Volcano is a memoir. The book evocatively describes flora, fauna, and geographical features of an exuberantly lush and exotic landscape. The book contains biographical portraits of a handful of Garrett Hongo’s flamboyant, melancholy, or mercenary ancestors, intriguing in themselves. In the artful way in which it combines place with personal history, and in which it seeks to reconcile Hongo’s Japanese heritage with his American circumstances, the book explores a larger truth: To achieve true peace of mind, it is necessary to seek, acknowledge, and celebrate one’s own ethnic, geographical, and biological origins.
Hongo’s last name means “homeland,” and he conducts a pilgrimage, crossing the Pacific Ocean to immerse himself in the birthplace he left when he was only a few weeks old, Volcano. Growing up near Los Angeles and living as an adult in Missouri and Oregon, Hongo first returns to Volcano when he is thirty years old, his Caucasian violinist wife and their infant son, Alexander, in tow. Having felt a profound sense of estrangement from his past, knowing little about his father or grandfather, Hongo soon makes acquaintances in Volcano with locals and distant relatives, who reveal painful truths about the ravages of the Japanese American internment on his family. His cabin in the rainforest is in the shadow of the Kilauea volcano, which takes on symbolism as his narrative continues. He shops in the general store that his grandfather once owned. He witnesses a volcano erupting in the early morning and hikes around lava flows. He eats food such as poi and miso soup, which for him become a wayside of culture and memory.
The first visit makes Hongo eager to return, having given him particulars of ancestral memory and having shown him a way to belong in and to make sense of his world. In the poignancy and drama of coming face-to-face with ugly racial and personal secrets and also with the beauties of place that lift him above the pain, Hongo becomes inspired to compose the poetry that had been locked deep inside. The book ends with the wish that the reader achieve similar healing self-knowledge.