by Amanda Ong
It is likely that Garrett Hongo was the only one born in Hawai’i; Gardena, born in California; Based in the Pacific Northwest; nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; audiophile; former Asian American theater bad boy; and poet for honoring Elliott Bay Book Company. And as one of a kind, Hongo has graced Elliott Bay’s lineup since the 1980s, as he made much of his adult career here in Seattle. Last month, on February 21, Hongo spoke again at his old stomping ground in Elliott Bay about his new book, The perfect sound, with his longtime friend Frank Abe, filmmaker and co-author of the graphic novel We hereby refuse.
These days, Hongo mainly works as a professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon, and he is known primarily as a poet, although he also writes fiction, non-fiction, and plays. theater. Much of his work centers on his homes in Hawaii, where he spent his childhood, and Gardena, California, where he spent his teenage years. As a young adult in 1974, Hongo moved to Seattle to begin her acting career. Here he found a community of Asian American actors and writers.
In an interview with the South Seattle EmeraldAbe recalled Hongo’s first readings in Elliott Bay in the 1980s after his first two books, yellow light and The River of Heaven, have been published. “Pioneer Square was a mecca for Asian American writers and artists,” Abe said. “Garrett, me, Frank Okada…and we are all forging a connection with Elliott Bay.
Abe, too, is based in Seattle, and he owes his life here to Hongo. In 1976, Hongo influenced Abe to move to Seattle to join the Asian American theater scene and star in his new play. Abe, who was a struggling actor in San Francisco at the time, was successfully convinced to hitchhike up the coast. “He called me one day and he needed an actor for his play. Nisei Bar & Grill“, Abe said. “And he read me one of the monologues of this character called the Sansei Kid, and I was captivated by it. Because I could tell this guy had it. He had an original voice in the theatre. And so I dropped everything and went to Seattle.
During these years, Hongo and Abe worked with the Asian Multimedia Center in Seattle in the Theatrical Ensemble of Asians, an Asian American theater troupe which Hongo later renamed the “Asian Exclusion Act”. The Center’s board initially pushed back on the name, but Hongo stuck to his ideas.
“They thought it was too aggressive and would alienate old people,” Hongo said in an interview with the Emerald. “And I said, ‘That’s what I want. “”
“That’s what I liked about Garrett,” Abe said. “It’s the spirit that Garrett brought to everything, that Garrett brings to everything he does, it’s that spirit of rebellion. But also art. He brings an artistic spirit to everything. Garrett was definitely the bad boy of Asian American theater.
While Hongo was noted for his rebellion in his youth, many of his mentalities have since changed. “When I was younger, I had a vision and wanted to fix everyone around it. And I think I had an excessive obsession with that perspective,” Hongo said. “As a teacher , it felt a lot more like a mix of what the individual musician might do with what I see in the score, if you know what I mean…. I’m pretty communal.
And in this first room, Nisei Bar & Grill, Hongo mythologized the home of his youth, Gardena, California, through the voice of the Sansei Kid, as the “Pure Land of Western Paradise, Baby!” From 1976 to the present, Hongo has created magical representations of the worlds he knows, as BIPOC writers are often dissuaded from doing. “I think as a poet I trained my memory,” Hongo said. “As an actor too. You train to remember sensual and sensual memory. So you get some things. And then, because of this key, it leads to the rest.
Abe says real-life ideas shine through in Hongo’s imaginative work. “Garrett has this ability to create worlds from his imagination – but from his observation,” Abe said. “I mean, these things are grounded in reality. And Garrett brings them out, like he does in The perfect sound. It brings out his love of opera, as well as his love of 60s blues and folk-rock.”
In The perfect sound, Hongo uses his memory of music as a starting point to reminisce about different moments in his life. Joni Mitchell means early adolescence; John Coltrane signifies the time before he moved to Japan; Marvin Gaye stands for his first graduate poetry teacher, Robert Hayden. The book tells three stories, beginning after he returned from Italy in 2005 and heard a performance by The Bohemian life. He fell in love with opera and discovered that his stereo systems could not do justice to the power of the operatic voice. Hongo therefore began to explore high-end audio equipment to create a personalized home stereo system.
“By doing this, I started remembering my life in music,” Hongo said. “Since I was a kid in Hawai’i, Buddhist chants, Hawaiian songs, hotel music.” He remembered his dad building his own stereo when he was growing up, playing it and tweaking it, and asking him how it sounded. “[My father] was losing his hearing, and he couldn’t really tell. So he just handled the equipment, then asked me in Hawaiian pidgin to tell him what it looked like. It started my kind of high-pitched listening and I tried to translate it into a language my dad would understand.
For Hongo, building his sound system and falling in love with music tells a story of his own birthright from his father, who loved music himself. “That feeling of rapture, and then that connection to a kind of love in music, was the experience I wanted to convey in my book, and the experience I was looking for throughout my involvement in music,” said Hongo said.
But beyond love for music, Hongo’s sound system journey has shone a light on his father’s story and understanding of him, strengthening their connection even decades after his father’s death. “I just realized he was [building his audio system] to listen to his music for the last time before his hearing is totally cut off,” Hongo said. “And it just killed me. I mean, I thought, what a thing to do, what a noble thing, what a peaceful thing. … I loved him even more because of that.
“So you can see that the book is also a pursuit of my father and kind of a replication of his experience,” Hongo said. “But also a fulfillment of his spiritual and existential heritage. I live in the sound he couldn’t live in.
The perfect sound is also still a memoir, chronicling not only Hongo’s music and father, but also Hongo’s own identity. As an Asian American, Hongo had often been told that he couldn’t really have a complex story. He remembers coming to Seattle and regularly hearing, you can not, you can not, you can not.
People constantly locked him up because of his identity – how could a kid from Los Angeles born in Hawaii love the blues and Giacomo Puccini’s opera? “You know, [they say] you grew up bowling, man, you can’t play tennis. You grew up with baseball, you can’t play football. … I noticed that society was always trying to make me eliminate the experience I had just had,” Hongo said. “It’s a resegregation of consciousness.”
“You might behave one way with a group of Asian Americans, another way with [university], another way at a Chevrolet or Toyota car dealership,” Hongo said. “And people sort of morph to occupy these different spaces of identity and consciousness, and separate out what’s abnormal or contradictory. My book tries to bring all of these things together in one package.
The perfect sound brings together Hongo’s identity, music, family, teachers and mentors, and stereo technology from ancient Greece to the present day. But in the end, says Hongo The perfect sound speaks of the love of human culture and, in this, of humanity itself. From a man who has lived in so many different spaces and consciousnesses, this can only be a book worth listening to.
Amanda Ong (she) is a Chinese-American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate in the University of Washington’s Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in Creative Writing and Ethnic and Racial Studies.
📸 Featured Image: Garrett Hongo, poet, writer, teacher and former ‘Asian American bad boy of theater’, pictured in Venice. (Photo: Steven Varni)
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