Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 905

Garrett Kaoru Hongo was born on May 30, 1951, in Volcano, Hawaii, of Japanese parents. His father, Albert Kazuyoshi, was an electrical technician, and his mother, Louise Tomiko Kubota Hongo, was a personnel analyst. The family left Volcano when Hongo was eight months old and later settled in Gardena, a small city south of Los Angeles. The racially mixed community was bordered on the north by the predominantly African American towns of Watts and Compton and on the southwest by the largely white communities of Torrance and Redondo Beach. At the time Hongo lived there, Gardena boasted the largest community of Japanese Americans in the United States outside Honolulu. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood with a variety of ethnic groups sensitized Hongo at an early age to issues of race relations, cultural alienation, and urban street life, which, in turn, influenced his writing of such poems as “Ninety-six Tears.”

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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 1974-1975, 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 he was working as a 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 (1974) and his own Nisei Bar and Grill (1976), 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 (1978).

In his work and his sensibility, Hongo identifies largely with the West Coast and Hawaii, a productive place for many Asian American writers. He 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 directed the creative writing program at the University of Oregon at Eugene from 1989 to 1993, and occasional leaves have allowed him to return to Hawaii periodically.

Two volumes of Hongo’s poetry, Yellow Light (1982) and The River of Heaven (1988), were extremely well-received. He won the 1981 Discovery/The Nation award for poems later published in Yellow Light and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in 1982 and 1988. In 1987, he received the Lamont Poetry Prize, and The River of Heaven garnered a nomination for the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. In 1990, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Hongo credits a six-week residency at an artists’ colony and a visit to Hawaii for the final coming together of The River of Heaven. In Hawaii, Hongo was inspired by a friend’s interest in him and his history to, as he said, “share more of my heart through poetry with the rest of the world.”

Hongo, whose name means “homeland” in Hawaiian, is a yonsei, a fourth-generation Japanese American. Although his family was not among those sent to relocation camps during World War II, his grandfather, Kubota, was detained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for several days for his leadership in the Japanese American community in Hawaii. In a published essay called “Kubota,” Hongo describes his grandfather’s story and explains why he feels compelled to speak for the Japanese Americans. 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. Hongo and Thiessen have two sons, Alexander Kazuyoshi and Hudson Hideo. Biracial issues are thus central to both Hongo’s work and his private life.

In 1993, Hongo edited and published a groundbreaking anthology of thirty-one poets titled 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 and achieve recognition.

In 1994 and 1995, Hongo edited two influential Asian American literary works: Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays, and Memoir by Wakako Yamauchi (1994), for which he also wrote the introduction, and Under Western Eyes: Personal Essays from Asian America (1995). For the latter, in addition to writing the introduction and dedicating the volume to writer Maxine Hong Kingston, Hongo also included “Kubota,” about his venerated maternal grandfather.

Hongo’s next major publication, his widely acclaimed Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai’i (1995), focuses on his return to the place of his birth with his family when he was in his thirties. Combining recollections of his and his ancestors’ experience with astute reflections on the tropical landscape of Hawaii, Volcano represents Hongo’s prose reconnection with his past and that of his Japanese American community.

While he continues to publish poetry and write powerful essays, Hongo has become a sought-after guest lecturer, able to connect to high school students as well as to adults. Hongo has dedicated much of his energies to teaching as Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of Oregon at Eugene, and he has influenced generations of students. For the 2005-2006 academic year, for example, he taught undergraduate and graduate poetry seminars and held poetry workshops at his university.

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