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Excerpts from Garrtett Hongo Interviews

From an Interview with Bill Moyers

MOYERS: Why did you decide to write poetry?

HONGO: I wanted to explore the life of emotions. As a child in Hawai'i I remember not only having emotions, but they seemed authorized by the world and the family surrounding me. As an adolescent growing up in Los Angeles and the public schools there, emotions seemed to be under a tight reign even in sports. People seemed to want to deny them.

I didn't understand that as a Japanese American I was experiencing a social and historical sadness. Because my own family did not suffer relocation, they were trying to live it down and grow out of their own grief. So I had all these feelings which had no form of expression. My brother became a blues guitarist, and at first I was just angry, then I became a poet. Poetry and photography seemed to give me ways to explore and connect with the history that was repressed.

MOYERS: Repressed in what sense?

HONGO: There wasn't anything in my high school textbooks about Japanese in America. I knew that we weren't there when Lee surrendered to Grant. I knew we weren't there when Washington crossed the Delaware.

MOYERS: Or at the Alamo, on either side.

HONGO: Yes, and I wanted the words I was reading to belong to me, but there were no words for me, no words for my grandfather, no words for my grandmother. They simply weren't portrayed, so I felt that I didn’t have an identity. Then I set about trying to learn that history and to put what did not exist for me on the page. Poetry was almost completely unwilled, I just had to have it.

MOYERS: Were these concerns shared within your family?

HONGO: With my grandfather, mostly. My own parents were immigrants from Hawai'i to the mainland and they had a lot to do just to survive and to provide for my brother and me. My father was an American soldier at the same time that my grandfather was imprisoned in Hawai'i. My grandfather was born in America in 1899 but was sent back to Japan for his education, so the day after Pearl Harbor he was arrested and taken down for questioning in Honolulu. In a sense he was disappeared for a short time, not an uncommon story among Japanese Americans. My grandfather was a community leader, the president of the Japanese language school, who sponsored Japanese citizens to come over and be schoolteachers in Hawai'i. So of course he was under suspicion. He would sit down after dinner every night with his bourbon and tell me, his oldest grandchild, the story of how he was arrested and questioned by the FBI and how they tried to trick him into betraying his true identity.

MOYERS: They thought he was a spy?

HONGO: That's right. And he was still angry about it. He'd tell me the story, and no one else would listen, they were embarrassed by his passion and by his giving me a responsibility for this story. I was told that he was senile, but he wasn't. He was obsessed with a wrong that he felt needed to be righted and he was also obsessed that the story had to be told. So he'd tell me the story every night. He said, "You learn the language good"—he spoke broken English, a Hawaiian kind of pidgin English because he was educated in Japan—"Learn speak like white Americans. You tell story." Kids remember that kind of thing. I remembered it.

I share with so many Japanese Americans of my generation a feeling that we have a story to tell, that we have a responsibility to that generation who suffered the humiliation and the loss and who did not have their presence in this country endorsed. I've been interviewing Japanese American lawyers and different people who've worked on redress, which is to say compensation for their relocation, and I've been more and more impressed with how this is a way for us to earn back what we all felt we lost during World War II.

MOYERS: When you were talking about that subject with the young people today, they responded to your poetry but not to your discussion about relocation. They didn't understand what the term means. It's not a part of their experience.

HONGO: Exactly, and that's why I needed to write the story of relocation into the books. I remember as a student in Los Angeles, we'd study World War II and there would be no mention of the evacuation, no mention of Executive Order 9066 that sent 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast in the United States to the relocation centers all over the barren places of the West and Arkansas. I wasn't angry about it; I just couldn't believe that it wasn't spoken about so I would raise the question. I didn't understand that this caused a great deal of embarrassment to many of my classmates who were mainland Japanese Americans. I didn't understand that even the nisei, second generation, didn't wish to bring up the subject. It was very painful to them, and a source of humiliation. Congressman Robert Matsui from California said that when he was in school and World War II came up, he'd pretend to be sick so he didn't have to go. He was ashamed. But that's something I didn't feel myself.

MOYERS: You said a minute ago that you felt sadness.

MONGO: Yes. I felt everyone was sad, that there was this unspoken sadness all around me. I wanted to understand it and to bring it into language. What inspired me were things I read, like Greek tragedies. Here was Orestes full of action and Antigone standing up for a principle, so 1 said, "What the hell are we doing? We're not speaking to the issue. We're not articulating our emotions or our beliefs about the dead and about history." I was basically indoctrinated in a Western vision of articulation, of speaking to emotional and historical issues, but my experience was one of repression.

MOYERS: You didn't think that you could talk about this?

HONGO: I didn't feel that others could or would, and that caused a great frustration. And I didn't know it at the time but I think I unconsciously absorbed my grandfather's directive to me. He'd charged me every evening with this responsibility, so I'd bring it up and then it would be sort of silenced. There was a great social dissonance between my inner life and the exterior life, and I needed to make them come together somehow. . . .

MOYERS: You were talking earlier about two generations of your family laboring as field hands on the plantations of Hawai'i to buy your way out. Has poetry helped you to resurrect the images of your ancestors?

HONGO: Yes, I believe it has. I feel really fortunate that I was allowed to attain this level of literacy and the leisure to explore the development of an ideal of culture in my own education and in my own life. I feel very powerfully that my place in this country was earned by my forebears so that I could become expressive in a civilized way.

MOYERS: What did your forebears do?

HONGO: They emigrated from Japan, labored as field hands for two generations in Hawai'i, went to war in Italy and France, worked at menial jobs in industry and civil bureaucracy so that I could attain the leisure to be able to contemplate not just the body of knowledge that is literature but also the lives that they led in order to buy my way out of that kind of life. I feel privileged and I feel responsible to them.

MOYERS: Some of my favorite lines are these: "I want the dead beside me when I dance, to help me / flesh the notes of my song, to tell me it's all right." What's all right?

HONGO: That they are the dead. That they're not the living. That these people whom I treasure and these lives which were exemplary and are exemplary to me, these presences which I don't enjoy as I enjoy yours, are still somehow present. It's a magical belief, a primitive religion, but it's something for me as a poet that's crucial. It's not intellectual, it's almost a need to believe. Maybe religion is not so much belief, as the need to believe.

MOYERS: But given that poetry is so personal and intimate and that your own poetry is a country populated by your own ancestors, people need help entering that country.

HONGO: I think poetry is about our most familiar need which we deny in order to lead more practical lives, but ultimately these lives are impractical because they do not have such presences in them. I think poetry can bring such presences back, whether they're the dead or evanescent feelings or insinuations, or glimmerings, or vanishings. These are the most essential things, and poetry turns to them in the way that many arts do. So 1 feel like a conduit for things other than myself—these vanishings, insinuations, glimmerings. I feel they’re essential. I can’t do without them.

from The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Copyright 1995 by Public Affairs Television, Inc., and David Grubin Productions, Inc.

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