(Short Story Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.