“Lit on the Radio Waves, Holding Space in Hawai‘i”

First published in The Asian American Literary Review

Copyright (c) 2017 by Anjoli Roy


The first time I ran my radio show during daylight hours rather than my middle-of-the-night training slot, I’d only been DJing for a month. A friend had asked me to take over the second half of her three-hour show that aired during the afternoon post-work rush. My show, It’s Lit on KTUH Honolulu, features writers to love and the music their work plays best around. I cobbled together a lit recap from the first three episodes of the show, which included lit and curated music by No‘u Revilla,[1] a queer Kanaka Maoli poet, and Craig Santos Perez, an American Book Award–winning Chamorro poet, two features that I felt strongly conveyed how literature, spoken in the author’s voice, and music could go so well together.

When I arrived to KTUH that afternoon in December 2016, I was surprised to find the station humming with activity, unlike my typical Sunday three to six a.m. slot. A DJ was in the production room recording an event for a community calendar, trainees were touring the station, other DJs were hanging out in the vinyl vault. All of them were listening to the DJ on air. Already, the number of people who would be listening to me live on the radio had doubled. And that of course didn’t count the number of folks tuned in on their car radios, snarled in Honolulu’s notorious evening traffic, or via their computers, their home radios, or their mobile devices. The ʻukulele from Kealiʻi Reichel’s “No Luna Featuring Iwalani Hoomanawanui” strummed hard against my ribs as I scrambled to set up my computer.

“You’re gonna be great,” my friend Paige Okamura, aka DJ Mermaid, said, giving me a quick hug before she ducked out of the air room. “Remember to give out the call line!” she added over her shoulder with an encouraging nod.

I nodded back at her with a plastic grin, more than a little nervous.

The air room door slammed shut. I remembered with a jolt that folks listen to the radio during rush hour, and they call in too. I gripped my word-for-word transcript, complete with cheesy ad libs, which I had gotten used to writing for each show to stay on track and keep myself company. When I hopped on the mic, I introduced myself. I aired my call for materials:

I’ve got a soft spot for people-of-color writers, Indigenous writers, LGBTQI writers, intersectional writers, the-personal-is-political writers, ally-is-a-verb writers, drawing-on-our-ancestors writers, heart-wrenching writers, the-revolution-won’t-be-televised writers, sexy writers, boundary-exploding writers, healing writers, community-building writers, genuine-security writers, all-of-the-above writers.

Because art, like the personal, is always political, I am interested in lit with a purpose. I am interested in lit that draws ancestors close, that reminds us of how they hold us and that in telling their stories we can hold them too, that underscores our genealogical connections, that reflects lived experiences in the body (that oftentimes-fraught domain), that speaks out against racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, that looks attraction and desire in the face, that remembers how to slow dance, that tends garden boxes for decolonial love, that creates new space, that builds community, that centers love of land and ocean, that centers Oceania, that knows the power of our imaginations and is devoted to genuine security, that remembers what it means to be a grove of trees, that invites us to talk with those difficult, complex emotions we’ve been avoiding and reminds us that we’re safe to feel them, that reminds us that one of the world’s greatest fictions is that we are alone. I am interested in featuring lit that reminds us that we are not alone.

I am interested in pieces that are in support of protectors of water and land, that are about the power of nonviolent resistance, including what it means to be prayerful and guided and vigilant within ongoing movements for sovereignty, that speak truth to power, that center love of water and land and ancestors.

And I’m always super excited to hear the musical choices that writers pair with their dope writing. . . .

Then I played some warm-up songs and finally dove headlong into the featured lit and music, which gave me space to breathe, to feel my toes warming the cold air room floor.

I’d been following the fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would drill beneath Lake Oahe in North Dakota, threatening the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Worldwide water protectors had converged at Standing Rock to support Indigenous sovereignty over waters and lands. The literature I sought for the radio show responded to Water Is Life, one of the rallying cries from Standing Rock, and was in support of water protectors.

No‘u introduced her documentary poem for Standing Rock by saying that she drew from the supplies list for Sacred Stone Camp: “Indigenous people and their allies are defending themselves against state-sanctioned violence, desecration of their sacred lands and waters, environmental racism, and corporate greed. These fights are hard enough without also having to fight hunger and cold. What do we need? This poem in progress shares some practical answers for those defending Oceti Sakowin lands and waters while also considering spiritual and community needs.” No‘u added her poem to a playlist that included an amplified poem by the late I-Kiribati and African American poet Teresia Teaiwa titled “For Salome” and the songs “Coming Home” by Lizz Wright and “LSD” by Jamila Woods.

Craig had given me a recording of his poem “Chanting the Water,” which he said was “in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and all peoples protecting the sacred waters of this earth.” He paired the poem with two thoughtful songs, “All Life Is Sacred” by Dåkot-ta and “Much to Do (Back to Guahan)” by Erica Benton.

No‘u and Craig’s features glowed. I felt so grateful for them—for giving words to Standing Rock water protectors, for articulating solidarity in a moment when I felt I had no words, for lending their actual voices to their words too so listeners could hear them directly. And, yet, I was so nervous when I got on the mic, I didn’t announce our request line even once. But regular listeners knew how to call. And call they did.

One caller exclaimed, “I was walking around the capital when that poem went on! It was my last day on the job and I wanted everyone for hear it!”

After I aired Craig’s poem, another caller phoned in and said, “I was pounding my steering wheel. He was getting it so good. I didn’t wanna get out of my car!”

The goal of any radio show is to hook listeners so deeply that, when they arrive to their destinations, they don’t want to get out of their cars. This is the driveway moment. And from my first experience on air when folks were actually tuned into It’s Lit, I’d had a taste of callers letting me know the show could achieve that. I was completely bowled over. This was my vision for the show, the heart of my idea to put literature on the radio to begin with.

Why Lit? Why Radio?

When I arrived to Hawaiʻi as a grad student, I collided with the question, how would I live here responsibly? Hawaiʻi is an illegally overthrown, occupied nation. I didn’t want to add to the onslaught of voices telling tourist stories about paradise and happy statehood, that worked to erase Kānaka Maoli even as they traded on what Haunani-Kay Trask has identified as the “prostitution of Hawaiian culture.” How would I engage with this beautiful place that I have no genealogical connections to, that I’d visited as a kid but hadn’t been in as more than a tourist? I was worried about being like the feckless hippies who wander the muddy Kolkata streets of my dad’s childhood and talk about transcendent India while stepping over babies sleeping on the sidewalk. I’m not Hawaiian and my family is not from Oceania. How could I be here without taking up space?

I knew that people of color—primarily Asian and Pacific Islanders—were in the majority in Hawai‘i, but I was unsure how my position as a person of color would articulate in Hawai‘i. Some feel that “local” identity is formed in opposition to outsiders/haole from the continent. As someone not from here, I’d always be an outsider, always be haole. How would I fit in?

I wondered about that old category in this new place: Asian American. As a mixed-race Bengali American, I fall under the heading of Asian American. I was raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles outside of Bengali culture and therefore have had a fraught relationship to Asian American-ness to begin with. Meanwhile, the experiences of Asian and Asian American people in Hawai‘i have been vastly different than the experiences of Kānaka Maoli and other Pacific Islanders. Hawai‘i’s plantations and tourist economies have been built on the backs of Asian and Asian American laborers. The economic boom of the 1980s was driven by Asian and Asian American business interests. Meanwhile, as has been the case worldwide, people Indigenous to Oceania have been divorced from/silenced/survived and resisted despite genocidal campaigns within their own waters and lands. And, though Hawai‘i is currently recognized as part of the US, Hawai‘i’s annexation is widely held to be illegal, and even the statehood vote is suspect. The concept of “American” wouldn’t hold here, I soon learned. In turn, Asian American-ness wouldn’t provide an avenue to the kind of community I was seeking to be a part of in Hawai‘i either.

And, so, how could I hope to be part of a community, walk heart first and connect in and to Hawaiʻi responsibly? My first response was to shut up and listen. But even when we are quiet and listening, we still take up space. The question remained, what could I do? These questions help me work to hold myself accountable and get at the heart of what it means to be an ally.

As Indo-Guyanese poet Rajiv Mohabir[2] has said, “ally is a verb.” To ally requires continual action and checking in about our actions. I feel indebted to Ferguson community activist Kayla Reed, who repeated her definition of ally at the Honolulu screening of Whose Streets:

aalways center the impacted
llisten & learn from those who live in the oppression
lleverage your privilege
yyield the floor

To ally requires us to act. I have worked to fight the paralysis I have felt regarding how I am taking up space in Hawai‘i by holding space. Holding space depends upon our particular skill sets. Because of my skills as a creative writer and as an editor, holding space has meant seeking out and publishing voices that speak truth to power.

After several years of living in Hawai‘i, I worked up the nerve to try my hand at holding space and returned to print as the editor in chief of Hawai‘i Review, the student-run literary journal on campus.[3] We had funding—or at least funding enough to print two gorgeous issues per year but not to pay ourselves anything close to what we would deserve for the hours we put into the print issues, and also the blog posts, e-chapbooks, and monthly features on University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa students that we took up. The journal wasn’t just a place for novice writers to publish alongside literary giants like Albert Wendt and Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Margaret Atwood, it was also a place to launch calls to action, to resist, to reach out for the wide arms of community when the whole world was burning.

In August 2014, unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown was murdered by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown’s body was left lying in the street in the Missouri summer heat for hours. When Office Wilson was not indicted, Ferguson erupted. Protesters burned commercial properties, which was covered widely in the news, proving organizers’ points that the media and the militarized state were more invested in protecting property than Black lives. I watched poems in response to the Ferguson Uprising burst forth on social media as an expression of rage, in despair, in recognition of how, despite geographic and historical differences, the forces that resulted in Ferguson’s burning were the same forces that continue to occupy the illegally overthrown nation of Hawaiʻi. They were the same forces that, in 2011, murdered Kanaka Maoli Kollin Elderts and acquitted his murderer. At 2:30 a.m. in a Waikīkī McDonald’s, Elderts was murdered by US State Department Special Agent Christopher Deedy, who carried a loaded gun out during a night of drinking. Deedy came to Honolulu for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation’s meeting and is said to have been warned by a fellow agent that people in Hawai‘i were hostile to federal workers and people who weren’t from here. During a verbal altercation in McDonald’s, Elderts is said to have called Deedy haole. The forces that resulted in Ferguson’s burning were rooted in the same anti-Black white supremacy that launches genocidal campaigns seeking to erase Indigenous people and renders darkness worthy of fear-driven state-sanctioned white rage everywhere.

We published a chapbook titled Write for Ferguson: Protest Poetry from Hawai‘i Review to house the poetry the authors had been posting on social media because we needed conversation, community, and love. We needed to hold space. We invited contributions. Seventeen people contributed to this one chapbook, including literary heavyweights like Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. Then we got on the radio.

My friend Laura Ramirez, who ran a news show on KTUH, invited as many chapbook contributors as I could muster to come on air and read their pieces. The experience of being on the air was electrifying. I introduced each of the readers and talked story with Laura between poems and songs. We extended the reach of these powerful words into invisible air space in Honolulu and North Shore via KTUH’s antennae, and to anyone worldwide who was streaming Laura’s show on KTUH.org.

In 2015, we produced another e-chapbook, this time featuring creative writing and visual art, titled Wansolwara: Voices for West Papua in solidarity with an independent West Papua free of Indonesia’s genocidal colonial rule. Since the start of Indonesia’s occupation in 1963, a half a million West Papuan civilians have been killed, while news of what is happening in West Papua is rarely covered. We wanted to produce a collection in solidarity with the Free West Papua Campaign, which continues to speak out about the truth of what West Papuans are experiencing. With the Wansolwara chapbook in hand, we went on Laura’s news show again, this time pairing creative pieces with protest music from West Papua and from Hawai‘i. The experience of being on air, with a curated musical playlist, was soul-feeding to me. The literature we shared not only gave vent to rage and pain, it also created points of connection for listeners who hadn’t heard about West Papua’s fight to decolonize, and the collection underscored the importance of Black love in Oceania.

If writing can feed the revolution, I thought to myself, lit delivered on the radio, in the authors’ own voices, builds community that can support the revolution too. When folks are stuck in traffic, when they’re quiet and tired of listening to top-40, when they’re reflective and feeling isolated, when they are feeling alone and maybe are despairing from worldwide news, when they are hungry for something they can’t name, lit can feed them. Plus, lit on the radio reminds people how to listen. We practice listening and then are encouraged implicitly to extend the conversation within our communities, to unpack with loved ones that lit we heard and what it made us feel.

And the music was an important point of expression too. If lit allows space for readers/listeners to engage with sometimes difficult emotions, music is a powerful reinforcing tool. The songs played before the lit could be tone-setting pieces, and the songs played after the lit could allow for breathing space for folks to digest what they had just heard.

Thus, a show concept was born: It’s Lit, featuring writers to love and the music their work plays best around.

It’s Lit!

I am grateful to the writers who have come on the show, be they award-winning high-profile poets like Rajiv Mohabir, or writers who are still working through the idea of being called writers, like zine-maker Vehia Wheeler and renegade writer Ku‘uleimomi Cummings, whose words I first encountered in their Facebook updates. Now, when I’m featuring a writer on the island, they come into the studio, reading their pieces live, and talking story. We discuss lit and feelings of connection and community, and I record every show—even the early ones when I was still struggling with transitions and trying to stay awake.

Since May 2017, I’ve also invited on an amazing cohost, Jocelyn Kapumealani Ng, a queer multidisciplinary artist, educator, and community organizer of mixed Kanaka Maoli descent, to help me interview featured writers and to keep the energy up while I’m running the show/lining up announcements/generally keeping things moving. With Joce’s playful energy, insightful and caring questions, and thoughtful ideas, we’ve developed signature questions that we ask every guest on the show now, including the question that always gets a good answer: Why Lit? This question gets at what moves us to write to begin with and, if we’re lucky, the core of other writers’ desire to connect through storytelling. Answers we’ve gotten to this question have run the gamut of the practical—a pencil and paper are cheaper than special-effects makeup or other materials to make other forms of art—to the spiritual—that writing is like breathing and without it, a writer can’t survive.

Whether we’re interviewing folks in the studio or featuring a writer who is off island/on the continent/elsewhere, Joce and I have been running the show like a proverbially well-oiled machine, responding to questions from callers and folks who follow the show on social media in an ever-expanding literature-loving community, and making sure our featured writers are cared for throughout the whole process.

As the show has gained visibility, it has also become a venue for visiting writers as they stop through Hawai‘i. On the night I featured the beautiful poetry of Hari Alluri, long-time radio commentator for NPR and novelist Sandip Roy came through and read live from his novel when he was traveling between Kolkata and San Francisco. In the midst of preparing for their stunning collaborative performance for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s ʻAe Kai: A Culture Lab on Convergence, Joce succeeded in getting queer Samoan womyn activist Terisa Siagatonu, who is a recipient of a President Obama Champion of Change Award and is based in San Francisco, and mixed-Fijian contemporary dancer, performance artist, and poet based in Aotearoa/NZ, Jahra Rager to come onto the show. It was so moving to meet and have Terisa in the studio after having aired her poem “Atlas” on my show previously, and Jahra offered poetry on air that she’d never shared before in public. Their talent and chemistry really struck a chord with listeners, who—not unlike that first show when I was subbing for my friend—kept calling to show love.

This experience was such a blessing because it became clear to me that the show has become a resource, a community space for visiting folks and folks who are rooted here. It is a place to weave our stories together and, implicitly (I hope!), underscores how liberation for one is dependent upon liberation for all. As Black Lives Matter activists continue to chant Assata Shakur’s words into our present and futures, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Holla Back

As I was about to ring in our thirtieth episode, I asked listeners via the show’s Facebook and Instagram pages what they love about It’s Lit. Here are some of the answers they supplied:

Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada, the first fiction writer featured on the show, said, “[Y]ou are building community and helping feature voices of folks who do not always consider themselves poets/authors. There is a different power when people’s word are spoken too.”

Vehia Wheeler, whose zines and creative nonfiction we featured, said, “It’s Lit is great because I get exposed to diff writers, and it’s nice to hear Lit read aloud and also your show makes Lit cool cause you pair it with awesome music. I tune in for the Lit and the jams <3”

Ku‘uleimomi Cummings, who came on the show after we pleaded that their Facebook status updates were soul-feeding literature, bowled me over when they gave me this full and loving response in a private message on Instagram:

i love that the show creates a community space that didn’t yet exist, where ppl can engage with both artists and the art they create. it blends the benefits of some of my favorite things: (1) long form interview-based podcasts where you get to grow through the host’s questioning, (2) the beauty of audiobooks where u get to hear the writers present their work in their own voice (closest to how it was imagined before becoming explicit), and (3) performance/instruction where you get to passively consume art for digestion, reflection and analysis. phdj further guides and enriches this process by having the writers contextualize their work by surrounding it with writer-chosen music. what an ingenious way of analyzing art while maintaining the integrity of the art as its own entity (not asking the artist to explain it in words, more of the same medium as the work itself) …

whether by design or as a happy byproduct of phdj’s own tastes, the contributors represent a rich variety of identities and experiences across race, gender, geography, sexuality, and formality of relationship to lit (from professors to those who don’t self-identify as writers at all)

this sincere and not quota-driven type of diversity challenges and expands our ideas of what is/how to/why lit

I smiled at that last bit in particular, pointing as Ku‘uleimomi was to Joce’s and my signature question of “Why Lit?” I thanked Ku‘uleimomi profusely, and they responded, “i am glad to be a mirror to reflect back to you what you have made real!”

I’ve learned from poet and community activist Aiko Yamashiro, who I’m so fortunate to have had on It’s Lit more than once, that we are better when we are in the same room together. I believe that radio expands that room, with its potential to put windows into the walls that might be holding us apart.

* * *

Connect to It’s Lit, including recordings of previous episodes, former features, and the current calls for materials, at www.itslitwithphdj.wordpress.com

Listen via Mixcloud
Connect on Facebook & Instagram

[1] I’m also really grateful to have had No‘u on the show for a live reading once I moved over to regular daylight hours.

[2] Guys, I got Rajiv to sing My Little Mermaid’s theme song on air; go to about the 2-hour, 45-minute minute mark for this magic.

[3] Shout out to Kelsey Amos, Donovan Kūhiō Colleps, Noʻu Revilla, and David Scrivner. It was a privilege to work with each of you on Hawaiʻi Review during our two-year tenure as a tight and hard-working five-person team.