Garrett Kaoru Hongo (b. 1951)
Contributing Editor: Amy Ling
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Explain that Hongo's themes and craft are evident even in the small selection we have in this text. The title poem of his first book, Yellow Light, emphasizes the centrality of the Asian perspective by ascribing a positive, fertile quality to the color commonly designating Asian skin and formerly meaning "cowardly." By focusing his sights on ordinary people in the midst of their daily rounds, as in "Yellow Light," "Off from Swing Shift," and "And Your Soul Shall Dance," by describing their surroundings in precise detail, by suggesting their dreams, Hongo depicts both the specificities of the Japanese-American experience and its universality. "And Your Soul Shall Dance" is a tribute to playwright and fiction writer Wakako Yamauchi. The long poem "Stepchild" reviews bitter Asian American history, more than a century of exclusion, incarceration, and dislocation. But though a "stepchild" of white America, Hongo is also the husband of a white wife and must wrestle with conflicting emotions.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The work of any Asian-American writer is best understood in the context of the black civil rights and the women's liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. These movements by African-Americans and women led Asian-Americans to join in the push for change. Asian-Americans as a group had endured racial discrimination in the U.S. for over a century, from the harassment of Chinese in the California gold mines to the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Furthermore, the last three wars the United States has engaged in have been fought in Asia, a fact that further consolidated a sense of community among the hitherto disparate Asian groups in this country.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
In Hongo's volume Yellow Light, we no longer find a dependence on language and rhythm borrowed from African-American culture nor strident screams of bitterness and anger characteristic of polemic Asian-American poetry, the dominant mode and tone of the 1970s. Hongo is at home in his skin, positive about his background and the people around him, confident in his own voice, concerned as much with his craft as with his message.
Hongo's poems paint portraits of the people around him, and he invests his people with dignity and bathes them in love. Pride in an Asian-American heritage shines through in the catalogue of foods in "Who Among You Knows the Essence of Garlic?" Hongo's eye has the precision of seventeenth-century Flemish still-life painters, but his art is dynamic and evokes the sounds, smells, and tastes of the foods he describes.
He has combined the consciousness of the late twentieth-century ethnic nationalist with the early twentieth-century imagist's concern for the most precise, the most resonant image, and added to this combination his own largeness of spirit.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
The examples of Lawson Inada and Frank Chin excited Garrett Hongo, who was encouraged by their work to do his own.
Frank Chin displayed his artistic and verbal talent, making his claim for a place in American history and expressing his deep ambivalence about Chinese-Americans in his plays. "Chickencoop Chinaman" was a dazzling display of verbal pyrotechnics but underlying the surface razzle-dazzle is a passionate throbbing of anger and pain for the emasculation of Chinese men in the United States.
Lawson Fusao Inada was another visible and vocal model for younger Asian-American writers. His book of poetry Before the War provided a range of models and styles from lyrical musings, to sublimated anger from a Japanese-American perspective, to colloquial outbursts inspired by black jazz and rhythms.
Hongo acknowledges other models and mentors as well: Bert Meyers, Donald Hall, C. K. Williams, Charles Wright, and Philip Levine.
Hongo, Garrett, Alan Chong Lau, and Lawson Fusao Inada. The Buddha Bandits Down Highway 99. Mountainview, Cal.: Buddhahead Press, 1978.
--. River of Heaven. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.
Kodama-Nishimoto, Michi and Warren Nishimoto. "Interview with Writer Garrett Hongo: Oral History and Literature." Oral History Recorder (Summer 1986): 2-4.