friday feast: boss of the food

The poem I’m sharing today, “Boss of the Food,” was written by Hawai’i’s most controversial and widely recognized poet and novelist, Lois-Ann Yamanaka. It is included in Yamanaka’s first volume of poetry, Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, winner of the 1993 Pushcart Prize.

Upon its release, the book was banned by many schools, and Yamanaka found herself uninvited to poetry readings. Critics of Yamanaka’s work cited her use of profanity, cultural stereotypes and Pidgin English, a dialect now officially known as Hawai’i Creole English. For many years, schools tried to erradicate the use of Pidgin, a home grown blend of Japanese, Chinese, English, Hawaiian and Portuguese words, inflections, and slang that originated amongst immigrant laborers who worked on the sugar plantations.

But there really was no stopping this lively, colorful lingua franca that has enabled the many diverse cultures in Hawai’i to find common ground. Today Pidgin co-exists alongside standard English, still dynamic and evolving, still distinguishing a true local Hawaiian from a transplanted one.

Yamanaka herself has admitted that it was very hard for her to write in Pidgin, as she grew up believing it was a substandard, working class, shameful way to communicate. But she feels that “linguistic identity and cultural identity are skin and flesh. When you sever one from the other, you make it not OK to be who you are.”

Only after a mainstream publisher, Farrar,Straus & Giroux, brought out her first novel, Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers (1997), did Yamanaka earn her first modicum of respect. She went on to win another Pushcart Prize in 1994, the Rona Jaffe Award for Women Writers (1996), a Lannan Literary Award (1998), and an Asian American Literary Award (1998).

Although her work is definitely an acquired taste, it is significant because it shatters the long held image of Hawai’i being the perfect white man’s paradise. Through Yamanaka, we hear authentic voices struggling amid the complexities of Hawai’i’s social, cultural and economic strata. I know of no other poet from Hawai’i whose work is as raw, disturbing, piercing or painfully realistic. “Boss of the Food” is just the tip of the iceberg.

by Lois-Ann Yamanaka

Before time, everytime my sista like be the boss
of the food. We stay shopping in Mizuno Superette
and my madda pull the Oreos off the shelf
and my sista already saying, Mommy,
can be the boss of the Oreos?

The worse was when she was the boss
of the sunflower seeds.
She give me and my other sistas
one seed at a time.
We no could eat the meat.
Us had to put um in one pile on one Kleenex.
Then, when we wen’ take all the meat
out of the shells and our lips stay all cho cho,
she give us the seeds one at a time
cause my sista, she the boss
of the sunflower seeds.

Read the rest of the poem here.

Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s official website is here.

More information on Hawai’i Creole English here.

This week’s Poetry Friday roundup is at HipWriterMama.

10 thoughts on “friday feast: boss of the food

  1. This rings so, so true. Sibling power struggles can be brutal, over the most mundane things. I love the language, too, and can’t imagine stripping it of its power by using “correct” English. Thanks for introducing me to a poet that I feel I should have known long ago.
    BTW, guess what book was prominently displayed at my library this week? Dumpling Soup! I brought it home, and thoroughly enjoyed it. (But it made me hungry.)
    Sara Lewis Holmes


  2. Great choice — she’s a new poet for me, but that poem has tremendous power to it, and is a marvelous depiction of sibling power struggles.
    The language doesn’t bother me (neither the cursing nor the Pidgin). The cursing is no worse than many other poets, and the Pidgin? As an off-islander, I have no bias against it, if that makes sense.


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