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"Appropriate" Uses for "Inappropriate" Words, or "Fuck" as a Literary Device

Tuesday, July 10, 2012 9:34 AM

“Nobody paid any attention in Health class. everybody figured they knew all about all that shet. they all heard about it before you know—balling, fucking, blowing, finger banging and K-Y jelly and rubbers and foams that taste gross. you, the dick-cock, the two nuts-balls, the cunt, the clit. fucken ding-dong and ching-ching. big fucken shet all the dirty pictures, all the positions all the moves.
     Fuck that! You crybaby! Fuck that!”
               Pg. 263 - Wini Terada, “Intermediate School Hapai.”
               The Best of Bamboo Ridge, pg. 263.

“‘I was talking with a friend in the teacher’s lounge,’ Ramona said, ‘about how local girls go through that stage, you know, that haole-boy stage.’”
               Pg. 143 - Lisa Linn Kanae, “The Weight of Water and Color.”
               Islands Linked By Ocean, Bamboo Ridge issue 93.

     At my most recent writing workshop (see previous post), while discussing story starts, specifically language, the topic of swearing came up. Is it appropriate or proper? Is using explicit language just a cheap trick, shock value, to grab the reader’s attention? Rather than ramble (or rant) on about the subject, I figured why not look at two examples and try to make sense of what each writer is doing with language.
     The first extract is a piece of internal monologue given by the main “I”, Vince, in Terada’s story. There are a few key structural elements of the paragraph that speak to its strength and set up the context for its profanity: the first line sets the scene, the second continuing that thread by creating an implied audience, and the third, the use of “you know.” The “you” here is important because it is a direct address not to the reader, but to the implied audience that Terada has set up, students in an intermediate Health class. The narrator is channeling the language “you” speaks, drawing on his own personal experience.
      Also important, where the monologue is placed in the story (which I understand you cannot see here), a page-and-a-half before the story’s conclusion, this monologue arguably represents the climax. It is the frustration Vince feels, but also represents the paradox of being an adolescent child in a very adult situation. There is of course a (subtle?) irony here as well, the implied audience, the “you”, neglects to pay attention in Health class because they think that they know better only to find out that they knew nothing at all. This best read in the paragraph that proceeds the discussed extract: “Fuck, this not Health class anymore. no ways, nobody’s giggling-snickering-cracking futs and dirty jokes in the back room with friends. no, everything’s pretty serious now. pretty fucken serious.”
     When I started this post, I asked whether profanity in text was appropriate. As a writer, I don’t necessarily consider the “appropriateness” of my work for a number of reasons, one of them being that, no matter how good/bad, there will always be someone who will think something’s inappropriate. That said, it does bring up a question of audience (who is your reader?) that I had not considered, but bares keeping in mind when thinking about language usage.
     That brings us to the Kanae extract. First off, I would like to say that I chose Lisa’s work because I admire her as a writer. Her language is fresh, original, and her stories have a rare thing called heart. Secondly, she is also contemporary, which is an important point when considering the timeless themes she draws upon, one of them being politics of race in Hawai?i.
      Looking at this sentence (the first line of the story), I am immediately drawn in by the dialogue. It begins rather generally and then moves toward a more specific audience. There is no hard “you” here like in Terada’s story, but the second bit of dialogue clearly is meant for a more “local” reader. Lisa’s smart though, she doesn’t limit herself. That’s why it’s important to note that the more local address is kept in dialogue, thus in context, the “you know”. But I bring this sentence up in a discussion on profanity and audience because of the use of the word haole.
     At the moment, I can’t think of a word more polarizing in the local community. Some see it as derogatory, a racist term. Others understand it as local slang, born and raised in the islands. It’s on t-shirts, bumper stickers, in songs, poems, short stories, and also in the news. People are getting shot over the word.
      So why use it? I can’t speak for Lisa, but I can understand the usage here. It is meant to develop the character speaking, to touch on her local background and (as mentioned earlier) the theme of race that runs throughout the story. Used in dialogue, it is also meant to draw on how people speak, like it or not, in (part of) the local community.
      Does it limit her audience? Like I mentioned earlier, there will always be someone who disagrees with your work, and I imagine even something as informal as this blog post. For the reasons mentioned though, I feel like Lisa is wise in that she contextualizes her language use, much like Terada, so that, even if you may not agree with the language, the audience can understand why it’s being used in that way. Of course, you could always raise the question, could she have written it differently, and I’d challenge anyone to try. Any attempt would feel inauthentic, proper maybe, but significantly less effective.
     Ultimately, as writers and readers, you have to decide what’s for you. Other writers I’ve talked to say that they tend to write what they like to read, and that their work reflects what they keep on their shelves. Once again, like anything you put into your story though, you should always be asking yourself what is using this type of language doing. How is “fuck” developing your character, etc. I don’t believe in “proper” and “appropriate” language, I believe in good stories and poorly written ones. Just write. Leave all the other shit for someone else to bicker over.


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