Oral History of Eric Chock Session #4

Oral History Project

Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project
Eric Chock

Session #4
In 1978, Eric Chock, along with long-time friend and fellow writer, Darrell Lum, founded Bamboo Ridge Press, Hawaiʻi’s oldest continuously publishing non-profit independent literary press and journal. Over the course of five sessions and roughly 10 hours, Eric Chock spoke to Donald Carreira Ching about his childhood, his relationship with Darrell, the time leading up to the press’ founding, and the successes and challenges of running Bamboo Ridge. This is the fourth of those interviews.


The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Eric Chock (EC) in the summer of 2022. The interview took place via Zoom, and was conducted by Donald Carreira Ching (DCC) for the Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project. This interview is the second of five sessions.

Eric Chock and Donald Carreira Ching have reviewed the transcript. Their corrections and emendations appear below in brackets with initials. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability by the Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project. The reader should bear in mind that they are reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.

DCC: I wanted to circle back to the question of what was the vision for Bamboo Ridge?

EC: There was that general idea that stories, poems, and a literature can reinforce or nurture a culture, a local culture, a people, and that was what we were doing, especially when you think about what was happening at the Talk Story conference when we kicked off Bamboo Ridge. I talked earlier about how we had learned what people had done in California or Washington. That was tied to other activism like trying to push for ethnic studies departments in universities. And for them, it was closely tied to community activism. Something that’s more political and not focused just on literature, but with overlap. I think for many of them, the idea was to gain respect in order to make social change more possible, and having a strong literature and voices speaking out is one part of gaining that respect.

So, the idea was that we would have a journal which would reflect, reinforce, and nurture local culture in contrast to how literature in the English department, in the DOE, in the newspapers, and in the prevailing culture in general, was presented. Everyone benefits when they have role models that are easier to relate to, and these role models are found in society around us, in business, politics, sports, and also in the arts, in movies, stories, the literature you have to read in school. In the English department, it was the Western canon. For example, in my thesis I was cautioned against using Pidgin, so there was a clear contrast right there. I was told to know who my audience was, the academic culture of the time, not our local culture. Multicultural literature was still a new idea, at least here. There were few literary role models.

Have you heard that phrase, an expert is someone who’s from out of town? I remember Michael McPherson [local poet, writer, editor] wrote an article about that, with a focus on literature. How people used to refer to that Governor Burns quote, about the local inferiority of spirit, and how he was kind of a key person in saying it out loud and trying to get people to move past that. In political terms, after World War II and the 442nd and 100th guys got their education, they came back and took over in the Legislature, in the DOE, some areas of business, and in many areas of local culture in general. They had to overcome that sense that they didn’t deserve that or didn’t belong, and after World War II, they definitely got over that feeling in some ways.

DCC: Did you folks see yourselves in the same way or feel the same way?

EC: They were great role models in those ways, but of course the injustices they suffered in their days were much much more serious, starting with the plantation days through the racism against the Japanese Americans during the War. You might say we followed their model, claiming our right to be here, to be heard, but only in the areas of literature, publishing, and education, so relatively minor compared to them. But they were that strong silent generation, don’t complain, and our generation was when people started writing and publishing about our history, about plantation days, WWII camps, things like that. We tried to be part of that movement to look back at what they had done.

In my mind, it was a conscious thing, to want to change our world. It was the zeitgeist of the ’60s, right? I remember during my college years talking late into the night with my Chinese uncle and Irish aunty at their home in Philadelphia. My uncle had left and not come back after going to the military and college. He got a job up there with someone from Hawai‘i who hired him.

We used to sit around and talk about his memories of Hawai‘i in the ’40s. They asked me if I was planning to go back, and by that time, it was already the early ’70s, and I was sure that I was going back. I told them there were big changes going on in Hawaiʻi, and I wanted to be part of it. At first it was politically related actions that interested me, but that soon turned toward literary activism.

There was already that sort of pro-local, anti-haole/tourist, anti-development feeling. I don’t know if you remember when the Kamakawiwoʻole brothers were known to go into Waikīkī and tell tourists to go home. In the news, there were reports of attacks against the hippies that came and camped out on the beach. There were so-called Primo Warriors [named after the local beer -EC], who were speaking out, or being accused of perpetrating violent attacks on people from the mainland. So, stuff was already happening that resonated in me—not the violence, but the sentiment that local people’s concerns needed to be heard, that something was being lost. When I came back and became a VISTA worker [Volunteers In Service To America, the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps -EC] I was doing some community organizing and some Ethnic Studies-connected anti-development protests. We planned marches, rallies, communities. I later shared some poems with Mel Takahara, a Waianae Group Homes worker when I was assigned out there in VISTA, and he suggested I go to grad school, do more writing. Since he was a Poet in the Schools [PITS], he recommended that I talk with PITS founder at UH, Professor Phyllis Thompson, and after she got me involved in PITS, my focus soon shifted toward local literary politics. To me this is similar to other local activism, just more focused on literary issues. People need to be heard, need a place at the table, whatever field it is.

Then, around the time of Talk Story, we were talking about needing to establish our own literary tradition, making clear that there was one, which was one of the things that Bamboo Ridge was going to do, and then the next year, in ’79, that was when Stephen Sumida and Arnold Hiura did the bibliography of Asian American literature in Hawaiʻi. That was part of that same idea/philosophy that we should have an established tradition to nurture the literature and the writers so that they feel like they’re not the only one doing it. We needed to have our own literature more clearly defined, because otherwise it would always get overlooked, swallowed up, or stunted. And when Sumida and Hiura did that, they uncovered people that we subsequently tried to publish, like Philip Ige and his Pidgin short stories and Charles Kong and his Pele stories. And that was really important for Steve and Arnold to do that. Each of us was doing different things, but we were kind of all related at that time. Some of it was grounded in having those Asian American writers we met at the Talk Story conference, with that influence of what had been already done across the country in minority movements. But, yeah, it was all pretty conscious what we were trying to do.

I think we were trying to legitimize the local tradition. We had to legitimize it because there were people who would say, They’re only students, they’re never published. They’re not credentialed or qualified. Yet there were people like Phil Ige, who became Provost of Leeward Community College who had been writing for years. Or Charles Kong who had books in libraries here. Not to mention Ozzie Bushnell and John Holt. So we were trying to establish that something was already there that we could build on, and to legitimize the newest local lit tradition. Local lit already had some recognition after Talk Story, after folks found out that Maxine Hong Kingston won a national award for her novel written while she taught school here, after we met all these older Asian Americans who had published books, and we were hoping to create something that would also gain the respect of the existing authoritative sources.

And toward that end, part of what we got out of Talk Story was that it’s not just about the writers, but you need the scholars, critics, and educators, and you need to have people discussing and writing about what was being creatively written, and not just say that it was part of a tradition, but say how it had progressed and how the tradition was advancing and becoming more contemporary and covering more themes and people, to say how effectively the literature was functioning in local culture, like in schools, as well as within the larger American culture. It was getting more complicated, and then you get all the critical theory involved. That was all new to us, but we sort of had it in mind as we were getting Bamboo Ridge going because it was all around us, it was happening. From World War II and through Statehood, there was a lot of focus on being American. After the ’60s there was more and more focus on being proud of being Local, then the Hawaiian Renaissance, all the local music, resurgence of hula and Hawaiian language. All kinds of people were naming their children ethnic names.

If you think back to those days, there was that move already nationwide, integrating Blacks into colleges and stuff like that, there was the thing about minorities and diversity in general. There were those different controversies over college standards of admissions, ethnic and class struggles, trying to make it easier for minorities to get in. Also, more women were going to college. Then, older non-traditional students, like Vietnam War vets. There was that whole thing related to standardized testing, and how it came into question whether standardized tests were really fairly testing intelligence, because tests might be biased against people of certain backgrounds, and soon many people agreed that tests were biased, like maybe not everybody had access to reading all the so-called great books. So, Bamboo Ridge’s and Talk Story’s goals reflected that too. A lot of things were coming together, dovetailing, and people say, “Oh, you guys were pioneers,” or “You started something new.” And yet, I always think we were just kind of doing what other people were doing nationwide at the time, and it wasn’t that unique except we applied it to our specific situation here.

Now that I look back, I guess I was trying to make changes for quite a while. There’s a pretty straight line from my protesting compulsory ROTC in high school, playing a Vietnam draft resister in a play, participating in anti-war sit-ins and marching in Washington in my college years, being an actual Conscientious Objector after college, doing alternative national service by becoming a VISTA community organizer in Wai‘anae and downtown Honolulu via the Legal Aid Society, getting involved with UH Ethnic Studies anti-development protests, going back to school and organizing UH Campus Center Board pro-local or Hawaiian events and meeting George Helm, organizing local literary readings, workshops, a radio show featuring Hawaiian singer/songwriters, a Ka Leo newspaper column, and working on the Hawai‘i Review, joining Poets in the Schools and becoming coordinator and often being assigned to the “underserved” target local audiences, pushing for Etheridge Knight, the first Black poet/toaster to perform here, attending Hawaiian sovereignty/Kaho‘olawe events and local music/stage/political comedy performances, getting involved with Talk Story, organizing pre Talk Story readings, heading the Talk Story anthology project including getting Darrell to work on it, joining with Darrell to start Bamboo Ridge, meeting Frank Chin during his extended stay here, learning more about local/Asian American ethnic writers often in connection with a Bamboo Ridge-related study group inspired by Frank Chin, taking over HLAC with a local slate and platform, continuing to push for more Poets in the Schools poets and programs, organizing the Writers of Hawai‘i conference at the Hawai‘i State Capitol for a week, lobbying for inclusion of local literature in public school and university curricula as well as in newspaper/media coverage, meeting with DOE administrators/teachers/librarians at district/state levels as well as lobbying the legislature, networking with more mainland Japanese/Chinese/Filipino writers, seeing more local writers like Darrell, Wing Tek Lum, Cathy Song, and myself get invited to mainland universities and conferences, often to the Association for Asian/Pacific American Studies annual conference, but also to Washington State, Michigan, Berkeley, San Francisco State, Harvard, and others, and generally continuing the push for local literature through Bamboo Ridge and PITS, less with HLAC. This would be from the late ’60s through the early ’80s. To me, one thing presented options to do the next thing, momentum started building in a literary activism direction, and it all started to flow together. For me, Bamboo Ridge was a natural extension of what I did before.

DCC: After it was published, how was it received? What changes did you folks see or make in those first years after publication?

EC: In the early years, especially after the connections we made with mainland writers and scholars at Talk Story, we did get subscriptions from those guys. That’s what stands out to me. I think that at one point there were more subscriptions or more class orders from institutions across the mainland than here at home. So, that was progress for us, validation, and maybe that’s how it had to go. After that happened, we continued to get recognition and continued to push. It didn’t take too long for a few people in the UH English Department to insert Darrell Lum into their curriculum. People like Craig Howes and Rob Wilson stand out for me, and then Cristina Bacchilega and Susan Schultz. They were already trying to integrate Pidgin, and I remember Craig Howes making the comparison early on, Well, if Mark Twain can use dialect from the South, why can’t we have this kind of dialogue in Darrell Lum’s stories?

When we got more and more into those institutions, then the DOE came along as well. I was already doing Poets in the Schools, which entailed a lot of readings and talks to teachers, principals, librarians, and administrators from the statewide level to the district level to the individual-cluster level to the individual-school level. So, that’s a lot of different meetings usually every week of the school year at a different school, and sometimes in summer with a lot of different teachers and administrators where I would have to talk to them about why Poets in the Schools was good for them to have, just to meet their own poetry curriculum guidelines, not to mention the growing multicultural literature movement across the country. That became a natural overlap with Bamboo Ridge and the local literature movement. I had the chance to talk to a lot of people in the DOE. As I mentioned earlier, there was a lot of controversy over Pidgin, whether it should be spoken in class at all. Some people were like, on the playground, it’s okay, but when you’re giving instruction, it has to be in standard English. But then how do you read Mark Twain to students?

For the first five, ten, fifteen years, there was a lot of momentum. All of those institutional organizations represented the old guard. Some of those began to change, and they were changing with the culture across the country and internationally. Maybe it just took a little longer to get here. We used to say back then, everything comes here a week late, like television shows and fads and songs. Universities, community colleges, the school system, the newspapers, a little bit on television and on the radio, and some bookstores. This was before the internet. When flying was a luxury and even long distance phone calls cost a fortune.

DCC: You talked about the institutional impact and becoming established, but what was the reaction like from the students and audiences when you were out there and sharing Bamboo Ridge with the community?

EC: You could say we were well-received. We got press, media attention. Whenever we went to events where audiences could hear us read, we sold books, even to mainland professors and classes. Locally, teachers were already mimeographing writers like Darrell, so there was an audience for Bamboo Ridge publications. I went to all the Longs, small bookstores, and miscellaneous other stores on the island, and we had quite a few takers. For a while, I was driving around the island with my old white Valiant that Darrell had stenciled the “bamboo ridge” logo on each door, wearing my “bamboo ridge” T-shirt. And I mentioned all the teacher workshops. But maybe that was our main focus, the educational market, not so much the popular market, though we were mentioned in the media fairly often and had a public television segment on us.

When we started, we became successful on our terms, the small local literary market and a bit of the national ethnic studies market. The literary/poetry market was never really large. From the very beginning, when we had maybe forty or fifty names of people that we could count on to be subscribers, we were thinking a small press run, maybe 100 copies, then we went to 500, but it took us a while to get beyond 1,000. In poetry circles, literary circles, and small press circles, that was good then, and we are still considered one of the oldest continuously running independent small presses, meaning, we’re not supported by the university or other large institution. We have to sell enough books and write enough grants and get enough financial support through donations. In that way, it was a success. But then, I always remember I went to this book fair, and there was this woman at the next table who wrote romance novels. She lived out on the North Shore. She had tons of books, and when she asked me how many books we sold, she just laughed and she kind of stopped talking to me because she could not believe that we were so respected, I guess? Or known, at least at that time? You know, we were getting our name out there. Everybody had heard of us.

But then, I always remember I went to this book fair, and there was this woman at the next table who wrote romance novels. She lived out on the North Shore. She had tons of books, and when she asked me how many books we sold, she just laughed and she kind of stopped talking to me because she could not believe that we were so respected, I guess? Or known, at least at that time? You know, we were getting our name out there. Everybody had heard of us.

But we were not making money, and that’s the thing—we had a plan, but it didn’t pencil out, like Wing would tell us, and every time we sold a book, we were losing money, it was just a matter of how much, and that doesn’t even count the money that we were not paying ourselves for our time. It was not a money-making proposition, and a lot of so-called artistic concerns are that way, labor of love. That’s why I mention that small press explanation; statistically, people that start independent small presses and magazines don’t last very long because it just takes too much time and costs too much money, and if you have a family to support, you eventually have to do something else, or things don’t work out very well. We’re an exception to last so long. In the end, when you’re getting attention from professors at Cambridge or universities in other countries, when you’re getting invited to speak at top-notch universities—Harvard, Berkeley, that kind of thing—or the Smithsonian Institute, there’s some kind of critical acclaim there and recognition of some kind of artistic literary success. That helps. It makes you feel you’re doing something right. But it’s not the same as functional commercial success and making money selling romance novels—that’s a different arena.

In the end, when you’re getting attention from professors at Cambridge or universities in other countries, when you’re getting invited to speak at top-notch universities—Harvard, Berkeley, that kind of thing—or the Smithsonian Institute, there’s some kind of critical acclaim there and recognition of some kind of artistic literary success.

We had idealistic concerns about nurturing local writers and local literature. That’s been our priority over practicality. Part of that is nurturing the local culture and nurturing the national and local academic understanding of the so-called minority cultures. We had to work on all these sorts of different levels. People sometimes make the analogy of food to literature. I think local literature differs from the cultural analogy people sometimes make with ethnic cuisine. When people taste some good poke, pretty soon it’s around the world. When people get a taste of good Pidgin, they don’t necessarily like it, and they don’t necessarily understand it. In fact, if they’re from far away, most of them don’t. When we were getting a lot of class orders, for instance, from the mainland in the California system, people were asking Darrell to include a tape in the book. Earlier, Joe Hadley’s chaloookyu eensai had that little plastic record in the back with his beautiful heavy Kaua‘i pidgin. To look at Darrell’s words, they couldn’t just read it, they had to have a local person in the class in California or Washington or Michigan, or wherever it was. People were comparing it to heavy Southern dialect—Could you really read that and make it sound like it’s supposed to sound, or Shakespeare, could you really read that out loud and make it sound authentic and understandable? It was just another kind of language. If it was worthy, you would go and figure it out, work with it. But why bother?

Local folks, on the other hand, would understand it and often like it. They could relate. Not that they were going to go out and buy it, but class assignments were doing well. We also found that if people attended an event and heard the writers read, then they would more likely buy a book. Fortunately, a lot of these folks were teachers, librarians, or educational administrators, and a lot of books were sold this way. Aside from college book orders, the DOE itself at one time was buying hundreds of books and holding workshops for various teachers who might be interested in using them. Aside from Dr. Ray Okimoto, who was the head of the DOE Artists in the Schools/Poets in the Schools, there was a literature specialist, Leila Naka, who was also very supportive and sponsored local writer presentations for teachers, as well as funding for class sets of books. In addition to teachers, there were many interested district specialists and principals as well, too many to name, to whom we owe a big mahalo. I think Debbie Ziemke and Bernie Williams kept me visiting Kalākaua Intermediate for ten years.

DCC: As the press became more established, who were some of the people that were instrumental in that success and continuing the momentum?

EC: That’s a hard question to answer. I just mentioned a bunch of DOE types above, and some young UH English Department folks. A lot of these different threads that we were trying to weave together were different people doing different things that were related. Talk Story (Stephen Sumida, Arnold Hiura, Marie Hara) came before Bamboo Ridge, but once we started, we worked with them and there was a lot of overlap. We were already working with HLAC and the State Foundation [on Culture and the Arts], other local writers, and the different people that were in educational institutions. So, it all kind of goes together in my mind since I was a working member of just about all the relevant groups at the time. There are too many people to name them all. First of all, of course, was teaming up with Darrell without whom we wouldn’t have Bamboo Ridge, but he’s getting interviewed too so I’ll let him speak for himself.

Wing Tek Lum was crucial. He was the treasurer when I was president of HLAC in 1980, so he was always there. He’d already spent time in college on the mainland and got to know various Asian American writers and knew what they were doing even before Talk Story. He was and still is a major contact for ethnic writers throughout the U.S. and Canada, especially Asian American ones. He’d published and won awards. Also, he was a businessman and was instrumental in getting Bamboo Ridge stabilized as an official non-profit corporation, with all the paperwork, accounting, taxes, and the nitty-gritty stuff required to maintain a company. He was instrumental in starting our Study Group and had already written poems about being ethnic, being a minority in America. He still sustains Bamboo Ridge in all ways now. He’s been a force from the start. Who knows where we’d be without him.

Another important person who was on our board at that time was Marie Hara. Marie was a Talk Story organizer, one of the original three, and then she became instrumental in helping us with what we were doing to refocus HLAC, and all of that helped with Bamboo Ridge. Of course, as a writer, we were always working with Marie. When we started our Study Group, Marie was part of that original group. That’s a little gray area, because in the beginning especially, the Study Group was not considered part of Bamboo Ridge. It technically is not connected. It was just a bunch of people, writers who wanted to meet and have a writers workshop, but after a while, people started associating it with Bamboo Ridge because it was mostly those same people who were really committed and really wanted to work on all these different aspects, whatever angle they were taking, and eventually Bamboo Ridge would publish most of them. We had common overlapping personal and professional goals. Marie was one of those people. From Talk Story, she already knew people. She was a little older than us and knew folks like Ozzie Bushnell, a professor of microbiology who had published novels on the mainland about Hawaiʻi. She could talk to different people and get them to be interested and maybe help out in different ways. Her organizational skills were great that way.

Early on, Marie taught a course on Asian American novels in the English department. With so many Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos in Hawai‘i it was something local people could relate to. There was the Literature of the Pacific course, but that was the London/Michener and sojourner literature, nobody from Hawaiʻi, not very current. Marie’s course was different. It was after Talk Story, and she pitched this course and got it approved. It was at least ten or eleven novels, fairly heavy reading for one course, but they only wanted to give it two credits instead of the usual three, so who’s going to sign up for that course? But she was willing to do that, and that was a big first. Later on, she continued in that career and by the time she retired from the university it had changed a lot. She was able to impact things. She was also well versed in different areas. She worked at the Academy of Arts and the Hawaiʻi Herald. She also edited the Intersecting Circles anthology of hapa writers with Nora Keller.

Being a writer, I remember her story about fourth grade ukus. They used to have those uku checks in elementary school. They combed every student’s hair and there’s all the implied prejudice around who had the lice, who was infecting the others with their lice. Also, she had that story about Roosevelt High School, the English standard school and having to “audition” to get in. When Darrell and I went to Kawānanakoa Intermediate School, which was one of the feeder schools for Roosevelt High, in front of the auditorium was a fountain, and engraved around the base of it was “Kawānanakoa Experimental School.” I wondered what the experiment was? Roosevelt was the “English Standard School” for those whose English was up to par. Marie also had stories about her Kohala background. She had that heavy Kohala Pidgin in contrast to a more urban Pidgin over here. I remember she had those plantation ghost stories. She also did research on picture brides before that became a big thing. She was a pioneer in different ways. She knew interesting topics that were developed further on, and of course, she was busy all the time and raising a family, she had a job, and Talk Story, then Bamboo Ridge. She was our president for a long time. She was a fixture. She was one of those people, like Wing Tek, like Darrell, who had always been there, and who dedicated a lot of their lives to local literature.

Another person that was around from early on was Gail Harada. She was in one of the pre-Talk Story readings that I organized in spring of 1978. She was included in the Talk Story anthology. Gail was around from the beginning. She was an officer of HLAC back then. She was involved in Poets in the Schools first, which is where I got to know her, then Talk Story and study group, and then later more directly with Bamboo Ridge. She did proofreading and editing. For a while she wrote grants. Another person who stayed in the background but did so much in so many different ways. It was something that people did just to be supportive, not because they wanted to make money.

I should mention others, like Cathy Song and then Joy Kobayashi-Cintrón, but how much time do I have? I’m sure I won’t be able to talk about all of our supporters.

DCC: Regarding the momentum, did it change, or did it slow? You mentioned that there were several Talk Story conferences, when did that stop?

EC: After that period of intense organizational activity on my part, from being a graduate student organizer in the early ’70s through being the president of HLAC in 1980, I started to feel burnout, and after ’81, I pushed less. Sumida had gone back to the mainland so that charismatic energy was mostly lost, though he did still support us in other ways. But Talk Story the organization was never the same. I missed his energy. After I graduated from UH, I started doing fewer UH-specific or HLAC programs, unless it helped with Poets in the Schools and my work in the DOE. As time went by, we tried to integrate more of my DOE-PITS work into Bamboo Ridge programming. The overall local literature or minority literature movement in the country was still going strong with all the focus on multiculturalism and diversity. There were still different people doing different kinds of conferences and publications here and there, but I think that we weren’t going to be able to continue developing Bamboo Ridge and running the full slate of programs at HLAC, so we stepped away from doing committee work for HLAC. We had had a history of conflict with HLAC over programming, but also I couldn’t continue organizing events for Bamboo Ridge and HLAC and Poets in the Schools. It was just too much, looking for funding sources and venues, writing grants for everything. Everybody else was young, starting families, doing their work, and looking for a job. I needed a better paying job.

So after Talk Story 1978, then a Big Island Talk Story conference the next year and Crack Me Up, a local comedy conference, then we took over HLAC in 1980 and had the Writers of Hawai‘i conference at the State Capitol Auditorium—for my part, big conferences slowed down after that. There were a couple more on local lit, like the one at KCC [Kapi‘olani Community College -Ed.], and from there the focus on redefining local literature with a focus on prioritizing Hawaiian literature was building, and criticism of BR for not doing enough to make that happen. Bamboo Ridge after a while started doing its own large writers conferences, more about writing than on critical theory, but it was a lot of work to do so we didn’t do them very often and stopped after I think four. We were still attending AAAS [Association for Asian American Studies -Ed.], usually on the mainland, trying to send BRP writers to each one. When they held it here one year, I put together several panels with over a dozen BR writers. We still did smaller educational teacher or librarian events. So to answer your question, the overall momentum continued in the big picture, maybe shifted in focus, but things were still evolving.

Maybe we were successful enough that a lot of our original focus was not really needed in the same way. Once people accepted the idea that local writers were worthy of being studied in class from grade school up through grad school, what more did we need to do other than continue with our publishing and educational efforts? Did we need to produce large-scale conferences too? The DOE or UH or professional organizations could support local writers and literature by finding the books, inviting the writers to come, and teaching the curriculum that included them. A lot of what I call the ladders for people to climb up to get somewhere that they could call successful, a lot of that was now established. For a while, the HLAC budget supported diverse writers, and UH sponsored the venue and refreshments. If we released a book and put out a PR announcement, the paper would likely review it and make announcements for readings, so we didn’t have to push so hard. Maybe that’s what happened on the mainland. Soon there were Ethnic Studies departments all over the country and in all of the universities. That movement succeeded. In a way, it was because we were successful with our specific goals that we didn’t have to push so hard. As I said before, we were part of a larger movement. Others were picking up the threads.

At the same time, a lot of what happened evolved from the need for diversity agendas to be refined. At first, we were focused a lot on the old local versus haole paradigm, the Western canon versus local literature paradigm, then it soon became splintered into the different ethnic or other subgroups, and this happened in different ways in different places on the mainland too. It reminds me of the seventies when some local women poets went to a women’s conference, the “Third World” women’s conferences on the mainland, “third world,” what was that? How do you define “third world” in America? And were class or ethnic issues more important than feminist ones? So, a few local poets went, and I heard there was a splintering effect, how do you define local in the Third World, and who is it and who has what place in the hierarchy, because a lot of it was about “our” power and political positioning. Who is the struggling minority? Are women’s issues more important than ethnic ones? And I think that’s what happened here when the Hawaiian movement became the more important movement, which was actually a shared feeling. From the time of local land struggles, local eviction struggle movements, plantation villages and communities being developed for suburbs, that’s what it was. Various locals, but with a lot of Hawaiian issues. Kalama Valley, Chinatown, Ota Camp, Waiahole Valley, Kahoʻolawe, Con Con [Constitutional Convention] in ’78, Hawaiian language being established. There was a lot of local support for issues affecting Hawaiians. People want things to be pono. As they say, you might be related.

…And this happened in different ways in different places on the mainland too.

I would say that the original movement was later deconstructed into its parts. Of course, there’s tension and conflict and different sets of opinions, goals, and strategies. And there’s a lot of diversity, but the general idea of diversity and multiculturalism or pluralism, or whatever, it’s turned into this other thing, more detailed, if you will, it might be the natural, organic progression, like entropy. Of course, this is all just my personal point of view. If you ask other people, you’ll get different perspectives.

DCC: That’s probably right around the mid-90s when that splintering or deconstructing is happening and that criticism is happening. Did you want to comment on how that felt?

EC: How I felt? At the risk of getting too personal again, the biggest issue of that period for me would be all the controversy around Lois-Ann Yamanaka, who I first met when I did my Poets in the Schools workshops in her classes when she was a teacher at Kalākaua Intermediate in Kalihi. Nationally, there were all kinds of interethnic perspectives that were being discussed at that time, so because we published her book [Issue #58/59: Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre -Ed.], and critics focused on her Filipino characters, we were at the center of that controversy. My perspective on that is, within the Asian-Pacific American Studies association, that’s continually held annual national conferences since the ’70s, the original controversy in that group was always around Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin and around authentic presentations of culture, negative stereotypes, and whether a literary work was supporting or buying into the dominant culture’s perspective, and continuing a self-perpetuating negative critique of whatever one’s own minority culture was, or of other minorities. There was an element of what in plantation union organizing days was recognized as playing off the minority groups against each other, to distract from the larger issues. That never went away. That was always there.

There is always going to be interethnic conflict, right? That’s life. Almost every year someone would do another PhD on it and present another paper on Kingston and Chin. There were many such panels, not least of all because both those people were still alive and writing, and Frank Chin was a very loud voice, and he would never stop. He would always put out something new, and someone would react to it. I think that was sort of starting to peter out after twenty years, then Lois got into a very similar situation where people were saying that she was perpetuating negative stereotypes of Filipino men the way Chin was saying Kingston had perpetuated negatives stereotypes of Chinese men, or earlier, some Black critics had said Alice Walker’s The Color Purple was perpetuating negatives stereotypes about Black men. So, then you started having that same phenomenon of a bunch of different people writing dissertations or doing panel presentations about Lois. Then there was that big conference in Hawaiʻi where she was given an award by the AAAS, but there was a bunch of people who wanted to take it away and who turned their backs on her when she was getting the award on stage. It was a horrible time for her and for us. I mean, I can understand having different points of view, but I didn’t think the reaction to Lois had to be so strong.

That was part of my feeling of burnout. First of all, I didn’t need this. Second of all, it was happening because people were now being heard. A lot of people were getting published that in our early days would not have been published, locally and nationally. Lois was nationally recognized, awarded, and written about. And internationally too. The movement had gotten to the point where so many writers were being recognized and studied, you’re naturally going to have conflict. They say that you know you’ve made it when you become the target. Actually, I felt like it was time to let it go. Personally, I was tired of doing it. I was still looking for a paying job.

DCC: So, how do we get to today? How did you folks move from that splintering and that burnout? Why did you folks continue to publish rather than close the press?

EC: For one thing, we were successful enough that there were people doing the work. Let’s be clear, from the start Bamboo Ridge has always been much more than me and Darrell. There were enough others who were committed. Wing Tek was always holding down the fort with the books and being the treasurer and having meetings in his office. Other people were doing other aspects of distribution, publicity, educational workshops, class visits, and conferences, a lot by Joy Kobayashi-Cintrón and Xander Cintrón. They were and are indispensable; we wouldn’t have come this far without them. So, there were a lot of people who were apparently getting something that they wanted out of keeping it going, and these people, they were smart, they mostly had gotten paying jobs or were somehow supporting themselves. For me, it had to be financially successful because it was the main thing that I was doing in almost all aspects of my life; it was my job, just not a well-paying job. Also, it was successful enough without me; I couldn’t personally stop it myself if I wanted. I brought up shutting down the press more than once, but others wanted to keep it going, and were willing to do more of the work. There were even times when I announced at readings that we’re looking for stuff for our next issue and I hope you’ll submit stuff because it might be my last issue. [laughs] But that didn’t work. Darrell and Wing and others really worked hard to sustain the press. They deserve all the credit. To find a job, I had to pull back more and more and eventually that’s what I did.

There were even times when I announced at readings that we’re looking for stuff for our next issue and I hope you’ll submit stuff because it might be my last issue. [laughs] But that didn’t work.

But for the most part, there’s some structure there, and it’s not just an organizational structure, there are people there and a spirit there and a history there, and a desire there for people to want to keep doing what we were doing. There were always people who wanted to publish, and in a way, we were successful like that. We didn’t sell a million dollars worth of books, but something is going on that’s like community theater, it doesn’t go away. People don’t really think they’re going to become rich movie stars, but people like to act, or people like to write plays, and so the community arts keep going that way, and there’s enough connection to the academic level like that and the national level. We had enough recognition that writers kept getting invited to respected institutions of higher learning and international events. But then it becomes something, personally for me, an issue of what I need to do. That’s why I started stepping away from my duties.

DCC: When did you get a job and why do you think you remained the spokesperson for the press even when you pulled back?

EC: We became so successful that at one point we became a known quantity. Even if people didn’t read our books, they knew who we were. They had heard of us. We all had exposure in local television and newspapers and radio, and all the school visits. We got everywhere. Local writers were assigned in college classes across the country and actually being paid to make visits not only in America, but in other countries as well. TV specials were done on us. Scholars were writing about Bamboo Ridge books and writers. All that had worked, and I was often the person promoting or organizing it, especially in the early days, again, because I needed to get support for all our activities and programs. The phone was in my room. I’m embarrassed to say that it seems like I was always trying to get my face in the news, because that was one of the ways to push our cause, our agenda, and if I’m the one who’s doing Poets in the Schools going from school to school and sometimes island to island every week, then challenging the English department or Department of Education to change its curriculum, lobbying the legislature, then running HLAC committees or programs, then taking over HLAC, then co-founding Bamboo Ridge with Darrell and creating conferences. Plus my name is always listed as an editor, and now with Google, my name comes up far too often, mostly for old stuff.

Since I was always doing that stuff then of course I’m going to be the so-called face. A professor once called me the father of local literature. I was so flattered. I can see how that happened. But I’m a bit embarrassed that it happened that way. It’s like hearing your own recorded voice. You sound awful. [It’s like this oral history, so embarrassing, yet poets and writers are putting themselves out there all the time in their writing. -EC] But it had to be done, enough people liked what we were saying, and I was enough of a sucker to be pushed into that position by Darrell and Wing and other people. I always used to talk to Darrell about how I’m the village crank or the village idiot because I did get into conflicts for speaking out against some of my former professors and HLAC presidents, the editor of the paper, DOE administrators, and even teachers. I did experience a lot of conflict later on with the Asian American Studies Association and stuff around Lois and stereotyping. Both good and bad, it’s publicity, but especially in this internet age, it’s hard to just disappear, and people would still call me or ask me for an interview for a student paper or a research paper that someone assigned them. It’s just started to fade recently. But if I had the chance, I was still proud, still wore my original Bamboo Ridge or Talk Story ’78 shirts at conferences. And the official phone was in my house for so long. It was hard to just walk away especially because I still believed in what we were doing and what is continuing now. It took on a life of its own, but since I was around early on, people in the field remember me or use a book I edited or published. I’m not saying I don’t believe in the cause anymore, I think it’s definitely worth continuing to do. I’m just looking for the next generation to carry on. I’m glad that people are taking over, very glad. I just personally don’t have the energy to do it now. I’m retired. I don’t want to have to oversee a grant that’s due. I have to give credit to Darrell, Wing, Joy, and others who have kept things going for so long.

DCC: Were there any moments during that time when you were teaching that stood out to you?

EC: Most recently, one of the things that stands out to me at UH West O‘ahu was they had this wonderful thing that Dan Boylan imported from his own college background, which is the Senior Project. It’s like an honor’s thesis but for every student, and it can be more practicum focused or more research paper oriented. If it’s a practicum, it must end with a paper. I had this one student from Wai‘anae who would always say things like, “Why you always gotta bring your UH Mānoa standards here. Half the time, we donno what you talking about, you know? We just sitting here.” She would just tell me that in the middle of class, “don’t bring your UH–Mānoa standards to West Oʻahu,” right Raquel? She ended up asking me to help her do her Senior Project because she wanted to do a bibliography of female Ethnic Hawaiian writers published in Hawaiʻi. First of all, to have her choose that general topic was great. She could have picked anything. I wasn’t even her advisor at first. I thought, Oh, that’s pretty good. So, how are you going to establish that they’re Hawaiian, because when we publish people we don’t ask them, so how are you going to know? That was one problem, so it ended up narrowing it a lot because it was like only people who were known to be Hawaiian. Then it was like sometimes the writer’s theme was Hawaiian and she really liked a piece, but she didn’t know for sure who the writer was, so she had a lot of trouble with it, but it was really interesting to me that she thought of that and we had great discussions. She started expanding her categories. And, later, she became a public school teacher with this in her background. So that kind of thing I liked. And there were a few other people like that. After taking the classes, they got to try to apply it to their own backgrounds.

I should also say I was assigned to run the tutoring and writing center for several years, and there was a lot of reward in that, helping students form their thesis ideas and arguments. I had a couple of student tutors who were just such good people, and when you’re sharing an office and working with them and developing ways to better help students with their papers—all that can be a rewarding experience. I also remember people in our largely non-traditional student body writing about the struggles of being a single mom, being victims of domestic violence, a revealing story about being forced to take a driver education course after committing road rage—some very personal things. Other times, some great romance or relationship stories or family stories. Of course, it can be terribly unrewarding as well. Many students were not yet prepared to take first-year writing courses, which created lots of problems. How do you grade someone with totally inconsistent spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and they say they have no time to make revisions, but it’s a good story?

If you mean teaching in the Poets in the Schools program, that’s another thing. There, I was a guest in class for one week who did not have to assign grades and could read any poems I thought they’d appreciate, and then get them to relate and talk about their own lives. It was great. I could be entertaining and funny as long as it led to a writing exercise. Then, I could hit them with something more serious, and they all knew about divorce, death, being alone, or getting lickens. We could share the varieties of lickens and laugh about it in class. Whoa, the guava stick! The paddle behind tutu’s door with our names carved on ’em. I read a lot of poems written by other local students, often published in the statewide annual Haku Mele o Hawai‘i anthologies, and then from their own classes that week. With older students, there were poignant poems about being a teen, or a minority, or finding love. Or thoughtful ones about the meaning of life or if there is a god. We could go anywhere. “I have seen the best minds of my generation—”

I remember being invited to dinner by a 4th grader, or to the wedding of a couple of high school seniors, and tons of lei and thank you cards and posters. I remember on Big Island a class doing a farewell hula performance for me in class. I remember feeling someone tugging the back of my shirt tail in Safeway and saying, “Chocolate spit,” because that phrase came up in our exercise on using all five senses. I remember on Kaua‘i a star running back who curled his body around the small microphone and recited from memory his Pidgin poem about da reef screaming for da taste of his feet for the class reading on the last day, even though the poem was written all in standard English spellings. I remember a guy coming up to me in a restaurant and telling me it was because of my class visit where I spoke Pidgin that he felt it was okay to pursue acting. I remember reading James Wright poems in class with Caroline Garrett about the jewel in your body and one of the students somehow wrote about how her father left them but she lived with her mother and what else can anybody expect? I remember the student writing about his father being used as a bomb in war, or another pleading not to shoot her father on the street just because he had a funny name. So many memories. The one about licking the cat all over pretending to be the cat’s mother, or watching her grandpa sitting under the mango tree killing flies with cigar spit. On and on. Those were the days.

Maybe I should say I would always try to have some kind of structural basis for my lessons, and I’d talk about imagery as something like T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative or constellation of images, and to make connections to real imagery in their lives that way. So even if I wasn’t talking about local lit per se, I was often having them create some local poetry from their lives. From early on, I remember getting the old autumn leaves cliche poems, or asking them what they find in the nearby streams and being told trout. Once you ask them what they really find in the streams, you get local imagery and it means more to them, it correlates to an idea or feeling of an actual life event. In the old days, maybe I’d tie it to what was known as a Kodak Moment, a snapshot that captures in a split second more than a thousand words can.

DCC: Any of them ever make it into Bamboo Ridge?

EC: Yes. Of course, there was the Small Kid Time Hawaii collection [Issue #12 -Ed.], as well as a couple of other BR publications, like Growing Up Local [Issue #72 -Ed.]. There are at least a couple of former students of mine in the 45th anniversary issue in 2023.

As for the college students at UHWO, I always tried not to be too much of a factor in that, not wanting to make grades be in any way connected to publication in my magazine, to be objective and let students decide to submit their work on their own, and let Darrell have more say if they did. There was one story that I remember a lot. “‘Au‘a ‘Ia,” by Mary Beth Aldosa [Issue #84: 25th Anniversary -Ed.]. A story about a hula hālau. A lot of people liked that story and it was read on a radio show [Hawai‘i Public Radio’s Aloha Shorts -Ed.].

And when I was teaching at UH–Mānoa, there were a few students who we published, the most well-known of course being Lee Tonouchi. He was the hardest working student I’ve ever had. He wanted to have an office meeting with me every week, and in the beginning I’d give him a local literature-related book to read and he’d read it and want another one the next week. It was like he did his own unofficial tutorial course for no credit, just for the love of it. He always did his assignments and wanted feedback and then he’d revise and argue and revise or not. And you know the rest. He’s one of the funniest guys you’ll ever meet. Good heart. When I’ve invited him to read for a class or school activity over the years, he always had his whole performance totally memorized. It’s hard to forget when a talented student like that becomes so good and so famous. I’m glad I was able to help him in some little way.

Back to Session #3 Coming soon: Session #5

Eric Chock: Poet, writer, editor, teacher, and co-founder of Bamboo Ridge Press (1978) along with Darrell Lum. He spent twenty years as a Poet in the Schools, visiting most of the public schools in the state. He taught in the University of Hawaiʻi system for sixteen years, retiring as an Associate Professor in Humanities at the University of Hawaiʻi West Oʻahu campus. He has received individual awards from the Hawaiʻi Literary Arts Council, the Hawaiʻi State Legislature, the Hawaiʻi Alliance for Arts Education, the Hawaiʻi Institute for Public Affairs, and the Association for Asian American Studies, as well as awards for Bamboo Ridge Press and Poets in the Schools from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Donald Carreira Ching was born and raised in Kahaluʻu, on the island of Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi. His poetry and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in publications such as StoryQuarterly, Every Day Fiction, and RHINO. In 2015, his debut novel, Between Sky and Sea: A Family’s Struggle, was published by Bamboo Ridge Press. In 2018, he received the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, Emerging Writer, and in 2021 and 2022, he was a finalist in the Rick DeMarinis Short Story Contest. He is currently working on a short story collection, Blood Work and Other Stories.

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