Yamauchi, Wakako 1924-
YAMAUCHI, Wakako 1924-
PERSONAL: Born October 25, 1924, in Westmoreland, CA; daughter of tenant farmers and boardinghouse proprietors; married Chester Yamauchi, 1948; children: Joy. Education: Attended Otis Art Center, Chicago, IL, and Writers Guild of America's Open Door Project (screenwriting); University of California, Berkeley, correspondence course in short-story writing.
CAREER: Playwright, poet, author, and painter. Freelance contributor and illustrator for Rafu Shrimpo, c. 1970s.
AWARDS, HONORS: Playwriting grants, Rockefeller Foundation and Mark Taper Forum; National Book Award, Association for Asian-American Studies, 1995, for Songs My Mother Taught Me.
(With Velina Hasu Houston and Genny Lim) The Politics of Life: Four Plays, edited and with introduction and commentaries by Velina Hasu Houston, Temple University Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1993.
Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays, and Memoir, edited with an introduction, by Garrett Hongo, Feminist Press at the City University of York (New York, NY), 1994.
Author of plays and screenplays including And the Soul Shall Dance, 1974; Shirley Temple, Hot-Cha-Cha, 1977; The Music Lessons, 1980; The Trip, 1982; 12-1-A, 1982; The Memento, 1984; Face Box, 1984; Songs That Made the Hit Parade, 1989; Stereoscope 1: Taj Mahal, 1988; The Chairman's Wife, 1990; Not a Through Street, 1991; and What For? 1992. Works published in anthologies, including Unbroken Thread: An Anthology of Plays by Asian-American Women, edited by Roberta Uno, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1993; Women of the Century: Thirty Modern Short Stories; New Worlds of Literature;Staging Diversity: Plays and Practice in American Theater; Aiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian-American Writers; and Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Asian-American Fiction.
ADAPTATIONS: And the Soul Shall Dance was adapted for television.
SIDELIGHTS: "My stories are about immigrants. There have always been immigrants. We were there in prehistory, travelers from another place, another continent, or just stragglers from a larger society. We are a tribe of wanderers remembering a garden we'd left or looking for an Eden that waits.
"Immigrant stories have a certain commonality. Just as all dogs snarl, bite, hunger, and circle the nest before they rest, we as a species have common traits. We yearn for a more forgiving land, a truer love, and we huddle together for comfort and protection. We spring from this source and return to it for intimacy and warmth."
Thus writes Wakako Yamauchi in Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays, and Memoir. Yamauchi is regarded as one of the most important and influential Asian-American women authors. Her works draw from her personal experience as a second-generation—Nisei—Japanese American who understands the trials and triumphs of individuals and communities struggling to find identity in a foreign and sometimes hostile land. Yamauchi's parents, the Nakamuras, immigrated to the United States before World War II and settled in California's Imperial Valley. Here, her father became a tenant farmer during the era of the Alien Land Law, which excluded Japanese from land ownership. The family, which included Yamauchi's three siblings, moved continuously, following work from town to town until the Great Depression, when her father was forced to begin farming for himself and her mother to work in the fields daily. After their lettuce crop failed, her parents borrowed money to begin a boarding house for other Japanese immigrants. Just after their debt was paid, the family—along with 120,000 other Japanese immigrants—were interred in American concentration camps established following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Her father died during that interment.
The Nakamura family were interred at the Poston, Arizona, camp. It was there that Yamauchi got to know fellow writer Hisaye Yamamoto who, at the time, wrote under the name of Napoleon. Yamauchi was already aware of Yamamoto's short stories; they had even met briefly several years earlier. Now they developed a friendship. Yamamoto wrote for the camp's Poston Chronicle, and Yamauchi worked with her as an artist. "This was long before I dreamed of being a writer myself," Yamauchi commented during an interview with William P. Osborn and Sylvia A. Watanabe for MELUS. "People have come to think of us as twin writers, but that's not right. I am not so self-effacing, and I am not an intellectual. I am more physical—a feeler—more earthy. I think in some ways I'm more apt to cut myself open and bleed. Si has a keen mind. She is more refined. And she had been writing for a long time before I even dared to dream of it."
After eighteen months in camp, Yamauchi was sent to Chicago where she worked in a candy factory. During that time she attended all the plays she was able, and, after the camps closed officially, took painting classes. Following her marriage, she focused her full attention on raising her daughter, Joy. She began writing short stories in her mid-thirties following the death of her mother.
Yamauchi's parents spoke only Japanese, and therefore their children learned English at school. After high school her formal education consisted of a brief period with the Writers Guild of America's Open Door Project and two correspondence courses with the University of California at Berkeley. During her MELUS interview, Yamauchi explained that she began writing because she didn't want her mother—and the stories she told and the songs she sang—to be forgotten. She wrote the story "And the Soul Shall Dance," which was rejected by mainstream magazines. Believing she was doing "something wrong," she enrolled in writing courses, fit her story into the exercises given by her instructor, then submitted it as her final paper. Her instructor loved it. "I took a second course from the same teacher and submitted three stories. One of them about camp life, 'The Sensei,' made her very angry," Yamauchi recalled. "She didn't want the narrator, who starts as a rather moral woman, to end up so cynical. She wanted the American pie finish, not a criticism of the Japanese-American internment camps in World War II. But the story was my husband's and I had to tell it the way it happened. I realized then that an acceptable philosophical and political point of view was important to mainstream publication, so I stopped trying for white publications and wrote for Rafu Shimpo, a local Japanese paper with an English section. They knew what I was saying."
Thus began her career. When she became published in Aiieeeee! she was ecstatic; for the first time, her stories were reaching people outside the Los Angeles Nisei. The magazine entered an Amerasia Journal short-story competition, and they, too, published her work. Shortly thereafter, Asian American academics began adding her stories to their curricula. She ultimately chose playwrighting because, as she explains in The Politics of Life: Four Plays, she "enjoys watching the audience respond to art" and because plays "offer the opportunity to connect with human beings in the theater." Her short story "And the Soul Shall Dance" became her first play after she was encouraged to adapt it by the artistic director of the East West Players during the 1970s. The play has been produced at virtually every Asian-American theater in the nation and aired on national television. The story tells of two immigrant farming families struggling for survival during the Great Depression.
In The Music Lesson, based on her short story "In Heaven and Earth," Yamauchi likewise reflects on her youth. Set in a farming community, the tale depicts the development of a mother and adolescent daughter's relationship and their attitudes toward a new itinerant worker. In 12-1-A Yamauchi places the Tanaka family in the concentration camp where she and her family were interned—Poston, Arizona—in order to bring that experience to the American consciousness. In her interview with MELUS Yamauchi recalled being the only nonwhite at a party. "A psychiatrist asked my why we Japanese called the American evacuation centers 'concentration camps.' They were nothing like the German concentration camps for the Jews, didn't I agree? I would like to have replied, 'Concentration means concentration and camp means camp. What's the problem? We are Americans, and to us, all those history and civics lessons turned out to be nothing but lies.' But my mind went blank, I choked up, my voice cracked, and tears welled in my eyes. I said, 'I guess you had to be there to understand that one.' I was ashamed of myself, but a faltering voice and teary eyes are all a good psychiatrist needs."
In the play The Chairman's Wife Yamauchi chronicles the life of Mao Tse-tung's widow. Using the Tiananmen Square massacre as the foci, the author moves back and forth through time, following Madame Mao's rise to and fall from power. Yamauchi views this play as a departure in theme from her previous works in that it focuses on a public figure and the historical and present-day sociopolitical incidents in China. Yet it contains the familiar theme that runs through all Yamauchi's works: that of internal struggles with passions, economic fluctuation, civil war, and imprisonment of mind, body and spirit. Yamauchi ends the play with the potent, thought-provoking words: "Politics is like fashion. Yesterday, me. Today, you. Tomorrow. . . ."
"Read together," noted a critic for Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color, "all of Yamauchi's writings—stories, plays, and memoirs—illuminate three periods in the timeline of Japanese American history: immigration and rural farming in the early 20th century, World War II imprisonment, and postwar readjustment. For her poignant portrayals of Japanese American acculturation and for her ability to inspire her readers, many . . . have been prompted to value her as a 'cultural treasure.'"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Lim, Shirley Geok-lin, and Amy Ling, editors, Reading the Literatures of Asian America, Temple University Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1992, pp. 131-150.
Misha, Berson, editor, Between Worlds: Contemporary Asian-American Plays, Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1990, pp. 128-131.
Trudeau, Lawrence J., editor, Asian-American Literature, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Yamauchi, Wakako, Songs My Mother Taught Me, Feminist Press of the City University of New York (New York, NY), 1994, pp. 1-16.
Amerasia Journal, spring, 2001, M. Dick Osumi, "Jungian and Mythological Patterns in Wakako Yamauchi's And the Soul Shall Dance," p. 86.
Back Stage, April 6, 1990, Brian Bradley, review of And the Soul Shall Dance, p. 29A.
Belles Lettres, spring, 1995, Patricia Harusame Leebove, review of Songs My Mother Taught Me, p. 66.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 14, 1994, review of Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays, and a Memoir, p. 9.
MELUS, summer, 1998, William P. Osborn, Sylvia A. Watanabe, "A MELUS Interview: Wakako Yamauchi," p. 101.
New York Times, May 16, 1980, theater review of Music Lessons, p. C5; March 4, 1984, theater review of Face Box, p. 49.
Publishers Weekly, June 13, 1994, review of Songs My Mother Taught Me, p. 60.
Women's Review of Books, December, 1994, Valerie Matsumoto, "Migrant Writer," p. 8.
Arizona State University Web site,http://www.public.asu.edu/ (June 7, 2002), "Wakako Yamauchi."
Voices from the Gap, University of Minnesota Web site,http://voices.cla.umn.edu/ (June 7, 2002), "Wakako Yamauchi."*