Lee Tonouchi: Pidgin Poet

Local author and pidgin advocate Lee Tonouchi has a new book out, Significant Moments in da Life of Oriental Faddah and Son. We caught up with him to find out more.

photo: elyse butler

Q: What’s this book about?

A: It’s about finding humor in tragedy. It’s about da relationship between one son and his uncommunicative faddah in da wake of da maddah’s early passing. An den, it’s also about da son’s relationship with his grandmas as he discovers what it means for be Okinawan in Hawaii.    

Q: What did your dad think about you opening a book with him and your mom in the act of conceiving you?  

A: My faddah nevah got for see da book. He passed away couple few months before da ting came out. I figured ah, I jus show em bumbye. But I nevah got da chance.

Q: Was your father supportive of you growing up to be a writer, or did he want you to be something else?  

A: Wuz his idea! When I wuz in high school, my faddah always told me, “Lee, you should become one writer. Cuz den you can jus stay home, no need commute to work, no need fight da traffic.” I toll ’em, “I cannot come one writer, cuz I dunno how for write.” Cuz at dat time da only role models I had in school wuz Shakespeare and Faulkner and I knew I could nevah write li’ dat. Wuzn’t until I came college, here at UH, dat I found out, ho, get guys writing in pidgin. So hea I stay now. I became one writer. But I tink in my faddah’s imagination, when he said I could stay home, no need commute, I tink he meant stay in MY OWN home. Not stay in his home and nevah move out.

Q: Why didn’t you do the PC thing and call this book Significant Moments in da Life of Asian-American Faddah and Son?

A: Part of da book is about how local Orientals is different from Asian-Americans on top da continent. And even though I might get bash for being un-PC, I felt for be real we had for keep ’em local style. Plus da title already long, brah. How long you like me make ’em?  

Q: What’s your next project?

A: My pidgin play Three Year Swim Club stay coming out from East West Players in Los Angeles. It’s about da true story of how Coach Soichi Sakamoto taught Maui plantation kids for swim in da irrigation ditches with their goal being for make ’em to da 1940 Olympics. It’s one extended version of da play I did for da Honolulu Theatre for Youth, but dis one stay twice as long and get new hula-inspired choreography for da swim scenes. Keo Woolford direcking ‘em. Da ting runs Feb. 9 to March 11.

Q: Do people ever hear you talk pidgin, and then try to talk pidgin too, even though they really shouldn’t be talking pidgin?

A: I tink everybody should talk pidgin. So long dey sincere and trying for learn.