Sunday, August 30, 2009

Garrett Hongo's Volcano as Guide to Personal Identity

When discussing the potential books to include in this project, Garrett Hongo’s Volcano: A Memoir of Hawaii came up as a strong recommendation. I decided to read Volcano first because of this recommendation, not knowing much about it or what to expect. As it turns out, Volcano seems to be the perfect book to start with. At first, I was just curious about authors from Hawaii simply because I wasn’t aware of them at all, but I wasn’t sure where the curiosity came from. The experience of reading Volcano became very demanding, despite the poetry of the prose. Throughout the book, I tried to stay focused on Hongo’s story, but his narrative reads, in some ways, as a guide, and it demands self-exploration and examination from the reader.

I wrote before about my lack of hometown or point of origin and the desire to belong to something larger than myself. Though the feeling is not new to me, it is one that I tend to leave largely unexplored, but with passages like the following one, reading Volcano forced introspection on my part:

What I need from stories and my own returning to Volcano is…a way to belong and a place to belong to. A way to belong that, at once, ties me to human culture and a living earth that is itself without a culture for human life. Pele. In other civilizations the priests and necromancers provided this, the early poets and storytellers weaving orbs of myth and human history… My perpetual unease…is that I try to live without it, puzzled and completely contemporary. (p.258)

Like Hongo, I am drawn to stories that offer ways to belong, yet at times I am overcome with an empty feeling brought on by the aimless, anchorless feeling of not being tied to the past. I agree with Hongo’s statement, “It is not so much race that determines us and our characters as it is our cultures and our having been sundered from them at birth” (260). He goes on to say “We live in the confusion of having grown up within great worlds that turned and boiled and streamed past all the steady rocks of culture along a route of dispersal like storm clouds climbing up through the rainforest over the volcano.” The “we” Hongo refers to here is the post World War II Japanese-American generation whose parents hid from them knowledge of the Japanese interment. He then tells anecdotes of a few of his peers and himself and how they searched the stories of their parents and parents’ parents’ pasts for meaning in their own existence. Now, I am uncomfortable discussing my attempts to connect myself to past generations here because I don’t mean to imply that my family suffered anything as strange and terrible as internment, but as I wrote before, Hongo’s story provokes self-examination. I search for stories that reveal ways to belong because my stories rarely go beyond my parents.

I know very little of my parents’ youths, and even less of my grandparents. I don’t know what shaped my parents’ lives. I barely knew my father’s family. I have no recollection of his mother, and my last memory of his father is having to repeatedly explain to him that I am his grandson. On my mother’s side, my grandpa died when I was so young that my most vivid memories of him involve stories of his ghost and a portrait of him drawn by an uncle. My grandmother spent more time talking to other elderly Filipino women than talking to my brothers or me. I realize now that I didn’t understand, that maybe she and her friends had found a way, through each other, to cling to memories of their own, of their husbands, or of the world they left behind. I only remember, on more than one occasion, wishing I understood their language. These fuzzy images and half-memories surfaced from the image Hongo creates of the world as a turbulent river, leaving cultures behind, pulling us along and away from those cultures. Almost every Filipino I’ve ever met has asked me, have I been to the Philippines, and has told me I should go see where I’m from. I wouldn’t know where to start. If my vague history is correct, my grandparents moved from the Philippines to Hawaii, but I don’t know where in the Philippines. I imagine if I were to go, I would only float around as directionless as anywhere else I’ve been, not knowing what to search for. Like Hongo, I feel completely contemporary at times, constantly searching for something to be a part of or tell me where I came from, finding nothing.

Having been born in Hawaii and moving to the mainland at an early age put me in a strange sort of cultural middle-ground, a phenomenon Hongo writes about throughout Volcano. Early in the book, he contrasts the lush rainforests and mythology of his birthplace with Los Angeles’s “ways of anonymity” (4). Later in the book, following a passage in which he was beaten for dating a white girl, Hongo writes:

A kid from Hawaii, I’d undergone no real initiation in shame or social victimization yet and maintained an arrogant season out of bounds, imagining I was exempt. It was humiliating to have been sent to camp. The Japanese American community understood their public disgrace and lived modestly, without deep prohibitions. I was acting outside of this history. (220-221)

Hongo states that being from Hawaii separated him from the culture of the mainland Japanese Americans, yet he also writes that he was only eight months old when he left Hawaii, essentially separating him from the culture of Hawaii also. He refers to his injuries from being beaten by other Japanese Americans as “a psychic wounding I understand only now” (221). The “only now” implies that only after returning to Volcano to search for those hidden parts of his identity that connected him to his family’s past and to the Hawaiian culture of his birthplace was he able to recognize the implications of his “free-agent” cultural status. That connection seems to have pulled Hongo from the realm of the completely contemporary.

Just as the town of Volcano became Hongo’s guide to discovering his identity, the narrative within Volcano became a guide to my own identity. I have long felt stuck between the island and mainland cultures of my youth and my mother’s and father’s families, none of which I’ve ever truly understood or felt I belonged to, but I was never able to even begin to articulate where this feeling came from. Maybe I was just unwilling to seek answers. And even though I still lack that point of origin the way Hongo could say, “’[He is] from Volcano,’ and feel his soul pull toward Mauna Loa” (287), his story has allowed to me to pinpoint where certain vacancies in my identity may reside. This should be the necessary and inevitable first step in filling those voids.

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