In the study of Asian American literature, autobiography is subject to controversy. In “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake” (The Big AIIIEEEEE! An Anthology of Chinese and Japanese American Literature, 1991), Chinese American scholar and critic Frank Chin posits that Chinese American writers such as Jade Snow Wong (The Fifth Chinese Daughter, 1945), Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior, 1975; China Men, 1980; Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, 1989), and Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club, 1989; The Kitchen God’s Wife, 1991) who use the “exclusively Christian form” of autobiography are the fake. These writers’ portrayal of the “Christian yin/yang of the dual personality/identity crisis” not only misrepresents Chinese history, legends, and lore but also betrays their traditional values.
Chin’s article raises a legitimate question over the issue of how to integrate Asian histories and cultures in Asian American literature. His rejection of autobiography as an inappropriate form for depicting the Asian American experience, however, is too judgmental and arbitrary. Chinese American scholar Kai-yu Hsu, while critical of autobiographies that “confirm rather than modify a stereotyped image of the Chinese and their culture,” acknowledges that they are “the path of development of many writers.” Indeed, while the merits and demerits of the so-called slave narratives are open to discussion, no one can deny the instrumentality of Frederick Douglass’ three powerful autobiographies (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845; My Bondage and My Freedom, 1855; The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1881) to the development of African American literature and political movements. Similar to autobiographies that help democratize and diversify American literary voices, Garrett Hongo’s Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai‘i represents yet another attempt to delineate the cultural configuration of American society through the portrayal of personal experience.
Hongo’s is one of the most exciting voices in the latest development of Asian American literature. He is a Sansei, a third-generation Japanese American. His previous two books of poetry have won critical acclaim: Yellow Light (1982) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1989, and The River of Heaven (1988) was the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. Volcano is Hongo’s first prose work. As Maxine Hong Kingston says, the work successfully breaks out “of careful verse into the freedom of prose.” She ranks Hongo with William Carlos Williams, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sylvia Plath, Raymond Carver, and Louise Erdrich.
In Volcano, Hongo traces his footsteps back and forth between Hawai‘i and the mainland in search of his connection with the past, with the community, and with the land. He was born in Volcano, a small village in Hawai‘i, twenty-nine miles from Hilo on the Big Island. When he was a child, his father lost the family business, the Hongo Store. The family had to uproot and move to the mainland, leaving behind painful memories and looking for new economic opportunities. Physical displacement was accompanied by cultural dislocation and disorientation. In the opening of the book, the narrator vividly describes the struggle he went through learning “Mainland English” while trying to lose the Hawaiian pidgin English: His mother
teaches me fricatives, gives me exercises, shows me where to place my tongue against my teeth. I say there, there, there, constructing a calisthenic phalanx of enunciations. I say earth. I say with. She teaches me to flatten the melody of my speaking, taking the lilt of Portuguese from my sentences, the singsong of Canton Chinese.
Yet Hawai‘i kept beckoning to him and invading his dreams. In his early thirties, Hongo decided to visit Hawai‘i with his family. He realized that to know his roots, he would have to solve the “mystery” of the family’s past; to know who he really was, he would have to reestablish the ontological connection with the place where he was born. The journey proved to be as much a visit of the family’s past as an opportunity to develop a profound understanding and appreciation of both the inner and outer landscapes of Volcano. It helped him learn more about himself, bridge the gap between the past and the present, and redefine his connection with both the mainstream American culture and the one that gave Hawai‘i and its Japanese American community their unique distinction and identity.