Exploring the art of prose


Author: Melissa Llanes Brownlee

Author’s Note

I drop you into the middle of the Pacific Ocean with only my words to guide you. You might think I’m not a reliable guide, but I’m the only one you can trust. I offer you words that sound a lot like English but are not. You grab onto my images, my characters, my languages, my history, my myths. Your grip is, hopefully, steady and firm as you land amongst lava rocks and churches, family and fear. Breathe in my mother tongue. Breathe out English. The choices I make guide you through an unfamiliar landscape shaded in familiarity—the church service, the proud mother, the preening son, the love lives of adults, the phone call to family—capturing for me, and for you, moments of my life that have, could have, may have been.

Recently, I was asked when I most often use my mother tongue, Hawai’ian Pidgin Creole (Hawai’ian Creole English), and my answer has always been when I’m angry or drunk or both, because it takes something extreme for me to code-switch back to it. Hawai’i is the only state in the union that has two official languages, English and Hawai’ian. Pidgin is not even considered an official language by the state, but it is used by almost every person born and raised in Hawai’i. At one time, I believed Pidgin was just a dialect of English, but it’s not. It is its own language with its own rules.

I rarely speak Pidgin as I have been away from Hawai’i for almost twenty-four years. I mainly use it when I write. The first time I ever experimented with using Pidgin was in my first short story workshop with Anthony Doerr at Boise State University. I wanted to capture the feel of growing up in Hawai’i and I thought maybe writing the dialogue in Pidgin would add to the narrative, a way to mark the differences in social and cultural interactions, how this place, this setting, was different from the standard baseline setting of most literary fiction, especially anything set in Hawai’i. I wanted to reveal through this narrative voice the truth behind the “paradise” everyone outside of Hawai’i has believed for so long, the truth of colonialism, religious indoctrination, systemic racism, poverty, existing behind the tourist fiction written about or set in Hawai’i. These three micros continue that tradition I started then, expanding the dual narrative threads I have created throughout my writing career—growing up in Hawai’i as well as not living there anymore.

In “Sacrament,” I wanted to capture a moment filled with family, class, and gender dynamics in the setting of a Mormon church service in the islands. I was raised Mormon and it is a widespread religion throughout the Pacific Islands, not just Hawai’i. When the first missionaries came to our shores, including Protestants and Mormons, they converted our spoken language into a written one through their translations of the Bible. There are two LDS temples in Hawai’i, one on Oahu and the other on Hawai’i in my hometown of Kona. This fact is important to know in order to understand how embedded the LDS belief system is in Hawai’i, as temples are not cheap and still there are enough people paying tithings to build one in my little fishing village. In this piece, I delve into religious acculturation and the prioritization of gender based upon it.

In “Living on Stilts,” I also explore familial relationships but instead of the church I am unpacking the chthonic/animus belief system embedded in modern-day Hawai’ian culture. The belief in Pele, the Hawai’ian fire goddess, is still as strong today as it was for my ancestors. We might not literally worship her and offer her tribute, but we understand the nature of living on an active volcano. Her stories offer warnings but also illustrate the subsumption of the feminine in the past with the strength of the feminine in the present through familial as well as sexual relationships.

Finally, the last micro is a breathless nonsentence with a more personal connection as it’s on the line between fiction and creative nonfiction for me. There are moments when I talk to someone back home or when I visit that I have to consciously switch to Pidgin to fit in, to not make the other person feel uncomfortable, reminding me of a childhood wrought with the perils of not speaking the right way at the right time, in Pidgin or in English. The underlying threat in this piece was a constant growing up. Sounding too haole would get you beaten up. Sounding too local would get you dirty lickins. It was a game you had to learn to play, a skill you had to master, which I guess is why it makes sense that I became a writer, because here I am code-switching in my writing and living my mother tongue on the page, even though I don’t live it in my everyday life anymore.


MELISSA LLANES BROWNLEE (she/her) is a native Hawai’ian writer living in Japan. She has work published and forthcoming in The RumpusFractured LitFlash FrogGigantic SequinsCream City ReviewThe Cincinnati Review’s miCRo series, Indiana Reviewswamp pink, and Moon City Review. Her work has also been honored by inclusion in The Best Small FictionsBest Microfiction, and the Wigleaf Top 50. Read Hard Skin: Stories from Juventud Press and Kahi and Lua: Tales of the First and the Second from Alien Buddha. Melissa tweets @lumchanmfa.