Tonouchi, ‘Pidgin Guerilla’

Hawaiian Pidgin is a valid language and capable of range and depth of emotion and intellect, as with any language. Proving that is Hawaii’s “Pidgin guerilla” Lee Tonouchi, whose 2011 book Significant Moments in da Life of Oriental Faddah and Son: One Hawaii Okinawan Journal from Bess Press ( won the 2013 Book Award for Poetry/Prose from the Association for Asian American Studies. In his hands, words are a weapon, wherein Pidgin tackles power dynamics, culture and identity issues and race relations with humor and visceral intensity. Tonouchi took a moment to talk with A&S about his meritorious book … in Pidgin, of course:


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Lee Tonouchi

Your poems, which compiled together make for an autobiography of sorts, previously were published individually in various local and national journals including Brooklyn Review and The New York Quarterly. Over how long of a period of time were these poems written?

Took ova 10 years for write da poems and one noddah five years around for find one publisher for da collection. I very fortunate Buddy Bess from Bess Press took one chance and wanted for do ’em, cuz most publishers nevah even like look at da collection cuz dey said nobody reads poetry. To those poetry naysayers, all I can say is, brah, we stay in multiple printings already, so I tink das one pretty big … NOT EVEN.

You present significant, universally relevant cultural issues, but your language and themes are purely local. What kind of response have you received from outside Hawaii?

Critics of Pidgin always tell you can only use Pidgin in Hawaii, but from my experience actually get lotta people from all ova who interested in Pidgin and dey like learn. As for da response outside Hawaii, da AAAS Book Award for Poetry/Prose is one national award dat lotta my writing heroes won before me, so I supah honored for be in their company. Da judges wen tell (in The Journal of Asian American Studies), “Tonouchi not only offers us new possibilities for understanding human experience but expands the power of language through a breathtaking use of pidgin and marvelous narrative arc. The humor of Tonouchi’s pieces pulls you in – including his use of ‘Oriental’ to describe his own father. But it is the poems’ evocations of poignant loss and heartbreak that keeps you reading – the passing of a beloved mother in a car crash, the heartbreak of not being close to one’s own father or fatherland and its history.” Pretty awesome opossum, no?

Da book’s been getting lotta local love. And tanks to da AAAS award, da book’s been gaining some national attention too. One happy surprise is da ting’s been blowing up even international. For examples, we had one nice writeup in da Ryukyu Shimpo, which is one news-papah in Okinawa. So it’s kinda neat when I hear stories about Okinawan people who come visit Hawaii and one of da first tings dey do is try find one bookstore so dey can buy my book.

Is your time solely spent writing?

Right now I writing less and I focusing more my time on family, cuz me and my wife, we get two small keiki. But I always enjoy doing all kine writing. Some of my past projecks include my book of Pidgin short stories Da Word from Bamboo Ridge Press, my Pidgin essay collection Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture from Tinfish Press, and I had some Pidgin plays done before at Kumu Kahua Theatre and da Honolulu Theatre for Youth. Da last Pidgin play I did wuz for East West Players in L.A., and dat one wuz one Los Angeles Times Critic’s Choice Selection.

What are you working on now?

I get couple few anthology projecks I stay doing. An’den I like for collab so I working on multiple top secret kine projecks.

What do you want your reader to take away from Oriental Faddah and Son?

Da book stay about documenting personal/family history, so I hope da book encourages readers for learn more about their own histories. But being one writer’s not easy. Wheneva somebody in my family proudly announces to me, “Here Lee, I have a story that maybe you can use in your next book,” I try not for roll my eyes, cuz from my experience most likely those stories going be junk. To me, da bestest family stories is da kine you gotta recover, uncover, discover, whatevahs … da kine you gotta ask nosey niele-kine questions for find out about. If you ovahear somebody in your family whispering, “K, now. No tell da kine, bumbye he going put dat in da book,” den das da story you bettah go investigate. Cuz das da story das going be winnahs.


She left me,
as one dying away
one cloth-covered photo album,
with my name stitched
on da cover
in cursive letters.

I get up some nights
for look at pictures of
her hands washing me
in da kitchen sink,
her bosom as she cradles me
in her arms, me
all alone,
lying on top
da orange zabuton,
smiley faced and oblivious.

I tink, too bad
as one baby
I nevah have camera too.
I can only imagine
da smile
I brought
to her.
– Lee Tonouchi


Keiki Film, Music Fest

Ko Olina dishes up a cornucopia of family fun Jan. 18 with its Children’s Film & Music Festival. Keiki-oriented entertainment includes a musical from Honolulu Theatre for Youth, Disney tunes from Performing Arts Center of Kapolei, aerial dance by Samadhi Hawaii, sing-alongs with Sistah Robi Kahakalau and lots more. Film highlights include Disney’s Oceans and Morning Light, both about the ocean; The Haumana, a standout recently at HIFF centered around a hula halau; animated Hawaiian shorts, and animated Disney films including Finding Nemo, The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. The excitement happens 1-8 p.m. at Ko Olina’s Kohola Lagoon and throughout Aulani and Ihilani. Tickets cost $20 for adults, $10 for keiki. See or call 671-2752.