Photo depicting Garrett Hongo posing alongside the canals in Venice.

Garrett Hongo’s ‘The Perfect Sound’ Chronicles Life and Identity in Audio

by Amanda Ong

It is likely that Garrett Hongo is the only Hawai‘i-born; Gardena, California-bred; Pacific Northwest-based; Pulitzer Prize-nominated; audiophile; former bad boy of Asian American theater; and poet to have graced Elliott Bay Book Company. And as a one of a kind, Hongo has graced Elliott Bay’s programming since the 1980s, as he made much of his adult career here in Seattle. Last month on Feb. 21, Hongo spoke again at his old Elliott Bay stomping grounds about his new book, The Perfect Sound, with his longtime friend Frank Abe, a filmmaker and co-author of the graphic novel We Hereby Refuse

These days, Hongo works primarily as a professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon, and he is mainly known as a poet, though he also writes fiction, nonfiction, and plays. Much of his body of work focuses on his homes of Hawai​​‘i, where he spent his childhood, and Gardena, California, where he spent his adolescence. As a young adult in 1974, Hongo moved to Seattle to begin his career in theater. Here, he found a community of Asian American actors and writers.

In an interview with the South Seattle Emerald, Abe remembered Hongo’s early readings at Elliott Bay in the 1980s after his first two books, Yellow Light and The River of Heaven, were published. “Pioneer Square was the mecca for Asian American writers and artists,” Abe said. “Garrett, me, Frank Okada … and all of us forge a connection with Elliott Bay.”

Abe, too, is based in Seattle, and he owes his life here to Hongo. Back in 1976, Hongo enticed Abe to move to Seattle to join the Asian American theater scene and act in his new play. Abe, who was a struggling actor in San Francisco at the time, was successfully convinced to hitchhike his way up the coast. “He called me up one day and he needed an actor for his play Nisei Bar & Grill,” Abe said. “And he read to me one of the monologues of this character called the Sansei Kid, and it captivated me. Because I could tell this guy had it. He had an original voice in the theater. And so I just dropped everything and drove up to Seattle.”

In those years, Hongo and Abe worked with Seattle’s Asian Multimedia Center in the Theatrical Ensemble of Asians, an Asian American theater group which Hongo later renamed to “Asian Exclusion Act.” The board of the Center initially pushed back on the name, but Hongo was steadfast in his ideas. 

“They thought it was too aggressive and would alienate the old folks,” 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. “That’s the spirit that Garrett brought to everything, that Garrett brings to everything he does, is that spirit of rebellion. But also art. He brings an artistic spirit to everything. Garrett definitely was the bad boy of Asian American theater.” 

While Hongo stood out for his rebellion in his youth, many of his mentalities have changed since. “When I was younger, I had a vision, and I wanted to arrange everyone around it. And I think I had an excessive obsession with that perspective,” Hongo said. “As a teacher, it became much more like blending what the individual musician might do with what I see in the score, if you know what I mean. … I’m more of a communitarian.”

And in that first play, Nisei Bar & Grill, Hongo mythologized the home of his youth, Gardena, California, through the voice of the Sansei Kid, as the “The Pure Land of the Western Paradise, baby!” From 1976 to now, Hongo has created magical depictions of the worlds he knows, as BIPOC writers are often dissuaded from doing. “I think that as a poet, I’ve trained my memory,” Hongo said. “As an actor too. You train yourself to remember sensual, sensuous memory. So you key in on certain things. And then, because of that key, it leads to the rest.” 

Abe says real-life insights shine through in Hongo’s imaginative work. “Garrett has that ability to create worlds from his imagination — but from his observation,” Abe said. “I mean, these things are grounded in reality. And Garrett just brings those out, as he does in The Perfect Sound. He brings out his love of opera, as well as his love of the blues and folk-rock of the ’60s.”

Photo depicting Garrett Hongo's silhouette against a setting sun on a Hawaiʻian landscape.
Hongo’s latest book “The Perfect Sound” is part memoir and part ode to the songs and sounds that informed his artistic and personal life. (Photo: Alexander Hongo at Kaimu, Hawaiʻi.)

In The Perfect Sound, Hongo uses his memory of music as a jumping off point to remember different times in his life. Joni Mitchell means early adolescence; John Coltrane means the time before he moved to Japan; Marvin Gaye means his first graduate poetry teacher, Robert Hayden. The book tells three stories, starting after he came back from Italy in 2005 and heard a performance of La Vie Boheme. He fell in love with opera and found that his stereo systems couldn’t do justice to the power of operatic voice. So Hongo started to explore high-end audio equipment to create a custom stereo system at home.

“As I was doing this, I started remembering my life in music,” Hongo said. “Since I was a kid in Hawai‘i, Buddhist chants, Hawai‘ian songs, hotel music.” He remembered his father building his own stereo system when he was growing up, playing and tweaking it, and asking him how it sounded. “[My father] was losing his hearing, and he couldn’t really tell. So he handled just the equipment, and then asked me in Hawai‘ian pidgin to tell him what it sounded like. That began my sort of acute listening and trying to translate it into language my father would understand.”

For Hongo, building his audio system and falling in love with music tells a story from his own birthright from his father, who had loved music himself. “That feeling of rapture, and then connection to a kind of lovingness in music, was the experience I wanted to convey in my book, and the experience that I strove for throughout all my involvement with music,” Hongo said.

But beyond love for music, Hongo’s audio system journey shed light on his father’s story and his understanding of him, growing 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 totally shut 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 just loved him even more because of that.”

“So you could see the book is a pursuit also of my father, and a kind of reproduction of his experience,” Hongo said. “But also a fulfillment of his spiritual and existential legacy. I’m living in the sound that he couldn’t live in.” 

The Perfect Sound is, too, still a memoir, chronicling not just music and Hongo’s father, but also Hongo’s own identity. As an Asian American man, Hongo had frequently been told he couldn’t really have a complex story. He remembers coming to Seattle and regularly hearing, you can’t, you can’t, you can’t. 

People constantly boxed him in because of his identity — how could a Hawai‘ian-born, Los Angeles kid love the blues and Giacomo Puccini opera? “You know, [they say] you grew up bowling, man, you can’t play tennis. You grew up with baseball, you can’t be playing football. … I noticed that society was always trying to get me to eliminate the experience I just had,” Hongo said. “This is a resegregation of consciousness.”

“You might behave one way with a group of Asian Americans, another way at [university], another way at a Chevrolet or Toyota car dealership,” Hongo said. “And people sort of transform themselves to occupy these different spaces of identity and consciousness, and segregate out that which is anomalous or contradictory. My book is trying to put together all this stuff in one package.” 

The Perfect Sound brings together Hongo’s identity, music, family, teachers and mentors, and stereo technology from ancient Greece to today. But ultimately, Hongo says The Perfect Sound is about a love of human culture, and in that, humanity itself. From a man who has lived in so many different spaces and consciousnesses, it can only be a book worth listening to.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Poet, writer, professor, and the former “bad boy of Asian American theater” Garrett Hongo pictured in Venice. (Photo: Steven Varni)

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