Yamamoto, Hisaye 1921- (Napoleon)

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YAMAMOTO, Hisaye 1921- (Napoleon)

PERSONAL: Born August 23, 1921, in Redondo Beach, CA; daughter of Kanzo and Sae Tamura Yamamoto (strawberry farmers); married Anthony DeSoto, 1955; children: Paul, Kibo, Elizabeth, Anthony, Claude. Education: Compton Junior College, associate of arts degree.

ADDRESSES: Home—Los Angeles, CA. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Rutgers University Press, 100 Joyce Kilmer Avenue, Piscataway, NJ 08854-8099.

CAREER: Homemaker and author. Los Angeles Times Tribune, columnist, 1945-48; Catholic Worker community farm, Staten Island, 1952-54.

AWARDS, HONORS: John Hay Whitney Opportunity fellowship, 1949; Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement, 1986; Association for Asian-American Studies Award for Literature, 1988, for Seventeen Syllables and Other Short Stories.


Seventeen Syllables and Other Short Stories (introduction by King-Kok Cheung), Kitchen Table—Women of Color Press (Latham, NY), 1988; reprinted, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1994; revised and expanded edition 2001.

Contributor to anthologies and collections, including Best American Short Stories, edited by Martha Foley, 1952; Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, 1983, Images of Women in Literature, 1991, Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land, 1991, Short Stories by Japanese-American Writers, 1991, Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian-American Fiction, 1993, Growing up Asian American: An Anthology, 1993, Where Coyotes Howl and Wind Blows Free: Growing up in the West, 1995, and Into the Fire: Asian-American Prose, 1996. Contributor to periodicals, including Rafu Shimpo, Hokkubei Mainichi, Pacific Citizen, Harper's Bazaar, Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, and Carleton Miscellany. Columnist for Japanese-American newspapers and author of short stories under pen name "Napoleon."

ADAPTATIONS: "Yokeno's Earthquake" and "Seventeen Syllables" were adapted for the film "Hot Summer Winds," broadcast as part of American Playhouse, PBS, 1991.

SIDELIGHTS: "Kisaye Yamamoto has been described as 'not just one of the best Nisei—second-generation Japanese American—writers, not just one of the best Asian American writers, but . . . among the best short story writers today.'" Thus stated essayist Susan B. Richardson in American Women Writers.

Yamamoto was born to immigrants from Kumamoty, Japan. Her writing career began during her teens and developed from an avid desire to read. As a youth, she was especially interested in the English sections of Japanese-language newspapers. She attended both Japanese and English schools until entering Compton Junior College, where she specialized in French, Spanish, German, and Latin. Before World War II she wrote columns for Japanese American newspapers and began publishing stories under the pen name "Napoleon." Then, as was the plight of 120,000 other Japanese Americans, Yamamoto and her family were interred in an American concentration camp following Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor. During her internment at the Poston, Arizona camp (1941-44), she published in the camp's weekly newspaper, Poston Chronicle. Those works include the serialized mystery "Death Rides the Rails to Poston" and the story "Surely I Must Be Dreaming." Although relocated to Springfield, Massachusetts in the government's efforts to resettle Nisei, Yamamoto returned to Poston following her nineteen-year-old brother's death while fighting with the American army in Italy. When the war ended, she moved to Los Angeles and became a columnist with the black weekly newspaper, the Los Angeles Tribune.

Three years later, following publication by Partisan Review in 1948 of her breakthrough short story "The High-heeled Shoes, a Memoir," Yamamoto left the Tribune to write full time. Also that year, she adopted a five-month old baby, Paul. She continued writing for the Tribune, publishing many stories, including "Seventeen Syllables" in 1949, "Yokeno's Earthquake" in 1951, and "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara" and "Wilshire Bus" in 1950. In 1952 she was chosen by Stanford University for a writing fellowship, but declined the award in favor of joining Doris Day's Catholic Worker farming community in New York. Two years later she returned to Los Angeles, married, over the next several years bore four children, and—while raising her five children—wrote.

Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories contains a selection of Yamamoto's short stories written between 1948 and 1987 and published in magazines. Although she was one of the first Japanese-American writers to receive national recognition following World War II, it was not until this book was published that her work became readily accessible and received popular notoriety. "Each of the fifteen stories details, in some way, the particular anguish of Japanese and Japanese-American women, from things as seemingly simple as loveless arranged marriage in 'Seventeen Syllables,' or a strained union such as Henry and Marge Kusomoto's marriage in 'My Father Can Beat Muhammad Ali' to severe mental instability, possibly as a result of camp life or an inattentive ascetic father ('The Legend of Miss Sasagawara')," commented Anne N. Thalheimer in MELUS. "Some stories go further into the detail of women's lives but do so only through relying upon the reader to interpret what Yamamoto implies."

In Comparative Literature Studies Naoko Sugiyama commented that Yamamoto "uses multilayered silences in her short stories, drawing from both her Japanese-American heritage and broader, American cultural experiences. . . . [Her stories] often show Issei (first generation) mothers pathetically silenced into a life of drudgery and isolation. . . . [She] pays tribute to her own Japanese-American cultural tradition by skillfully making silences tell stories." In this context, Sugiyama referred particularly to "Seventeen Syllables" and "Yoneko's Earthquake." Here in particular, Yamamoto achieves the "seemingly paradoxical task"—of describing the silence forced on women by oppression and, in particular, the psychological difficulties that silence causes between mothers and daughters of the Issei and Nisei, and her use of silence in her writing. "Yamamoto's careful description of silence, as well as her minimalist technique, which charges these two short stories with hidden meanings, proves that silence, usually a negative sign of powerlessness and oppression, can be used in a subversive way, as a means for Japanese-American women to find their voices and pass on their stories."

While Yamamoto's stories deal with Japanese/American relationships and relationships between Japanese individuals, they incorporate relationships between different Asian groups and between those groups and other ethnic groups. Of Seventeen Syllables, Valerie Miner, reviewing the book for the Nation, was particularly impressed with what she termed Yamamoto's "multicultural casting," noting in particular "The Brown House," "Wilshire Bus," "The Eskimo Connection," and "Reading and Writing." Miner commented: "Seventeen Syllables is a book not just about Japanese-Americans, but also about Chicanos, blacks, Filipinos, Eskimos and whites of various classes." Miner attributed this casting to Yamamoto's diverse experiences and her awareness of and sensitivity to them—living in a Japanese community in which cultural values were undergoing major shifts between generations, writing for a black newspaper, working with a Catholic farming community, her internment, and raising five children, among them.

In an interview with Yamamoto published in Chicago Review, William P. Osborn and Sylvia A. Wantanabe asked the author her thoughts about the stand some Asian-American writers had taken: that priority be given to Asian-American readership. Yamamoto responded: "I guess I'm just writing to please myself, express myself, mainly, since I don't know anybody's ever going to read it. I'm just trying to put down whatever is stuck in my craw as best I can. You know, get it out of my system. I've never thought of writing for anybody. I don't think you can write aiming at a specifically Asian-American audience if you want to write freely. No, you just express yourself without thinking of that angle."

Valerie Matsumoto commented in Women's Review of Books: "It is difficult to do justice to the scope and complexity of Yamamoto's writing. Her protagonists' struggles, limned with her distinctive blend of irony and compassion, defy stereotyping or indifference. Yamamoto carries us beyond the cardboard images of stoic Issei pioneers and introduces us to fully human artists, gamblers and dreamers . . . Yamamoto's writing is remarkable in its reflection of the spectrum of interracial relations, never clichéd or contrived, always complex. . . . The pieces in this collection vary in power and effectiveness. . . . They don't just fuse experience and imagination into 'art': they act on us, transforming our sense of ourselves and the world."



Bendbow-Pfalzgraf, Taryn, editor, American Women Writers, Volume 4, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.


American Literary History, 1991, King-Kok Cheung, "Double-Telling: Intertextural Silence in Hisaye Yamamoto's Fiction," p. 277.

American Literature, June, 1999, Grace Kyungwon Hong, "Something Forgotten Which Should Have Been Remembered: Private Property and Cross-Racial Solidarity in the Work of Hisaye Yamamoto," pp. 291-310.

Chicago Review, summer, 1993, William P. Osborn and Sylvia A. Watanabe, "A Conversation with Hisaye Yamamoto," p. 34.

Comparative Literature Studies, winter, 1996, Naoko Sugiyama, "Issei Mothers' Silence and Nisei Daughters' Stories: The Short Fiction of Hisaye Yamamoto," pp. 1-14.

MELUS, fall, 1991, King-Kok Cheung, "Thrice Muted Tale: Interplay of Art and Politics in Hisaye Yamamoto's 'The Legend of Miss Sasagawara,'" p. 109; winter, 1999, Anne N. Thalheimer, review of Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, p. 177.

Nation, April 24, 1989, Valerie Miner, review of Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, p. 566.

Studies in American Fiction, autumn, 1989, Stan Yogi, "Legacies Revealed: Uncovering Plots in the Stories of Hisaye Yamamoto," p. 169-181.

Studies in Short Fiction, spring, 1988, C. Lok Chua, review of Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, p. 162; winter, 1998, Maire Mullins, critical essay, "Esther's Smile: Silence and Action in Hisaye Yamamoto's 'Wilshire Bus,'" p. 77.

Women's Review of Books, July, 1989, Valerie Matsumoto, "Windows on a World," review of Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, p. 5.


Voices from the Gap, University of Minnesota Web site,http://voices.cla.umn.edu/ (June 7, 2002).*