PAUL YAMAZAKI: An appreciation of someone who helped give voice to people who look like me

Paul Yamazaki receives the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award For Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. photo by Beowulf Sheehan courtesy of the National Book Foundation

Whenever this reporter visited City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco, it often seemed that in the house of Kerouac and Ginsberg, books tended to find me instead of the other way around. Whether it was Carlos Bulosan’s “America is in the Heart” in the 1980s or Ruth Ozeki’s “Tale for the Time Being” a decade ago, I could always count on being paired with a book written by an Asian American writer.

I later learned I had Paul Yamazaki to thank for a lot of that.

So when the longtime City Lights buyer recently received the prestigious National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community in November, this bookseller joined much of the publishing world across the country in applauding Yamazaki for joining an elite list that includes Maya Angelou, Dave Eggers and the inaugural recipient Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the late poet and beloved co-founder of the venerable book shop that has employed Yamazaki for more than 50 years.

“It was an honor to receive recognition by the National Book Foundation, a critical organization that makes great efforts to try and build bridges between readers and writers,” Yamazaki said in a video interview with this reporter for Nichi Bei. “But to tell you the truth, I’m just a small plank in that bridge along with the other booksellers, educators, and people in the publishing community who do great work through their love of books.”

Sitting next to piled high stacks of books on the porch of the Bay Area home he shares with his wife Sara Chin, Yamazaki expressed gratitude from those who allowed him to have such a long career. Jailed for activism in the 1960s, Yamazaki was set on this long path by poet and City Lights clerk Francis Oka who convinced Ferlinghetti and clerk Shigeyoshi “Shig” Murao to secure Yamazaki’s earlier release by hiring him to work as a packer for the store’s publishing arm.

Here, Yamazaki learned much more than books in the iconic store, which in 1957 gained national attention when Murao and Ferlinghetti were arrested and tried for obscenity for publishing Ginsberg’s “Howl” before being subsequently acquitted.

“I learned that bookstores like ours could be much more than just a place to buy books, they could be community centers where cultural criticism and community can be discussed and debated,” he said.

“Cody’s, Kepler’s, City Lights, which all started within 18 months of each other, were the models for independent stores to emerge in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”

“These bookstores were always at the forefront of thinking about gender, race and class in America. We all knew that by not featuring a diverse group of writers, we wouldn’t be telling the complete American story.”

Thanks in large part to the mentorship of Oka, who with Janice Mirikitani published Aion, the first Asian American literary magazine in the early 1970s, Yamazaki’s experience opened his eyes to his own identity.

“Francis was a very important person to me in influencing how I saw the world not only as a bookseller, but as a Japanese American,” Yamazaki said.

While Oka tragically died in a motorcycle accident shortly after the first issue of Aion was published, his influence has stayed with Yamazaki to this day.

“He showed me how uniquely privileged it was to use City Lights as platform to give voice to all people.

With Asian American writers, a strong foundation was built by Al Robles, Jessica Hagedorn, Maxine Hong Kingston, Frank Chin and a few others. Before these authors came along it wasn’t easy to find the works of John Okada or Carlos Bulosan.”

It was Chin, along with Lawson Fusao Inada, Shawn Wong and Jeff Chan who revived “No-No Boy,” Okada’s classic 1957 novel through the University of Washington Press, the publishing company that also brought back Bulosan’s previously forgotten 1946 novel “America is in the Heart.”

“They gave voice to writers saying that even though Asians might not be the first ones here, we have a history that needs to be told,” Yamazaki said. “There were so many authors like Frank Chin, Al Young, and Ishmael Reed, the founder of the Before Columbus Foundation, who put forth heroic efforts to get their stories out.”

He added that these writers paved the way for the next generation, including Karen Tei Yamashita who, among other works, wrote the 2010 novel “I Hotel,” a novel about the 1960s-1970s Asian American Movement.

“Writers like Karen Tei made great efforts showing the fullness of American culture through their eyes in a really tangible way.”

“It was very generous of Paul to mention my book in his interview, because I know it means a great deal because Paul reads everything — thousands of authors, (while stocking) the shelves of City Lights,” Yamashita stated via e-mail. “I am honored.”

Looking to the present and the future, Yamazaki is heartened by the number of new books from the Asian American perspective.

“There are so many now, it’s an exciting time,” he said. “And that stems from the foundation that Maxine and Frank built. Now they’re writing different types of books where you have experimental fiction from Esther Yee or activism by Alice Wong telling unique stories.”

When asked about his role in this, Yamazaki paused.

“Never thought of it in those terms,” he said. “I just think that having learned from Lawrence, Shig, Francis, Nancy Peters, to working with the owners and staff, people like Andy Bellows, another part of the Japanese American thread here has been an immense privilege. As for me, I just try to connect people with books then try and stay out of the way.”

One response to “PAUL YAMAZAKI: An appreciation of someone who helped give voice to people who look like me”

  1. Ernie Brill Avatar

    As a long-time friend of Paul’s since the San Francisco State Strike, I am delighted that he has finally received the recognition and honors that he so deserves for a dedicated life to open up the hearts and minds of Americans to all Americans, not only the suburban white middleclass, but literature that comes from and for one and all and shows the worlds of the farmworker, the hotel maid, the flowergrower ( hats to the great Toshio Mori!). Over the years Paul and I have swapped titles of American and international fiction, poetry, and fiction. I can remember aftter the strike when we discovered the gripping novel from Japan No Longer Human and the political magical realism of Miguel Angel Asturias and the whole wave of the Latin American boom writers. We also both obsessed about reading every detective writer, especially one of the great models for the tough as nails hard-bitten loner (no one ever talked about depression back then except for Samuel Beckett whom I hear is still waiting either at the MCarthur Bart station or the 162 IRT #7 station in the South Bronx where Godot is surely going to show up with or without some hot pastrami sandwiches.
    Paul and I also shared the incredible international movies of the great Japanese filmmakers such as Akiro Kurosawa(Ikiru, Redbeard, The Bad Sleep Well, and Keni Mizoguci’s Ugetsu and the 49 Ronin. What I really loved about Paul was if a person mentioned some fine new work, if he didn’t know it, he wouldn’t pretend that he’d read or seen it, but responded, “I’m not familiar with that.”
    His wide-ranging love of the arts reached and embraced many areas.I wonder how many people know that Paul helped organize the Bay Area’s first Asian American Jazz Festival. And there’s so much more.In a world that has so much of the cemented and demented, Paul was always a gem.

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