INTO THE NEXT STAGE — Surviving Prejudice, Lava, and Hawaiian Pidgin English: An Interview with Frances Kakugawa

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By GUY AOKI

A few months ago, I reviewed “Kapoho:  Memoirs of A Modern Pompeii,” the 10th book by poet/author Frances Kakugawa.  In her series of short stories, she remembers growing up Japanese American in the small town on the east side of the Big Island, the prejudice her family faced after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the 1960 eruption that buried her hometown, and her sometimes comical plight to become a writer saddled by her pidgin English culture.

Because the author will be in Southern California next month promoting her book, I thought I’d interview her about the collection.  Full disclosure:  She’s my aunty, MANAA is co-sponsoring one of the events, and I wrote one of the blurbs on the back of her book.

Most stories about the effect the bombing of Pearl Harbor had on Japanese Americans are of those who were here on the mainland.  I’ve read very little about those of us in Hawaii.  How were the accounts of mainlanders similar to and different from your experiences?

It was more open and direct here in California. Of course, my answers are based on a child’s memory whereas the work I’ve read are memories of adults. And Kapoho was so far removed from the city as in Hilo or Honolulu.

But we were similar in having people sent to internment camps and being afraid of being attacked by other races. People anglicized their names. Hiramatsu became Hiratzka. The conductor of the train told me in Hilo at my signing that he changed his Japanese name to his mother’s maiden name, Wilson.

Not all Japanese were interned as in whole families in California. In the Miura family, only the man was interned, being a Japanese language teacher.

In your book, Mr. Naka, who spoke no English yet was so loyal to the war against Japan, saluted the U.S. troops every day.  Many people would assume that if we went to war with a country, immigrants from that country would side with the enemy.  Why did you think he was different and were there a lot like him?

We were all devoted and patriotic Americans. Mr. Naka’s son was one of the first to be inducted and killed.  If there was any loyalty toward Japan, it was privately done. In our house, we were all Americans.

Although the military police were rude, throwing rocks at your house if your lights weren’t out, many of the soldiers helped you find Easter eggs, some became close to your mom, teaching her how to make pasta, others played cards with your dad. They were able to see you as Americans first and Japanese second?

I thought about this. Isn’t it a different psychology today? These soldiers would never harm us; they saw us as victims of the war. It must have been similar when our soldiers went to Germany and other parts of Europe. When I was in Germany in the ’60s, an old German woman began crying when she saw me, and her son told me I reminded her of the kind soldiers from Hawaii. I’m sure even today, there are many such military men and we only hear of the negative — the rapes and killings of local people. I have to believe this.

You had relatives in Hiroshima on both sides of your parents’ family. All of that history was gone with the dropping of the atomic bomb, likewise when Kapoho was covered by the eruption (and before that when people had to burn Japanese artifacts). In “Kapoho,” you said books were the only things that survived a civilization. Was becoming a writer your way of ensuring your place on this Earth wouldn’t be forgotten?

Books meant so much to me when I first learned to read in first grade. And being surrounded by soldiers and all the signs of war, I really wanted to live. And I connected to books because I knew once your name was on a book, it would be forever. I became obsessed with dying. I read poems on the fragility of life. I sang the blues.

That dream of wanting to be a writer became a great tool for forgiveness. It didn’t matter how mistreated I was, I knew that someday I would become a writer so, whatever negativism I experienced, it was okay because someday I was going to become a writer. Today, everything that happens, especially the negative, I see them as great resources for a story. Caregiving for my mother, who had Alzheimer’s, opened up a whole new resource for my poetry.

As someone who saw first-hand the effect war had on an ethnic population, what has been your reaction to wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan?

First, I became fatalistic and always lived with the idea of death. When the Korean War broke out, we Japanese thought it would be their turn [Korean Americans] to be ostracized, but it didn’t happen. I’ve been a strong anti-war activist with my poetry. I’m known in Sacramento as a Poets for Peace poet and am invited to read my poetry at peace events. I wrote anti-war poems during all the wars up to today.

Also, the indignities of being treated like the enemy made me very conscious of dignifying each human being, in my teaching and in life in general. I do that with my work with caregivers, dignifying the caring for loved ones with dementia.

We have not learned from history about hate. It amazes me how Pearl Harbor — that happened in 1941 — has been inherited generation after generation. So this is how America deals with war. If you attack our soil, watch out, enemies forever. But if we attack you, well, it’s a different story.

“Eh, you tink you haole?” What’s to account for this defensiveness among a lot of Hawaii’s people?  It’s almost like blacks who try to succeed — they’re accused of selling out or trying to be white.  It’s as if they want to remain in a lower strata of society with less options in life. Is it that they feel they’re going nowhere, so don’t want anyone else to succeed (crabs in a bucket syndrome)?

I think it was a way to keep us grounded. Don’t try to be white when you’re a local. “You think you’re better than us?” I was called a “banana” often … yellow on the outside, white inside.

Are those less successful begrudging of those who did well?

No, there is such pride in having someone succeed. Pahoa [the town just north of Kapoho to which many former Kapohoans moved after the 1960 eruption]did a community autograph party for me, so proud that I came from that area. Even today, Kapoho people tell me how proud they are of me … It’s like I’m one of their children.  Remember Mrs. Tsutsui, who came to every signing, saying, “So proud to have someone from Pahoa/Kapoho be so smart”?

Frances Kakugawa, former Kapoho train conductor Mr. Wilson, and my mother, Janet Aoki, at a book-signing in Hilo.

Did you change everyone’s names in your book? Which ones did you decide to keep and why? Anyone wish you had used their real name?

I changed everyone’s name except my family’s. I’m asked today to identify Mrs. Honda [whose 5-year-old daughter died when a visiting doctor gave her too much anesthesia to remove her tonsils; for the rest of her life, the tormented Honda told Kakugawa if her daughter had lived, she would’ve looked just like her and become a writer]and my answer is: “I’m not saying; it doesn’t matter who they were.” I’m sure many people would know her by her real name.

What are the reactions from people who don’t understand pidgin English?  Do they understand the humor?

They do because many have their own version of Pidgin. [It symbolizes] their own experiences of bettering themselves from where they were. So Pidgin is for many that same metaphor for that something that could hold them back.

I was especially moved reading about how both you and your mother showed your love throughout the years through gestures — her giving you taxi money and you caring for her after Alzheimer’s took over. You noticed us nieces and nephews hugging her and her hugging us back without any hesitation, and yet you felt unable to do that.  I remembered after coming back to Hilo for one of my annual vacations, and I hugged Grandma, and she continued to hold me for a long time with one arm around me. What was your fear that would’ve happened had you been more comfortable expressing your feelings toward her or hugging her when she still recognized you?

It was my own hang-up. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that because it was not our way since childhood. So I was so pleased to see you and your cousins hug her… as though you were making up for what her children couldn’t do. Pathetic, but this is what culture does sometimes. Yet, it was understood that even without physical contact, there was love. We found ways of expressing that love in other ways. My generation spoke of it often — No matter how old we were, our mothers would stay up until our cars drove into the garage. Things like that. And if people were mean to us, watch out, they became their enemy, too.

What do you think of the depictions of Hawaii people through shows like “Hawaii Five-0,” “Magnum P.I.,” etc., George Clooney and “The Descendants,” where white characters dominate and locals are mostly background or supporting characters?

That’s a Hawaii mentality, as far back as I can recall: Mainland is better, smarter, and of greater value. We look to the mainland first before involving the locals. When I was teaching, we paid heavily for mainland expertise over the locals. Once I went around the islands with a mainland couple doing workshops. They were paid a thousand dollars a day, per diem, with plane fare and hotel, while I got only plane fare. Guess what? I am now living in Sacramento, so I’ve upped my ante. I’m seen as a more valued and even more capable lecturer now. Funny, huh? I’m still the same person.

Media, movies, and books (written by whites) gave us the message that the mainland was synonymous with whites. Whites were seen as being superior to locals … the true sugar plantation syndrome. And not too many left the islands during those years.

Can you talk about recently going back to Kapoho and meeting new residents and their reaction to your book?

I’m very impressed and humbled by the New Kapoho. They came out saying they want to know of the old Kapoho because they want to retain what was there. They are intent on honoring the old human values. One said they’re opening their roads so anyone can use them to go to the beach. They have thanked me for this book because until now, they knew nothing about the land on which they are living.

The amazing thing, which pleases my publisher, is this book is being read by people in the Midwest all the way to New York. I’ve had readers tell me how the outhouses and kerosene lamps brought back their own memories.

Tell us about how you’ve helped people deal with being caretakers of loved ones through writing poems about their experience.

Poetry writing allows us to really find our true voice and to make sense of what’s happening. Otherwise we live on the external level of caring for someone, which can become a mundane day-by-day drudgery. Poetry helps us to reflect and dig beneath the surface.  And the wonder of it is, it’s not only about being a caregiver, but it makes us focus on the ones being cared for. Being a poet/caregiver makes a world of difference.

There was a male caregiver who was caring for his mother. When he came to my session, he was thinking of killing his mother and himself because he was totally exhausted and depressed. He wrote one poem in 10 minutes, weeping so much he couldn’t read it. It was all about feeling (pages 149-150 in “Breaking the Silence.”) During the next few nights he wrote over 30 poems and today, he is in control, a compassionate and loving caregiver.

I am on my third and fourth poetry writing support group and I’m having 100 percent success in helping caregivers rise above the burden of caregiving. Imagine this … this most devastating disease becomes a great source for the arts. And it helps caregivers preserve their loved ones and themselves in poetry. At the end, caregiving becomes a gift. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s. Writing allows us that tool to help ourselves until there is a cure.

You’ve also started a memoir writing group in Sacramento.

These people read “Kapoho” and felt a need to tell their own stories. This book is generating a great interest in preserving their stories for the future generations. “Kapoho” seems to have awakened this idea that their lives are of interest and importance to others, too. My simple writing style also gives the message that “hey, I can write, too.”

Kakugawa will discuss some of the experiences that led her to wanting to become a writer at a book reading and signing at the Katy Geissert Civic Center Library in Torrance (co-sponsored with the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California and MANAA) on Saturday, Sept. 15, from 1 to 3:30 p.m. (for more information, contact me at [email protected]) and at the Japanese American National Museum on Saturday, Sept. 29, from 2 to 3:30 p.m.  [contact JANM at (213) 625-0414]. To reach the author for lectures and workshops — or to just say hi — contact her at [email protected] For more info on her life and work, go to her website, www.francesk.org.

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3 Comments

  1. I can’t wait to see Kakugawa in person. Your article really was a whole story in itself. My father who passed away at age 66 had been raised on the Big Island of Hawaii. He had said he was born in a place that sounded like Kapoho. He had said it was not there anymore. I wonder if Kapoho was his birthplace. My Dad was a loyal Japanese American that was a lifer in the U.S. military; he served in the occupation of Japan, the Korean war and during the Vietnam war. He was a quiet and gentle man that did not talk about his war experiences or the harshness of his early life in the sugar cane and pineapple plantations in Hawaii. I feel that once I read “Kapoho” that it will fill in the details of my Dad’s early years in Hawaii. I bet I could not understand my Dad’s pidgin English and he was actually saying Kapoho was were he was born. I think that the book “Kapoho” will vividly paint a place and time and that I will be able to better understand where my father’s family decided to make the first home when they immigrated to the U.S.

  2. I am looking forward to reading your book Kapoho complete with the Pidgin humor. Pidgin is offered as a course at UH with a degree! I had the apple store creatives do an entire session teaching about the computer in Pidgin. It was great. Your story and your smile tells it all. I lived on Big Island, Hilo side. Now in Waikiki. Diane.

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