Contemporary Journals

Bamboo Ridge and the Birth of Modern Hawaii’s Literary Canon

Report by Kalani Padilla

Hawai’i emerged quickly as a site of sociolinguistic significance in the 1800 to 1900s Plantation Era, where the languages and cultures of a dozen different ethnicities were set to use in two enormous industries (pineapple and sugar). Though it was born as the language of commerce and unionization, Hawaiian Creole English (HCE) has retained immense prestige among local people in the contemporary era.

It may not be apparent to young local people in Hawaii schools today that the educational policies surrounding minority languages were by far repressionally focused. Oral histories and other archival research indicate that while Hawai’i was a Republic, its educational system was broadly separated into “standard” (“proper” English-speaking) and “nonstandard” schools (Haas 225). That is, many students in early-modern Hawai’i were segregated by their English-speaking abilities, not their ethnicity, as has been more prominent in U.S history. At the same time, fluency in either native Hawaiian or HCE were sources of pride and points of loyalty or solidarity among non-white people on the islands. That is, both languages have always borne double-sided attitudes — those of both stigma and great prestige — though literature at present falls entirely on the positive, almost exclusive end occupied by rural communities:“Some younger working-class locals have attempted to halt the decline of HCE by accentuating whatever is left of the creole features in their speech as a boundary marker against younger mainland-born haoles, who increasingly compete for less-skilled jobs” (64). It remains a subject of debate whether HCE, which many believe to be alive and well in private spheres, is truly suffering from exclusion from the professional and political spheres. Linguists observe that HCE has survived and evolved because of a long-standing culture of “code-switching”: The same people who were being berated by teachers as substandard language speakers were in fact performing prodigies of linguistic virtuosity —  repidginizing their creole for the benefit of immigrant grandparents, switching to standard their white collar jobs or in court, then returning with visible relief to their natural speech when they were with friends or younger relatives...” (64).

In 2016, the Hawaii Board of Education passed two significant language policies for the development and support of “innovative language programs” in Hawaii’s public schools: the Seal of Biliteracy, and Multilingualism for Equitable Education. In theory (working toward practice,) these policies solidify Hawaii’s educational system and its educators as champions for the linguistic diversity of the islands. Testimonies by educators, researchers, and para-educational institutions in the islands most often enumerate professional development, family outreach, and “sustained leadership” as the key elements of these policies’ survival. I would argue to include that the existence of a “local” literary canon and the artistic community that has gathered around are also integral to the dignity of Hawaii’s multi-ethnic/cultural dynamic. Without the current positive attitudes toward multiculturalism, it is difficult to imagine so many public school educators supporting policies so complex and demanding.

The literary canon and community in question is astonishingly young. There is an observable alignment in the 1970s onward, with the shifting of cultural attitudes in Hawai’i toward multiculturalism, and the resurgence of scholarly/artistic interest throughout the U.S. in ethnic writers (the San Francisco Renaissance comes to mind as one significant contact zone for ethnic artists). In 1978, about a 150 people — primarily writers, and some educators —  gathered at Mid-Pacific Institute on O’ahu for the first Talk Story Conference. At the time, the faculty at the Department of English at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa was too closely tied to haole influence (their paternalistic plantation-owner aesthetic and mission) for anyone’s comfort. The sponsoring and planning committee behind the conference was Talk Story Inc., run by still prominent writers and publishers Marie Hara, Arnold Hiura, and Stephen Sumida. Talk Story Inc., and their motivations behind the conference rested in what they called “agency”: the importance, in their postcolonial, multiethnic context, for ignored voices to start their own literary communities into which to publish their own work and the work of those whom they support. Immediately out of the Talk Story Conference was an anthology and bibliography of Hawai’i writers: Talk Story: Big Island Anthology. The anthology was discussed, at the time, as an antithesis to Carl Stroven’s 1959 anthology, A Hawai’i Reader. Stroven’s collection is now notorious for its “painfully influential” depictions, Morales states, of Hawai’i and its people. Several small journals and presses sprung up behind Talk Story, the most successful by far (if we are defining success by longevity) being Bamboo Ridge: Journal of Hawai’i Literature and the Arts (formerly Bamboo Ridge: The Hawaii Writers’ Quarterly.”)

The co-founders of Bamboo Ridge Press, co-founding editors and current head editors of the literary magazine Bamboo Ridge (BR) are Talk Story writers Eric Chock and Darrell Lum. Both Chock and Lum have, since Talk Story, become two of the most celebrated members of Hawaii’s literary community, receiving dozens of awards for their work as editors, writers, and educators. BRP has published perhaps all of the local authors whose works form what is now Hawaii’s literary educational canon: Maxine Hong Kingston, Marie Hara, Lisa Linn Kanae, Cathy Song, Lois Ann Yamanaka, Wing Tek Lum, and Lum and Chock themselves.

From its inception, BRP’s primary mission has been to publish art “by and about Hawaii’s people.” This phrase is included in every issue from the very first, to the most recent: the 113th (and 40th anniversary) issue. Subtly embedded in this is an openness to writers from all across the country, and in fact the globe. Wing Tek Lum (one of BR’s published authors, and currently BRP’s business manager) explains in an interview with Hawaii Public Radio that despite this, BR has always tended to have a “strong sense of place” — nearly all of its contributors in the end being Hawai’i locals. Other salient themes to virtually any issue you pick up are generational ties (Tek Lum says, “obligation to those before and after you”), ethnic identity, translocality, and cultural reclamation. BR writers are also known for linguistic experimentation, often pursuing orthographies of HCE or using words from multiple languages.

The most common critique of BR to date is of its Asian hegemony. Recent issues and certainly its first issues primarily feature writers of Asian ancestry. Currently, all but one of BRP’s staff members are Asian. It is entirely possible that this is coincidental to Hawaii’s immigration history; as described previously, plantation owners recruited most of their laborers from Asian countries (who had lower standards for living conditions).

The hegemony was first called out with the publishing of The Best of Bamboo Ridge. The effect of the “best of” label is evident even now: the authors, and even individual poems and short stories of this volume are still among the most familiar to Hawai’i students and educators. Its authorship is over ninety percent Asian. Since Best Of, BRP has done significant work to deconstruct the hegemony and diversify its authorship. In addition, other periodicals have risen up to fill in the gaps that are left by the kinds of authors that are most commonly drawn to BR. For example, Noio (supported by the University of Hawai’i) has a moderate focus on reclaiming Native Hawaiian “mo’olelo” — oral poetry and folklore. Hawai’i Review (also out of UH) identifies specifically as an international journal.

In 2019, Bamboo Ridge celebrates a forty-year history of virtually single-handedly gathering the writers of the islands into an active community, regardless of its arguably limited authorship. Bamboo Ridge is currently undertaking a large-scale preservation project, creating a public digital archive including its earliest publications. The project was initiated after “Not Pau [finished] Yet,” a reading and fundraiser by the editors and some of their most influential writers.

Works Referenced

Haas, Michael, ed. Multicultural Hawai'i: The Fabric of a Multiethnic Society. Vol. 1108. Taylor & Francis, 1998.

Morales, Rodney. "Literature." Multicultural Hawaii: The Fabric of a Multiethnic Society, edited by M. Haas (1998): 53-66.

Ogawa, Dennis M. Jan ken po: The world of Hawaii's Japanese Americans. University of Hawaii Press, 1978.

Reinecke, John E. "Language and Dialect in Hawaii, A Sociolinguistic History to 1935." (1969).

State Board of Education Student Achievement Committee 2 Feb. 2016. Accessed 10 April 2019.

Tanigawa, Noe. "Bamboo Ridge: Not Pau Yet." Hawai'i Public Radio, Oct. 2018.