Dorothy Ritsuko McDonald and Katharine Newman (essay date 1980)
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 to collect copies of the Catholic Worker, and so, intrigued that there was a place where "non-violence, voluntary poverty, love for the land, and attempt to put into practice the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount" were the rules, she finally went East and spent the years 1953-1955 on the Catholic Worker farm on Staten Island. For years after she returned to California, she continued to write for the paper, the Catholic Worker, among her most important pieces being on Seabrook Farms, Iva Toguri ("God Sees the Truth but Waits"), and the United Farm Workers.
After the Catholic Worker experience she settled into a career as wife and housewife, then as mother of five kids, and now, also, the grandmother of two, all of whom live in or near the DeSoto home. In short, as she phrases it, she keeps busy "tending her own garden," which means family, flowers, friends, and writing.7
During all these years, there has never been a published collection of her work, but her reputation has been kept steadily alive by anthologists. Four of her short stories made Martha Foley's list of "distinctive" short stories for their particular years, with "Yoneko's Earthquake" reprinted as one of the Best American Short Stories of 1952. She has been represented in at least twenty anthologies, with favorites being "Seventeen Syllables" and "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara." Runners-up are "Las Vegas Charley," "The Brown House," and "Yoneko's Earthquake."8 It is noteworthy that between 1949 and 1952, when there was still some hostility and a great deal of apathy about the Japanese, Hisaye Yamamoto published five short stories that won national acclaim.
"High-heeled Shoes" is more essay than story, unlike those that followed, but it has the Yamamoto hallmarks:
- References to literary materials outside the Japanese-American tradition. This shows her wide reading. In this story, Freud, Ellis, Stekel, Krafft-Ebbing, and Robert Browning are mentioned. In "Epithalamium," she quotes extensively from Gerard Manley Hopkins as well as echoing the Miltonic poem. This strategy lifts her stories into the wider world of European-American culture and adds surprise and new angles of perspective.
- References to actual events, place, or people. In this story she names Wakako Yamauchi as the friend who has given her the plants from which the narrator is picking pansies in the story.
- Lists, particularly of foods, flowers, and oddments that give sensory appeal as well as substantiating the reality of the story. In "High-heeled Shoes," she is irritated when the phone rings because she fantasizes that it is a salesman and she does not have money to buy from him. She lists what she would have bought by week's end if she only had money.
- Soliloquies and imaginary dialogues. Here she has a talk with Gandhi about non-violent responses versus the suffering of women attacked by rapists. Gandhi does not come off well.
The keynote in all of Yamamoto's work is her use of her own mind: she is analytic, meditative, honest, compassionate, and ironic. Whether she uses the first person or a narrator, the final word is usually hers—and it is frequently so open-ended that the reader feels there are stories and meanings as yet unguessed implicit in each tale.
Yamamoto's pervasive love for humanity is found in "The High-heeled Shoes." The protagonist ("I") is confronted with sexual perversions: she receives an obscene telephone call at the story's beginning and this propels her mind into "unlovely, furtive things" about other encounters with men that she and her friends have had. The most startling was the time she caught sight of a pair of legs in black high-heeled shoes sticking out from the open door of a "dusty-blue, middle-aged sedan." As she approached and glanced in, she discovered that the shoes were worn by a naked man reclining on the front seat . . . and she was, "with frantic gestures, being enjoined to linger awhile."
The narrator calls on her reading for some understanding of this frightening experience but concludes: "Reading is reading, talking is talking, thinking is thinking, and living is different." However, she regards both incidents as caused by society and does not blame the men, believing that they were part of "a great dark sickness on the earth that no amount of pansies, pinks, or amaryllis, thriving joyously in what garden, however well-ordered and pointed to with pride, could even begin to assuage."
There is a final paragraph: her aunt calls, thus purifying the telephone from the contamination of the obscene caller, and she offers to come over for dinner, bringing food with her. This is the only "Japanese" touch in a story all too universal: "ricecakes with Indian bean frosting, as well as pickled fish on vinegared rice. She has also been able to get some yellowtail, to slice and eat raw." Yamamoto, as narrator, comments, "It is possible she wonders at my enthusiastic appreciation, which is all right, but all out of proportion."
What remains with the narrator is: "Whatever, whatever—I knew I had discovered yet another circle to put away with my collection of circles." A similar personal revelation of the sickness of humankind was revealed in "The Wilshire Bus," a 1950 story, which deals with a Japanese-American woman's fear of being identified as Chinese by a drunken bigot. Shocked at finding this weakness in herself, she lost "her saving detachment . . . and she was filled once again in her life with the infuriatingly helpless, insidiously sickening sensation of there being in the world nothing solid she could put her finger on, nothing solid she could come to grips with, nothing solid she could sink her teeth into, nothing solid."9
She has written two stories about gamblers: "The Brown House" (1951), and "Las Vegas Charley" (1961). The former has a jocose tone: Mr. Hattori, weary of trying to make a living growing strawberries, seeks out a Chinese house where he can try his luck at gambling. The appearance of the house is whimsical: "recently painted brown and relieved with white window frames. . . . To the rear of the house was a ranshackle barn whose spacious blue roof advertised in great yellow letters a ubiquitous brand of physic."
During the travail, as the Hattoris come to argue and their marriage nearly expires, there are humorous incidents, such as a police raid and the semi-friendship between Mrs. Wu, wife of the manager of the brown house and Mrs. Hattori, who must wait, hour upon hour, in the car with the three little children. The children come to acquire a taste for the Chinese cookies that Mrs. Wu brings to the car and Mrs. Hattori becomes quite attached to the Chinese woman. But Mrs. Wu, looking at them, concludes "she had never before encountered a woman with such bleak eyes."10 As the story ends, the reader goes back over it and sees that it never was humorous, that human interaction is "a collection of circles."
Las Vegas Charley began life as Kazuyuki Matsumoto, a prosperous young immigrant farmer until the death of his beloved wife in childbirth broke his spirit. Ultimately he has become a dishwasher in a restaurant in Las Vegas, spending his free time gambling. As he grows old, he becomes closer to his son and daughter-in-law in Los Angeles. Finally Charley dies, and the doctor who has attended him, complaining of his...
(The entire section is 3676 words.)