Study Guide

Mitsuye Yamada

Mitsuye Yamada Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

Originally published by Shameless Hussy, a struggling feminist press, Mitsuye Yamada’s Camp Notes, and Other Poems is a personal volume involving family participation. The cover illustration, by the author’s older daughter, Jeni Yamada, is a line drawing of a female figure in three stages: a shy little girl, an older girl walking forward, and a striding woman carrying either a briefcase or suitcase. The ambiguity of the last figure can refer to the camp experience, where internees were able to bring only what they could carry, or to the author’s professional life as writer, teacher, and activist. The author’s husband contributed the book’s calligraphy, and the volume is dedicated to Yamada’s parents, husband, two daughters, and two sons. The actual “Camp Notes” poems center the volume and are bracketed by an opening section on the author’s parents and a closing series of poems looking to the present and future.

The seven poems in the section “My Issei Parents, Twice Pioneers, Now I Hear Them” were written after the central “camp notes” set, and they look back to parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. The section opens with a folk saying: “What your Mother tells you now/ in time/ you will come to know.” The text appears first in brush-stroke ideograms, then in transliterated Japanese, and finally in the author’s translation. Thetheme permeates the author’s work, which engages with the ways that origins—“the mother”—shape a person, through both acceptance and resistance.

The next poem offers a portrait of “Great Grandma” figured in her orderly collection of ordinary objects: “colored stones,” “parched persimmons,” “powdery green tea.” Great Grandma’s static world and calm acceptance of fate stand in contrast to the turmoil, pain, and conflict documented in much of Yamada’s work.

“Marriage Was a Foreign Country” and “Homecoming” are narrated in the voice of the persona’s mother; they tell stories of pain and difficulty of life as a Japanese immigrant woman in a country both alien and hostile. Following these poems are two poems relating to the speaker’s father. Contrasting the mother’s monologues, these dialogues comment on traditional Japanese wisdom that the father is attempting to impart.

The section titled “Camp Notes” highlights poems composed while Yamada was imprisoned with her mother and brothers in the Minidoka camp. Thirty years later, the poems were culled from their early inscription in a large writing tablet, one of the few possessions the author could take with her to the camp. The section opens with another line drawing by Jeni Yamada, picturing a small child clutching a stuffed animal and seated amid piles of luggage. The first poems tally the upheaval of the removal experience with titles such as “Evacuation,” “Curfew,” and “On the Bus.” The title of “Harmony at the Fair Grounds” reflects the irony in many of these brief, acrid poems: The “grounds” on which the Japanese Americans were imprisoned were anything but “fair.” The last lines offer a stark picture of concentration camp life: “Lines formed for food/ lines for showers/ lines for the john/ lines for shots.”

A secondary subheading, “Relocation,” designates poems about life in the Minidoka camp. The author continues to document the grim, degrading aspects of prison life, where monotony and uncertainty intensified the physical stresses of primitive, cramped quarters and the denial of amenities such as radios and cameras. Even more demoralizing are the irrationality, stupidity, and lies of the bureaucratic internment system. As the family huddles under bedclothes to survive a “Desert Storm,” the speaker observes

This was notimprisonment.This wasrelocation.

Likewise,...

(The entire section is 1667 words.)