Seventeen Syllables Summary
Seventeen Syllables by Hisaye Yamamoto is a short story about the experiences of Japanese-American immigrants, such as language barriers, legal restrictions, and cultural conflicts.
Seventeen Syllables follows Rosie Hayashi, who struggles to identify with her Japanese heritage and connect with her mother Tome. The relationship is strained particularly by Rosie's inability to speak Japanese and Tome's inability to speak English. Tome attempts to connect with her daughter by sharing her haikus, but Rosie is not able to understand the short poems.
A romance blossoms between Rosie and Jesus Carrasco, a young Mexican man. Rosie's relationship with her family becomes more complicated as she begins to notice the lack of love in her parents' marriage and her father's abuse. Rosie's mother reveals the tragic events that led to the marriage and begs her to never marry. Rosie is conflicted due to her burgeoning relationship with Jesus.
“Seventeen Syllables,” Hisaye Yamamoto’s most acclaimed short story, combines a number of themes that appear frequently in her fiction. These themes include: the difficulties faced by Japanese immigrants to the United States, the cultural separation between these immigrants and their children, and the restrictions experienced by Japanese American women within traditional Japanese culture. Important for an understanding of the story are some facts about the Japanese immigrant experience in America. Although the United States welcomed Japanese immigrants after 1885, immigration was stopped with the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. Many of the first Japanese immigrants were unmarried men, who saved their earnings and sent back to Japan for brides they knew only through letters and photographs. Many of these married couples proved incompatible and were forced to make the best of an unsuitable marriage, keeping their problems concealed from the children. The Alien Land Act of 1913 prohibited Japanese immigrants from buying or leasing land for a period of more than three years. Since one-half of the immigrants lived in rural areas, the law forced families to move constantly and dispersed them often. A Japanese woman frequently had no other woman in whom to confide. In spite of these hardships, literature flourished and many immigrants wrote traditional Japanese poetry.
Yamamoto’s story deals with these concerns through a device used often by Yamamoto, the double plot. On one level the plot concerns the adolescent Rosie Hayashi and her secret plan to meet Jesus Carrasco, a member of a Mexican family hired for the harvest. Rosie’s inability to speak much Japanese and her failure to understand the interest her mother, Tome, takes in writing haiku, which she submits weekly to a Japanese-language paper in San Francisco, highlight the cultural and intergenerational differences between them. In the midst of the tomato harvest, when all workers are desperately needed, the editor arrives with a prize for Tome’s poetry, a print by Hiroshige. Angry, her husband burns the picture. Tome reveals to Rosie that she has married her husband as an alternative to suicide. Rejected by a well-to-do lover, she had given birth to a stillborn son. An aunt in the United States arranged the marriage. Disappointed and disillusioned, Tome asks Rosie to promise never to marry at a time Rosie is experiencing the blissful promise of young romance. The story is a carefully nuanced and technically sophisticated combination of ethnic, feminist, and intergenerational concerns.
The Hayashi family lives in a small farming community near Los Angeles. Mrs. Hayashi has begun to write haiku, but when she tries to share the joy of creating poetry with her daughter, Rosie is unable to appreciate her works because she cannot speak Japanese, her mother’s native tongue. Mrs. Hayashi’s English is no better than Rosie’s Japanese. When Rosie wants to share a haiku poem that she has found in her mother’s magazine, it is impossible for her to convey to her...
(The entire section is 1,109 words.)