Rolling the R’s is near to me personally and professionally as someone born and raised on O‘ahu and currently in the midst of writing a dissertation on the literatures of Hawai‘i and Pidgin. In the so-called “melting pot”—or as R. Zamora Linmark would say, “volcano”—of Hawai‘i’s multi-ethnic communities, the aim of my dissertation has been to explore Pidgin’s role in counter-cultural manifestations to U.S. imperialism in the Pacific. In this short piece, I want to highlight some flashpoints of the history of Hawai‘i Pidgin to contextualize the power of Linmark’s novel and what Rolling the R’s has done to intervene in the usual representation of Hawai‘i as America’s fiftieth state.
As most people discover reading the novel, Pidgin, also known as Hawai‘i Creole English by linguists, is the local language of Hawai‘i. Hawaiian language is the indigenous language, but was banned in schools in 1896, a few years after the Kingdom of Hawai‘i was overthrown by white American businessmen interested in expanding sugar industry profits. English was the language taught in schools, and children who spoke Hawaiian were punished. By the latter half of the twentieth century, few people spoke the Hawaiian language fluently.
The early part of the twentieth century, however, also had the largest influx of imported labor to Hawai‘i to work in the sugar plantations. Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Korean, Filipino, and smaller numbers of Norwegians and Pacific Islanders worked with Native Hawaiians for mostly white Americans. All of the languages these people spoke clashed and mixed in plantation life and created a “pidgin”—mixed vocabulary and sentences used for trade. It wasn’t a full-fledged language. However, when the children of these laborers began to speak it as their native language, with its own grammatical structure and syntax, this “pidgin” became a creole—a new language created from the movements and mixtures of American imperialism.
Since most of the people who spoke this language were non-white, and many of the children in schools were of Asian descent during a time of “yellow peril,” the white missionaries and businessmen who settled in Hawai‘i deemed it threatening to their political hegemony in the islands. They created the English Standard Schools in the 1920s. Students had to pass an English test to get into these schools, which meant that mostly white children passed the test, and the Territory had a way to racially segregate children. While this was later abolished, in the 1980s the Board of Education had a series of hearings to determine whether or not to ban Pidgin in classrooms. Anyone who spoke Pidgin was stigmatized as having inferior, “broken English,” which carried with it the stereotypes of low intelligence and culture.
Most people in Hawai‘i still call this language “Pidgin,” with a capital “P.” It’s still used in everyday life and has been popularized by a sense of local pride. In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau recognized Pidgin as one of the major languages spoken by residents of Hawai‘i, with Tagalog and Ilocano coming at the top of the list. While Pidgin isn’t taught in schools, it is nevertheless very present. In 2010, University of Hawai‘i researchers put together “A Teacher’s Guide” for Pidgin, and in the introductory letter, Jeffrey Moniz writes that “Pidgin not only one language; ees da way plenny peepo in Hawai‘i tink. Ees one vital form of expression” (4). Moniz explains how Pidgin works: it is an elegant language, he says, a language “so concise, so succinct, dat it’s ingeniously simple. Dis is da gift of Pidgin…That elegance of thinking, which strips away all da bushit, all da pretense of trying fo sound hybolic” (4). Pidgin, in a sense, gets rid of the bullshit of fancy English, an important factor when thinking about how English law and policy has given so much trouble to Native Hawaiians and immigrants to Hawai‘i and the continental U.S.
Rolling the R’s embodies this notion of stripping away pretense. Pidgin plays a highly subversive role that exposes the oppressive structures of imperialism, especially in its intersections with tourism, education, and sexuality. Pidgin is the main language of the fifth graders in the story, and anyone who doesn’t speak or know Pidgin and by extension, the vitality of Hawai‘i culture, is marked as an outsider. Stephen, a white classmate, wants to refuse the word “haole” but Katrina responds with: a “Caucasian is a haole is a haole is a Caucasian” (69). Stephen doesn’t understand that in the formation of racial politics in Hawai‘i, anyone white is haole and automatically an outsider, and Katrina reminds him of this reality he doesn’t want to face. Elsewhere Rolling’s protagonists comment on tourists, diagnosing them with “Asthmatic Otraphobia” (108). The tourists can’t handle being surrounded by locals, by the working hands of labor the tourists don’t usually see. These tourists are the outsiders to a local culture that values the roots of Pidgin’s origin, the working class labor reminiscent of plantation labor. The only thing that has changed is that the people of Hawai‘i are laboring for the white settlers and the tourists instead of the white sugar businessmen, which Noel Kent calls the new plantation society of tourism (140). In another example, Ferdinand the “protector of Summer Theatres” (100) is depicted as a “colonial colon” when he talks out of his ass to bestow the adolescents with condescending, missionary-like benevolence. In this sense, Pidgin reveals the race and class dimensions that separate outsiders from the people that live, work, and build community in Hawai‘i.
The fluid, playful, and queer way that the protagonists, some of them immigrants, use language also makes obvious sites of historical erasure under assimilation into the United States. Vicente, Florante, and Mai-Lan receive extra English lessons from Ms. Takara, and in their description of these lessons, link their experience to Hawai‘i’s history and Pidgin. Florante thinks Ms. Takara’s “American upbringing has blinded her from reading between the lines of the history textbooks where silenced people choke from invisibility and humiliation” (48), while Mai-Lan thinks “no need to think American to speak English because, to Mai-Lan, language is not words, but rhythms and sounds” (49). Florante points to both Filipino and Hawai‘i history, and Mai-Lan points to both Vietnamese and Pidgin as rhythmic languages. As these characters align themselves with a Pidgin-ized identity or form community with their Pidgin-speaking peers, the immigrant students are constantly scolded for hanging out with Edgar and Katrina, the local students because their Pidgin language and behavior are bad influences. The teachers try to separate the immigrant and local students, but Vicente, Florante, and Mai-Lan make Hawai‘i their home, accepting Pidgin (its speakers, culture, history) and at the same time refusing to be fully assimilated into U.S. mainland culture.
The immigrant students show us that American ideology can’t be passed down through language lessons while Pidgin lurks, and the local students subversively transgress heteronormative structures of the U.S. state in their Pidgin narratives. Linmark shows us Edgar and Katrina’s assignments—Edgar must form sentences with English vocabulary, Katrina must turn in a book report, and for both, “NO PIDGIN-ENGLISH ALLOWED”—yet Edgar and Katrina circumvent the repressive standards of Mrs. Takemoto, who has bought into conservative American ideology. Their language escapes the proper boundaries of sexuality—queer sexuality, or sex for those deemed too young—as well as the proper boundaries of American English. It also escapes the boundaries of proper classroom education, or proper student-teacher relationships, as these students don’t hesitate to critique their instructors.
Thus Linmark challenges U.S. imperialism and the representation of Hawai‘i as paradise. The Pidgin deployed in Rolling is much like Joe Balaz’s poem, “Hawai‘i is Da Mainland to Me,” which places Hawai‘i as the center of living and being instead of the U.S. mainland. It provides a resistant vision of Hawai‘i as a place that is not automatically incorporated as the fiftieth state of the union but that sees the U.S. continent as an “outsider” to Hawai‘i. Rolling, with its inclusion of immigrant children, extends this resistant vision of Hawai‘i to the flows and migrations of the Pacific, especially to U.S. wars in the Pacific such as Vietnam or the Philippines.
Despite the fact that I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Hawai‘i, where Linmark got his BA and where he taught for a while (although not when I was taking classes), for one reason or another it wasn’t until I began graduate school that I really sat down and read Rolling. I read Rolling far from home, in a new place—graduate school in California. I didn’t know the slang of academic language, I didn’t know how to teach, and I wasn’t in Hawai‘i anymore. I failed my first paper in graduate school because it wasn’t up to academic standards. I wasn’t going to cut it. If I could make an analogy comparing my experience in graduate school to that of the characters in Rolling without being reductive, the ivory tower of academia seemed to me like the impossibility of not rolling my r’s.
But Rolling is also one of the factors that brought me to my dissertation project as it is today. It reminded me that I was always taught that Pidgin was “lesser” than English; it reminded me that my experience in graduate school could have been what my grandparents experienced going through the English Standard School system in Hawai‘i, a racialized and discriminatory policy. Of course, all the kids who spoke Pidgin were non-white. My grandpa said he passed the English test after a few tries and more than a few years. While I didn’t have these same experiences, Rolling influences the work and writing of my dissertation as I try to incorporate the elegant “no bullshit” aspects of Pidgin.
Balaz, Joe. “Hawai‘i is Da Mainland to Me.” Chaminade Literary Review 2 (1989): 109.
Kent, Noel J. Hawaii: Islands Under the Influence. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1993. Linmark, R Z. Rolling the R’s. New York: Kaya Press, 1995.
Moniz, Jeffrey. “Welcome Letter Fo Teachers.” A Teacher’s Guide to Talking Story About Language: Exploring Pidgin in English and Social Studies Classrooms. Da Pidgin Coup and the Charlene J. Sato Center for Pidgin, Creole, and Dialect Studies: Honolulu, 2010.