Panax Ginseng: The Other Wonders At Hawai’i

Panax Ginseng is a bi-monthly column by Henry W. Leung exploring linguistic and geographic borders in Asian American literature, especially those with hybrid genres, forms, vernaculars, and visions. The column title suggests the English language’s congenital borrowings and derives from the Greek panax, meaning “all-heal,” together with the Cantonese jansam, meaning “man-root.” This perhaps troubling image of one’s roots as panacea informs the column’s readings.


 moore1 moore2
spahr1 spahr2 wang1


It is by speaking of the “assumption of the myths of a race not [her] own, a race nearly annihilated by [her] kind” that Susanna Moore begins her quasi-memoir, I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawaii (National Geographic 2003). She describes her “self-delighting pride at being a liminal participant in an authentic culture that continues, despite attempts to the contrary, to fear the ghostly night marchers . . .” This prefatory remark appears to apologize for her presumptions as a white woman writing about an island where she grew up with considerable privilege. Yet, notice the qualifiers—“self-delighting,” “liminal,” “authentic”—as they progress from the private to the public along a claim toward ownership. Identity politics frustrate me to no end, but as poetry and nonfiction on the subject of Hawaii have been coming across my desk recently, I have started to see that perhaps nobody can uncontestably write or rewrite Hawaii, not even those with genealogical ties to the native Hawaiians: for to call them natives today is to codify culture into a prelapsarian nostalgia, to selectively deny cultural change. I also wonder about recent mainland literatures about Hawaii and to what degree their conservatism and transgressions are intrinsic. I intend to look briefly here at three writers who claim a conflicted connection to Hawaii through the tension of poetic language: Susanna Moore, who lived on Oahu from early adolescence until she was a teenager; Juliana Spahr, who taught at the University of Hawaii at Manoa for half a decade; and Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, who has been “going home” to the Big Island from the Midwest since her parents retired there. Each of their works brushes against the usual tropes that brand a Hawaiian text when written in English, such as provincial or pastoral expectations, a stylized pidgin lexicon, and a mystified engagement with history. Yet, our three writers clearly feel their outsiderness, and, in order to make meaning and make meaning communicable as required by their poetics, they find nuanced rhetorical forms to grant themselves permission. Continue reading “Panax Ginseng: The Other Wonders At Hawai’i”

Panax Ginseng: Barbarize the Rules (pt. 1 of 2)

Panax Ginseng is a monthly column by Henry W. Leung exploring the transgressions of linguistic and geographic borders in Asian American literature, especially those which result in hybrid genres, forms, vernaculars, and visions. The column title suggests the congenital borrowings of the English language, deriving from the Greek panax, meaning “all-heal,” and the Cantonese jansam, meaning “man-root.” The troubling image of one’s roots as a panacea will inform the column’s readings of new texts.



First, let’s give pause to these lines from Richard Hamasaki’s “Guerrilla Writers,” from which I take the title of this post:

golden rules of english?
conspiracies of languages?

memories unwanted
works are left unknown

if what’s to be spoken
needs to be written

sabotage the language
ignore the golden rules

guerrilla writer
barbarize the rules

Keep in mind that the capitalization of lines and proper nouns is endemic to the English language’s hierarchical structure, and keep in mind Hamasaki’s argument as I discuss the politics, the rhetoric, and the aesthetic of Hawaiian Pidgin as a metonym for “Asian American” literature and letters.

Here’s a passage from the New Testament, translated in 2000 by Wycliffe Bible Translators. This translation is from Da Jesus Book and the passage is from Matthew Tell Bout Jesus 14:29-31:

Peter climb outa da boat, an walk on top da water fo go by Jesus. But when he see how da wind was, he come scared, an start fo go down inside da water. Den he yell, “Eh, Boss! Get me outa dis!”

Right den an dea Jesus put out his hand an grab him, an say, “How come you trus me ony litto bit? How come you tink you no can do um?”

That’s a heavily accented Hawaiian Pidgin, or Hawaiian Creole English (HCE). New translations or modernizations of the Christian Bible are not infrequent, but there is something unsettling about having the cultural disguise of language so blatantly unveiled. We are not used to so vernacular a Jesus Christ. reviews of this translation are adamant in their reassurance that this use of Pidgin is not a joke or mockery. The University of Hawai’i’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelf’ Night o’ Whateva some years ago comes to mind: I wondered then about the politics of responses to such a performance: were there worries of Pidgin being used as kitsch or as a dumbing-down? Is “translation” inherently an imperial process, the imposition of one culture’s narratives upon the linguistic framework of another? It can sound like the dramatic donning of a persona. The Wycliffe translators seem at least to recognize Hawaiian Pidgin as a language system on a level with Standard English: in their introduction, they note that their translation works from the Greek (though whether Masoretic or Septuagint they don’t say) rather than from other derivative English translations. Continue reading “Panax Ginseng: Barbarize the Rules (pt. 1 of 2)”

Weekly Prompt: Stein on My Mind

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Paris 1923 | Courtesy of VerySmallKitchen

Speaking of summer reading, my summer reads (and flicks too, apparently!) have demonstrated the uncanny trend of featuring the work and life of a single character: Gertrude Stein.  Without knowing anything about the book except that it was recommended to me by multiple people, I started reading Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt.  I’m about four chapters into the novel, and have just begun to realize that the mysterious “Mesdames” referenced obliquely throughout the introductory chapter are none other than Alice B. Toklas and, as she is called in the book, “GertrudeStein.”


I had also planned to read Juliana Spahr’s Everybody’s Autonomy: Collective Reading and Collective Identity (University of Alabama Press, 2001) later this month, and when I flipped through it a few days ago — lo and behold, the title of chapter one?  “There Is No Way of Speaking English: The Polylingual Grammars of Gertrude Stein.”  Spahr goes on to consider such figures as Lyn Hejinian, Harryette Mullen, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, but, as far as I can tell, grounds most of her inquiry in the groundwork Stein laid for future generations of poets in Tender Buttons and other influential writings.

But last night’s movie is what really convinced me that something the universe has been orchestrating a grand conspiracy to get Stein on my mind.  Friends had warned us to walk into Midnight in Paris without any expectations or previous knowledge about the film, so we had no clue what the movie was about — or into whose home the main character would stumble after wandering into 1920s Paris.  I won’t spoil the (admittedly very thin) plot, but suffice it to say, I got the message.

Continue reading “Weekly Prompt: Stein on My Mind”

Poems for Monday Mornings: Juliana Spahr’s “Gathering Palolo Stream” at PennSound

In celebration of National Poetry Month and APIA Heritage Month this year, we have started a two-month Monday Morning series in which we will be sharing an audio recording of a different poem that has moved, challenged, or stuck with us each week.

Today’s Monday Morning Poem is one of Mia’s recommendations, a fantastic live recording that comes from PennSound‘s vast archives:

Juliana Spahr’s “Gathering Palolo Stream” (from Fuck You – Aloha – I Love You).

To listen via streaming audio, click the link above, which will take you to Spahr’s page on PennSound, and then scroll down to the recording (listed under “Reading at SUNY Buffalo, November 14, 2001”).

Or, to retrieve and open the file directly on your computer’s media player software, click here.

Happy Monday!

– Iris & Mia