The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.”

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...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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,...

(The entire section is 538 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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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.

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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.