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A yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese American) who was born in Hawaii and claims it as his emotional home, Garrett Kaoru Hongo is not only an important voice in post-World War II Asian American literature but also a celebrated mainstream American poet. Hongo’s poetry collection The River of Heaven (1988) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1989.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
American with Japanese Roots
Garrett Kaoru Hongo was born May 30, 1951, in an area known as 29 Miles Volcano Highway, in Volcano, Hawaii. His parents, both of Japanese ancestry, are Albert Kazuyoshi Hongo, an electrical technician, and Louise Tomiko Kubota Hongo, a personnel analyst. Because of Hongo’s emphasis on the importance of family, his parents play important roles in his collection Yellow Light (1982). The Hongo family moved to Oahu (the setting for Hongo’s prosaic Volcano, 1995) when the poet was eight months old, and relocated to Los Angeles when he was six, finally settling in Gardena, California.
Though born after the war, Hongo’s poetry is affected by the fact that during World War II (1939^5), the United States government unjustly removed over 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes and sent them to internment camps throughout the western United States. The shared anguish of the experience of internment—and the shattered illusion that Asian Americans were as “American” as their European peers—resulted in an eloquent outpouring of literary works, and Hongo’s poetry refers often to the resultant identity crisis many Asian Americans faced.
A Change of Scene
In Gardena, Hongo attended a high school that had a racial makeup of approximately one thousand Caucasian students, one thousand African American students, and one thousand Japanese American students, a mixture that introduced the poet to the problems and advantages associated with race and ethnicity that inform both Yellow Light and The River of Heaven. After he graduated, he attended Pomona College and the University of California at Irvine, where he earned a B.A. in English in 1973. That year Hongo met Wakako Yamauchi, a former internee at the Poston Relocation Center in Arizona during World War II, who published poetic reminiscences about Japanese American farm life. She became his mentor, encouraging him to explore his ancestral roots in his poetry.
In 1973-1974 Hongo was awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to spend a year studying and writing in Japan. Immediately after his year in Japan, Hongo entered the University of Michigan as a graduate student in Japanese language and literature. Although he left after a year of studies, during that time he won the university’s Hopwood Poetry Prize for 1975. He abandoned his graduate studies in order to move to Seattle because of his identification with the West Coast (which is the backdrop for his co-authored The Buddha Bandits Down Highway 99, 1978) and its Asian American literati, namely Frank Chin and Lawson Inada.
Professional and Cultural Identity
In Seattle he worked as poet in residence for the Seattle Arts Commission and was the founder and director of the Asian Exclusion Act, a local theater group. In his ongoing efforts to support the cause of Asian American authors, he staged various plays at the Theater of the Ethnic Cultural Center at the University of Washington, including a portion of his own Nisei Bar & Grill (1977), an incomplete work, and Chin’s The Year of the Dragon (1974), which he chose for its symbolic value. Hongo has taught at the University of Washington; the University of California at Irvine, where he earned an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1980; the University of Missouri, where he was poetry editor of the Missouri Review from 1984 to 1988; and the University of Oregon, where he was director of the creative writing program from 1989 to 1993. In 1982 he married Cynthia Anne Thiessen, a violinist and musicologist, and they have two sons, Alexander, born in 1984, and Hudson, born in 1987. Hongo and his wife separated in 1995 and divorced in 2000.
In 1996, Hongo published Volcano, a memoir of his early childhood spent in Hawaii and an attempt to reconnect spiritually with the place where he was born. Although he has published no full-length works since that time, Hongo continues to teach creative writing at the University of Oregon at Eugene.
Works in Literary Context
Connection with the Land
Hongo’s emphasis on finding or establishing a community of Asian American writers is reflected in the fact that his first publication was a communal effort. Along with Inada and Alan Chong Lau, he published his first collection of poetry in 1978 in a book titled The Buddha Bandits Down Highway 99.In this text, Highway 99, which connects many cities in its winding path along the West Coast, represents the geographical connectedness of poetry to the land, a theme that Hongo has revisited throughout his career. One of the poems here, ”A Porphyry of Nature,” includes a catalogue of nature: ”the ancient tide pools of the Pleistocene era…/ California oak and acorn / scrubgrass, rivermist,/ and lupine in the foothills… /gathering of sand, rock, gypsum, clay,/ limestone, water and tar.” The theme of connection with the land is also shown in his memoir Volcano, which places heavy emphasis on the natural environment into which Hongo was born.
A Melting Pot of Words
Hongo is postmodern in his poetic techniques, which feature the appropriation and sampling of popular melodies and lyrics, real conversations, others’ diary entries, diverse histories, and personal postcards. Yet, according to Laurie Filipelli, he lists as his influences the Romantic poets, American poet Walt Whitman, fourteenth-century Shinto priest Yoshida Kenko, and American blues singer and guitarist Robert Johnson. Hongo is considered at his best when his poetry relates stories, whether confessional or in the form of dramatic monologue, and his lines are often narrative. He is comfortable creating narratives by piecing together fact and conjecture, things gleaned from family anecdotes, written and oral histories, diaries and letters, and his grandfather Kubota’s ”talk stories,” informal accounts of Japanese, Chinese, Native Hawaiian, and American Blues lore. For example, according to one of Hongo’s notes in the text, the dramatic monologue ”Pinoy at the Coming World,” from The River of Heaven, is derived from Filipino American lore, while ”Stepchild” from Yellow Light is informed by Hongo’s retelling of painful and usually ignored aspects of Japanese American history, such as the World War II internment camps, the exploitation of immigrant laborers, and the aftermath of these events.
Works in Critical Context
Unlike that of many of his contemporaries, Garrett Hon-go’s poetry is not confrontational. Yet, his subtle style brings to the forefront the issue of discrimination against Japanese Americans and other ethnic groups. According to Barbara Drake, Hongo ”speaks for an idealistic generation intent on learning, understanding, and possibly correcting the mistakes of recent history.” Hence, Hongo has devoted his life not only to publishing his own poems, but also helping other Asian American writers get published.
The River of Heaven
Gayle K. Sato notes that The River of Heaven is a ”recuperative project… where the act of writing is inseparable from a longing for ‘ancestral help.”’ According to Sato, the first section of The River of Heaven is prefaced with a line from Li Po because Hongo associates cultural recuperation and nostalgia with the eighth-century Chinese poet. Yet the poems that conclude the first section invoke many old Hawaiian ghosts, either in the form of ancestors who are given voice in dramatic monologues, or in wistful remembrances of boyhood events in the Hawaiian landscape, the ”unreal dwelling” of Volcano.
Although The River of Heaven won acclaim for Hongo, he felt he needed to supplement its vision in his next work, Volcano. As he stated in an interview with Sharon E. Colley, ”I was kind of holding back in The River of Heaven. And I really felt there was just so much more to say. So those stories I needed to revisit and tell more fully.” He went on to explain that in Volcano he attempted to ”develop a language that would be fitting and include the natural figures of the landscape.” The form of the book is that of the zuihitsu, the ”poetic essay” developed in fourteenth-century Japan that is similar to the personal essays of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Chapters loosely alternate between discussions of the volcano and the physical landscape and insights about life, a technique that Hongo claims is modeled after Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). In The Southern Review, reviewer Mark Jarman calls Volcano ”a remarkable, profound, and haunting book” and certainly one the reader will not soon forget.”
- Filipelli, Laurie. Garrett Hongo. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1997.
- Fonseca, Anthony J. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 312: Asian American Writers. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Deborah L. Madsen, University of Geneva. Detroit: Gale, 2005, pp. 117-122.
- Lee, A. Robert. ”Ethnicities: The American Self-Tellings of Leslie Marmon Silko, Richard Rodriguez, Darryl Pinckney, and Garrett Hongo.” Writing Lives: American Biography and Autobiography, edited by Hans Bak and Hans Krabbendam. Amsterdam: Vrije Universite it University Press, 1998, pp. 122-135.
- Ling, Amy, ed. Yellow Light: The Flowering of Asian American Arts. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1999, pp. 103-110.
- Moyers, Bill. Garrett Hongo.” The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
- Colley, Sharon E. An Interview with Garrett Hongo.” Forkroads: AJournal of Ethnic American Literature 4 (Summer 1996): 47-63.
- Jarman, Mark. The Volcano Inside.” Southern Review (April 1996): 337-343.
- Nishimoto, Warren. Interview with Writer Garrett Hongo, Oral History and Literature.” Oral History Recorder (Summer 1986): 2-4.
- Sato, Gayle K. Cultural Recuperation in Garrett Hongo’s The River of Heaven.” Studies in American Literature 37 (February 2001): 57-74.
- Slowik, Mary. Beyond Lot’s Wife: The Immigration Poems of Marilyn Chin, Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, and David Mura.” MELUS 25, nos. 3-4 (Fall/ Winter 2000): 221-242.
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