Born of Japanese immigrant parents, Hisaye Yamamoto began writing in her teens. As a second-generation Japanese American, she was especially interested in the interaction between the Japanese traditions passed on to her and the American experience she encountered. She once cited that her main reason for writing was a desire “to reaffirm certain basic truths which seem to get lost in the shuffle from generation to generation, so that we seem destined to go on making the same mistakes over and over again.”
Interest in literary subjects was strong among the generation born in Japan, many of whom wrote traditional Japanese poetry, which appeared in Japanese-language periodicals. The second generation tended to express its literary leanings in English. Yamamoto contributed regularly to Kashu Mainichi in Los Angeles and associated herself with the League of Nisei Writers and Artists.
In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that all people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast be evacuated to internment camps. Interned at Poston, Arizona until 1945, Yamamoto became a columnist and sometime editor for the camp newsletter. She published her first mystery, “Death Rides the Rails to Poston.” The experience of internment looms large in postwar Japanese American writing. In “I Still Carry It Around,” Yamamoto describes internment as a painful collective wound.
From 1945 to 1948, she worked for the Los Angeles Tribune, a black weekly, thus extending her experience of multiculturalism, before deciding to turn to writing full time. In 1950, she received a John Hay Whitney Foundation Opportunity Fellowship. Three of her short stories received critical attention: “High-Heeled Shoes,” dealing with sexual harassment; “The Brown House,” dealing with interethnic and interracial encounters; and “Epithalamium,” dealing with romance. Yamamoto’s themes are multiple, but she was especially sensitive to the life allotted to Japanese American women.
Marriage in 1955 and four subsequent children (added to one she had already adopted) curtailed her literary output, but she did not cease to write and to influence other writers. In 1988, Kitchen Table Press published Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, a collection of fifteen of her short stories, making her work easily available. Yamamoto died on January 30, 2011 at age 89.