Contemporary Writers

"A major principle of selection [for the Heath Anthology of American Literature] has been to represent as fully as possible the varied cultures of the United States," writes General Editor Paul Lauter in his Introduction to the anthology. Among the selections included are works by more than 80 contemporary writers, including a significant number of women and multicultural artists. Two of these artists recently shared their reflections on their work and contemporary literature.

Rolando Hinojosa-Smith

Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, whose prose work "Sometimes It Just Happens That Way, That's All" is included in Volume 2 of the Heath Anthology, is Garwood Professor of English at the University of Texas-Austin and Director of the Texas Center for Writers. His many books trace the history of Belkin County, a fictional area of South Texas, and the ongoing conflict there between the Mexican-Americans and the dominant Anglo-Americans. According to Juan Bruce-Novoa, an editor of the Heath Anthology, Hinojosa-Smith's fictional style combines the oral traditions of the Tex-Mex community with the documents, transcriptions of testimony, and newspaper accounts of the Anglo-American system to underscore the conflict between the two cultures.

Hinojosa-Smith has recently published a new work in his Belkin County series, Becky and Her Friends (Arte Publico Press, Houston, 1990). A Spanish version, Los Amigos de Becky, is being published in 1991.

"I don't see how anyone can write without having read Faulkner, whose work certainly influenced my own writing," said Hinojosa-Smith, whose Belkin County and its characters bring to mind the fictional Yoknapatawpha County of Faulkner's work. "I would also say that Pepe Dias, a journalist in my Texas home town, has been another role model for me as a writer," added Hinojosa-Smith.

"My initial motivation to write was winning an honorable mention in a writing contest I entered at age 15," he recalled. "For a while after that, I lost my way as a writer, unsure of what I wanted to say, but as soon as I started to write about where I was born, the culture I had come from, I found my way back.

"I don't know whether you can call what I write part of the `canon' of American literature, yet--only time will determine that--but I do think my work is an interesting part of the vast umbrella of the United States. It's a unique perspective on American life west of the Mississippi."

Hinojosa-Smith is pleased to be included in a textbook anthology of American literature because "my work speaks to students. It is historically based--the people who live and die in my works are part of the history of this country. I think my works say to students, `Look, this is who all of us are.'"

When it comes to the so-called canon of literature, says Hinojosa-Smith, "We can't be like pharmacists, always filling the same prescriptions. We have to be receptive to changes in our culture, for without changes our culture will be lost."

Garrett Hongo

The work of poet Garrett Hongo is represented in Volume 2 of the Heath Anthology by six of his poems. Amy Ling, a member of the editorial board, calls him "perhaps the most prolific and accomplished Asian-American poet today." His work draws its images from his homes in Hawaii and on the West Coast and its essence from the experiences of Japanese-Americans there.

Currently, Hongo, who is Associate Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at the University of Oregon, is a Guggenheim Fellowship and is working at his home in Volcano, Hawaii. He has two works in progress: Shining Wisdom of the Law: Japanese-Americans and Redress, a reportorial account of the redress movement which followed the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and Volcano Journal, a poetry-prose memoir of what he calls "my sojourning, since 1985, between Volcano, Hawaii, and the Mainland."

Hongo began his studies in literature, doing graduate work in Japanese and Chinese literature, with creative writing at first "just an ancillary to the academic program," he recalled. "The first creative writing workshop I attended, the Watts Writers' Workshop led by Stanley Crouch and Quincy Troup, helped me discover an identity as a minority writer and gave me the ability to write with a voice of authority," recalled Hongo. "But it wasn't until I began working in the MFA program at the University of California-Irvine, under C. K. Williams, that a real commitment to writing was instilled in me. Williams inspired me to take myself completely seriously as a writer, first and foremost."

Discovering and writing about his cultural roots has been a lifelong process for Hongo. He calls Wakako Yamauchi, a Los Angeles painter and poet, "my emotional inspiration. She was a teenager during the relocation, so she was able to give me insight into the character of Japanese-Americans before, during, and after the War. The relocation was a forbidden subject in my schooling and family, but Wakako shared with me the emotional character of the experience." Hongo gives voice to these emotions in such poems as "Something Whispered in the Shakuhachi."

About the Heath Anthology, Hongo remarked, "This book, and others like it that include writers not anthologized before, tells us there is another way to think about ourselves. Books like this broaden the field of expression by objectivizing repressed subjectivity, giving voice to the anger, sadness, dis-harmony, and joy experienced by the alienated and repressed who haven't been allowed to participate in the dominant culture.

"Books like this offer another way to constitute tradition and share it with students. I'm not saying, `Get rid of Homer and put in Hongo.' No way! But we need to open up the canon for students.

"For example, I needed the repressed tradition of Yamauchi, the complete silence of her tradition, to give me the authority to write about the subjects I write about. Without Yamauchi, I'm nothing. I have no history of my own culture to write about. But with her, I have the power to write about my culture. That is the potential of such anthologies--they give voices to the silences of various cultures."

Contents, No. V