- Watch video of Lum on the meaning behind Bamboo Ridge
- Listen to Lee Tonouchi read his poem, Da Tree Uprising
More than 850 writers, poets and visual artists have found a home in the pages of an award-winning local literary journal called Bamboo Ridge. They represent a literary cross-section of local culture—people with diverse backgrounds, interests and perspectives who share a sense of place grounded in Hawaiʻi, writers published through a non-profit labor of love reliant on a small army of highly dedicated volunteers.
Founded in 1978 by editors Darrell Lum (BA ’72, MEd ’76, EdD ’97 Mānoa) and Eric Chock (MA ’77 Mānoa), Bamboo Ridge, Journal of Hawaiʻi Literature and Arts has from its inception existed in a sort of symbiosis with the University of Hawaiʻi.
In the late ’70s the university was in the curious position of primarily teaching traditional “dead white guys” of the literary canon (to the exclusion of minorities and women) while at the same time training local creative writers to write authentically, to write what they know, to write about Hawaiʻi.
“That was a hard lesson for me to learn,” Lum says, reflecting on his first “awful” attempts at short stories, modeled on things he’d read but never experienced. Long-time English department instructor Phil Damon (now retired) told Lum to write about the people, places and things that he knew, and Lum took it to heart.
Around the same time, Lum’s childhood friend and poet Chock was finishing his master’s degree in creative writing.
“He was writing and I was writing,” recalls Lum. “And we recognized that in our writing classes there were a lot of really good people, really talented folks, but they weren’t getting published. We thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could publish everyone that we liked, everyone that we knew.”
“And get them to subscribe,” adds Chock.
The paid subscriptions didn’t materialize. Nevertheless, there was an abundance of inspiration, talent and, perhaps most important, funding opportunities through the Hawaiʻi Literary Arts Council and the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, to get Bamboo Ridge started. Excited by what Hawaiʻi Review and other small local magazines had accomplished, they used the 1978 Talk Story conference “to get interest and attention to what we were going to do.”
The Talk Story Ethnic American Writers Conference—a seminal, grass-roots gathering organized by UH Mānoa Department of English lecturers Marie Hara (BA ’65, MA ’70 Mānoa), Arnold Hiura (BA ’73 Mānoa) and Stephen Sumida—was a key turning point in the local literature movement, or as Hara puts it, a seed from which many shoots have grown.
“The three of us were the rebels in the empire,” she recalls. “We were scolded and we were questioned and we were sort of warned—you know, you really shouldn’t be doing this kind of thing. If you want tenure, you should be working on your scholarship.”
Building on the theme Our Voices in Literature and Song, the conference pulled about 150 literary types—poets, authors, editors, journalists—together with Hawaiian and pidgin language professionals, scholars from other disciplines, playwrights and directors, songwriters and performers. Panels convened around ethnicity, language, theater, Hawaiian chant, oral history and education—all conversations that continue today in myriad ways. Another enduring aspect is live performance, including readings, screenings, musical performances and plays.
Among the participants was a large contingent of Asian American writers, mostly from the west coast of the United States. “It was sort of an awakening for us, we were similar but different,” says Lum.
Some in the visiting contingent, characterized by a more militant, overtly political style, were critical of Hawaiʻi writers for not being political enough in their work. But Lum counters, “If you read local literature and you understand local culture, you realize that the politics is always there in the writing. Might not be as obvious, there are some subtleties perhaps, but it’s there. Just the fact of using pidgin is a political statement.”
Local writers embraced pidgin in spite of the disapproval of many traditional educators. The conference proceedings anthologized the works of many participating writers. Hiura and Sumida produced a bibliography of literature not typically considered when discussing Hawaiʻi writing, including early work in pidgin, plantation stories and the like.
“A lot of local literature that we were interested in was written using pidgin as dialect and even some, a very few pieces, entirely in pidgin with the voice of the pidgin narrator,” explains Hara, “but that didn’t really happen in a sophisticated way til much later.”
“I was told in grad school not to use pidgin,” recalls Chock. “They said you could use it for comedy or in certain kinds of contexts, but it wasn’t for poetry in this academic kind of setting. So even though I was having kids write it as part of the Poets in the Schools program, and I read it in Darrell’s writing, it wasn’t til Talk Story that I started using it.”
Following the trail they blazed, a whole cadre of writers use pidgin in their writing today. Many of these writers have UH ties as alumni, educators or both.
Former Kapiʻolani Community College Instructor Lee Tonouchi (BA ’95, MA ’97 Mānoa), author of several award-winning works in and about pidgin, says his career began with Chock’s pidgin poem “Tutu on da Curb.”
“For me, dat wuz my first exposure to pidgin lit,” he writes via email. “I wuz blown away by dat poem. I wuz like ho, get guys writing in pidgin. And we studying ’em in college. Dat means you gotta be smart for study pidgin.”
Tonouchi has won several awards and been published nationally. “I wen publish dozens one pidgin poems on top da continent. And every time I send ’em out my cover lettah stay all in pidgin too. I even had one pidgin essay das about pidgin and written all in pidgin, publish insai da National Council of Teachers of English journal of composition and rhetoric, College English. How’s dat?!!”
The most well-known and successful Bamboo Ridge writers are probably Lois Ann Yamanaka (BEd ’83 Mānoa) and Nora Okja Keller, nationally published authors several times over. Keller taught for many years at Mānoa; former public school teacher Yamanaka now runs a private writing school called Naʻau.
Other UH educators who have been published by Bamboo Ridge include Mavis Hara and Lisa Linn Kanae at Kapiʻolani Community College, Juliet Kono Lee at Leeward Community College, Brenda Kwon at Honolulu Community College and Marie Hara, Ian MacMillan and Rodney Morales at UH Mānoa, to name but a few.
In the classroom
University Laboratory School English teacher Bill Teter wrote the teacher’s guide. “I really believe that kids in school have a better chance of becoming writers if they can hear and see in what they read something that strikes a familiar chord,” he says. “It engages students to want to read more, at the same time it kind of validates their experiences.”
The guide’s original materials and questions generate discussion and personal writing, he says, and students respond very positively.
The reaction of Tonouchi’s community college students to reading Bamboo Ridge materials is mixed. “Get some local students who get all thrilled for see demselfs represent in literature (like how I wuz back when I wuz one student). But den, get some local students who wondah how come we learning dis for and not studying ʻreal’ literature.
“But da reality is da whole world get all kine literatures. For my creative writing classes dat I teach, I try for expose students to one broad range of literatures for get ’em for question their old school notions of da literary canon. For lotta dem it’s one eye-opening experience.”
Bamboo Ridge may have started as a reaction against what was being taught and what wasn’t being published, but these days, Bamboo Ridge publications are listed on course syllabi, discussed in dissertations and used as high school and college textbooks. Woman- and minority-focused literature classes are de rigueur across the university system and Bamboo Ridge is featured weekly on the Hawaiʻi Public Radio production Aloha Shorts.
“Some of the criticism is that now we’ve become the canon, which is sort of bizarre to me because it went from being an outsider, which is a bad thing to be, to being a canon, which is still a bad thing,” say Lum with a sly smile. “Somehow we missed out on the middle, you know, where you build careers, sell thousands of books and get rich.”
What Bamboo Ridge may not have earned in monetary rewards, it’s certainly earned in influence and longevity. The press closes its 2008 yearlong celebration of 30 years of publishing with a huge birthday bash on the launch date of their first issue, Dec. 6, at the Hale Koa Hotel. Call 808 626-1481 for information.
Where are they now: Still editors, Lum retired after 33 years in student support services at UH Mānoa and Chock teaches English at UH West Oʻahu. Hiura has been very active in the local book and newspaper publishing community. Sumida is a professor of American ethnic studies at the University of Washington; one of his courses is Hawaiʻi’s literatures. Hara, who fought for and taught the first Asian American literature classes at Mānoa, is back in the department nurturing a new generation of writers.