Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

“Kicking the Habit” is protest literature voiced in the most effective way that a poet can utter it. It is a serious statement for a poet, whose business involves writing words, to insist on giving up those words “cold turkey,” refusing to use the language anymore. Inada wants readers to think about just how serious the implications are: Poets without words have given up their essences and their identities. Inada knows that this is a metaphor for giving up anything precious and essential, which is basically what the Japanese Americans were forced to do during the internment years of World War II. They were ordered to relinquish possessions, homes, neighborhoods, and businesses and relocate to barracks in fairgrounds and deserted racetracks. Though Inada’s recollections of his camp life in Legends from Camp and Drawing the Line are told with nostalgia and even warmth rather than overt bitterness or anger, the message is obvious nonetheless: Japanese Americans, Inada and his family among them, were victimized by the U.S. government. He, the poet, will protest this atrocity with an atrocity of his own: giving up his use of the English language.

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The poet knows that the problem is that he is a member of a minority race rather than part of the American mainstream: “I pulled off the main highway/ onto a dark country road.” He knows he must justify his existence by showing his “passport” to “insects” and his “baggage” to “frogs”: “After all, I was a foreigner,/ and had to comply.” However, the continual deferring and explaining, the apology for using English, is wearing him out. Therefore, he goes on his own internal journey to get in touch with himself, which results in becoming attuned to a universe of all races and creatures: “Ah, the exquisite seasonings/ of syllables, the consummate consonants, the vigorous/ vowels of varied vocabularies.”

The poet’s passive method of resistance is to give up his language and then to take it up again after he has been renewed. It is a statement not only of threat and revenge but also of promise because readers find out that the revenge does not last: Having satisfied his need for revenge, having visited that place for a while, the poet has worked through his problem, has been avenged, and has come to a greater, more benevolent, more forgiving place. “Kicking the Habit” is thus a poem of reconciliation and redemption ending with a blessing by the morning sun, which, being “yellow” (usually a derogatory term when applied to Asians and cowards) is also the color of his race, a color he can now acknowledge with pride. The poet has, in effect, turned a negative vision, one that he has harbored and that others have harbored about him and his race, into a positive one.

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