Yamamoto (DeSoto), Hisaye
Hisaye Yamamoto (DeSoto) 1921-
American short story writer, non-fiction writer, and poet.
One of the first Japanese-American writers to gain national attention in the United States after World War II, Yamamoto is concerned with issues ranging from the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War to family tensions arising from a daughter's coming of age. A governing theme in her writing is the struggle of Japanese-American women, who often are isolated from society, caught between the traditional Japanese worlds of their husbands and the Western values and identities of their children. Frequently drawing upon places and events from her own life, Yamamoto creates complex characters; blends poignancy, compassion, and humor; employs irony and understatement; and constructs layered plots through the use of limited and shifting perspectives. Her best-known works are collected in the volume Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories (1988), and include the title story, "Yoneko's Earthquake," and "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara."
Born in Redondo Beach, California, to first-generation immigrant parents, Yamamoto experienced the deeply divided realities of her Japanese heritage and life in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. The gulf between her Japanese ancestry and the dominant white American culture was made dramatically clear when she was forced to spend three years in the Poston Relocation Center in Arizona while she was in her early twenties. Poston was one of about ten Japanese internment camps in the Western United States that confined more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans—two-thirds of whom were American-born citizens—in the years immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. During that time, people of Japanese descent were considered potential enemies of the United States. They were removed from their homes, farms, and businesses and detained in relocation centers. Yamamoto's experiences in the camp significantly influenced her life and gave rise to several of her most highly acclaimed stories, notably "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara."
While at Poston, Yamamoto served as a reporter and columnist for the camp newspaper, the Poston Chronicle. After her release, she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Tribune, a small weekly newspaper intended for an African-American audience. Her experiences there inspired the 1985 story "A Fire in Fontana." In 1948, Yamamoto's first story, "High-heeled Shoes," appeared in the Partisan Review.
In 1953, Yamamoto declined an opportunity to study at Stanford University with poet Ivor Winters, and instead headed East with her adopted son to volunteer at the Catholic Worker community farm on Staten Island. The community and its charismatic founder, Dorothy Day, impressed Yamamoto with their promotion of pacifist values and selfless ideals, as taught by Jesus Christ. Commentators have observed that Yamamoto's decision stands in interesting relation to her involuntary communal experience at Poston. Yamamoto wrote for the Catholic Worker newspaper, which she continued to do for years after leaving the community. Her story "Epithalamium" draws upon her experiences during this time. In 1955 Yamamoto married and returned to Los Angeles, where she became mother to four more children.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Most of Yamamoto's stories were published initially in small magazines and regional Japanese-American newspapers. Her first story, "High-heeled Shoes," delineates both the subtle and overt sexual abuse faced by women in American society. In "Seventeen Syllables," a nisei (second-generation Japanese-American) girl on the verge of womanhood witnesses conflict between her father, a farmer, and her mother, a poet. "The Wilshire Bus" tells the story of a Japanese-American woman, who, while taking a bus to visit her hospitalized husband, sees a drunken Caucasian man harass a Chinese couple. "The Brown House" describes the conflicts between an issei (first-generation Japanese immigrant) woman and her gambling husband. "Yoneko's Earthquake" is a tragic story about domestic turmoil in a Japanese-American family.
Several of Yamamoto's stories, such as "Seventeen Syllables," "Yoneko's Earthquake," and "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara," have appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories of 1952. Yamamoto's first collection of stories was published in Japan in 1985 as Seventeen Syllables: 5 Stories of Japanese American Life. A collection of fifteen stories, Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, appeared in the United States in 1988.
Commentary has focused on Yamamoto's treatment of the Japanese experience in the United States. Critics have commented on the strength, courage, and honesty of her writing at a time when Japanese-Americans were openly disdained by much of American society. They have noted that Yamamoto draws on both Anglo-American and Japanese-American literary traditions to examine her themes and explore the complexity of human relationships. Her stories feature unreliable narrators, literary and historic references, imaginary dialogues, symbolism, and multiple plots. Several critics have noted compassion, understanding, wisdom, insight, and humor in Yamamoto's sympathetic portrayals of those on the periphery of American society.
SOURCE: "Relocation and Dislocation: The Writings of Hisaye Yamamoto and Wakako Yamauchi," in MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Vol. 7, No. 3, Fall, 1980, pp. 21-38.
[In the following excerpt, McDonald and Newman discuss several of Yamamoto's best-known stories in the context of what they identify as the "hallmarks " of Yamamoto's style and technique.]
Yamamoto received her first rejection slip at the age of fourteen and persisted in her aspiration to be a writer until she received her first acceptance from a major periodical when she was twenty-six. In the years between, she completed the program at Compton Junior College, contributed to school, college, and small magazines, and wrote even while she was at Poston. After her release from camp she went to Los Angeles and obtained a reporter's job on the only newspaper that would hire a Japanese: the Negro Los Angeles Tribune. She worked there from 1945 to 1948. Her first story, "High-heeled Shoes" appeared in 1948.6 The following year she was accorded a John Hay Whitney Opportunity Fellowship which enabled her to write without a worry for a year. During this time, in addition to more short stories, she translated the whole of Rene Boylesve's "L'Enfant à la Balustrade" from French into English.
While she was working at the Tribune, she had begun...
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SOURCE: "A MELUS Interview: Hisaye Yamamoto," in MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 73-84.
[In the following interview, Yamamoto and Crow discuss the author's life and work, and in particular how Yamamoto 's personal circumstances have influenced her writing.]
Hisaye Yamamoto's reputation as a writer of fiction grows, despite the relatively small body of her work and its original publication in little magazines and in regional Japanese-American newspapers. By 1980, as Dorothy Ritsuko McDonald and Katharine Newman noted in MELUS, she had been reprinted in at least twenty anthologies (23). The best-known of her stories are "Seventeen Syllables," "Yoneko's Earthquake," "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara," "Las Vegas Charley," and "The Brown House." The first collection of her fiction, Seventeen Syllables: 5 Stories of Japanese American Life, was published in Tokyo in 1985; unfortunately, no such edition has yet appeared in the United States.
Yamamoto is known as "Si" to her many friends in MELUS, of which she was an early member. She had agreed to meet with me at the first MELUS convention (24-25 April 1987) and so, as the first day's meetings ended, we sat together on a sunny terrace at Heritage Center of the University of California at Irvine. There was a babble of nearby...
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SOURCE: Introduction to Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1988, pp. xi-xxv.
[In the following introduction to Yamamoto's collection of stories, Cheung provides an overview of Yamamoto's life and work, touching on the author's themes, styles, and techniques.]
I first met Hisaye Yamamoto at a conference in Irvine, California in 1987. Long an admirer of her short stories, I asked which was her favorite. "None of them is any good," said the recipient of the Before Columbus Foundation's 1986 American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement, with a seemingly straight face. But her words, like her stories—often told by unreliable narrators and laden with irony—cannot be taken literally.
Born in 1921 in Redondo Beach, California, Yamamoto "had early contracted the disease of compulsive reading" and started writing as a teenager (for a time under the pseudonym Napoleon). She received her first rejection slip at fourteen and her first acceptance by a literary magazine at twenty-seven.1 Much of her work is intimately connected with the places and the events of her own life; to borrow her own felicitous compliment about Toshio Mori's writing, she "shapes the raw dough of fact into the nicely-browned loaf of fiction." For instance, she reveals that "Seventeen Syllables" (her most widely anthologized piece) is her mother's story, though all the...
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SOURCE: "Windows on a World," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, Nos. 10-11, July, 1989, p. 5.
[In the following excerpt from a book review of Seventeen Syllables, Matsumoto discusses the scope and complexity of Yamamoto's stories, concluding that the stories "act on us, transforming our sense of ourselves and the world. "]
Hisaye Yamamoto's collection of short stories represents the work of 40 years, bringing together her most acclaimed pieces with several lesser known, all gleaned from an array of literary magazines, journals and newspapers ranging from the Poston Chronicle (the newspaper of the Poston concentration camp in Arizona where Yamamoto was interned) and the Kashu Mainichi (a Los Angeles Japanese-American newspaper) to the Kenyon Review and Harper 's Bazaar. Yamamoto, one of the most widely recognized Japanese American authors, began to write as a teenager and published her first story in a literary magazine in 1948 at the age of 27. Four of her pieces were included in Martha Foley's annual lists of "Distinctive Short Stories" and "Yoneko's Earthquake" was one of The Best American Short Stories of 1952. In 1986 the Before Columbus Foundation recognized her literary contributions—including her own work and her nurturance of other writers—with the American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement. King-Kok Cheung's foreword to Seventeen...
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SOURCE: "Legacies Revealed: Uncovering Buried Plots in the Stories of Hisaye Yamamoto," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 2, Autumn, 1989, pp. 169-81.
[In the following essay, Yogi focuses on the stories "Seventeen Syllables" and "Yoneko's Earthquake," asserting that Yamamoto uses hidden plots and subtexts to explore the experiences of Japanese-American women caught within complex social environments hostile to their desires.]
Between 1949 and 1961 the Nisei woman Hisaye Yamamoto gained national attention as a short story writer.1 Awarded a John Hay Whitney Foundation Opportunity Fellowship in 1949, Yamamoto's stories depicting the lives of Japanese immigrants and their children began appearing in national journals that same year.2 That Yamamoto would be the subject of interest in 1949 is intriguing given the general lack of enthusiasm for women writers and the lingering hostility towards Japanese Americans in the aftermath of World War II. As a minority woman writer, Yamamoto had to contend with both sexual and racial barriers. She not only faced sexism from the general society, she also confronted it in her immediate community. Japanese immigrants brought with them cultural beliefs that discounted the importance of women. In an autobiographical story, Yamamoto succinctly captures these sentiments when she comments, "I gathered that my father didn't see any necessity of...
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SOURCE: '"Seventeen Syllables': A Symbolic Haiku," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 197-202.
[In the following essay, Mistri examines Yamamoto's use of haiku as a metaphor for the themes explored in her story "Seventeen Syllables. "]
In 1942, the Japanese Relocation Act incarcerated 110,000 Japanese in Poston, Arizona. Born in 1921 of Japanese immigrant parents, Hisaye Yamamoto is a Nisei1 and one of those who watched closely the effects of that tragic internment. Although there are books, taped reminiscences bound into collections, and a slender handful of films, there is little criticism available that examines the experience of fiction writers who may have been marked by concentration camps like Manzanar, which was the first of ten such camps. The saga of the people who suffered this indignity has been documented by writers. Michi Weglyn, for example, gives a detailed account of this experience in Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps.
In the brief biographical information on Hisaye Yamamoto that she provides in Between Mothers and Daughters preceeding Yamamoto's short story "Seventeen Syllables," Susan Koppleman writes: "she, along with 110,000 other Japanese Americans, was subjected to relocation and imprisonment. . . . During the war, she moved to Massachusetts for a summer, but returned to camp,...
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SOURCE: "The Unrepentant Fire: Tragic Limitations in Hisaye Yamamoto's 'Seventeen Syllables'," in MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 91-107.
[In the following essay, Cheng emphasizes the social, cultural, economic, and gender conditions that influence the actions of the issei father in "Seventeen Syllables. "]
"Seventeen Syllables," perhaps the most anthologized, acclaimed and analyzed short story by Hisaye Yamamoto, epitomizes the complex rendering of characters within an intricately drawn plot characteristic of her larger body of works. Yamamoto masks a secondary, deeper plot concerning the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Hayashi in an ostensibly larger, primary plot relating a stage in the maturation of their daughter Rosie, narrated from her limited point of view.1 In analyzing the dynamics of the husband-wife relationship within this "subplot," critical commentary is aligned on the discussion of the role of the male. McDonald and Newman state that "The wife [Mrs. Hayashi] seeks release [from an unhappy marriage] through the writing of haiku," and as a result begs her daughter never to marry (28). The cause of her unhappiness is revealed by Stan Yogi in his description of the actions of the male, "who becomes increasingly intolerant of his wife's literary preoccupation, erupts in...
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SOURCE: "The Dream in Flames: Hisaye Yamamoto, Multiculturalism, and the Los Angeles Uprising," in Bucknell Review: A Scholarly Journal of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, Special Issue—Having Our Way: Women Rewriting Tradition in Twentieth-Century America, edited by Harriet Pollack, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, 1995, pp. 118-30.
[In the following essay, Cheung relates the subject matter and themes of Yamamoto's 1985 story "A Fire in Fontana" to the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of four police officers accused of using excessive force in the arrest and beating of African-American motorist Rodney King.]
The 1992 Los Angeles riot broke out three months before I was to give a paper in a panel entitled "The American Dream" at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. I chose to speak on Hisaye Yamamoto's "A Fire in Fontana," not only because this memoir casts sobering reflections on the American Dream, but also because it speaks directly to current events. As in so many of Yamamoto's short stories, "Fire" has a double structure. The external plot, which juxtaposes the ruthless killing of a black family and the 1965 Watts rebellion, yields provocative parallels with the incidents surrounding the acquittal of four police officers accused of brutally beating Rodney King. The internal plot, which traces the narrator's evolving racial consciousness and her deepening black allegiance, offers...
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SOURCE: "Issei Mothers' Silence, Nisei Daughters' Stories: The Short Fiction of Yamamoto," in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, 1996, pp. 1-14.
[In the following essay, Sugiyama describes the use of silence in Yamamoto's stories both as a stylistic technique and as a key element in the lives of her characters.]
Silence is often seen as evidence of women's oppressed position in society. Tillie Olsen, in her book Silences, describes how the creative talents of women have been forced into "unnatural" silences by the constant demands of daily life, which allow them no existence other than that of mothers, wives, daughters, and nurturers. Minority women, in particular, have often been "doubly muted," as Roberta Rubenstein points out in Boundaries of the Self1 Alice Walker—along with other African-American women authors—argues in her essay, "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens," that black women have been doubly silenced because of their gender and their race. Lamenting the distorted and short life of Phillis Wheatley, Walker argues that African-American women with creative talents have been driven to silent insanity by the harsh reality of slavery, racism, and sexism.2
Moreover, women have been particularly silenced on certain issues. As Adrienne Rich points out in Of Woman Born, it is difficult to articulate one's...
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Cheung, King-Kok. "Rhetorical Silence: 'Seventeen Syllables,' 'Yoneko's Earthquake,' and 'The Legend of Miss Sasagawara.'" In Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa, pp. 27-73. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Explores the multiple levels and forms of silence employed in Yamamoto's stories, focusing on "Seventeen Syllables," "Yoneko's Earthquake," and "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara."
——. "Reading between the Syllables: Hisaye Yamamoto's Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories " In Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays, edited by John R. Maitino and David R. Peck, pp. 313-25. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
Broad overview of Yamamoto's themes, styles, and techniques; includes suggestions for group activities, discussion questions, and a bibliography of related works and criticism.
Crow, Charles L. "The Issei Father in the Fiction of Hisaye Yamamoto." In Opening Up Literary Criticism: Essays on American Prose and Poetry, edited by Leo Truchlar, pp. 34-40. Salzburg: Neugebauer, 1986.
Considers Yamamoto's stories in terms of her first-generation immigrant Japanese male characters.
Miner, Valerie. A review of Seventeen...
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