Southern California Nisei writer of short stories Hisaye Yamamoto (1921–2011) was among the first Japanese American writers to win national renown after World War II. Yamamoto's upbringing in an immigrant farming community and her incarceration in a World War II U.S. government prison camp formed the basis for some of her best-known stories, notable for their sensitive portrayal of the emotionally and artistically constricted lives of Issei women and intergenerational family dynamics. Oblique, often deadpan in delivery and told with quiet humor and bracing candor, they reveal the love affairs, madness, psychic and physical brutality that lay beneath the placid surface of Issei and Nisei life. The subject matter, precision and grace of Yamamoto's works have led critics to compare her to short story masters Katherine Mansfield, Flannery O'Connor, and Grace Paley.
Early and Life and Beginnings as a Writer
Born in Redondo Beach on August 23, 1921, to Issei parents from Kumamoto Prefecture, Yamamoto later recalled the strawberry fields her parents cultivated among the oil derricks of Oceanside in "Life Among the Oil Fields: A Memoir." Though her English-language education began at kindergarten, she later recalled, "I had early contracted the disease of compulsive reading." Writing under the pen name Napoleon, Yamamoto received her first rejection slip at age fourteen. As a teenager, she was a regular contributor to the English-language section of the Kashu Mainichi, worked on high school and junior college yearbooks, and was encouraged by her English teacher at Compton Junior College, where she studied French, Spanish, German and Latin and earned an associate of arts degree.
Imprisoned in 1942 at age 21 at the U.S. government prison camp in Poston, Arizona, Yamamoto wrote for the prison camp newspaper The Poston Chronicle, contributing articles and a serialized mystery titled "Death Rides the Rails to Poston." She applied for and received leave to work as a cook in Springfield, MA, in 1944, but returned after a short period when one of her three brothers, Johnny, 19, was killed while fighting with the U.S. Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Italy. Her prison camp experience later formed the background for her story "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara," and her 1995 story "Florentine Gardens" fictionalized her family's trip to Italy to visit her brother's grave. At Poston she formed a long-lasting friendship with painter and later writer and playwright Wakako Yamauchi.
Yamamoto returned to Los Angeles in 1945 and applied for a job as a reporter for the Los Angeles Tribune, an African American weekly, later basing her 1985 memoir "Fire in Fontana" (which traces the origins of her sense of solidarity with the African American community) on her experiences there. Yamamoto's first acceptance by a literary magazine (The Partisan Review's publication of "The High-Heeled Shoes") came when she was 27. Shortly thereafter, in 1948, an offer of support from her brother Jemo and an insurance bequest from the death of her brother Johnny allowed her to leave journalism to write full-time. That same year she adopted a five-month-old boy, Paul. A 1950 fellowship from the John Hay Whitney Foundation allowed her a further year to write full time, and the resulting stories appeared in Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, Harper's Bazaar, Carleton Miscellany, Arizona Quarterly and Furioso.
Yamamoto's most anthologized work, "Seventeen Syllables," told from the point of view of a Nisei daughter experiencing her first brush with romance, recounts the tale of the girl's Issei mother, who escapes from the tedium of farm work by writing haiku, only to be punished for it by her intolerant, less-educated husband. "Yoneko's Earthquake" describes the similarly limited life of an Issei wife who suffers after having an affair with a Filipino farm hand. "Seventeen Syllables" (1949), "The Brown House" (1951), "Yoneko's Earthquake" (1951) and "Epithalamium" (1960) were included in a yearly list of "Distinctive Short Stories" compiled by Martha Foley, editor of Random House's Story magazine; "Ýoneko's Earthquake" was also named one of the Best American Short Stories: 1952.
An ardent follower of The Catholic Worker and its commitment to nonviolence, voluntary poverty and succor for the forsaken eventually led Yamamoto to bypass the offer of a Stanford writing fellowship and move with her son to a Catholic Worker rehabilitation farm on Staten Island, NY, where she served as a volunteer from 1953 to 1955. In 1955 she married Anthony DeSoto and returned with him to Los Angeles where they raised four biological children. During the tumult of her busy child-rearing years, Yamamoto suffered a nervous breakdown and spent a month at a Los Angeles treatment facility.
In a 1976 article, Yamamoto modestly recapped her writing career, recalling her early love for the English sections of Japanese-language newspapers ("a feeling of having found my element") and the triumph of having a letter to an editor published in one of these, adding, "I was hooked for life." She ruefully described amassing "one of the most extensive collections of rejection slips extant," along the way, and despite her numerous accomplishments, wrote, "alas, when I have occasion to fill out a questionnaire, I must in all honesty list my occupation as housewife."
Yamamoto's talent was recognized from her earliest writings, although it was not until the 1970s that she received broader acclaim both within and without the Asian American community. Yamamoto scholar King-Kok Cheung wrote, "Yamamoto's stories exemplify precision and restraint" and noted her "wide range of subject matter, from vignettes of sexual harassment in 'The High-Heeled Shoes'...to an Issei odyssey that spans Japanese American history in 'Las Vegas Charley,'" (about a farm worker-turned gambler). Dorothy Ritsuko McDonald and Katharine Newman compared Yamamoto with Yamauchi, noting "Yamauchi writes totally within the Japanese-American community; Yamamoto sees a world in interaction (though seldom with Anglos in it)." Charles Crow examined Yamamoto's portrayal of the Issei father as withdrawn, inept, indifferent and sometimes violent, though these characters are drawn with compassion. Stan Yogi described Yamamoto's use of "buried plots, veiled means of conveying stories" that he links with feminist critical theory and "Japanese American communication patterns." Naoko Sugiyama examined the silence between mothers and daughters in Yamamoto's fiction, reflecting the mothers' acquiescence to drudgery and isolation, daughters' ambivalence toward mothers in a patriarchal society, and as a way "for Japanese American women to find their voices and pass on their stories."
Yamamoto was awarded the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1986, and the first edition of Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, published in 1988 by Kitchen Table-Women of Color Press, was given the Award for Literature from the Association of Asian American Studies. In poor health after suffering a stroke the year before, Yamamoto died in Los Angeles on January 30, 2011, at the age of 89.
Crow, Charles. "A MELUS Interview: Hisaye Yamamoto." MELUS 14:1 (spring 1987): 73–84.
———. "The Issei Father in the Fiction of Hisaye Yamamoto." In Opening Up Literary Criticism: Essays on American Prose and Poetry, edited by Leo Truchlar. Salzburg: Verlag Wolfgang Neugebauer, 1986, 34-40.
Hot Summer Winds. American Playhouse production, 1991, dramatization of "Seventeen Syllables" and "Yoneko's Earthquake." Youtube exerpts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0cDILypXYU and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zciSX84B8AM&feature=relmfu.
Huang, Guiyou. "Hisaye Yamamoto (DeSoto) (1921 - )." Asian-American Short Story Writers: An A-Z Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003, 303–13.
McDonald, Dorothy Ritsuko, and Katharine Newman. "Relocation and Dislocation: The Writings of Hisaye Yamamoto and Wakako Yamauchi." MELUS 7.3 (fall 1980): 21-38.
Oh, Seiwoong. "Yamamoto Hisaye (Hisaye Yamamoto DeSoto) (1921- )." Encyclopedia of Asian-American Literature. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 327-328.
Osborn, William P., and Sylvia A. Watanabe. "A Conversation with Hisaye Yamamoto." Chicago Review 39.3/4 (1993): 34-38.
---. "A Conversation with HIsaye Yamamoto." In Into the Fire: Asian American Prose. Edited by Sylvia Watanabe and Carol Bruchac. (New York: Greenfield Review Press, 1996), 197–208.
Sugiyama, Naoko. "Issei Mother's Silence, Nisei Daughter's Stories: The Short Fiction of Hisaye Yamamoto." Comparative Literature Studies 33.1 (East-West Issue 1996): 1-14.
Yamamoto, Hisaye. Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories. Introd. King-Kok Cheung. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006.
———. "Writing." Amerasia Journal, 3:2 (1976): 126-133.
Yogi, Stan. "Legacies Revealed: Uncovering Buried Plots in the Stories of Hisaye Yamamoto." Studies in American Fiction 17.2 (autumn 1989): 169-181.
- ↑ Hisaye Yamamoto, "Writing," Amerasia Journal 3.2 (1976), 127.
- ↑ Yamamoto, "Writing," 132–33.
- ↑ Ibid., 128.
- ↑ Ibid., 128.
- ↑ Ibid., 126.
- ↑ King-Kok Cheung, "Introduction," Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006), xxi.
- ↑ Cheung, "Introduction," xi–xii.
- ↑ Dorothy Ritsuko McDonald and Katharine Newman, "Relocation and Dislocation: The Writings of Hisaye Yamamoto and Wakako Yamauchi," MELUS, 7:3 (fall 1980), 23.
- ↑ Charles Crow, "The Issei Father in the Fiction of Hisaye Yamamoto," in Opening up Literary Criticism: Essays on American Prose and Poetry, ed. Leo Truchlar (Salzburg: Verlag Wolfgang Neugebauer, 1986), 34–40.
- ↑ Stan Yogi, "Legacies Revealed: Uncovering Buried Plots in the Stories of Hisaye Yamamoto," Studies in American Fiction 17:2 (autumn 1989), 170.
- ↑ Naoko Sugiyama, "Issei Mother's Silence, Nisei Daughter's Stories: The Short Fiction of Hisaye Yamamoto," Comparative Literature Studies 33:1 (East-West Issue 1996), 1–14.
Hisaye Yamamoto talks about first writing for the Manzanar Free Press. Courtesy of Densho and Emiko Omori, excerpted from Hisaye Yamamoto Interview, Segment 9 (1994)
Hisaye Yamamoto looks back on the wartime incarceration experience. Courtesy of Densho and Emiko Omori, excerpted from Hisaye Yamamoto Interview, Segment 14 (1994)