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.”
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...
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