The Buddha Bandits down Highway 99, 1978 (with Alan Chong Lau and Lawson Fusao Inada)
Yellow Light, 1982
The River of Heaven, 1988
The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America, 1993
Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays, and Memoir, 1994 (by Wakako Yamauchi)
Under Western Eyes: Personal Essays from Asian America, 1995
Nisei Bar and Grill, pr. 1976, revised pr. 1992
Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai’i, 1995 (memoir)
Garrett Kaoru Hongo was born on May 30, 1951, in Volcano, Hawaii, of Japanese parents. His father, Albert Kazuyoshi, was descended from a line of clerks and administrators, and his mother, Louise Tomiko Kubota Hongo, came from a family of plantation laborers. The family left Volcano when Hongo was six months old. Eventually they moved from Hawaii, and when he was six years old they settled in a small city south of Los Angeles called Gardena. At that time, Gardena boasted the largest community of Japanese Americans on the United States mainland. It was bordered on the north by the African American neighborhoods of Watts and Compton and on the southwest by Torrance and Redondo Beach, white towns. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood with a variety of ethnic groups early sensitized Hongo to issues of race relations, cultural alienation, and urban street life, which influenced the writing of such poems as “96 Tears.”
Garrett Kaoru Hongo
Hongo graduated from Pomona College with honors in 1973, studied in Japan for a year under a fellowship, attended graduate school at the University of Michigan in 1974 to 1975, and earned an M.F.A. from the University of California, Irvine, in 1980, where he also completed everything but his dissertation for a doctorate in critical theory. While he was at Michigan, winning the Hopwood Poetry Prize changed the direction of his studies, and soon after that he worked as poet-in-residence in Seattle, founding and directing a local theater group called “The Asian Exclusion Act.” There he staged plays such as Frank Chin’s The Year of the Dragon (pr. 1974) and his own Nisei Bar and Grill, among others, and his creative imagination took fire. He became acquainted with Lawson Fusao Inada, a pioneer Japanese American poet, with whom he and Alan Chong Lau collaborated on The Buddha Bandits down Highway 99. In his work and his sensibility, Hongo identifies largely with the West Coast, a mecca for many Asian American writers.
Hongo has taught writing at the University of Washington, the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Missouri, where he was also poetry editor for the Missouri Review. He began to direct the creative writing program at the University of Oregon in 1989, and extended leaves allowed him to return to Hawaii to work on his prose memoir, Volcano.
Two earlier volumes of poetry, Yellow Light and The River of Heaven, were extremely well received. He won the Discovery/The Nation award for poems later published in Yellow Light, and a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Fellowship in 1982. The River of Heaven garnered the 1989 Lamont Poetry Prize and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Hongo credits a six-weeks’ residency at the MacDowell Colony and a visit to Hawaii for the final coming together of The River of Heaven. In 1982 Hongo married Cynthia Anne Thiessen, a violinist and musicologist, who, as Hongo reveals in his poem “Stepchild,” is a white woman descended from Mennonites and Quakers. They have two sons, Alexander and Hudson. Biracial issues are thus central to both his private life and his work.
In 1993 Hongo edited and published a groundbreaking anthology of thirty-one poets entitled The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America. The volume is important not only because it displays the rich diversity of contemporary Asian American poetry but also because Hongo’s twenty-five-page introduction offers an excellent overview of the difficulties and challenges that face a marginalized people as they struggle to produce art.
Hongo relies on his male relatives for much of his subject matter. He portrays his father working the “swing shift at Lear’s” and betting on horses; he recalls his brother playing guitar in the garage when they were younger, “practicing for the priesthood, preaching the blues.” Several poems and an important essay focus on Hongo’s maternal grandfather, “Kubota,” for whom Hongo, the eldest grandchild, had great affection. Hongo has said that his memory of his early years in Hawaii–particularly the memory of the Hawaiian landscape–has given him a feeling for language and its beauty that brought him to poetry initially and has kept him writing it.
Hongo’s introductory essay in the anthology The Open Boat makes plain his commitment to ethnic awareness and cultural activism. In his introductory essay for Songs My Mother Taught Me, Hongo extols the work of writer Wakako Yamauchi for the ways in which it highlights the neglected social and emotional history of two generations of Japanese in the United States. Like Yamauchi, one of Hongo’s most significant themes is the documentation of Japanese immigration and the painful processes that accompany attempts at acculturation. Hongo’s literary insights illuminate a sad and often ignored cultural history, and they celebrate the value of family and ancestral bonds.