Kati Erwin, PhD Candidate, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Kati E rwin is a student of postcolonial literature, focusing on language use in Polynesia for her PhD work at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She received her MA in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from Ireland’s University of Limerick and her BA in English from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Her current work is centered on cultural renaissance periods of Polynesia and the linguistically diverse literature that emerges from them. This research is in the crosscurrents of literary and cultural studies, politics, and history, engaging with a range of genres, from poetry and prose to theory, propaganda, letters, and newspaper articles. In between exploring life and literature in other corners of the world, she returns home to Kailua, Hawai‘i.


This paper offers a look at the postcolonial language issue from the vantage point of poetry in Hawai‘i. To dive into this issue, we examine two poems that have come out of the Islands since Hawai‘i’s cultural renaissance, and which deal with and deal in languages. Jamaica Osorio and Ittai Wong’s poem, “Kaona,” is analyzed first and utilizes a code switch between the Hawaiian language and English. “Baflo,” by Bradajo Hadley, composed entirely in Hawaiian Creole English, is studied next. Through these poems,
the linguistic, socio-economic, and historical environments of Hawai‘i are brought up for examination, and literal language use is compared against cultural language use. International postcolonial theorists are brought into conversation with these two texts and with the linguistic choices of their poets. Concepts such as a self-perpetuating “culture of less” and literary directionalities are discussed, as are the intersections between the words of Osorio, Wong, and Bradajo and the theories of those international writers. By this, these two poems of Hawai‘i are shown to be part of a global discussion about language use in postcolonial literature. Finally, the paper investigates how flipping the colonial center/periphery paradigm
that has existed for generations may have a real impact on the life and agency of local communities, as well as on representations of the subaltern. Ultimately, much of the discussion in this paper centers on one concept: It’s much easier to believe in change when you can see — or hear — it happening.

“Deeper than dictionaries”: Language and directionality in “Kaona” and “Baflo,” two poems of Hawai‘i

This essay takes its title from a line within Jamaica Osorio and Ittai Wong’s poem about Hawai‘i and the Hawaiian language, “Kaona”:

You had to understand the history and culture 

to decrypt this language. Had to dig deeper than dictionaries

[. . .]

to grasp the roots of the words our people would chant

just to understand their messages. (227)

Imagining the island chain of Hawai‘i, it is more often the paradise than the strife that pulls our focus: soothing ocean waves, fiery volcanoes, storytelling hula dancers. It is not often the socio-economic struggles nor the linguistic dissonance that draws the eye or ear. As a result, it has become the mission of many local authors to de-crypt their language and indeed to show the language itself to be cryptic.

In the pages that follow, I propose we address this particular area of discomfort: the postcolonial language issue in Hawai‘i. First, though, it is important to address the description of Hawai‘i as postcolonial. To some, the term “occupation” is more appropriate than “colonize” to define America’s activity in Hawai‘i over the past 150 years or so. Others would contest the use of “post” in postcolonial, using as evidence the fact that Hawai‘i is still very much under the power of the US. The state of “post”ness in describing Hawai‘i as postcolonial is an open topic for discussion, as is the differentiation between “occupation” and “colonization.” Discussions on this can and should be thoughtful and drawn out, but they are beyond the scope of this paper. For the purposes of this paper, and because it has shouldered and sustained a cultural renaissance in opposition to a colonial (or occupied) heritage, Hawai‘i is considered here to be in a postcolonial state.

To examine, then, the postcolonial language issue in Hawai‘i, we will look at two examples of poetic and political language use from these islands. The first poem, “Kaona,” by Jamaica Osorio and Ittai Wong, was first performed in competition in 2008 and utilizes a politically-charged code switch between two languages, Hawaiian and English. A linguistic departure from “Kaona” is the poem “Baflo,” by Bradajo Hadley, who is usually referred to simply as Bradajo. “Baflo” is presented in two formats — an audio recording and a reprinting of handwritten text — and is entirely in Hawaiian Creole English, better known as “Pidgin.” The poem is offered in print in the 1998 edition of Bamboo Ridge’s 20th Anniversary Issue anthology, and was released in its audio format as part of the Jus’ Talkin Story With Bradajo album in 2009.

Before entering into discussion about these texts, and in the knowledge that they highlight a history of one language being used in the suppression of others and in the oppression of the peoples and cultures of Hawai‘i, here is a facet of the story to keep in mind.

Standard English may not come out of this paper, or indeed any discussion of postcolonial language use, with a rosy tint. It, like other colonial languages, played a mammoth role in the colonizing process: The rise of English had to correlate with the downfall of local languages if the local people were to come under the power of the English-speaking newcomers in the way they did. However, the language should not be made to bear all the weight of its context of oppression without being recognized for the benefits it has brought to the Hawaiian Islands and to many countries around the world. Of great prominence in this respect is the introduction of Hawai‘i to a worldwide scope of cultural, philosophical, and economic possibilities.

We should also remember that the missionary pursuit of spreading English and Christianity brought the first printing press to the islands in 1822. Because of that, dozens of Hawaiian language newspapers came into circulation. Literary spread throughout the islands at an incredible rate. An oral culture, Hawai‘i went from virtually 0% literacy to over 90% in less than a generation. Although this might not have been possible without the voracious appetite for learning shown by the Hawaiian people, it was also largely due to the printing of educational books. These newspapers and books give us an indispensable record, a century and a half later, of Hawai‘i: a fascinating culture with a love of, and facility with, language and stories.

I say this with no intent or wish to diminish the cultural devastation wrought by colonialism, but rather to show, as seen in any hybridized space, that multiple impacts can come from a single influence. Without the drive for English, perhaps comes no printing press. And without the printing press, perhaps we are left with no records to give us insight when memories die.

“Kaona” and “Baflo” are inheritors of both the negative and positive produced in this exchange. These poems came to life during an intriguing point in Hawaiian history: the Hawaiian Renaissance, which began in the 1960s and, in some estimations, continues today. During this period, the Native Hawaiian language was elevated from its near-extinction level and began to regain strength through greater access in schools and, thereafter, through more frequent and more prominent usage throughout the state.

Pidgin, also native to the islands, gained the social traction it needed during this period to become an officially-recognized language, slowly moving away from the “second class” reputation that had dogged it since its plantation origins, and which continues to follow it today. Despite its “official” status, Pidgin continues to be seen as a bad or “broken” English. English, as per the colonial course, dominates the linguistic scene of Hawai‘i, and has done so for generations. It is in this fraught, yet daily-navigated linguistic and social environment that these poems do their work, both effecting and signaling a sea change in the relationship between Hawaiian society and the atmospheric, societal presence of language.

In this paper, I draw out the ways in which these three poets navigate the tricky issue of language in a postcolonial state, using their chosen language or languages in a way that breaks through the heritage of a “culture of less,” creating a shift in the directionality of Hawai‘i’s literature. To do this, I will focus specifically on how the poets use language — both literal language and cultural language  — and on what bearing that use may have on the readership and the communities belonging to those languages.

Further, this paper will explore the contributions of these poems to the international dialogue on postcolonial language use. This particular endeavor is undertaken with the help of illustrious friends, postcolonial theorists from around the world. Although “Kaona” and “Baflo” engage with language in separate ways, they both illuminate the local-language literature of Hawai‘i as a rich cache worthy of study. It is because of this richness that these poems can be held up and examined in relation to more theoretical postcolonial texts.

The languages of the texts: “I place my hope on the water”

The title of the first poem, “Kaona,” is a word that itself means the enfolding of meaning within text and even within a single word. It is, as the poem tells us, “speaking of flowers but meaning children” (227). The line itself refers to the coded language used to transmit messages to Hawai‘i’s last reigning queen, Queen Lili‘uokalani. “Flower” is “pua,” and kaona allows us, in speaking of pua, to speak of a child or children. But not just children: children of Hawai‘i; children who are not only tied to the land, but genetically related to the land; children who would not exist without the land; children who will therefore defend the land and their queen (whose kingdom was taken from her by U.S.-backed American businessmen).

The poem is written in code switching format, where the author shifts from one language to another. This may produce a disruptive read for the individual unaccustomed to the two languages sharing a space, but, disruptive as it may feel for some readers, for others it is a normalized mode of communication. Hopping from English to Hawaiian, both the content of the text and the languages in which it is expressed deal explicitly with the historic tension between these languages. The poem elevates the rebellious and poetic history of the Hawaiian language, citing the ineluctably bonded nature of history, culture, and language.

Significantly, this poem was performed aloud and onstage in 2008 for Brave New Voices, an international youth slam poetry competition, despite its marked inclusion of the Hawaiian language. The likelihood of mainland American audience members in Washington, DC, knowing the Hawaiian language is extraordinarily low. Even if they did, “Kaona” insists that it wouldn’t be enough. Recall the quote from which this essay gets its title: “You had to understand the history and culture / to decrypt this language. Had to dig deeper than dictionaries” (227).

The performance of “Kaona” by students from Hawai‘i in the American capital is, on its own, remarkable. Even more so when we consider the contradictory statements the poem seems to make about language. It is a poem that, largely in English, decries the colonial violence of English. It was performed for a predominantly English-speaking audience despite its minor, albeit strong, inclusion of Hawaiian. A good deal of that audience was never going to — was never even supposed to — understand all the words, and yet English and that powerful American venue gave the performers’ voices a greater reach. Perhaps, though, that is part of the character of a postcolonial, political, code-switching text. It is meant to be uncomfortable. It recalls a violent linguistic heritage and shows a linguistic present in which both the speaker and the listener experience struggle. For whom, then, is the discomfort? For both performer and audience.

Chicana author Gloria Anzaldúa drives home the point of this linguistic discomfort in Borderlands: The New Mestiza—La Frontiera:

Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity [. . .]. Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate [. . .] and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate. (81)

This sense of illegitimacy has lasting repercussions. Perhaps one of the worst is that it leads to decay. “Kaona” tells us that “with every word lost, / we lose a piece of ourselves” (229). “Kaona” does, however, enunciate that profound state of being, that fundamental power of the Hawaiian language, in English, to an English-speaking audience. For its purposes — that is, in order to be heard by its international and English-speaking audience — the poem must be expressed, at least partly, in English, and the poem itself explains why.

There is more to this equation than just the speaker’s expression, as the poem makes clear:

So listen to me

           So listen to me

                     So listen to me

                                 So listen to me

Listen to me.

Existence persist as long as we have language

if we cannot communicate with earch other, we cannot survive. (229)

It is, according to these lines, not just the act of speaking that is important. The poem implies that communication relies on more than the presence of a speaker; it requires a listener. The stories cannot just be told; they must be heard, transmitted from the speaker to the listener.

Part of the aim of this paper is to view these two poems, which originate on a small island chain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in relation to texts around the world that wrestle with the postcolonial language issue. One such “international cousin” comes from Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill: her aptly-named poem, “Ceist na Teangan/The Language Issue.” Ní Dhomhnaill’s poetry, written in Irish, is then translated by other writers into English, and so it becomes available to a wider readership. In this poem, she describes putting her metaphorical boat (language) on the water (out into the world where it might be heard) to protect the language, but also to perpetuate it. “I place my hope on the water”, she explains, “in this little boat / of the language [. . .] / only to have it born hither and thither, / not knowing where it might end up” (155). Similar to the demand for a listenership readers find in “Kaona,” Ní Dhomhnaill expresses the need for Irish not only to be spoken, but to be heard — a need so important that it becomes worthwhile to set out into an uncertain world something so precious as a hope for strengthening a culture. It might float away, undiscovered and unheard, but it may also find its way to refuge: “in the lap, perhaps, / of some Pharaoh’s daughter” (155).

 Although Ní Dhomhnaill can speak and write in English as well, she chooses to write her poetry in Irish. In the way Ní Dhomhnaill champions the Irish language, readers can see a strong connection to the use of Hawaiian in “Kaona.” In twentieth-century Hawai‘i, the Hawaiian language was in acute danger of extinction due to the force, primacy, and political power of English and its speakers. As happened with the Irish language, the older generations did not pass Hawaiian on to the younger generation. It is largely thanks to measures taken by people like Osorio and Wong in Hawai‘i and Ní Dhomhnaill in Ireland who perpetuate these languages, both in and out of the literary arena, that they have regained their strength.

The languages of the texts: “linguistic nightmare”

Shifting between a heavy reliance on English and a frequent but minority inclusion of Hawaiian, “Kaona” interweaves historic memory and the passion of our political present. Reaching the national level of the slam poetry competition it was presented at, the Hawai‘i-based poem managed to have a pull on the mainland American audience — one that, it is safe to presume, had a limited awareness of the imperial history of America in Hawai‘i. Simultaneously, however, the poem’s use of Hawaiian, a language unfamiliar to most of the “non-local” (not local to Hawai‘i) audience, also keeps cultural outsiders from a full realization of the text.

The code switching is, in its own way, necessary and semi-natural, a sentiment deepened by Gloria Anzaldúa’s statement on “twin skin” (81). It is, however, unsteady ground for the cultural outsider. “We are your linguistic nightmare,” Anzaldúa says of her own linguistic life. “[We are] your linguistic aberration, your linguistic mestizaje, the subject of your burla” (80). The many versions, editions, or varied iterations of Spanish and English, she says, are prohibitive for the English-speaking monoglot.

The linguistic duality in “Kaona” contrasts with a single-language mode of “Baflo.” Socially stigmatized through its de facto second-class origins in plantation-era Hawai‘i, Pidgin has a champion in poet Bradajo Hadley, whose work aligns closely with values expressed by Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, values such as the preservation and affirmation of indigenous languages. In Ngũgĩ’s words from Decolonising the Mind, “Language carries culture, and culture carries [. . .] the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world” (16). The trouble is, many Pidgin speakers still regard the language as “broken English.” Decades of stigma and oppression have convinced Hawai‘i’s people of Pidgin’s illegitimacy. How can it possibly be regarded as carrying culture if it cannot even be understood and accepted by its own speakers as a real and legitimate language?

Bradajo’s monolingually Pidgin “Baflo,” on the other hand, takes this language, ubiquitous in Hawai‘i, and allows it to carry the weight of its culture. He makes no concessions for the non-Pidgin-speaking audience. He utilizes no other language to give voice to the cultural experience of his poem.

Bradajo takes this emphasis on Pidgin a step further, making the poem available both in recorded audio and in image form, where the poems are visible as handwritten text on lined paper. It is common for poetry to be available in print, and by offering his poetry in in this form, Bradajo takes advantage of this convention, but Pidgin was never a language of print to the extent that English is. In fact, to this day there is no single accepted standard for the spelling of words in Pidgin. A cursory glance at the handwritten version of “Baflo” makes it clear that decoding the writing is a job unto itself. Words are not separated, spelling is not clear, and letters do not always look like how many are taught to form them in school.

These first few lines of “Baflo” can be transcribed as:

yuno hueez dat no

ba flo

daha wyn lyf gaad

makaha. (70)

Translated into a more generally accepted form of Pidgin, the poem would read:

You know who is dat, no?


da hawaiian lifeguard


Writing in such a way teases apart the traditional Western love of the written word, reminding us instead of the pre-contact oral traditions of the islands. Simultaneously though, the poem utilizes the medium of writing, foreign to Hawai‘i until Western contact in the late 1700s. In addition to being written in a hybrid (creole) language, this is, structurally speaking, a hybrid text, found in the pages of a book as well as in audible format. Influence and allegiance are convoluted in this poem’s presentation, as they are in Hawai‘i’s linguistic history. True to its creole genesis, nothing is unalloyed.

The languages of the texts: “they had never imagined their world was significant enough”

Once readers have worked their way through to the literal language — the actual words — in the text, they can deal with the cultural language used in this poem. Relationships, landmarks, and history take precedence and are all mentioned in a fairly forthright manner. One vital reference that might easily be passed over by a non-local reader, though, is the figure of the waterman, represented here by the main character of the poem, Baflo himself. He is the lifeguard Bradajo speaks of in the first lines of the poem, and is defined more by what he does not do (“he no say nahting, baflo” [76] ) than by what he does or what he looks like; readers only know that “he’s one big Hawaiian” (70).

Readers also discover that he fits the bill for a Hawaiian waterman. “Waterman” in Hawai‘i is an epithet of great distinction. Watermen (and waterwomen) have been Olympians and community icons, just as they have been lifeguards, surfers, and paddlers. They are honored for their skill and their positive influence in their communities, and, often, for their humility. This last characteristic is why the Baflo’s silence, implied in the repeated phrase of “he no say nahting,” has so much gravity. In the poem, Baflo’s mold is being taken to create a statue of him that will be placed in front of a library, yet he is silent. He stays in the background during the statue’s unveiling, humble, and, presumably, more than a little uncomfortable with all this attention. Readers raised in Hawaiian ocean culture are likely to already be familiar with the figure of the waterman. Individuals coming from outside this culture who do not investigate further are prone to miss the key symbolism of this figure and the history attached to him. Missing this, they are unlikely to have more than a superficial reading of the poem. Cultural language, therefore, is on equal footing with literal language when it comes to uncovering the text.

Finally, we must unpack the significance of Bradajo choice to write in Pidgin at all. The prevailing sentiment surrounding Pidgin, a remnant of the language’s “second-class” plantation origins, has traditionally been negative, with the understanding being that it is lazy speech, utilized by those who could not or would not move up in the world. If a Pidgin speaker also had a command of English, Pidgin was a language exercised outside of the professional and academic arenas. Poet Lee Tonouchi of Hawai‘i, commonly known as Da Pidgin Guerrilla, deals with the low esteem in which Pidgin is held in Hawai‘i in his book, Living Pidgin:

Dey say if you talk Pidgin you no can…

be smart

be important

be successful

be professional

be taken seriously. (11)

The sentiment that solidifies the negative atmosphere Pidgin lives in is articulated in a single line from a 1947 Honolulu Star Bulletin article about the inexcusable nature of Pidgin: “unless a person can speak well, he cannot think well” (as cited in Kanae, 41). But the question remains: In which language? The ancestral mother tongue? It became foreign when generations were brought up under powerful influences and/or away from the ancestral country. The just-out-of-reach colonial standard? Or could the language you speak well be the “broken” language you were raised with? This, I think, encapsulates the issue of the stigmatization of a language against its colonial alternative: The question of doing something “well” is specifically tuned to only accept the colonial answer. The only answer to “in what language is the person speaking and thinking well?” is English.

Bradajo, however, carries on a new model of writing in Hawai‘i, one that reaches back to the cultural renaissance begun in the 1960s. He and many others choose to write in Pidgin, helping to change the narrative surrounding the language, giving his audience reasons to delve deeper into a poem (like “Baflo”) that seems to be about a shy lifeguard By making it a more pronounced part of local literature, these writers also pave the way for more acceptance by the public and inclusion of the language as a vessel for literature. After all, it is much easier to believe in change when one can see — or hear — it happening.

What is remarkable about Bradajo’s work is that, through the use of literal language (Pidgin) and cultural language (the figure of the waterman, for example), this poet deliberately favors the local audience and requires extra effort from an outside audience. Further, he meddles with readers’ reliance on written text, forcing them to devote extra time to his poem in the decoding process. The alternative is the audible version, reminiscent of more traditional means of communication and knowledge transmission in Hawai‘i. The poem’s greatest value may be at “ground level,” however: It contributes to the growing chorus of Pidgin-positive voices in literature. As fellow Pidgin author Lisa Linn Kanae writes in her book, Sista Tongue,

When local Hawai‘i students hear the rhythms of their own voices in their own literature, they are pleasantly shocked. It is as if they had never imagined their world was significant enough to be in the pages of a book. (60)

Even in the minds of its own speakers, the language is not significant enough for publication, let alone significant enough to be studied. This is how “Baflo” creates resonance in Tonouchi’s statement that those who speak Pidgin are unable to be “be taken seriously” (11). The decoding of Bradajo’s poetry is a complex process, and the content — a quiet ode to the character of the waterman, wrapped up in commentary on internal social conflict — deserves to be taken seriously. It has much to say about the state of Hawai‘i’s society, and a good deal to say about American, or perhaps even global, influences as well. Unpacking this poem, as we do for poems from the Western world and beyond, is a worthwhile endeavor.

For “Baflo,” the vocalization of the postcolonial happens on three fronts: the application of unstandardized, handwritten text; the use of Pidgin language; and the employment of landmarks and characters as political and social text. The poem cannot be understood without accessing these three fronts. Without taking the time to decode the handwritten poem first, all readers might see is chicken scratch. Without understanding the Pidgin, readers only have letters strung together like words. Finally, if readers understand the words but do not understand the cultural language, the poem is dry and superficial. In answer to Tonouchi, this poem declares: “No. Pidgin and its speakers can and should be taken seriously.”

A culture of less

As Jacques Derrida stated in the opening of his Monolingualism of the Other, “The monolingualism in which I draw my very breath is, for me, my element. Not a natural element, not the transparency of the ether, but an absolute habitat” (1). If the atmospheric habitat of language in “Kaona” is dynamic and determinedly unconcealed, the presence of Pidgin in “Baflo” serves to cloud the vision of non-local readers, restricting their access to a full comprehension of the poem.

By engaging with these poems, readers have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the complex linguistic environment of the history of Hawai‘i’s languages. Here, Hawaiian and English share a tense co-existence and Pidgin is considered a broken linguistic, not a language or a legitimate cultural symbol. Comprehension of these socio-economic and historical relationships will allow an understanding of the “culture of less” that these two poems have emerged from. That is, they rise out of a culture of knowing that your language, traditions, history, religion, and perhaps even your own family are/were considered to be — or simply are — less important, less bound for success, less correct, less acceptable than the powerful (colonial) alternative. The use of the word “culture” in this context is metaphorical. The culture of less does not supplant a living culture, but rather it acts as a difficult-to-shake parasite on that living culture and on virtually everything associated with that culture.

The following quote from Anzaldúa opens for us a discussion of a culture of less, which can be found where the indigenous language has been supplanted by a colonial power, and which seems to occupy the air in which Pidgin is spoken.

Chicanas who grew up speaking Chicano Spanish have internalized the belief that we speak poor Spanish. It is illegitimate, a bastard language. [. . .] Chicana feminists often skirt around each other with suspicion and hesitation. For the longest time I couldn’t figure it out. Then it dawned on me. To be close to another Chicana is like looking into the mirror. We are afraid of what we’ll see there. Pena. Shame. Low estimation of self. In childhood we are told that our language is wrong. Repeated attacks on our native tongue diminish our sense of self. (80)

Anzaldúa articulates in her book Borderlands the shame associated with Chicano speech, a linguistic that, despite posessing a different history than Pidgin or Hawaiian, is linked to Hawai‘i’s languages by the steadfast tint of oppression.

Indoctrinated with the understanding that her language is less than deserving of pride, Anzaldúa experiences and shares with her community a sense of shame in their “bastard language”, which projects from her mouth, and, more significantly, fills her mind. Osorio and Wong remind us of a time in the not-so-distant past when “our freedom of speech was denied / and words needed to be hidden in order to be heard” (228) in Hawai‘i. The Hawaiian language was less than allowable.

Even today, Bradajo’s language of choice, Pidgin, is known as “broken English,” something not capable of carrying a culture of value. It is less than a language. Speaking of the Hawaiian people, the narrator of “Baflo” tells us, “he get hard time / fo be natural” (71). This struggle is a direct result of Western influences, like freeways, shopping centers, and an imposed assumption of shame. “[D]at stuff / heavy, ah? / on top da hawaiian” (72). This is the inheritance of colonialism; but more specifically, it is an internalized colonialism — one that is maintained by the colonized or oppressed people themselves.

The culture of less is a fingerprint of that internalized colonialism, and can be found in postcolonial texts around the globe. Of particular relevance here is another Pacific text, Patricia Grace’s novel Potiki. In it, family leader Hemi explains how the history of colonization has affected Māori families. Hemi explains:

Funny how you came to see yourself in the mould that others put you in, and how you began not to believe in yourself. You began to believe that you should hide away in the old seaweed like a sand flea and that all you could do when disturbed was hop about and hope you wouldn’t get stood on. But of course you did get stood on. (65)

There is much to be said in favor of working against the sand flea mentality, as with a peaceful protest, and in favor of working for the re-valuing of indigenous languages and culture, as seen in many postcolonial cultural renaissances. However, it is also important to resist the reactionary extremes of “sand flea backlash,” if you will, and to give consideration to the benefits and value of all language, as mentioned in an earlier section of this paper.

Up to now, this paper has focused on an internal analysis of “Kaona” and “Baflo”and has begun to draw them into a global postcolonial conversation. We’ve seen the attention the texts bring to the history and the present of Hawaiian, English, and Pidgin in Hawai‘i, to the importance of both literal and cultural language, and to the culture of less. We’ve seen the texts reflect the way postcolonial languages can function in a state of shame and within the sand flea mentality. Next, I will consider the beyond-the-page effects of the ways in which languages are put to use in “Kaona” and “Baflo,” and how those uses might be interpreted within postcolonial theory.

The decision to switch between Hawaiian and English by Osorio and Wong, and the decision by Bradajo to carry the entire weight of his poem via the Pidgin language, opens these poems up to a wide scope of interpretations, a small selection of which are a focal point in this paper. Particularly, the linguistic choices made in these poems speak to a societal change in Hawai‘i — as in other postcolonial and historically oppressed states — of directionality: the reorientation of an oppressed language and culture from “object” status to “subject” status. The new directionality demonstrated in “Kaona” and “Baflo” marks a significant change in the postcolonial environments of language and literature. It is a change of mindset and one of accountability.


The provision of language as a marker of social hierarchy in literature is a phenomenon found all around the globe, the evidence of it in this paper being only a drop in the ocean of what can be found in the wide world of writing. Because of the great scope of this phenomenon of language as a social marker, and because of the generations of scholars who study facets of  “the language issue,” today we have a wealth of perspectives on the value of local language. These languages are used in a myriad of ways and are called by many names — indigenous or mother tongue, creole or vernacular, hybrid, mestiza, new English, etc. — and, for all their differences, they all share a particular kind of power as a link between a people and their stories, their history.

One of the first theorists who comes to mind when analyzing the use of an indigenous language — even a distinctly hybrid language like Pidgin — is Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, proponent of indigenous language use. Of particular value in understanding Bradajo’s Pidgin poetry is Ngũgĩ’s belief that “a specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history” (Decolonising the Mind, 15).

Here, Ngũgĩ undermines the power of universality — one of the highlights of colonial languages like English — in favor of specificity. It is specificity, he claims, that ties together a language, history, and culture. It is the specificity of the cultural symbol of the waterman that gives “Baflo” a powerful resonance with the Pidgin-literate (and therefore probably local to Hawai‘i) audience. By employing language in this way, authors like Bradajo simultaneously bolster their work and their culture. The greater the public awareness such advocates can garner, the bigger the impact their writing (read: linguistic choices) can have on local self-image.

Reading within this framework of language’s valuation and specificity, and armed with an understanding of the culture of less from which “Kaona” and “Baflo” emerge, readers can examine how these poems work against the sand flea mentality to create their own directionality.

So just what do I mean by this term? When I speak of the directionality of the text, I mean its trajectory towards an audience. This trajectory is theoretical, and may change from theorist to theorist; it is dependent on the reader’s point of view.

It helps me to imagine an arrow flying from a bow (the book itself) to a target (its readers). The idea of a target or “ideal” audience will be familiar to students of literature, but in a postcolonial context it has special bearing. This is because the ability to choose a target, and especially to choose one’s own community as the target, indicates an authorial agency that was not, in the clutches of colonialism, easy to come by.

Literature classes in many of Hawai‘i’s schools tend to highlight American and European “classics” at the expense of local writing. This disparity offers us an example of the direction the text takes, as opposed to its directionality.  Although Shakespeare in all likelihood never intended for his plays to be thought over by teenagers in Hawai‘i, the plays have, indeed, been taken in that direction. Far more of Hawai‘i’s students will have read Shakespeare than will have read authors who can speak to the particular and daily-lived experiences of Hawai‘i. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explained her own experience with this kind of education during her 2009 TED Talk about what she calls “the danger of the single story” (“The Danger of a Single Story”, 00:00:10):

[W]hen I began to write, at about the age of seven [. . .] I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed. They played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. (00:00:39–00:01:04)

Seven-year-old Adichie had only ever lived in Nigeria, where sun and mangoes were on the forecast more than snow and apples. And yet, because she was growing up with American and British books, those were part of the cast of characters living in her mind.

Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very natures had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify. (00:01:42–00:01:56)

With the discovery of African books by African writers like fellow Nigerian Chinua Achebe, Adichie’s world changed. She explained that she “realized that people like me [. . .] could also exist in literature” (00:02:12–00:02:23), a statement strikingly reminiscent of Kanae’s words in Sista Tongue: “It is as if they had never imagined their world was significant enough to be in the pages of a book” (60). Growing up with British and American books in Nigeria, Adichie was prone to be caught in the trap of reading greater value into the stories, into the characters, and into the voices that were made readily available to her than into the ones that were not. The same is true for children and adults alike from all over the colonized world, including Hawai‘i.

When the cultural and literal languages of authors like Achebe, for Adichie, and Bradajo, for students of Hawai‘i, are intelligible specifically to readers with local knowledge, it is as though a member of their community is speaking up for the value of that community. That is a powerful kind of directionality. The directionality of these texts is from the local to the local, signifying that the literature is most proximally an intracommunal one, travelling from “in” to “in.” To use the arrow analogy, the arrow lands right where it began. Achebe’s words were meant to reach readers like the young Adichie, and “Baflo” was meant to reach Hawai‘i’s readers. They set an example that will allow readers to value places, languages, and experiences with which they can, as Adichie herself says, “personally identify” (00:01:56).

The notable historical absence of local literature in postcolonial states leaves young readers with a far greater opportunity to understand texts that originate from outside their immediate experience than those that come from a place closer to home. This often leads to the subtextual or assumed undervaluing of local literature: “We won’t be covering writers from Hawai‘i in our class,” this non-action seems to say, “because novels and poetry from Hawai‘i are less important than those from mainland America or Europe.”

This situation leaves the impression that, as residents, writers, readers, and speakers of Hawai‘i, we are more worthy of being spectators than participants on the world stage. What writers like Osorio, Wong, and Bradajo have done is shine a light, through literature, on their own local culture. They’ve pulled it up for examination — specifically, they’ve made the marginalized language, history, and culture accessible to local readers. Simply put, it is clear that the arrow of intent is aimed at a local audience. Although the matter is more complicated than that, and will be discussed further, this simple view of an in-to-in postcolonial directionality is really quite significant.

And what evidence do the authors give us to discern this directionality? As previously explained, “Baflo” involves language and cultural references that are specific to Hawai‘i — the poem in every respect centers itself in Hawai‘i. This suggests an in-to-in directionality. Bradajo shoots the arrow from a place of local embeddedness and understanding…

that arrow leaves the bow, swings back…

and lands on an audience that is embedded in that same understanding.

He intends for a local audience to, in Kanae’s words, “hear the rhythms of their own voices” (60). Rather than being voiceless or an object to be looked upon by others, Pidgin has become a validated, spoken-for subject. It now has agency This is an important shift from the sand flea mentality, as incorporates the re-centering(to use Ngũgĩ’s term from Moving the Centre)of the world. The center is now Hawai‘i; the outside world becomes peripheral.

In “Kaona,” there are two clear directionalities evidenced in the text, both linked to the languages of the poem. By utilizing Hawaiian as well as English, the poem privileges an audience with that particular bilingualism. Additionally, the pain and the urgency that come through in the reading and the listening of the poem are likely to speak more directly to an audience that lives within the atmosphere of historical tension between Hawai‘i and the government of the United States. This would appear, then, to be textbook “in-to-in” directionality.

It is. And yet, that is not the whole story.

It is a calculated balance. The text brings local readers close, via local language and knowledge, but it keeps access open to the outside reader (the cultural Other) too. Much more than half of the poem is in English, after all, and much of the Hawaiian language is glossed in some form. This is in-to-out directionality, the local text establishing itself as the center but reaching out to the peripheral world.

Why might Osorio and Wong choose to drive the text forward in this way, validating a local audience and simultaneously extending a nod of invitation to an outside one? In “On Reading Grace’s Potiki,” Eva Rask Knudsen suggests that code switching can in fact be targeted to engage the “outsider” audience. Such a text leaves an invitation to that reader, providing a navigable pathway of English, but will not carry the outsider through the threshold of the house of knowledge contained in the text. If the Other is up to the challenge of trailblazing through the language and culture barriers, they may earn the right to a richer understanding of the text. That, Knudsen claims, will give the non-local reader insight they would have been denied had they rested on their “first impressions” (8) alone. The arrow can indeed intentionally fly from the center, Hawai‘i, to the periphery, the outside (Western) world. Directionality can, therefore, be from in to out at the same time it is in-to-in.

Understanding this, it is worth revisiting the earlier statement about the directionality of “Baflo.” Although “Baflo” does not utilize Standard English, its creole has a strong enough English-language influence that it too can be seen as inviting an outside audience. In the right light, it too becomes a proving ground for the committed reader, though perhaps not to the same degree as “Kaona.”

Beyond “hard time fo be natural”: Flipping the paradigm

By directing their work at a local audience, these writers are taking what was marginal and making it center. This center/periphery paradigm, the paradigm that engendered the shame Anzaldúa speaks of and the confusion Adichie experienced, is flipped from its colonial origins. They have taken the “hard time / fo be natural” (71) Bradajo describes, which is part of the experience of living within the culture of shame, and they have used the literal and cultural language of their home to push on that reality.

The result of that push is a revelation — and celebration — within literature of the natural state of Hawai‘i’s languages and cultures. This is not to say that the work is unavailable to the outside, non-local reader, but that reader has become the Other, relegated to the periphery and therefore not privileged as an audience. It’s beyond the scope of this paper, but I’d also argue that this flipped paradigm has the potential to Other a local audience too, forcing it to recognize itself in all its conflicted glory.

The non-privileged, outsider audience, as a result of this re-centering, has to do more “legwork” than does the insider audience if they are to come to a thorough and rich understanding of the text. The bilingual, and therefore English-accessible, nature of “Kaona” and the English influence of Bradajo’s creole give these poems the ability to reach both audiences: local and foreign. They extend from their center, Hawai‘i, to the periphery, the outside world, and at the same time they lend powerful voices of self-representation intended to reach a local audience.

It is important to note that although there exists an in-to-out directionality, with the poems making themselves accessible to an outside audience, the weight of these texts is directed inward: from the local to the local. They invite that local audience to look at characters that sound and look and behave like themselves: living in that linguistic environment of Pidgin, Hawaiian, and English.

Beyond simply showing readers familiar characters, these two poems promote re-centering by showing local language and culture in positive lights. The texts tell us that, as discussed earlier with “Baflo,” these people, languages, and culture and this history are worthy of study. And they shouldbe studied, particularly for the change they enact in the socio-linguistic environment of Hawai‘i and for the significance of their directionalities.

By working within their local language, especially alongside the powerhouse of English, writers like Osorio, Wong, and Bradajo put themselves in a position to draw attention to their languages — both the literal languages (Pidgin, Hawaiian, etc.) and the cultural language (historical background and symbolism). They assume an accountability to their own communities for the revitalization and revaluation of their linguistic and cultural communities. In a postcolonial state, in-to-in directionality as it is described here is made possible by this kind of accountability and action on the part of local writers. They are the only ones with the specific tools to create that directionality. They also take on a responsibility of representation to the world at large when they offer an in-to-out directionality.

That twinned directionality, moving perpetually and concurrently from in-to-in and from in-to-out, seems to have enough power to counteract some of the longstanding trouble regarding representations of the subaltern. Using the new directionalities and the flipped paradigm they represent, these writers and their international kindred have the potential to create texts that leave subalternity behind. They support the community’s ability to re-center itself, to transition from being the periphery to being their own center.

What an extraordinary societal change that could be. When the subaltern can hear itself, after all — and when it is internally encouraged to listen — the problem of whether it can speak, as famously expressed by Gayatri Spivak, can perhaps be soothed. The hierarchy established through a history of colonialism can never be erased, but it can be disregarded (the hierarchy, not the history). The state of subalternity (literally, “below every other”) can in theory be shed when a new paradigm is taken up, one that rehomes the concepts of center, periphery, subject, and object.

The silencing of voices and of language was a valuable instrument in establishing and perpetuating colonial power; that silencing continued generationally when parents taught children that Pidgin was a broken English and when the Hawaiian language died in homes because English was the way to a better life. Writers like Osorio, Wong, and Bradajo, and indeed most of the writers mentioned here, reverse those silences, casting their “boat” of language, to use Ní Dhomhnaill’s terminology, out into their community with the hope that it will be heard, recognized, listened to, and supported.

In “Kaona,” readers are told that “He mana ko ka leo, a ina aohe leo aohe ola / without language, we have nothing” (229). Beyond the need for language, these poems seem to argue that there is the need for language’s expression: for Pidgin to be accepted as poetry and for Hawaiian to share the halls of the nation’s capital with English. That expression, that valuation of Hawai‘i’s own linguistic, historical, and cultural environments, needs then to be heard by Hawai‘i’s own speakers for it to serve positively as an affirmation of linguistic, historical, and cultural identity. The more it is shared in this way, the better chance the center, re-centered and revalued, has of holding firm.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story | TED Talk, TED, 2009, www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript#t-9501.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands: The New Mestiza—La Frontiera. 2nd ed., San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999.

Bradajo. “Baflo.” Bamboo Ridge: 20th Anniversary Issue, edited by Eric Chock and Darrell H. Y. Lum, Bamboo Ridge Press, Spring 1998. pp. 70–76.

Derrida, Jacques. Monolingualism of the Other; Or, The Prosthesis of Origin. Stanford University Press, 1998.

Grace, Patricia. Potiki. University of Hawai‘i Press, 1995.

Kanae, Lisa Linn. Sista Tongue. Tinfish Press, 2001.

Knudsen, Eva Rask. “On Reading Grace’s Potiki.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, vol. 13, no. 2, 2011, http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol13/iss2/. Accessed 25 March, 2016.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Nairobi: East African Publishers Ltd, 1986.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. James Currey, 1993.

Ní Dhomhnaill, Nuala. “The Language Issue.” The Pharaoh’s Daughter. Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest UP, 1993. 155. Print.

Osorio, Jamaica, and Ittai Wong. “Kaona.” pai nā Leo, edited by Bill Teter, Curriculum Research & Development Group, University of Hawai‘i, 2010, pp. 227–229.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Can the Subaltern Speak? Macmillan, 1988.

Tonouchi, Lee. “Dey Say if You Talk Pidgin You No Can…” Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture. Tinfish Press, 2009, pp. 10–16.

[1] My translation. From here on, I will provide my translation of the text of “Baflo,” changed to an arguably more generally accepted version of Pidgin spelling. Punctuation will also be included as it is suggested by the audio version of the poem.