her first novel in the true language of the islands," by Valerie Takahama, The Orange County Register (February 15, 1966, Thursday Morning Edition, Section: Accent, pg. E01)
As if storm clouds suddenly have swept onshore, poet and novelist Lois-Ann Yamanaka's normally buoyant tone turns steely as she talksabout efforts to stamp out pidgin, the English dialect spoken by many working-class Hawaiians.
"Linguistic identity and cultural identity are skin and flesh," Yamanaka says from San Francisco, where she is promoting her first novel, "Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers. " "When you sever one from
the other, you make it not OK to be who you are.
"You cannot discuss your grandmother, people who suck fish eye, the customs in your family. You cannot discuss your mother, your father, your religious practices. That stuff is all severed once they say, 'Don't speak the language. ' "
Yamanaka is speaking from the heart. Growing up in Pahala, a
sugar-plantation town on the big island of Hawaii, she was
discouraged at school from speaking pidgin, a dialect that
developed among immigrants from Japan, the Philippines, China and
elsewhere who provided cheap labor in Hawaii in the 1800. Now
formally known as Hawaii Creole English, it is her first language.
Years later, as a teacher of "at-risk" students in the tough
Kalihi neighborhood in Honolulu, she was admonished against using
it in the classroom. And when she based her 1993 poetry collection,
"Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre," on pidgin, she found the
book banned at schools and herself "uninvited" from readings.
It's only recently, after a mainstream publisher, Farrar, Straus
& Giroux, brought out her first novel written partly in pidgin
that she has earned a measure of respect for revealing the power
and poetry of the language.
"Here is a rare book _ exuberant, fresh-voiced, rich, crazy and
stabbing, comic and as true-toned as a crystal glass tapped with a
knife," Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist E. Annie Proulx writes in a
Somehow, the 34-year-old natural-born storyteller notes, it's as
if such praise has made it acceptable for her fellow Hawaiians to
appreciate her work: "It's almost like, because this New York
publisher gave their approval, now it's all OK. We're strange in
"We just cannot stand being who we are," says Yamanaka, who
lives in Kalihi with her husband, a teacher, and their son, 4 1/2.
"If you were from Hilo and you went to Hilo College, you were
dodo. You went to UH Manoa, you were second-place dodo. But you
could go to some place like Creighton (University in Omaha, Neb.)
or an obscure little university, and be this wonder child. 'Oh, you
went to a mainland college! '
"So sad, you know, the way we hate ourselves in the islands. "
Yamanaka's heroine Lovey Nariyoshi, in "Wild Meat and Bully
Burgers," grapples with such feelings of inferiority growing up in
rural Hilo in the '70s.
Chubby and pegged as a slow-learner, Lovey is an outsider's
outsider, alienated not only from haoles or whites but also from
her Japanese-American classmates. Her best friend, her only friend,
is Jerome, a sweet boy who shares her love of Barbie and Ken, David
Cassidy and Donny O.
Lovey dreams of the "Perfect Haole House" with a Dixie bathroom
cup dispenser with cups , but she lives in a house with beat-up
furniture and a portable heater in the kitchen. Her mother smokes
Parliaments nonstop, and her father is constantly concocting
moneymaking schemes such as picking macadamia nuts, selling peacock
feathers and raising a calf, which becomes the "Bully burgers" of
"The first bite tastes strange. Not sheep or goat. To me like
honohono grass. To Cal like guavas and waiwi. She puts her
hamburger down. 'This is a Bully burger, isn't it, Daddy? " She
swallows hard . . . "
Yamanaka, the eldest of four daughters of a schoolteacher mother
and a school-administrator-turned-taxidermist father, says she
based Lovey in part on her own adolescent experiences and those of
her youngest sister.
"My youngest sister and I were very much like our mother: talk
too much, wore strange clothes, did strange things. We always
thought things that we shouldn't have been thinking or said things
that we shouldn't have been saying. Little weirdos," she says,
"But it was not all right in our small town. And my best friend,
who was a lot like Jerome, it was not all right for him, either. It
was very painful not being able to fit in with what was
middle-class Japanese. . . . Writing is very healing. "
In 1987, she enrolled in a writing class taught by Morgan Blair,
a poet who had taught at Wayne State University in Detroit. She
credits Blair with helping her to overcome her reluctance to write
"Her therapy for me was that I read a lot of African-American
women who were writing in dialect," she says, citing Ntozake Shange
and Thulani Davis as influences.
"That's when I came to terms that pidgin was not an ignorant
language, that I was speaking a dialect and that my feelings and
thoughts were so connected to the language that in order for me to
write truthfully, I needed to connect to that voice. But it was
very hard. Very, very hard. "
The results of those efforts were poems in "Saturday Night at
the Pahala Theatre," which brought her critical praise and several
national literary awards, including a grant from the National
Endowment for the Arts that enabled her to take a sabbatical from
It also brought scorn from some Hawaiian educators who objected
to her use of pidgin and profanity.
"I was uninvited to schools, my book was banned at certain
schools, teachers couldn't use the work," she says. "I found it
really sad, because when children did get a hold of the book, it
rang so true to their experience.
"You gotta start right where they're at. I think my book just
speaks directly to them. It's a bridge for them to cross into other
kinds of literature. "
As well as holding up a mirror to Hawaiian life that other
Hawaiians can recognize, Yamanaka believes her writing may offer a
truer portrait of the islands than those usually seen in the
"It's a big industry, the exotification of Hawaii and its
people," she says. " 'Hawaii 5-0,' 'The Hawaiians,' James
Michener's 'Hawaii,' making Hawaii into every white man's dream,
'Magnum PI,' "Byrds of Paradise. ' It goes on and on.
"It's nice now that we have ownership of our own stories. "
“Authentic Characters or Racist Stereotypes: Some Asian Americans Describe Lois-ann Yamanaka’s Writing as Socially Irresponsible, Yet High-Profile Authors and Others Defend Her No-Hold-Barred Style,” by Diane Seo, Special to The Times, July 23, 1998, Thursday, Home Edition; Life & Style; Part E; Page 1.
Author Lois-Ann Yamanaka recently became an unwitting cause celebre
among Asian American literary and academic circles, with detractors pegging
her a racist and supporters casting her as the victim of artistic
The 36-year-old author, who writes in Hawaii's pidgin dialect, is known for
her brutally honest portrayal of the islands' locals, exposing in revealing
detail the prejudices, idiosyncrasies and insecurities of her mostly Asian
But it is Yamanaka's no-holds-barred style that has thrust her at the center
of a nationwide debate, pitting Asian American scholars against writers over
such issues as artistic freedom, social responsibility, racial stereotyping
and the criteria for literary honors.
High-profile authors such as Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston have entered
the debate, aligning themselves with some 80 other Asian American writers
who believe Yamanaka has been wrongly maligned. Meanwhile, Asian American
academics contend Filipinos are the ones treated unfairly by Yamanaka.
Matters erupted last month in Honolulu at the Assn. for Asian American
Studies' national conference, where Yamanaka received the group's literary
award, only to have it rescinded amid protest.
The controversy over Yamanaka's work prompted the exchange of emotional
letters, telephone calls, e-mail and letters to Honolulu newspapers, forcing
a public dialogue on issues that have long caused dissent within the Asian
"My work has become a scapegoat for politics," said Yamanaka, during an
interview in her hometown of Honolulu. "This whole experience has been
humiliating and time-consuming. I've been called all kinds of different
things, and I've spent a lot of time reacting to the criticism."
The debate could move to Los Angeles on Saturday, when Yamanaka takes part
in a reading at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
Yamanaka is one of three Japanese American authors who will read their
poetry and fiction in pidgin.
Well before tempers flared, Yamanaka agreed to attend the event to promote
her third book, "Blu's Hanging," published last year by Farrar, Straus &
"Blu's Hanging" tells the story of three Japanese American youngsters in
Molokai in the aftermath of their mother's death. The controversy hinges on
the character of Uncle Paulo, the Ogata family's Filipino neighbor who rapes
and molests children.
Some Asian American professors, graduate students and members of the
Filipino community believe Uncle Paulo perpetuates the long-standing
stereotype of Filipino men as sexual predators. They also oppose the
sexually promiscuous characterization of Uncle Paulo's nieces, the Reyes
"The Reyes sisters and their Uncle Paulo--the Filipinos of the book--are
made to embody all that is evil, perverted and cruel that the Ogata family
must avoid," wrote UCLA graduate student Augusto Espiritu in a letter to the
Assn. for Asian American Studies board. " The narrator labels them cat
killers, torturers and, worse, 'human rats.' "
Espiritu said in a telephone conversation that such characterizations are
hurtful because Filipinos, particularly in Hawaii, have long been the target
of racial slurs and jokes.
"I think a lot of people are disappointed with Lois-Ann Yamanaka," Espiritu
said. "I think she has lots of talent and promise as a writer. At the same
time, there are lots of issues that will take time to heal."
Yamanaka, however, believes her critics are forgetting that "Blu's Hanging"
is a work of fiction and that she does not hold the same views as her
"It's been very hurtful and raw for me," said Yamanaka, a former public
school teacher. "My feeling is that all this energy is being misdirected at
me and my book."
In their defense of Yamanaka, Asian American poets Wing Tek Lum and David
Mura organized a letter-writing campaign among fellow Asian American writers
to deflect what they perceive as artistic censorship.
After sending out packets of information chronicling the controversy, they
received 82 responses of support, among them Tan, Kingston, Shawn Wong and
Tan wrote in her letter: "Fiction is not the cart and horse with which you
can haul away the problems of any community. The AAAS Board's action also
damages how Asian Americans are viewed as part of American literature. It
means that our works are not literary but sociological and that we do not
receive awards for literary merit but rewards for good behavior."
Filipino American writer Hagedorn agreed that Yamanaka's critics have
misunderstood the role of writers.
"Yamanaka's detractors seem to be demanding that only writers who create
safe, reverent, comforting stories are worthy of acknowledgment," Hagedorn
wrote in her letter. "Literature is supposed to provoke, inspire and
challenge its readers."
But Candace Fujikane, a University of Hawaii English professor, said
protesters do not want to censor Yamanaka or any other Asian American
writer. They simply believe the Assn. for Asian American Studies should not
honor work that is perceived as encouraging racial divisions and
perpetuating stereotypes. Bestowing "Blu's Hanging" with its literary award
would have undermined the mission of the association, Fujikane said.
The deeper issue, however, remains whether Asian American, and perhaps all
other ethnic writers, should write about minority groups only in so-called
socially responsible ways.
"I'm not demanding simplistic, positive role models," Fujikane said. "I want
complex portrayals of Asian Americans because I feel literature does have a
lot of power. It has a powerful effect on our imagination and shapes the way
we understand race."
Such "obligations," writers say, would stifle their power as artists.
"If you create awards that have to follow a particular formula or you have
to be politically correct or have a happy ending, you restrict writers who
want to push the envelope," Lum said.
This is not the first time Yamanaka's work has provoked Filipino Americans
Critics first complained after the arrival of Yamanaka's first book of
poetry, "Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre," which received the Pushcart
Prize in 1993 and the Assn. for Asian American Studies' 1994 fiction award.
Again, the point of contention was Yamanaka's portrayal of Filipino men.
Last year, when Yamanaka's second book, "Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers,"
was selected to receive the same award, protesters convinced the
association's national board to forgo its annual literary honor. As a
result, all three members of the group's literary committee resigned.
The flap led the board to adopt a policy saying it would not override its
committee's decision. So when this year's committee tapped "Blu's Hanging"
as the best book, the board initially stuck to its policy.
But during the awards ceremony, three of Yamanaka's former students, who
accepted the award on her behalf, were confronted by protesters who stood up
and turned their backs during the acceptance speech.
Later that day, during the association's general membership meeting, the
group approved a resolution to rescind the award. The outgoing board and
incoming board all resigned, except for one person.
Despite the turmoil, Fujikane believes the Yamanaka debate will strengthen
the Assn. for Asian American Studies, a group with about 700 members.
"People have gotten more involved, and people are talking to each other
about the role of AAAS and the role of literature," Fujikane said. "These
are important conversations we're having."
Meanwhile, Asian American writers also see benefits to their show of unity.
"The fact that all these writers got behind this issue means that when this
happens to one of us, we don't have to feel that we're freaks or that we've
done something wrong," Mura said. "It says that fellow artists and writers
understand what you're doing."
For her part, Yamanaka is trying to focus on her writing. She has a new
book, "Heads by Harry," arriving in February, and she is braced for more
criticism, although on different issues. ("Heads by Harry" delves into the
world of taxidermy.)
Despite her notoriety, she has no plans to tone down her work.
"Writing is an act of fearlessness," she said. "If fear enters my writing
and I start censoring myself, I'll stop writing."
- Lois-Ann Yamanaka will appear at the Japanese American National Museum,
369 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, on Saturday from 1-3 p.m. Admission is $ 4 for
adults, $ 3 for students, seniors and children. Free for museum members and
children under 5. For more information, call (213) 625-0414.