Pidgin as an unsettlement: Kara Hisatake, Queer Pidgin: Unsettling U.S. Settler Colonialism in Hawai‘i’s Language Politics, PhD Dissertation, UC Santa Cruz, 2019


Abstract: My dissertation, “Queer Pidgin: Unsettling U.S. Settler Colonialism in Hawai‘i’s Language Politics,” assembles writings and performances in Pidgin, Hawai‘i’s creole language, and theorizes how this multiethnic body of cultural texts critically unsettles the representational and political norms of the United States as a settler colonial state. A language that developed from the multiethnic context of plantation labor, Pidgin emerged as the common language when the Native Hawaiian language was banned in 1896. Pidgin, I argue, not only bears the deterritorializing potential to challenge entrenched binaries between the settler and the native, but also admits a third term, the migrant laborer. Pidgin poses a counter to how identity and community have been formulated and sanctioned by the U.S. settler state. Indeed, in contrast to mainland multicultural ideology and uncritical celebrations of diversity, Pidgin, although associated with multiethnic speakers, has a “queer” relationship to “straight English” that calls for careful theorization. This is where my project intervenes. Albeit stigmatized as nonwhite and uncivilized, Pidgin’s imagined community, I argue, models a process of inclusion from below rather than assimilation enforced from above. Not a dialect, in this regard, but a creole, Pidgin is less a regionalized deviation from standard, mainland English than a synthesis of multiple languages whose “local” identity gestures toward the world and Native sovereignty in potentially critical ways. Even as Pidgin arose out of the plantation economy of Hawai‘i, it speaks, I contend, to international flows of labor, to the intermingling of tongues, and most critically to the political imagination of common ground between Native Hawaiians and Asian migrant laborers that cannot be reduced to assimilation through U.S. citizenship but rather suggests an alternative model of community.

That Native Hawaiians “are not Americans,” as scholar-activist Haunani-Kay Trask maintains, is an implicitly comparative claim in Hawai‘i where local Japanese Americans have prominently figured as leaders within a national Democratic Party establishment. Some Asian American scholars like Candice Fujikane and Jonathan Okamura note that Asians in Hawai‘i have taken part in and benefited from a settler colonial structure. Additionally, literature written by Asian Americans in Hawai‘i has been criticized as participating in colonial hierarchies at the expense of Native Hawaiian literature and culture. Yet, even as these important insights into U.S. settler colonialism reveal minoritized complicity in systems of power, they adhere to a binaristic model of “settler” and “native” that falters when it comes to analysis of Pidgin.

Written by Native Hawaiians and Asian Americans alike, Pidgin cultural production complicates the binarism of U.S. settler colonial paradigms. While usually conceived as a non-literary and oral language, Pidgin features regularly in literary and cultural production both as a reflection of everyday life and, as I argue, as a critical intervention against the norms of U.S. imperialism. Pidgin literary works are not reducible to minority literature, which assumes assimilation and discounts U.S. settler colonialism and Hawaiian sovereignty. Unlike ethnic literatures, which fall under the national rubric of “American,” Pidgin exposes the imperialism of the United States. In its conception, Pidgin literature unsettles the American literary canon by refusing incorporation into it. Instead, Pidgin literature develops an imagined alternative community that re-works Hawai‘i’s settler colonial status along queer lines. As my research demonstrates, Pidgin literature refuses easy incorporation into the American literary canon. Whereas Pidgin literatures of Hawai‘i have often been disaggregated, in their critical reception, into multiple, largely non-intersecting tracks—namely, as an extension of U.S. literature, a regional subset of Asian American literature, a strand of Native Hawaiian literature, and a Hawai‘i-specific contribution to Pacific literature—my project harks back to Pidgin’s political function as a shared tongue. Inasmuch as Pidgin is a creole language, crossing ethnic and class boundaries in its polyglot origins, rather than a variety of English, Pidgin literary works also do not fall under the rubric of dialect and regional literature.

I assemble Pidgin cultural texts by Native Hawaiians writers like John Dominis Holt and Brandy Nālani McDougall; Asian Americans like R. Zamora Linmark; and mixed-race comedians like Rap Reiplinger. As my project demonstrates, these Pidgin cultural texts not only expose the interlocking nature of U.S. imperialism and settler colonialism, but also furnish a critical vision of multiethnic community that, with its decolonizing ethos, counters mainland state-driven ideologies around multiculturalism.

%d bloggers like this: