Washington — Asian-American poetry was the focus of a Library of Congress event on April 13 featuring Japanese-American poet Garrett Hongo. Hongo was born in Hawaii to third-generation Japanese-American parents. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
The stories of earlier generations — the infamous, the covered-up and the mythical — recurred throughout the poems Hongo read. Some of these stories used the voice of his grandfather, a Japanese American detained by the U.S. government during World War II. Others recounted his father’s experience in that same war fighting for the Allies in Italy. Still others delved into the history of his ancestors who labored on the plantations of Hawaii. In the title poem of his new collection, Coral Road, Hongo describes his desire to explore and preserve the culture of the plantation laborers' past in a culture too eager to leave it behind:
There is little to tell and few enough to tell it to —
A small circle of relatives gathered for reunion
At some beach barbecue or Elks Club veranda in Waikıkı,
All of us having survived that plantation sullenness
And two generations of labor in the sugar fields,
Having shed most all memory of travail and the shame of upbringing
In the clapboard shotguns of ancestral poverty.
Who else would even listen?
Where is the Virgil who might lead me through the shallow underworld of this history?
Hongo recounted his experience of looking for a voice for Asian Americans in literature, which was hard to find when he was a child. He mentioned the influence of the Asian Americans working at that time, including playwright Wakako Yamauchi and a handful of writers from the World War II era. He longed for a literature that spoke to his and his family’s experiences in the same way that William Faulkner’s spoke to the experiences of the rural South. “There weren’t any stories about us growing up,” Hongo said. “When I fell in love with literature in junior high and high school, I wanted stories of ours to be there. And we weren’t there.”
But the details of the plantation past in Hawaii were hard to come by. He found what he could in libraries with the help of people such as Franklin Odo, the Japanese-American scholar and historian who led a conversation with Hongo following the reading. Although the research that brought them together years ago helped Hongo flesh out aspects of his family's plantation past, he had to rely on his creative imagination to supply what historical documents could not. His poetry “emerges as much from human desire as any notion of accuracy,” he said. “We have a desire to know. [Poems are] interpretive. And in the interpretation, you renew the experience. “