OBITUARY: Hisaye Yamamoto

Writer Hisaye Yamamoto

LOS ANGELES — Hisaye Yamamoto, a pioneer in Asian American literature, passed away on Jan. 30, 2011 in Los Angeles at the age of 89.

She was the author of “Seventeen Syllables,” “Yoneko’s Earthquake,” “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara” and other short stories about Japanese American life from the 1930s to the present. Based on actual events, many of her stories explored the sometimes difficult relationships between Issei couples and between Issei parents and their Nisei children. She also touched on such topics as interethnic relations and sexual harassment.

She is particularly noted for portraying the difficulties faced by the women of her parents’ generation. “Seventeen Syllables” (1949) is the story of an Issei woman who finds solace from manual labor by writing haiku for the local Japanese newspaper. The recognition she gets for her artistic endeavors is bitterly resented by her less-educated husband. The story is told from the point of view of their young daughter, who is herself beginning to learn about the complications of romance.

Born on Aug. 23, 1921 in Redondo Beach, she was the daughter of immigrants from Kumamoto Prefecture, Kanzo and Sae Yamamoto. She attended Compton Junior College, where she majored in French, Spanish, German and Latin. She also attended Japanese school for 12 years. Her father was a farmer and the family was living in Oceanside when World War II broke out.

From 1942 to 1945, she was incarcerated at the Poston, Ariz. concentration camp along with her father and three brothers; her mother had died before the war. In 1944, she and two brothers relocated to Massachusetts, but the death of the oldest brother, Johnny, while serving with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Italy brought them back to camp. In 1945, she moved with her family to Los Angeles.

Yamamoto became a published writer at the age of 14, writing for the Kashu Mainichi under the pen name “Napoleon.” While incarcerated, she wrote for the camp newspaper, the Poston Chronicle. After the war, she was a staff member for three years at the Los Angeles Tribune, an African American weekly.

In 1948, she began to publish her short stories and essays in mainstream journals, including Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, Harper’s Bazaar, Carleton Miscellany, Arizona Quarterly and Furioso. “Yoneko’s Earthquake” was included in “The Best American Short Stories of 1952.” “Seventeen Syllables,” “The Brown House” and “Epithalamium” were selected for the annual listings of “Distinctive Short Stories” included in the “Best American Short Stories” volumes.

In 1950, Yamamoto received one of the first John Hay Whitney Foundation Opportunity Fellowships. From 1953 to 1955, she joined the Catholic Workers in New York and wrote for their publication, The Catholic Worker. She married Anthony DeSoto in 1955 and moved back to Los Angeles, where she raised five children in the Eagle Rock neighborhood.

She was a frequent contributor to the Rafu Shimpo’s holiday edition and was also published in Pacific Citizen, Hokubei Mainichi, New Canadian, Rikka, Asahi Shimbun and Pan.

Naomi Hirahara, former Rafu English editor and author of the Mas Arai mystery series, was inspired by Yamamoto to become a writer and published a number of her stories in the Rafu. One of her favorites was “A Fire in Fontana” (1985), which was based on Yamamoto’s interactions with the African American community. Yamamoto later wrote that while working at the Los Angeles Tribune, “I came to realize that our internment was a trifle compared to the two hundred years or so of enslavement and prejudice that others in this county were heir to.”

Yamamoto’s stories have also been widely anthologized in collections of Asian American literature, including “Aiiieeeee!,” “Counterpoint,” “Ayumi,” and “Charlie Chan Is Dead,” as well as anthologies of women writers and fiction about the West, California and Los Angeles. Yamamoto wrote the introduction to “The Chauvinist,” a collection of short stories by one of her contemporaries, Toshio Mori (1910-1980).

The editors of “Aiiieee!” and “The Big Aiiieeeee!” — Frank Chin, Jeffrey Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada and Shawn Wong — said that Yamamoto’s “modest body of work is remarkable for its range and gut understanding of Japanese America … Technically and stylistically, hers is among the most developed of Asian American writing.”

The most complete collection of her works is a revised and expanded edition of “Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories,” published in 2001 by Rutgers University Press. It includes an introduction by King-Kok Cheung of UCLA and a preface to the revised edition by Yamamoto herself. The original book, published in 1988 by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, contained 15 stories; the revised edition has four more, including one of her earliest works, “Death Rides the Rails to Poston” (1942). There is also a volume of literary critiques of her writing as well as a Japanese translation of her short stories.

Her book features such stories as “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara” (1955), her only story set in Poston; “Las Vegas Charley” (1961), a portrait of an Issei man not unlike her father; “Life Among the Oilfields” (1979), which recounts a hit-and-run involving her younger brother and an indifferent Caucasian couple; and “Florentine Gardens” (1995), which is based on her visit to her brother’s grave at a military cemetery in Italy.

Cheung, who has written extensively about Yamamoto and other Nisei writers, said, “No contemporary writer has touched my heart, mind, and spirit as much as Hisaye Yamamoto. Whether writing about aborted creativity (‘Seventeen Syllables’), doomed romance (‘Epithalamium’), the dubious norms for sanity and insanity (‘The Legend of Miss Sasagawara’ and ‘Eucalyptus’), the havoc wrought by addictive gambling (‘The Brown House’ and ‘Las Vegas Charley’), or the debilitating effect of racism (‘Wilshire Bus’ and ‘A Fire in Fontana’), she did so with abiding compassion, keen eyes, wry humor, and prose that is at once disarming and harrowing.”

Filmmaker Emiko Omori, a longtime family friend, adapted “Seventeen Syllables” and “Yoneko’s Earthquake” into an hour-long drama, “Hot Summer Winds,” which was broadcast in 1991 as part of the PBS series “American Playhouse.” Yamamoto was also one of the interviewees in “Rabbit in the Moon,” Omori’s 1999 documentary about the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.

Chizu Omori, who co-produced “Rabbit in the Moon,” commented, “I feel I have lost a great mentor and a very good friend in the passing of Hisaye Yamamoto. I first met her before World War II when I was a kid. We went through the camp experience living in the same block, and she was someone I could always talk to during that stressful experience.

“After the war, we never did live in the same town but kept up a correspondence that went on until she could no longer write. She was one of the first Japanese American women who gained a national presence with her short stories and writings, and she was a master storyteller of the Japanese American experience. She was an inspiration for many of us.”

Yamamoto was the recipient of numerous honors, including the 1986 American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Before Columbus Foundation, a 1989 Book Award from the Association of Asian American Studies, and most recently, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York-based Asian American Writers Workshop.

“Not unlike the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, Yamamoto’s stories are brutal, efficient fables of race, saturated with the social subtext of the American small town,” AAWW said in announcing its selection of Yamamoto last year. “Her work focuses on the normal lives of Japanese women — fully-formed characters described by Grace Paley as ‘gutsy and fragile’ — and the uneasy relationship between Japanese immigrants and their children, many of whom grew up speaking only Japanese until kindergarten but found themselves increasingly distanced from their parents’ way of life.

“While capturing the postwar intergenerational struggles and rustic cross-ethnic American West, Yamamoto’s stories always feel relevant to the present. They are edgy and never sentimental — a quality attested to by their motley, Chekhovian characters, which include an interned mentally ill ballerina, a Japanese American wife married to a white Christian alcoholic, an eye-rolling child of immigrants, and a naked man dressed only in high heels.”

Yamamoto’s husband of 48 years passed away in 2003. She was in declining health after suffering a stroke last year.

Survivors include five children, Paul, Kibo, Yuki, Rocky and Gilbert; seven grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; two brothers, Jim and Frank; three nieces and one nephew. Services are pending.

***

Correction: Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the Feb. 3-9, 2011 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly, the article entitled “Writer Hisaye Yamamoto, author of ‘Seventeen Syllables,’ dies at 89” erroneously stated that she passed away on Jan. 20, 2011. She died on Jan. 30, 2011. The Nichi Bei Weekly regrets the error.

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