Seventeen Syllables

by Hisaye Yamamoto

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

So, Rosie and her father lived for a while with two women, her mother and Ume Hanazono.

The above quotation explains the dual identity of Rosie’s mother. By day, Rosie’s mother is Tome Hayashi, an agricultural laborer. Along with her husband and the Carrascos—a Mexican family hired for the harvest—Tome picks tomatoes and boxes them for transport. Apart from her day job, however, Tome is also a writer of haiku.

Tome’s professional name is Ume Hanazono. It is Ume who befuddles Rosie. When Tome manifests herself as her literary alter ego, her behavior appears inscrutable to her husband and daughter. She mutters to herself, makes copious notes, and doesn’t reply when spoken to. Ume Hanazono is fully focused on making a mark on the literary world.

However, Tome/Ume’s obsession masks an inner unhappiness that she is loath to reveal to her husband and Rosie. Past tragedies, encapsulated in a broken love match and a stillbirth, continue to haunt Tome in the present. Tome is petrified that Rosie will inherit and repeat her own troubled history. The quotation above emphasizes Tome’s fractured self and her drive to infuse meaning into her life.

Then, standing up, still singing, for she was possessed by the notion that any attempt now to analyze would result in spoilage and she believed that the larger her volume, the less she would be able to hear herself think, she obtained more hot water and poured it on until she was free of lather.

In the above passage, Rosie takes a bath; her actions are both practical and cathartic in nature. Fresh from Jesus’s kiss, Rosie is, on one level, blissful. However, her euphoria is marred by unspoken and vague fears. The kiss has awakened Rosie to the power of her own sexuality, and she is equal parts fearful and thrilled.

Rosie’s ambivalent reaction leads her to take a bath. She luxuriates in her awakened sexuality and soaps herself at “exaggerated leisure.” Although she can’t forget Jesus’s electric kiss, she is also afraid of what it could mean. Would she cease to be Rosie the girl? Must she now be Rosie the woman? Most importantly, how should Rosie, the emerging woman, conduct herself in a romantic relationship?

Yes, yes, I promise, Rosie said. But, for an instant, she turned away, and her mother, hearing the familiar glib agreement, released her. Oh, you, you, you, her eyes and twisted mouth said, you fool.

In the above scene, Rosie has just promised her mother that she will never marry. However, her promise appears insincere and made more out of a need to placate her mother than anything else. For her part, Rosie has tasted the sweetness of romance and is reluctant to turn her back on it. Her adolescent yearnings clash with her natural sense of filial loyalty.

Rosie understands her mother’s anguish but desires to chart the course of her own future. Through the characters of Rosie and Tome, Yamamoto invites readers to ask some important questions: How can a daughter differentiate herself from her mother without breaking the fragile mother-daughter bond? Can a daughter retain the lessons of the past without jeopardizing her judgment about her future? Most importantly, how can a mother come to terms with a tragic past and prevent it from contaminating the joys of the present?

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