On the origin and generational influence of Bamboo Ridge Press, which continues to cultivate Hawai‘i writers and preserve their legacies.
“I was in love with the word ‘aloha’ … which is getting so hard to say,” Eric Chock pens in “Poem for George Helm: Aloha Week 1980.” In this elegy, Chock mourns the late Native Hawaiian activist and singer, who disappeared at sea in 1977 while protesting the military bombing of Kaho‘olawe. The local Chinese-Japanese poet conjures a nightmarish yet recognizable image of Hawai‘i: malihini who swarm the islands, commodified expressions of aloha at every turn, an occupied nation plundered of its culture and land. Helm flickers in and out of Chock’s prose — ghostlike, silent, and irredeemable. “There is no chance of seeing him walk up to the stage / pick up his guitar and smile the word at you across the room,” Chock bewails.
Local literature like “Poem for George Helm” depicts a real Hawai‘i — narratives that are typically censored by travel brochures and magazines, unseen by ingenuous tourists, and yet realer than ever. As playwright Darrell H.Y. Lum wrote, “This isn’t standing-in-awe-of or ain’t-it-beautiful nature writing that we’re talking about. It’s chemicals in the milk and water, it’s not washing the car or watering the lawn when there’s a water shortage; it’s volcanic ash in the air from an eruption two islands away or the sky gray with ash from burning sugar cane.” This is the Hawai‘i that he and Chock know from experience. Generations of writers before knew a Hawai‘i bound by colonialism, grown in the plantation fields, and stricken by war. Local literature uncovers every palimpsest of Hawai‘i, no matter how harsh or how beautiful.
Yet prior to the 1970s, Hawai‘i’s local literature was stigmatized and largely went unpublished. Whereas on the continent, an Asian American literary movement was blossoming, sparked by the incendiary words of Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, the editors of Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian-American Writerspublished in 1974. Inspired by the Black Power and Chicano movements of the ’60s, this new movement complicated Asian American identity and distinguished it from the immigrant identity of their ancestors. “I had the conscious idea that literature of different kinds was essential to different social movements,” Chock recounts. With this as their compass, he and Lum would establish a Hawai‘i-centered literary press, Bamboo Ridge Press, and galvanize a local literary awakening.
Today, the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s English department boasts a variety of courses in Hawaiian and Pacific literatures and a faculty stacked with kama‘āina professors. But in 1973, when Chock was a first-year graduate student, the department was strikingly haole. The curriculum eschewed local narratives and local leadership in classrooms in favor of the literary “canon” and transplant professors. The sole Pacific Literature course centered on European stories of the Pacific, like those written by Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jack London. Such stories, as we know today, perpetuate harmful stereotypes about Hawai‘i, particularly natives, as infantile, idyllic, and savage. Ironically, these were the ideas being taught to local students about their own communities.
The English department of Chock’s time also hosted a visiting writers program which, at first glance, was impressive. Notable American writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Margaret Atwood, and Adrienne Rich led workshops and gave talks to students. But an ignorance of local culture created an undeniable gap between the mentors and students. (According to Chock, one visiting writer urged students to dedicate themselves to European texts.) Meanwhile, at Hawai‘i Board of Education meetings, some residents petitioned against speaking Pidgin in public schools.
Erasing Pidgin, formally known as Hawaiian Pidgin English, would mean cutting out the shared tongue of Hawai‘i’s diverse population and erasing a part of history. We, locals, know the story well because our ancestors lived it. When thousands of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and Filipino immigrants flocked to Hawai‘i to work on the profitable sugarcane plantations, a dialect was born. Despite being segregated by plantation rules, immigrant and Hawaiian workers sought to communicate, picking up certain words and phrases from each other’s homelands, eventually forming a dialect that crossed racial lines. Like any language or dialect, Pidgin evolved with each new generation and has become a defining trait of local culture and identity. Yet some residents in Hawai‘i viewed Pidgin, compared to the aspirationally “post” English language, as atavistic and, thus, detrimental to Hawai‘i’s youth.
“In all these factors, the main underlying point is that we in Hawai‘i are expected to believe that we are subordinate to the Mainland,” Chock posited in 1980 at the Writers of Hawai‘i Conference. “At best, we are expected to believe that we are really no different here and can even be like the Mainland if we try hard enough. We are asked to reject the feeling that Hawai‘i is special.”
But as anyone who has lived here has come to know, Hawai‘i is distinct in numerous cultural ways from the continent, not to mention isn’t legally a part of the United States. One only has to read Muriel M. Ah Sing Hughes’s poem “Bebe You Can Be” to understand (or not understand). In one stanza, the poem’s speaker, a mother, urges her daughter, “Be da Grace Kelly you wen see at da movies / So what if you get daikon legs, and lolo Jacob call you spastic / You can always look pretty, and dance good cuz ‘as Hollywood.’” Hughes’s Pidgin rolls off the tongue sweet like li hing mui and savory in its delivery. She doesn’t explain to malihini readers what “daikon” is or what “lolo” means, nor will I attempt to. Every line is an inside reference, with minor Western influences scattered throughout, whether it be Grace Kelly or Evening in Paris perfume. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with such poems — in being able to perfectly understand and fluidly recite words that a continental reader would stumble over. The “broken” English feels no longer broken.
Clearly, then, the issue wasn’t that local narratives didn’t exist. It was that local narratives weren’t being allowed into classrooms or onto the published page. (Little to no poetry by an Asian writer from Hawai‘i was published from the mid-1930s to mid-’60s.) Local literary tradition existed in talk story, told around fishing poles and in the surf lineup, over the dinner table and atop futons, at recess and while in line for Foodland’s poke bar. In Hawaiian, these narratives are called mo‘olelo and it can range from an inherited story of one’s family to a supernatural legend of deities. It’s ignorant and disrespectful to equate Native Hawaiian literature with local literature, because the former generated the latter, although it hasn’t stopped some critics from doing so. Framed by tradition and spirituality and tinged by the traumas of colonialism, Native Hawaiian literary tradition underwent its own revival in the late ’60s and ’70s, a period known as the Second Hawaiian Renaissance. Hapa Hawaiian writer John Dominis Holt IV composed variations of Hawaiian literature during this time, including his novel Waimea Summer. Meanwhile, Wayne Kaumuali‘i Westlake experimented with Hawaiian and Western forms in his poetry, reflective of his ethnicity. Both writers played leading roles in local literary circles that Chock and Lum were a part of. With that said, Native Hawaiian literature will always deserve inclusion and autonomy within the genre it helped to create.
There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with such poems — in being able to perfectly understand and fluidly recite words that a continental reader would stumble over. The ‘broken’ English feels no longer broken.
In a community abundant with stories, Chock had to dismantle classroom walls to allow for more representation in literature, which was no easy feat. In his first-year of graduate school, he was hired as Hawai‘i’s coordinator for Poets in the Schools, a national initiative to introduce public school students to poetry writing through visiting poets. He taught students and teachers about the importance of local literature, referencing works by friends and peers, which at the time only existed as drafts or mimeographs.
His colleague, Cathy Song, whose 1983 collection Picture Bride would join the canon of Asian American literature, used crisp and quiet language to reflect on her Korean-Chinese upbringing in Hawai‘i, paying homage to her parents and ancestors. Meanwhile, Lum inundated his short stories and plays with boisterous, unapologetic Pidgin, which according to Chock, were favorites among public school students. Then there was Wing Tek Lum, the most published Hawai‘i poet in Asian American poetry collections throughout the ‘70s, who ventured beyond his own experiences in Hawai‘i, New York, and Hong Kong to write about the larger Asian diaspora. If nothing else, Chock’s own poetry nostalgically reentered his dreams and childhood, often musing about his beloved father, as well as fishing. There was no shortage of writers that he could invite into the classroom.
Although Poets in the Schools created a milestone for local literature, there was yet to be tangible trophies of progress, in other words—published books. “We [Darrell and I] realized that theories about literature need to be supported by a critical substructure of scholars, who would write reviews and actual analyses of the work that would bear out some of the theories or contradict them,” Chock explains. In other words, local literature lacked “legitimacy” within the publishing world. However superficial such a status may be, it would necessitate local literature into the hands of university students, professors, book critics, and the larger public. Far from art for art’s sake, local literature contained political and cultural importance that needed to be discussed.
The idea to start Bamboo Ridge Press materialized on porch steps one evening in 1977 over beers and card games. Old grade school friends turned writing colleagues, Chock and Lum were eager to start a literary magazine, one run by local editors who valued local subjects and voices. “If you owe any allegiance to your culture, it’s usually going to appear in your writing,” Chock tells me over the phone. “There is going to be some conveyance of values that you learned.” At the time of the press’s founding, when so little was being taught in schools about ethnic cultures and harmful stereotypes dominated the media, it was important that ethnic literature accurately portray its respective cultures. Ethnic literature then, as it still is today, was a way for underrepresented groups to change the narrative, literally, and tell their own stories. When these books entered classrooms, they often stood for entire racial groups and were read with an intent to teach.
For these reasons, Chock and Lum distinguished Bamboo Ridge as a press for and about Hawai‘i’s people. Even the press’ name, taken from the local fishing spot near Hālona point, hinted at the exclusive quality about the press. It maintained a “local’s only” aura, and really, who could blame them.
The first issue of Bamboo Ridge was released in December 1978, under the theme New Moon. For a grassroots project, the journal exuded professionalism with its formal type, organized layout, and binding. A former art major, Lum provided the cover art for the first issue: a scratchy drawing of the namesake fishing spot, a handful of poles seen jutting out from the rocks, a shack for lounging fishermen tucked into the cliff’s face. Sixteen authors, all recruited by the editors from former classes or writing circles, filled the HOW MANY pages of the journal with mesmerizing short stories and poems wherein each author grappled with their own identity and relationship to Hawai‘i. Like the slivering outline of a new moon, there wasn’t much more to see of the press yet, but over time it would grow, along with its contributors and influence. “To me, becoming a periodical was their commitment to a disciplined future,” wrote Wing Tek, an early supporter of the press and Bamboo Ridge’s current business manager, “a formal promise that there was more to come.”
I had the conscious idea that literature of different kinds was essential to different social movements.
Eric Chock, co-founder of Bamboo Ridge Press
In October 2021, Bamboo Ridge released issue 119, entitled “Kīpuka: Finding Refuge in Times of Change.” A new batch of editors don the glossy cover and more than 40 creatives offer their voices across crisp, white pages. As its name suggests, “Kīpuka” offered a reflective and resting space for local writers to respond to the turbulent events of the past two years, which not only devastated Hawai‘i but the entire world. The stories and poems need not address Covid-19, or Black Lives Matter, or Maunakea, but simply say what they want to say. To create anything during this time was in itself a victory.
A captivating eight-part poem by Mahealani Perez Wendt titled “Na Wai Ea, The Freed Waters” closes the issue. Like an oli, Wendt eschews excess punctuation, her words flowing and unceasing like the wai which runs through the lo‘i fields that open the poem. Scattered throughout like wispy waves, italicized Hawaiian words and phrases effortlessly blend with her English. She takes readers through the lo‘i’s “green hearts /…laid bare under rains,” past “hidden places / where the high waters fall / in rainbowed silence,” and into ka‘ao where “the gods Kāne and Kanaloa / refreshed themselves in springs / near groves of red and yellow lehua.” And after completing this fulfilling journey through Wendt’s words, an endnote from the editors remains. “At the author’s request, certain Hawaiian words have been italicized because to her, they are beautiful and special.”