The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

“Stepchild” is a dramatic monologue in free verse divided into seven sections. Section 1 was first published in The Nation under the title “Evacuation.” The complete poem under the current title was published in Garrett Kaoru Hongo’s poetry collection Yellow Light. The title thematically suggests how Japanese Americans feel they are treated in the United States. It also calls the reader’s attention to the narrator’s relationship with his parents, which, according to the narrator, is built on “lies” and “fairy tales.”

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In part 1 of the poem, the narrator urges the reader to revisit the experiences of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, they were evacuated from the West Coast and put in relocation camps. The narrator then places the Japanese American internment in a larger picture. He lists the discriminatory laws against Asian Americans in the history of the United States: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a bill passed by the United States Congress that made it illegal for Chinese laborers to come to or stay in the United States; California’s Alien Land Law of 1913, which prevented the Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) from purchasing land and obtaining leases for more than three years on the basis that they were aliens ineligible for citizenship; and the 1922 United States Supreme Court ruling that stipulated that Japanese immigrants were not eligible for citizenship in the United States (referred to as “the Exclusion Act of 1921” in the poem). Unmentioned by Hongo is the Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Asian Exclusion Act, which was directed against Japanese and Asian Indian immigration.

Parts 3, 4, and 5 describe the narrator’s eagerness to find out what happened to thousands of Japanese immigrants after they arrived in the United States. In part 3, the narrator talks to his parents. He is very upset that he has been fed “fairy tales” about the Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) “emerging full-grown/ Americans at birth.” Since the narrator cannot find truth from his parents, he decides, in part 4, to do some investigation on his own. He examines stories, brief chronologies, photocopies of documents, records, newspapers, and documented newsprint with “genealogies,/ obituaries, births, driver’s licenses,/ land sales, moving sales, leases,/ and Evacuation! Must Sell!’ sales.” The narrator is shocked by the fact that he is able to find only “ten or twelve books/ a handful” that accurately portray the Asian American experience.

As a result of his research, the narrator becomes very angry. “The Dragon” wants him to scream; the “Shark” wants him to kill, “to tear at the throats of white children.” He then remembers, however, that his wife is also white, “a descendant of Mennonites/ and Quakers/ who nursed the sick” at the Manzanar and Gila River Japanese American internment camps and who “rowed the long boats/ of their outrage, their protest,/ into the shoals of storms/ gathering on the peaks/ of Heart Mountain.” In the last section of the poem, the narrator reconciles with the past, with his feelings, and with the environment. He is at peace with himself and the world.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

Dramatic monologue consists of words spoken by a fictional character to a silent audience at a critical moment of his or her life. Sometimes these speakers reveal aspects of their own personalities of which they are unaware. “Stepchild” uses the form of dramatic monologue effectively. In the poem, Hongo creates a persona who feels frustrated about being cut off from history. Sometimes the narrator appears to be talking to the reader; other times he is talking to his parents or himself. The form concretely objectifies a person’s loneliness and frustration in his search for truth. The narrator’s attempt to learn about his family history has been obliterated by “lies” and “fairy tales.” He feels alienated from a society that has denied him the opportunity to connect to history and to his ethnicity. He is trapped in a situation in which a false sense of security has secluded him from knowing who he really is.

In “Stepchild,” the metrical device of free verse is used to celebrate the human aspiration for freedom and dignity. The narrator’s determination to reclaim his sense of history and identity leads him to writings by people who have the courage to speak the truth. In parts 4 and 5, the narrator quotes directly from Japanese American writer Tokio Akagi, Japanese American artist Paul Chikamasa Horiuchi, and Filipino American writer and activist Carlos Bulosan, turning prose into poetry and form into message. Bulosan’s autobiography, America Is in the Heart (1973), has been hailed by many as a book that has stripped the recording of Asian American history of its euphemism and verbiage. The quotations serve as a bridge between the narrator and the part of history he has never been told, filling a gap left in his heart by the lies people have been telling about themselves, about their families, and about the past. They also situate the narrator firmly among other writers with whose experience he can empathize.

“Stepchild” abounds with images of violence. The mother who takes part in the evacuation has a mouth “like crushed rose petals/ fresh with the shock of lipstick.” After “all the veins had collapsed/ from the needles of a thousand mine shafts,/ after all the rail was laid/ and the last spike driven through,” the Chinese laborers were “chased back home to Frisco/ or shipped to Kwantung”; if “they refused to be herded,/ they were buried where they stood.” The narrator has learned that Japanese American “history is bitter;/ a farmer’s thick arm/ slashed on the spiked teeth/ of barbed-wire fences.” However, something “stopped the telling./ Someone pulled out the tongues/ of every Nisei/ raped by the felons/ of Relocation.” The narrator’s anger makes him want to kill, “to tear at the throats/ of white children,/ exterminate them/ like the Angels of Auschwitz.” The poem ends, however, with the narrator’s realization that “There is always a need/ to hate, a need to find/ victims for that hatred.” In part 7, he makes peace with himself, with the past, and with the environment. He thinks about nothing for a change except “what it is that flowers from itself and shakes the yellow dust of thought/ onto the red cloisters” of his heart and his passions.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 167

Gunew, Sneja. “Gendered Reading Tactics: Public Intellectuals and Community in Diaspora.” Resources for Feminist Research 29, nos. 3/4 (Fall/Winter, 2001): 57-73.

Hongo, Garrett. “A Vicious Kind of Tenderness: An Interview with Garrett Hongo.” Interview by Alice Evans. Poets and Writers 20, no. 5 (September/October, 1992): 36-46.

Ikeda, Stewart David. “The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America.” Ploughshares 20, no. 1 (Spring, 1994): 202-205.

Jarman, Mark. Review of Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai’i, by Garrett Hongo. The Southern Review 32, no. 2 (Spring, 1996): 337-344.

Monaghan, Peter. “How a Small, Nondescript Writing Program Achieved Distinction.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 44, no. 33 (April 24, 1998): A13-A15.

Muratori, Fred. Review of The River of Heaven, by Garrett Hongo. Library Journal 113 (May 1, 1988): 81-82.

Pettingell, Phoebe. “The River of Heaven.” The New Leader 71, no. 10 (June 13, 1988): 16.

Schultz, Robert. “Passionate Virtuosity.” Hudson Review 42 (Spring, 1992): 149-157.

Slowik, Mary. “Beyond Lot’s Wife: The Immigration Poems of Marilyn Chin, Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, and David Mura.” MELUS 25, nos. 3/4 (Fall/Winter, 2000): 221-242.

Yu, Larry. “Under Western Eyes: Personal Essays from Asian America.” Amerasia Journal 22, no. 3 (Winter, 1996): 169-172.

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