Hisaye Yamamoto (born 1921) wrote numerous short stories about her experiences in an internment camp during World War II and about the generation gap between Japanese immigrants and their children, winning recognition from the Association for Asian American Studies for her collection, Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories.
Yamamoto's work has been anthologized in numerous publications. Known primarily for her story, "Seventeen Syllables," which reveals the tension between first–generation Japanese immigrants and their Americanized children, Yamamoto focused her work on the life and struggles of Japanese Americans. Her central themes covered her experiences as a prisoner in an American internment camp during World War II, anti–Japanese prejudice, the anguish of arranged and loveless marriages, and the repression many Japanese women felt. Many of her early short stories were published in various annual editions of Best American Short Stories, and the 1988 Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories collected works from her 40–year career.
Obsessed with Reading and Writing
Yamamoto was born in Redondo Beach, California, to immigrants from Kumamoto, Japan. Her parents were known as the "issei" generation that was born in Japan. Yamamoto was known as "nisei," or second generation that was born in the United States. As a child, Yamamoto and her family were constantly on the move throughout Southern California, as state law forbade aliens from becoming citizens and owning property.
Yamamoto attended Japanese as well as American schools, such as Excelsior Union High School. With a fascination for various languages, she enrolled in Compton Junior College, majoring in French, Spanish, German, and Latin.
Yamamoto read and wrote extensively during her high school years, contributing letters and short articles to the English portions of Japanese American newspapers in the area, and receiving her first rejection slip from a magazine when she was 14. When a newspaper published her letter to a columnist, she was excited to see her first words in print.
Interned during World War II
After Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the United States entered World War II, the American government implemented the Japanese Relocation Order, under which 110,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast were rounded up and forced to live in internment camps.
Yamamoto was 20 when she and her family were brought to the camp at Poston, Arizona, relocation center, one of 10 such camps in the country. The experiences, injustices, and inter–generational tensions she witnessed in the three years she spent in the camp profoundly affected her writing career.
Making the best of her situation, and still an avid reader and writer, Yamamoto became a reporter and columnist for the camp's newspaper, the Poston Chronicle. She published her first fiction in the newspaper, a serialized mystery called "Death Rides the Rails to Poston," and a short piece entitled, "Surely I Must Be Dreaming," in 1943. She also read old New Yorker magazines in the camp's library. As reported in A. Magazine, she wrote about enjoying those magazines, "I would sit on a plank on top of piled–up crates and read all the small print, and practically fall off laughing. It would really make my day."
While she was at the camp, the United States government initiated another relocation of Japanese Americans in an effort to resettle nisei in other parts of the country. In 1944, Yamamoto and one of her brothers were sent to Springfield, Massachusetts, to work as a cook and a valet to a wealthy widow. They stayed only briefly, returning to Poston when a second brother, Johnny, a soldier in the U.S. Army, was reported killed in action in Italy. Yamamoto's father had requested that the remaining family members be kept together. Yamamoto would reflect on the irony that while one brother was interned in a concentration camp, another had died in combat abroad fighting for the American cause.
Published "Seventeen Syllables" in 1949
At the end of World War II in 1945, the Japanese internment camps closed and their inhabitants released. Yamamoto moved with her family to Los Angeles, where she became a columnist for the Los Angeles Tribune, a weekly paper serving the black community. She worked there from 1945 to 1948 doing a variety of jobs such as proofreading, rewriting, conducting "man on the street" interviews, and gathering news. "I learned the extent of racism, besides what happened to us during the war. In those days, there were lynchings going on in the South," she said, according to A. Magazine.
Yamamoto published her first short story, "High–Heeled Shoes, A Memoir," which dealt with sexual harassment, in Partisan Review in 1948. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, she would be published in major literary and mass–circulation journals such as, Harper's Bazaar, Arizona Quarterly, Carleton Miscellany, Kenyon Review, and Furioso. She also published in Asian American periodicals such as Hokkubei Mainichi and Pacific Citizen.
Her stories were subtle, layered in metaphor and irony, drawing on cultural tension between first–generation issei and their second–generation nisei children, anti–Japanese sentiment and World War II internment, and women stuck in arranged marriages. Despite prejudice against her race, Yamamoto became one of the first Asian American women writers to gain national literary recognition after the war.
In 1949, she published her definitive work, a short story called "Seventeen Syllables," a reference to the construction requirements of Japanese haiku poetry. The story has been her most widely anthologized work, and has received the most critical acclaim.
"Seventeen Syllables" involves a haiku–writing mother and her teenage daughter, Rosie. As the mother struggles to emotionally survive her loveless marriage to a violent man, Rosie develops her own sexual awareness when she has a crush on a neighborhood boy. Slow to comprehend her mother's absorption in haiku, Rosie cannot relate to her mother's life story and her silent acceptance. Rosie is naive to the cultural expectations of her mother's generation.
Works Selected as Best American Short Stories
In 1950, Yamamoto received one of the first John Hay Whitney Foundation Opportunity Fellowships, which prompted her to turn to full–time writing. She continued to produce well–received short stories, such as "Yoneko's Earthquake," "Wilshire Bus," and "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara," which explored her internment–camp experiences. Several of her works were listed as "Distinctive Short Stories" for inclusion in the yearly anthology of Best American Short Stories. Her "Seventeen Syllables" was selected for the 1949 list, as were "The Brown House" and "Epithalamium" in 1951 and 1960, respectively. "Yoneko's Earthquake," another selection for the Best American Short Stories in 1951, is narrated by 10–year–old Yoneko, who prays for the end of an earthquake's aftershocks. The reader must read carefully to navigate Yoneko's deep despair.
Poet and literary critic Yvor Winters offered Yamamoto a Stanford writing fellowship, but instead she decided to move to Staten Island, New York, in 1953. Inspired by Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker monthly publication, Yamamoto volunteered on a Catholic Worker rehabilitation farm for two years.
In 1955, Yamamoto returned to Los Angeles, where she married Anthony DeSoto and had four children. Two years earlier she had adopted a son. Now with raising a large family, she wrote less often and resigned to describing herself as more housewife than mother. Her emphasis on writing only short stories had been more practical; she said she never had the time to start a novel.
Yamamoto still produces short stories. In 1983, the Japanese–American magazine Rafu Shimpo published her story "The Eskimo Connection," about the unusual relationship between a widowed nisei poet living in Los Angeles and a young Eskimo man in prison. The Before Columbus Foundation recognized Yamamoto with an American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1986. In 1988, the publishing outfit Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press collected Yamamoto's most lauded works into Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, which gathered 15 stories spanning her 40–year career.
Explored the Generation Gap
Central to Yamamoto's works was her desire to bridge the cultural gap between nisei and issei. Her stories often focused on the tenuous relationships between issei men and women, and between issei parents and nisei children. Issei fathers in particular and father figures in general were treated harshly, yet the author never passed judgment on them portraying their vices in a deeper context.
Yamamoto often represented the female experience through the tough choices women have to make in life, from the arranged marriages of the issei generation, to modern American male and female relationships. She touched on a woman's mental illness in "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara," and used silence to unfold her multilayered plots that dealt with repression of women.
As expected, Yamamoto drew on Japanese culture and history and the separation and dislocation she experienced in the internment camps for her stories. Yet she was also inspired by the variety of ethnic groups in the American west and populated her stories with multiracial characters and presented multicultural issues. Yamamoto wants her appeal to extend beyond Asian Americans. She told William P. Osborn of the Chicago Review, "I'm just writing to please myself, to express myself. . . . I don't think you can write aiming at a specifically Asian–American audience if you want to write freely." Yamamoto, also said, in the same interview: "I don't even bother to tell people I'm Japanese–American anymore, because that's not what they want to know. ...I think it's okay to want to be generally accepted. But it's the general public that decides. Some will read my work because they consider it a valid part of American literature, or some will read it because it's about a specific ethnic background."
She Was the Subject of Literary Critique
In 1998, Rutgers University Press published a new edition of her Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, that included "Reading and Writing," about a friendship between two women, that was first published in Hokkubei Mainichi in 1988.
Yamamoto's anthologies have appeared in such places as Heath Anthology of American Literature and Greenfield Review Press's Home to Stay: Stories by Asian–American Women. Yvor Winters published a compilation of letters to and from Yamamoto in 1999, and King–Kok Cheung, Professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an authority on the life and works of Yamamoto, has written numerous analyses of her stories and introductions to her collections. Elaine H. Kim included Yamamoto in her book, Asian American Literature and the Importance of Social Context. Yamamoto's stories were also included in a collection on women's rights.
Yamamoto's writings have also transferred to film. PBS adapted "Seventeen Syllables" and "Yoneko's Earthquake," for Hot Summer Winds, a 1991 presentation in the American Playhouse series. In 1999, she was interviewed for "Rabbit in the Moon" for an episode of PBS's Point of View show. Yamamoto lives in Los Angeles and still finds time to write. Journals and anthologies still seek her work. A devout non–flyer, she usually travels by train to appearances and interviews.
A. Magazine, October/November 1994.
Chicago Review, Volume 39, Issue 3/4, 1993.
MELUS, Winter 1999.
Cheung, King–Kok, Heath Anthology of American Literature, Paul Lauter, General Editor, Houghton Mifflin, http://college.hmco.com/english/lauter/heath/4e/students/author–pages/contemporary/yamamoto–hi.html (December 15, 2004).
"20th Century American Women Writers," City Colleges of Chicago, http://faculty.ccc.edu/wr-womenauthors/pinkver/yamamoto.htm (December 15, 2004).
Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color, University of Minnesota, http://voices.cla.umn.edu/newsite/authors/YAMAMOTOhisaye.htm (December 15, 2004).