Born 5 July 1923, Fukuoka, Japan
Daughter of Jack K. and Hide Shirake Yasutake; married Yoshikazu Yamada, 1950; children: Jeni, Stephen, Douglas, Hedi
Mitsuye Yamada was born in Japan of naturalized Japanese American parents and lived in Seattle, Washington, until the outbreak of World War II, when her family was relocated to the concentration camp at Minidoka, Iowa. Yamada left the camp to attend school at the University of Cincinnati and New York University (B.A., 1947). She earned an M.A. from the University of Chicago in 1953 and did further graduate study at the University of California at Irvine. A professor of English, Yamada taught in California at Fullerton College (1966-69) and at Cypress College from 1969 until her retirement in 1989. She has received several awards, including the Vesta award for writing from the Woman's Building of Los Angeles (1982) and the Women of Achievement award from the Rancho Santiago Foundation (1991).
Yamada's poetry, essays, and short fiction have appeared in numerous anthologies and periodicals, and she has published two books: Camp Notes and Other Poems (1976, 1992, 1998) and Desert Run: Poems and Stories (1988, reissued 1992). Her work is driven by her experience as a Japanese American woman growing up in 20th-century American society; in "Invisibility is an Unnatural Disaster," she claims membership in "the most stereotyped minority of them all, the Asian American woman." Her poetry and stories are charged with her sense of a double or divided identity, while her essays confront issues of race, gender, and justice that profoundly affect Asian American lives.
Some of Yamada's earliest poems, written during her internment, are included in Camp Notes. The short lines, simple stanzas, and matter-of-fact tone initially belie the poems' complexity, but the cumulative documentation of the daily indignities of camp life exposes the fundamental absurdity of the camps' existence. In the title poem of her later book, Desert Run, Yamada returns to the desert "with new eyes" for a reconsideration of the camp experience, and she discovers that "as an older Asian American woman [she has] come to identify with the desert." The poems and stories in this volume also explore the writer's connections to Japan and portray the cultural, generational, and sexual miscommunications between issei and nisei (first-and second-generation Japanese Americans) and between women and men.
Yamada maintains that Japanese Americans must acknowledge their often painful history in order to claim their identify. Because she believes that "art is a powerful force in effecting personal as well as social and political change," Yamada views her own writing as a means to exorcize racism and sexism and to create a more truly multicultural society. She actively supports other ethnic writers and artists; she has been an officer of MELUS (the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States), the founder of the Multi-Cultural Women Writers of Orange County, and the editor of two collections of ethnic literature. Yamada has also served on the national board of directors for the human rights organization, Amnesty International.
The Webs We Weave: Orange County Poetry Anthology (with J. Brander, eds., 1986). Sowing Ti Leaves: Writings by Multicultural Women (with S. S. Hylkema, eds., 1991).
Rountree, C., On Women Turning 70: Honoring the Voices of Wisdom (1999). Yamamoto, T., Masking Selves, Making Subjects: Japanese American Women, Identity, and the Body (1999).
CA (1979). FC (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Amerasia Journal (1991). Contact Two (1986). MELUS (Spring 1988). Tozai Times (Mar. 1989). "Mitsuye and Nellie [Wong]: Asian American Poets," Light-Saraf Films, Public Broadcasting System (1981). Mitsuye and Nellie: Asian-American Poets (video, 1981). Mitsuye Yamada (audiocassette, 1992). "A Woman is Talking to Death," an interview by Stan Yogi (audiotape, with Judy Grahn, KPFA, 1991).
—SUSAN B. RICHARDSON