Lee A. Tonouchi
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Ashley Nakanishi Uses Her Language in Okinawan American Literature
I stay talking story with Ashley Nakanishi, 29, author of da new young-adult novel “The Last Sakura: Tales of the Yuta” from Lo‘ihi Press, with dakine full-color illustrations by Toni Silva.
LT: You stay kinda well known for your performances as one slam poet. And your 2016 debut poetry publication “Blood, Sweat and Breastmilk” dealt with topics like sex and trauma. What made you switch gears? What wuz da genesis for this Okinawan-themed story written in prose?
AN: That’s a great question. I still enjoy writing poetry. In fact, I was just beginning to explore more of my Okinawan roots when I was performing heavily, so there are poems about Okinawa in “Blood, Sweat and Breastmilk” as well. The motivation to write an Okinawan-themed story has always been there, but poetry wasn’t the right vessel for what I wanted to do with the ideas I had.
This all started with “talking story” during Obon and feeling inspired to do more. I was working at the [University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa] Center for Okinawan Studies at the time and the [then] director, Joyce Chinen, told me I should use my writing to talk about something “important.” She and I shared long talks about the Battle of Okinawa, about perpetuating Okinawan arts and about how our language is dying.
As a mother, I wanted my children to have something of their culture to hold on to. I worry that it is our generation that has the responsibility to continue to perpetuate our culture, language and ways. Or watch it become extinct.
LT: I wuz so happy for see that your story get creatures from Okinawan mythology inside like da shïsä and da kijimunä. I familiar with those guys, but you had one noddah one called da Yamamayä , which sounds like da real animal, da Iriomote wildcat, but yours is humongous and get magical powers. Is that character based on traditional folklore or your own inventions?
AN: I’m so glad you liked them as much as I do! Okinawa has so many fun bits of folklore, yeah? The yamamayä is actually the Uchinaaguchi term for “Iriomote cat” better known as “Iriomote-yamaneko” to Japanese, so you’re spot on! I spent so much time daydreaming about how to bring her to life. People may not know this but the Iriomote cat is one of the few indigenous species left on [Iriomote Island, the largest island in the Yaeyamas of Okinawa]. There are only 150 or something like that exist today.
When I first read that I thought, “Wow, that is so mysterious,” and I tried doing more research to see if there was folklore involving the cat. But there was nothing. Only that the people of Iriomote deeply revered the cat. So I felt like I had to make a powerful character as an ode to this elusive and mysterious Iriomote cat and thus, Yamamayä was born.
LT: Your book get lotta dialogue in Okinawan! You wuz born in Okinawa, ah? So you grew up speaking Uchinäguchi?
AN: You remembered! Yes, I was born in Chatan-cho, Okinawa, but lived in Naha-Urasoe Miyagi village. My obä was fluent in both [regional languages] and my mom speaks a kind of champurü version. But when we moved to America, we were encouraged to speak more English, and our native tongues fell by the wayside. But I am taking classes with Brandon Ing on the Ukwanshin Kabudan page and I’m learning so much! I highly encourage their classes on Facebook to anyone who’s interested in Okinawan culture (see facebook.com/Loochoonukwa/ for more on this local organization to revive Uchinanchu performing arts, identity and language).
LT: In da story, da main character stay described as häfu (part white, part Asian). Is häfu one derogatory term? Or is it just descriptive like how we use hapa in Hawai‘i? In Okinawa you ever got teased for being häfu?
AN: Yes, it’s just like hapa. I think in many cultures, being biracial carries a kind of stigma; that idea definitely gets explored in the book. Living in two worlds can make it difficult to find a sense of belonging to any one culture or community. I never really got teased in Okinawa for being häfu. Mostly in America. Texas, specifically, was very difficult for us. I grew up doing Okinawan folk dance, eisä and listened to my mom sing songs as she played her koto and sanshin. But year after year, the words stopped registering. It goes to show the saying was true: Nmarijima nu kutuba wasshï në kuni n wasshïn – Forgetting your native tongue means forgetting your native country. And that was mostly a self-imposed shame.
LT: When you came Hawai‘i? What school you went? What year you grad? I just curious cuz your story get lotta Pidgin dialogue. How long took you for learn Pidgin?
AN: We visited as kids but I came to Hawai‘i in 2008 to live permanently. But I’ve lived all over: Okinawa, Texas, New Mexico, California, etc. As a teen, I was a troublemaker, so my dad sent me up to live with my family in Pälolo to finish high school, hoping my uncle would get my act right. He did. As far as schools go in Hawai‘i, I went to Kaimukï, Roosevelt and grad from McKinley in 2010. So much of what I wrote was based on actual phrases I heard around the house or school from my cousins, aunties and uncles them. So as far as Pidgin goes, I tried to keep it as authentic as possible. As far as learning, let’s just say there were lots of laughs, stink eyes and confused looks along the way.
LT: Even though your mom and grandma talk Uchinäguchi, you still wen go get Okinawan-language advocate Brandon Ufugusuku-Ing from Ukwanshin Kabudan for go check ‘em ova. Wuz there any instances where your family’s way of talking Uchinäguchi nevah coincide with da way da teacher said? If so, how you wen reconcile that?
AN: Sweet baby Buddha, I cannot tell you how many times my aunty or mom wen tell me something was spelled like this — but Brandon said it should be like that. Brandon is my absolute go-to guy and I trust his opinion 100%. Uchinäguchi began as an oral language and is still evolving as a written one; at the end of the day, Brandon literally co-wrote the 2nd edition of the Uchinäguchi dictionary, so I wasn’t going to argue with him.
LT: In your book, da grandma character get hajichi hand tattoos. People say hardly get any old people in Okinawa with that anymore, but I know you told me your relative get and she still alive! Is she like 134 years old or someting? When you wuz growing up, what did she tell you about her tattoos?
AN: It’s my great-great-aunt who has them! She’s also from the Naha-Urasoe district. Definitely not 134 but well into her 100s! I remember her hands looked as if you smudged ash on them when I last saw her [when I was] in high school. When I visited her I was always told not to ask about the tattoos and when I did, I remember kachan always shooing me away because I was probably making her feel shame. I plan to stay in Okinawa for a few months when we can travel again and hope to see her. When I do, I’ll let you know!
LT: Da grandma character in your book is one yuta, which is one Okinawan shaman that can see spirits and stuff. You get anybody in your family who’s one yuta? How you wen learn about da tings one yuta does?
AN: Hoooo Lee, you trying to get all the juicy details, ah?! Yes, but they died years ago. I learned a lot from my family and then the rest from research. It’s hard because not everything computes from our culture to western words. We are a people of storytelling. So much information is handed down to us in words and unfortunately fades with the minds of those who keep it.
LT: In da back of your book get some instructional materials, like common Uchinäguchi sayings and Okinawan proverbs. When you wen realize that it wuz important for perpetuate Uchinäguchi?
AN: It was really a culmination of people like you, Eric Wada, Brandon and Joyce and of living in Hawai‘i, where the Hawaiian people were able to revitalize their own native language, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i. I felt like, if they could do that after all those years of oppression, then we can, too. And their continued perseverance gives me hope for Uchinäguchi to be removed from the endangered-language list.
LT: Spoiler alert: You leave da reader hanging, brah. Da story ends on one cliffhanger. How many parts going get in this series?
AN: I always love-hated stories with a cliffhanger. “The Last Sakura” is a four-part series, so readers can expect to see a few more books along the way. I’m about halfway through the second one and I have been having wayyyy too much fun writing it!
Note: This book is available for $12.95 at ashleynakanishi.com (or $10.95 for the e-Book).
Lee A. Tonouchi is da author of da children’s picture book “Okinawan Princess: Da Legend of Hajichi Tattoos” that won one Skipping Stones Honor Award. An’den he also wrote da poetry collection “Significant Moments in da Life of Oriental Faddah and Son: One Hawai‘i Okinawan Journal” that won one Association for Asian American Studies book award.