Talking Story about Language and Identity

by Melissa Llanes Brownlee

As some of you may already know, I grew up in Hawai’i. I am a descendent of the indigenous people. As a native, I constantly struggle with my identity.

I don’t call myself kānaka maoli, mainly because I don’t speak the language of my people, ʻŌlelo Hawai’i, or as more commonly known, Hawai’ian, but I do speak pidgin, or Hawaiian Pidgin Creole as this, I feel, is the first language I learned.

Hawaiian Pidgin Creole is the pidgin that was formed when my people interacted with other cultures and languages which was then taught or learned by their children to become a creole. It’s very similar to English because that is its base language. Prior to the overthrow of the monarchy, the literacy rate for kānaka maoli was extremely high. Most people could read and write in ʻŌlelo Hawai’i as well as in other languages, including English. When the American government took over, their systemic and institutional racism shattered our culture and our language. There is a dark history behind the paradise people think Hawai’i is today.

If you are a writer in liminal spaces, using your native language, your mother tongue, has power, the power to convey your truth.

I believe the secret to using another language in tandem with English is to offer enough contextual clues that your reader will be able to understand your narrative without going outside the text. This requires a light hand, a simple brushstroke here and there, offering depth and nuance to your work.

In the story I mentioned above, I use pidgin in italicized dialogue with concrete descriptions in Standard American English. My reason for doing this was to give the reader the chance to experience the lyricism of pidgin. There is a reason that “talk story” is in the title of this essay. Oral narratives / traditions are rooted deeply in my culture.

“Talk story” can mean to tell a story but it also could mean having a conversation, gossiping, sharing your troubles, sharing your joys.

I think that for all of us language is connected to our identity. What words we choose, what words we share, what words we use to communicate, all shape who we are, even more so when that language is not the dominant one.

Thank you so much for sharing time and space with me today.

Here’s a prompt you can use to explore language.

Think of the strongest memory you have of your childhood and write it in the language/languages you used as a child. Think of regional dialects, common phrases, and dive deep into the words that shaped you. Remember sights, sounds, smells. How did it feel physically and emotionally? From this exercise, I hope that you find another lens to see your writing, another way to tap into the core of you, the language(s) that shaped who you are today.

Mahalo Nui Loa!


%d bloggers like this: