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Yamamoto’s stories chronicle the tensions between first- and second-generation Japanese-Americans, the racism that has affected and continues to affect their lives, and the universal kinds of marital and family conflicts that are sometimes exacerbated in their experience by cultural factors.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Internment Camp Influences Childhood
Hisaye Yamamoto is a Nisei, or child born to Japanese immigrants. She was born on August 23, 1921 in Redondo Beach, California, to Kanzo and Sae Tamura Yamamoto, a Japanese couple from Kumamoto, Japan. She spoke mainly Japanese as a child. Yamamoto’s parents sought to make their way in California as tenant smallholders, cultivating strawberries and other fruit. Yamamoto came early and enthusiastically to authorship, writing throughout her school years. She received her first rejection slip at age fourteen as she was working through Los Angeles’ Excelsior High School and Japanese language school. She later attended Compton Junior College, where she majored in European languages and Latin, earning an associate of arts degree.
In 1941, Yamamoto and her parents were interned in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which ushered in American involvement in World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive order 9066 called for the detention of 120,000 people of Japanese heritage, nearly 60 percent of whom were American-born Nisei. The Yamamoto family was sent to Poston Relocation Center in Arizona, a camp that eventually held 18,000 internees, situated within the Colorado Indian Tribes Reservation. Replete with armed guards and watchtowers, the camp was a defining experience for Yamamoto, as it was for many other prominent Americans of Japanese descent.
Yamamoto became a regular contributor to the camp newspaper, Poston Chronicle, where she published her serialized murder mystery, ”Death Rides the Rails to Poston.” In 1944, she briefly moved eastward with her brother to Springfield, Massachusetts, where she worked as a cook (an experience that inspired a short story, ”Pleasure of Plain Rice”), but she returned to Poston on learning that her brother Johnny had been killed on military duty in Italy.
From Writer to Mother
From 1945 to 1948 Yamamoto again took up residence in Los Angeles, this time working as subeditor and columnist for the Los Angeles Tribune, a weekly black newspaper. This experience spurred an interest in African-American history and culture that has long and deeply affected her. Yamamoto’s first major publication, ”The High-Heeled Shoes, A Memoir,” was accepted by Partisan Review, where it appeared in October 1948. That year, Yamamoto adopted an abandoned boy a few months old, Paul, the first phase in what became a busy and full family life. In 1950, having recently completed stories, such as ”Seventeen Syllables,” Yamamoto won a John Hay Whitney Foundation grant, giving her a year to focus on her storytelling. In 1953, she turned down a chance at academic study at Stanford in favor of a move to the Catholic Worker community farm in Staten Island, with its mission of helping rehabilitate the poor and dispossessed. In 1955, Yamamoto married an Italian-American man, Anthony DeSoto; she drew on her relationship with DeSoto for her story ”Epithalamium.” She and her husband moved back west to California, where she once again took up full-time residence in Los Angeles. There Yamamoto gave birth to four children: Kibo, Elizabeth, Anthony, and Claude.
Through all of her experiences, Yamamoto continued to write. Her stories, poetry, and essays have been published in numerous American and Canadian periodicals, in Japanese and English. Additionally, her works have been anthologized in books ranging from Best American Short Stories 1952 to Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction (1993), and they have been reprinted or extracted in a host of college and high-school textbooks. In 1986, Yamamoto received a lifetime achievement award from the Before Columbus Foundation, established by Ishmael Reed, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Rudolfo A. Anaya, and the Chinese-American novelist, Shawn Wong, in the 1970s, to recognize and promote America’s multicultural literary traditions. Further testament to the power of her stories came in 1991, when ”Seventeen Syllables” and ”Yoneko’s Earthquake” were adapted for the screen as Hot Summer Winds, an hour-long PBS movie for American Playhouse.
Yamamoto’s only collection of stories, Seventeen Syllables, was first published in 1985, and then republished several times before a revised and enlarged edition appeared in 2001. Her work continues to be reprinted and taught at universities, and her reputation in Japanese-American literature is cemented.
Works in Literary Context
Yamamoto’s stories regularly deal with the struggles that Japanese-American families have juggling the Japanese and American cultures. Several stories, for instance, illustrate the dynamics of the terms issei and nisei. Issei is the Japanese term immigrant families use to name the immigrant parents themselves, referring to them as the first generation. Nisei means second generation and refers to the children of issei. Nisei and issei have very different perspectives on Japanese and American cultures because of their very different experiences. Yamamoto’s work also refers to the traditional practice of the ”picture bride,” in which the betrothed couple has only seen each other in photographs before their wedding. This practice was popular in the Japanese community due to the turn-of-the-century immigration of a large number of Japanese men looking for financial opportunity. Once settled, many became engaged to Japanese fiancees with only a photograph and letter of introduction. Yamamoto presents these various Japanese-American cultural specificities throughout her work with all of their beauty and conflict. One of Yamamoto’s greatest accomplishments in ”Seventeen Syllables,” for instance, is her use of point of view to show how father, mother, and daughter struggle with the immigration experience, generational conflicts, and ideas about gender roles, all arising from the family’s shared Japan-to-America history.
Mothers and Daughters
Yamamoto’s stories often illustrate the struggles between mothers and daughters, relationships that are even more strained due to the cultural issues involved with Japanese-American immigrant families. Among the particular elements of conflict between Yamamoto’s characters is the appropriate role of women. Several of Yamamoto’s mother figures, for instance, are part of difficult marriages to overbearing husbands. These marriages were often chosen for reasons other than love; in ”Seventeen Syllables” for instance, security and financial stability were the already-pregnant wife’s key concerns. ”Yoneko’s Earthquake” further illustrates tense relationships between mother and daughter, as the mother in this narrative has an affair to alleviate her desperate situation with her abusive husband. Her paramour has a strong relationship with the daughter, and the ensuing difficulties hurt both mother and daughter significantly. Yamamoto’s stories contend with coming of age in households in which fathers are the weaker parents and in a society rife with racism and cultural conflict.
Works in Critical Context
Though the body of Yamamoto’s work is slim, critics laud its polish and perception, as well as its depiction of the Japanese-American experience. In the view of C. Lok Chua in Studies in Short Fiction, however, Yamamoto’s stories transcend the ethnic; they ”seem to build up to moments of epiphany (or satori) that reverberate with penetrating questions about human nature and societal structure.”
Seventeen Syllables has been widely anthologized and appreciated as a rich collection of short stories about both Japanese-American culture and universal human experience. Charles L. Crow writes, ”Yamamoto writes of the great theme of Japanese-American literature, the conflict of the first two generations, Issei and Nisei, and the painful gulf that grew between them.” He continues, ”These are rich, emotionally complex and tightly controlled stories.” Valerie Miner points to the stories’ wider scope than specifically Japanese-American experience. She writes:
Seventeen Syllables is a book, not just about Japanese-Americans, but also about Chicanos, blacks, Filipinos, Eskimos and whites of various classes. The collection reflects Yamamoto’s rich variety of experiences growing up in California and speaking English as a second language, being interned in Arizona during World War II, reporting for the black weekly Los Angeles Tribune, becoming active in Catholic Worker projects in the 1950s, and then raising a family with her husband, Anthony De Soto.
- Cheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.
- Davis, Roclo G. Transcultural Reinventions: Asian American and Asian Canadian Short-Story Cycles. Toronto: TSAR, 2001.
- Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.
- Cheng, Ming L. ”The Unrepentant Fire: Tragic Limitations in Hisaye Yamamoto’s Seventeen Syllables.” MELUS: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 19 (1994): 91-107.
- Crow, Charles L. ”A review of Seventeen Syllables: 5 Stories of Japanese American Life.” Western American Literature 22 (Aug 1987): 167.
- Miner, Valerie. ”The Daughters’ Journey.” The Nation (Apr 24, 1989): 566-69.
- Osborn, William P. and Sylvia A. Watanabe. ”A Conversation with Hisaye Yamamoto. Chicago Review 39 (1993): 34-8.
- Usui, Masami. ”Prison, Psyche, and Poetry in Hisaye Yamamoto s Three Short Stories: ‘Seventeen Syllables, ‘The Legend of Miss Sasagawara, and ‘The Eskimo Connection, Studies in Culture and the Humanities 6 (1997): 1-29.
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