Born 5 February 1942, Stockton, California
Daughter of Ted and Belle Anne Matsuda Mirikitani; married Cecil Williams, 1982; children: Tianne
Poet, editor, anthologist, teacher, choreographer, and political activist, Janice Mirikitani is an important figure in the Asian American community and in the literary world. A third-generation Japanese American whose grandparents emigrated from Hiroshima, incarcerated at birth with her family in the Rohwer, Arkansas, concentration camp during World War II, Mirikitani has spoken out with persuasive and lyrical militancy against racism, violence, and containment. She has urged others, particularly women of color, to shed their silences and find the power of collective voice.
Mirikitani received her B.A. cum laude from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1962 and her teaching credentials from the University of California at Berkeley in 1963. She taught English, speech, and dance at the Contra Costa Unified School District (1964-65) and enrolled in graduate studies in creative writing at San Francisco State University, where she was later (1972) a lecturer in Japanese American literature and creative writing. In 1966 Mirikitani began work at the Glide Church/Urban Center in San Francisco. Since becoming program director there in 1969, she has overseen meal and housing projects, rape and abuse recovery programs for women, and a volunteer program offering computer services to the poor and homeless. She was elected president of the Glide Foundation in 1983.
Mirikitani has been involved in efforts for reparations for Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II and she has served on many Bay Area boards, including the Zellerbach Community Arts Distribution Committee and the United Tenderloin Community Fund. With her husband, Rev. Cecil Williams, she compiled a book of children's writings on the crack cocaine crisis, I Have Something to Say about This Big Trouble: Children of the Tenderloin Speak Out (1989). She has also choreographed and produced more than 35 dance productions with social themes. These include "A Tribute to King"; "Who Among the Missing" (in honor of Central Americans missing, tortured, and imprisoned); "Hiroshima, California," an antiwar statement with had a national tour; "Lonnie's Song," which focuses on a community of people affected by the AIDS crisis; and "Revealing Secrets, Releasing Fear," dances and poetry about addiction, incest, and recovery.
Mirikitani's writing, like her community work, is largely informed by her history and her politics. Committed to helping Third World and women artists and writers to publish, Mirikitani has served as an editor for several magazines and anthologies, including Aion Magazine (which she founded in 1970); Time to Greeze!: Incantations from the Third World (1975); Ayumi: A Japanese American Anthology (1980); and Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and about Asian American Women (1989). She also published two collections of her own poetry and prose, Awake in the River (1978, reissued 1982) and Shedding Silence (1987, recorded 1988), and her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, textbooks, magazines, and journals in the U.S. and Japan.
In pieces dedicated to war veterans and to comrade sisters, in poems written in response to the assassinations of Steve Biko and of Orlando Letelier, and in remembrance of relatives, Mirikitani speaks out against legally sanctioned racism and brutality. She links the devastation of Hiroshima with Vietnam and the internment camp at Tule Lake, and further connects war atrocities with such assaults and invasions as sexual harassment, child molestation, incest, rape, and battering (see "Zipper," "Tomatoes," "The Winner," "Crazy Alice," and "Spoils of War"). She also writes of racial exoticization, cultural misogyny, and self-erasure ("Doreen," "Recipes," "Suicide Note"). Other poems note the injunction to women of color to bleach their stories, starch their thoughts, and curb desire ("Healthy Choices"), and the cost of political passivity and silence. In a second version of "Spoils of War," included in Shedding Silence, Mirikitani powerfully links racism, colonialism, and the militarization of people's consciousness with misogyny and violent sexuality in the story of the rape and mutilation of a young woman by a Vietnam veteran.
Mirikitani's writings, however, are not about victimization as much as they are about survival, rebirth, and affirmation of self. While many remain silent about their violent pasts, Mirikitani refuses to bow to a history of violation; instead, she voices her anger and acts for change. In "Shedding Silence," a dramatic presentation that developed out of the agitation propaganda theater of the 1960s, Mirikitani uses the image of a discarded obi to symbolize rejection of the containment of women and of prescriptions for "proper" (traditional Japanese, feminine) behavior and writing. Not fearful or powerless, not quiet or demure, she takes memory and creativity as her weapons and becomes a word warrior, deftly wielding her pen to rewrite Japanese American women's roles (see especially "Without Tongue" and "Slaying Dragon Ladies"). She is, she affirms, a "saboteur of stereotypes" ("Who Is Singing this Song?").
Recognizing that real power lies not in oppression but in sharing, Mirikitani celebrates legacies of strength and claims her place among generations of Asian American women and their "loud, yellow" and "dangerous" protest against injustices and violence ("Generations of Women," "Prisons of Silence"). As she writes in "Breaking Silence": "We must recognize ourselves at last. / We are a rainforest of color and noise." Difficult though it may be for women of color to break free of "prisons of silence," it is important, Mirikitani insists, to "give testimony," for, as she says repeatedly, "We survive by hearing."
Direct, vitally angry, and politically impassioned, Mirikitani breaks taboos, writing against expectations of her as a woman and as an Asian American to speak decorously. Without apology, diminution, self-deprecation, or conciliation, she validates her voice and places its power, its passion, and its rage in the context of large and violent truths. While some have found her writings too angry and blunt, many have felt empowered by her explosive poetry and prose and her clear political commitment. In all that she does, Mirikitani insists on the collective power of voice and vows to do her part to stop violence: "Count our numbers, / harvest our strength, / breathe between the rain. / We shall not go into their camps again."
In recognition of the exceptional commitment and impact of her writings and her life work, Mirikitani received the Woman Warrior in Arts and Culture award from the Pacific Asian American Women Bay Area Coalition (1983). She was also honored, along with Alice Walker, Alice Adams, Judy Grahn, Josephine Miles, and Tillie Olsen, with the Woman of Words Award (1985). In 1988 she and her husband received the University of California at San Francisco Chancellor's Medal of Honor. The California State Assembly named her Woman of the Year in the 17th Assembly District (1988), and she was the recipient in 1990 of the Outstanding Leadership award of the Japanese Community Youth Council.
Breaking Free: A Glide Songbook (1989). We, the Dangerous: New Selected Poems (1995).
Benatovich, B., ed., What We Know So Far: Wisdom Among Women (1996). Harris, M., and K. Aguero, eds., A Gift of Tongues (1987). Howe, F., ed., No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets, Newly Revised and Expanded (1993). Kim, E. H., Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context (1982). Leong, R., Why is Preparing a Fish a Political Act: Poetry of Janice Mirikitani (video, 1990). Mullaney, J. P., ed., Truthtellers of the Times: Interviews with Contemporary Women Poets (1998). Salvin, C. K., "Exploring Asian American Literary Style: Janice Mirikitani and Ronyoung Kim" (thesis 1994). Trudeau, L. J., ed., Asian American Literature: Reviews and Criticism of Works by American Writers of Asian Descent (1999). Yamamoto, T., Masking Selves, Making Subjects: Japanese American Women, Identity, and the Body (1999). Yep, L., ed., American Dragons: Twenty-Five Asian American Voices (1995).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Ayumi, Making Waves. Feminist Studies (Fall 1988). Heath Anthology of American Literature (1990). Janice Mirikitani (video, 1989).
—ANN E. REUMAN