Thursday, March 6, 2003

Darrell Lum returns to the Nuuanu YMCA for another try at The Weightroom, the subject of a short story he'll be reading Tuesday evening during "For the Love of Bamboo Ridge," celebrating the 25th anniversary of Bamboo Ridge Press. Through the years, he and Eric Chock, behind him, have taken turns backing each other up in producing the journal.

Heavy lifting

The experimental journal Bamboo
Ridge has survived 25 years, but its
founders have realized promoting
local literature is a Herculean task

By Nadine Kam

CAMERAS follow our moves on streets, in the malls, banks and elevators. It's not pleasant to be under such frequent surveillance, but it's far from new. Even before the technology was available, there was always someone around, observing the oddest of individual tics. And if that set of eyes belonged to a child, you probably didn't even try masking your deeds or intentions. After all, what do kids know?


For the Love
of Bamboo Ridge

Where: Manoa Valley Theatre, 2833 E. Manoa Road
When: March 11, with 7 p.m. pupu reception, 7:30 p.m. reading and 8:30 p.m. talk story
Admission: Free to BRP members; non-members may make a donation
Call: 626-1481

More events

What: Bamboo Ridge Birthday Bash
Where: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii Manoa Grand Ballroom, 2454 S. Beretania St.
When: 1 p.m. July 13
Call: 626-1481
Also: Lois-Ann Yamanaka's book "Heads by Harry" makes it to the Kumu Kahua stage March 13 to April 13. Tickets are $5 to $16. Call 536-4441.

Let's just say kids don't grow up to be social creatures without studying the bizarre rituals of adults. The littlest gestures become magnified when you're a kid. All an adult has to do is hold up a cigarette, and pretty soon any kid will start rolling a make-believe butt between chubby fingers and blowing out imaginary smoke circles.

Mundane incidents can be stored away in an impressionable mind until the child is able to make sense of it all. And if that kid grows up to be a writer, watch out! You never know what's going to come spewing out.

For writer Darrell H.Y. Lum, childhood visits to the Nuuanu YMCA were treks into alien territory. "There were all kinds of weird people at the Y. It didn't make sense to me."

A single experience at the Y formed the basis for his short story "The Weightroom," which is, in part, a tribute to Olympic gold medalist Tommy Kono, who will be the guest of honor when Lum reads his work at "For the Love of Bamboo Ridge," a celebration of the literary magazine and press's 25th anniversary.

Lum doesn't look like a typical gym habitué -- more school egghead grown up rather than jock -- and he admits, "I think I nearly drowned the first time I went in the pool."

"The Weightroom" was based on an incident in which, in the midst of the "strange and bizarre" characters at the Y, Lum was befriended by Kono.

"It was something to me, that this famous guy -- an Olympic weightlifter -- he treated me like he was working with an Olympic hopeful."

Storyteller Jeff Gere urged Lum to contact Kono, and upon talking to the athlete again, Lum said, "He's still a very kind and gracious man and agreed to come to our event."

THAT BAMBOO RIDGE, founded by Lum and Eric Chock, has survived this long is something of a miracle. Financed by the duo and created in the beginning during all-nighters at Lum's kitchen table with little more than such ancient implements as paper, scissors and jars of rubber cement, the humble journal has since made its way into courses at Stanford, Berkeley, Oxford, and Harvard and other Ivy League Schools. In addition to subscribers at home, Bamboo Ridge has fans in Japan, across the mainland and Europe.

But such acceptance was hard-won. We live in a time when new words and slang are invented daily, spread rapidly due to the viral effect of mass media. This was not the case when Bamboo Ridge was born, when there was much less interest in the pursuit of the next big thing and next fresh voice. The writers had to convince much of the population -- who had been raised to believe that pidgin equals ignorance -- that pidgin was worth speaking and preserving through literature.

One encounter with an Olympic champion would not change the world, but hundreds of stories over time have added up to a vivid parade of local characters, lifestyles and issues that have affected those who live here. Talk about a history of the people, by the people and for the people.

"Eric and I were young radicals. We were both taking writing workshops, and we saw that a lot of people weren't getting published. They were writing good stuff in writing workshops, and that was it," Lum said. "We liked the work and thought it ought to be published.

"Out of stupidity, we thought that if between us we knew 50 to 60 writers -- if they each did one piece a year, we could fill a quarterly."

Chock said: "We started out as naive parents. We made a list of all the writers we knew and expected them all to buy it and give us stories, but writers just want to get in, they don't want to subscribe."

But there were others who were interested in the stories, and for the writers there was strength in numbers. "It was an important step in that you were no longer one lonely writer writing in pidgin or the only poet writing about rock walls or plantation days," Lum said.

"I'MSOHAPPY about Bamboo Ridge," said writer Marie Hara, whose first published piece, "Go to Home," found a home with Bamboo Ridge Press. "They gave me a chance to publish my story, which would not have seen the light at the time they encouraged me."

Bamboo Ridge receives support from a board of directors including writer Wing Tek Lum, who doubles as the press's bookkeeper, Cathy Song Davenport, Gary Pak, Nora Okja Keller plus a lot of legwork from managing editor Joy Kobayashi-Cintrón.

"It's really an ukupau system," Hara said. "Everybody shares THE WORK. But that's how things are in Hawaii. Everyone's related to someone else, so you bring in the idea of inclusion. Each one of us who has been touched want to extend our hand to other people."

IN THE EARLY days, Chock was the evangelist who lured Lum into the nonprofit world of readings, fund raising and conferences. They felt it was important to preserve the stories of ordinary people, often the second- and third-generation offspring of those who had worked on Hawaii's plantations. Such stories fostered a sense of pride in growing up in Hawaii at a time when the Hawaiian Renaissance was in full swing.

Bamboo Ridge helped writers to see their experiences and work was as valid as that of dead white men whose work filled British and American Lit courses.

"What we wanted to accomplish, we accomplished," said Chock, who points to the success of Hawaii writers such as Keller and Lois-Ann Yamanaka, who were nurtured by Bamboo Ridge and went on to receive national acclaim.

These days, it is Lum who prods Chock to tend to Bamboo Ridge, which has turned out to be a bittersweet experience for the poet.

"There were many times I wanted to stop doing this, but Darrell always convinced me there are enough people buying or reading it to keep going.

"But it takes so much work, takes so much time, and it takes away from working on our own stuff. I've always said Darrell should have so many more books out.

"Now he wants to do more -- more fund-raisings, silent auctions, online courses," said Chock. "He started, in the last three years, writing grants, trying to bring in more money from the private sector because government grants keep shrinking."

While Lum has always had a "real job" as an academic advisor for Student Support Services at the University of Hawaii, Chock dedicated most of the past 25 years to nurturing writers and readers through the "Poets in the Schools" program on a contract basis, with little effect on his bottom line. Although he is rewarded by young adults he meets who tell him that he sparked their interest in literature and pidgin, he said, "You start to ask yourself, Do I need health insurance? Do I need a pension?

"I'm older now. At a certain point it was fine to live in one room and eat a lot of oatmeal, but after a while you have to move on to your 30s plan and 40s plan," he said. With Department of Education budgets consistently under attack, he's recently made the leap from "Poets in the Schools" to working at the University of Hawaii at West Oahu.

Although he misses working with the kids, he takes satisfaction in knowing others have taken up the cause. Bamboo Ridge set an example for poets and writers who have sought venues beyond the printed page, such as nightclubs and community theater stages.

"Da Pidgin Guerrilla" Lee Tonouchi has made it his mission to preserve pidgin in a time when the old ways of speaking seem to be giving way to the infectious power of rap and hip-hop lingo.

Tonouchi, who talks da talk as co-editor of Hybolics magazine, said Bamboo Ridge "opened the door for possibilities. Before dat I was closed on writing. Even wen I wuz young, my fada sed why not be one writer; no need fight traffic in da morning, jus' stay at home, write. I sed, 'Dad, I dunno how write.'"

Tonouchi nevertheless was admitted to the UH, where, in fulfilling his core requirements, he found himself in a sophomore literature class. He considers himself lucky that his professor included "The Best of Bamboo Ridge" as part of the required book list. Reading Chock's poem "Tutu on da Curb" was a revelation, he said.

"Wat I like about 'em wuz, Numbah 1, wuz in pidgin. Numbah 2, wuz one short poem," Tonouchi said. "Befo' dat, I nevah new such a ting as pidgin writing existed. Afta dat, I took creative writing, play-writing and I thot, why couldn't I do all my critical papahs in pidgin too? An' dat wuz da evolution of 'da pidgin guerrilla.'"

In spite of the effort, it is rare to see local literature in classrooms, and pidgin is being lost. Tonouchi has shown videos of the comedy trio Booga Booga to his students at Kapiolani Community College, and said, "Dey tell me, 'Mistah, we cannot understand.' I tink maybe dey lazy, but dey cannot unnestand James Grant Benton!

"Maybe because I wuz raised by my grandparents I can unnestand da old way of talking, but da kids, dey one, two generations removed awready."

Lum laughs about the way his Bamboo Ridge workload has increased over the years. "Sometimes I think we've come a long way. On the other hand, I think things haven't changed that much. People still need encouragement and nurturing in terms of telling their stories.

"There are still many for whom Bamboo Ridge is their first experience being published, and it's important to make that opportunity available."

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