Hisaye Yamamoto: ‘Humble Giant of American Literature’

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Hisaye Yamamoto

The passing of short-story writer and essayist Hisaye Yamamoto is being mourned by her friends and fans across the country and beyond. The author of “Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories” died in Los Angeles on Jan. 30 at the age of 89. (Services will be held on Wednesday, Feb. 16, at 11 a.m. at Fukui Mortuary, 707 E. Temple St., Los Angeles.)

Filmmaker Emiko Omori, who combined Yamamoto’s short stories “Seventeen Syllables” and “Yoneko’s Earthquake” in the 1991 film “Hot Summer Winds”:

“Hisaye was my first babysitter, and throughout the following years I was not good at keeping in touch. But she was always in my heart. She allowed me to make a movie from two of her wonderful short stories. She agreed to be in a documentary, ‘Rabbit in the Moon,’ that my sister, Chizu, and I made about our internment experiences. She loved to play Scrabble and she always won. She had a beautiful way with words. I miss you, dear Hisaye—my inspiration, my mentor.”

• Chizu Omori, co-producer of the 1999 documentary “Rabbit in the Moon” and columnist for the Nichi Bei Weekly:

“I feel I have lost a great mentor and a very good friend in the passing of Hisaye Yamamoto. I first met her before World War II when I was a kid. We went through the camp experience living in the same block, and she was someone I could always talk to during that stressful experience.

“After the war, we never did live in the same town but kept up a correspondence that went on until she could no longer write. She was one of the first Japanese American women who gained a national presence with her short stories and writings, and she was a master storyteller of the Japanese American experience. She was an inspiration for many of us.”

The latest edition of Yamamoto’s book.

• Janice Mirikitani, former poet laureate of San Francisco and founding president of the Glide Foundation, which empowers poor and marginalized communities:

“Hisaye was my shero. She is the writer who gave me the courage to reveal my stories, to unleash my voice as a poet and activist. I remember her stories of madness, love, suffering and comedic moments, and compassion in camp. Her sense of humor and sensitivity, her amazing insight into human beings of all ethnicities helped create stories that were the ground for our connecting to the human condition beyond borders and boundaries.

“She made me proud to be Japanese American and a woman.”

• Cynthia Kadohata, author of the award-winning children’s books “Kira-Kira” and “Weedflower”:

“For me, Hisaye was like a star in the sky—she made me dream about what was possible.”

Professor King-Kok Cheung of UCLA, author of “Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa” and editor of “Seventeen Syllables,” a collection of literary critiques of Yamamoto’s work:

“No contemporary writer has touched my heart, mind, and spirit as much as Hisaye Yamamoto. Whether writing about aborted creativity (‘Seventeen Syllables’), doomed romance (‘Epithalamium’), the dubious norms for sanity and insanity (‘The Legend of Miss Sasagawara’ and ‘Eucalyptus’), the havoc wrought by addictive gambling (‘The Brown House’ and ‘Las Vegas Charley’), or the debilitating effect of racism (‘Wilshire Bus’ and ‘A Fire in Fontana’), she did so with abiding compassion, keen eyes, wry humor, and prose that is at once disarming and harrowing.”

• Minoru Kanda of Ajiakei-Amerikajin Bungaku Kenkyu Kai, which promotes the study of Asian American literature in Japan, and Japan representative of Asian Improv Records, an Asian American jazz label:

“We had a discussion about Hisaye-san’s works, ‘A Fire in Fontana’ as well as ‘Eucalyptus,’ just a few days ago. There is a larger number of Japanese people who read and respect Hisaye Yamamoto’s stories. Her works are so important not only for the U.S. readers but also for us Japanese.”

• Kent A. Ono, a professor of media and cinema studies and Asian American studies at University of Illinois:

“When I first began writing my dissertation, it was Hisaye Yamamoto’s courageous words that brought the soul of Japanese America to me through writing. They gave me perspective, insight, feeling, and depth. She continues to be my ethical and moral guide. What she did with language astounds me daily.”

Playwright Philip Gotanda (“Sisters Matsumoto,” “Ballad of Yachiyo”) and actor-producer Diane Takei:

“Hisaye Yamamoto was truly one of the pioneers of Asian American literature. Because of her work and her presence, we along with many others had a strong literary foundation upon which to build. The world will miss Hisaye Yamamoto.”

• Naomi Hirahara, author of the Mas Arai mystery series and former English editor of The Rafu Shimpo:

“Hisaye Yamamoto has been an inspiration to me ever since I was introduced to her work in my early twenties. She was a former journalist, a Christian, small in stature and a resident of the greater Pasadena area (Eagle Rock)—I felt personally connected to her in many ways. But her writing, as powerful and direct as a bullet, her prose so descriptive and unwavering, I knew that she was a true literary master.

“The Japanese American community and all Americans are so lucky that Hisaye toiled and wrote her stories about the time before camp, during camp and after. When I worked at The Rafu Shimpo, I was fortunate to have some telephone dealings with her regarding her submissions to our Holiday Issue and she remained as she always did in person—self-effacing and no nonsense.

“She had little consciousness of her literary importance, which sometimes surprised me because her work among Japanese American writers in particular was held in such high esteem. I knew that she was one of the first Japanese Americans to be published by the Paris Review, but the first anthology of her short stories was not published in the U.S., but in Japan.

“Hisaye—I still feel—doesn’t have the fame that she deserves in this country, but I hope that many of us will continue to spread the word of her writing and that more collections will be published posthumously. An important part of Hisaye will live on in her short stories. I am absolutely sure of that.”

• Stan Yogi, co-author of “Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California” and co-editor of “Highway 99: A Literary Journey through California’s Great Central Valley” and “Asian American Literature: An Annotated Bibliography”:

“For more than half a century, Hisaye Yamamoto quietly chronicled American life in her exquisitely crafted and powerful stories and essays. She described herself as a housewife, not a writer. But anyone who reads her work will recognize the talents and skills of a true literary master.

“With insight, compassion, wit, and grace, she wrote about sensitive Issei women whose dreams are thwarted and Nisei children who do not fully understand their parents’ aspirations. The empathetic vision of her fiction and memoirs encompassed alcoholics seeking redemption through love and religion, and African Americans targeted by racism.

“When young admirers sought her inspiration and advice about writing, she encouraged their efforts but downplayed her own significance as a writer, instead praising the talents of other authors.

“But Hisaye Yamamoto’s body of work is lasting proof of her literary gifts, which luckily she shared for most of her life. We have lost a pioneer and humble giant of American literature … who also happened to be a housewife.”

• Patricia Wakida, associate curator of history at the Japanese American National Museum and former director of special projects at Heyday Books:

“Like so many of her admirers, I only knew and loved Hisaye Yamamoto from afar, and through her writing. Hisaye’s prophetic voice, tempered by a tremendous wit and intelligence, spoke so much of the unspoken in the Japanese American experience, both pre-war and during the WWII incarceration.

“The discovery of ‘Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories’ was a personal epiphany. Reading that book sent me tumbling into the lives of Nisei girls and women who were so dark and complex, so gilded with these intense, emotional threads, that they left me locked in those stories for decades. It was as if I were privy to the innermost secrets of these women, and by the end of each story, rather than neatly bringing their conflicts to an easy resolution, were left open and mysterious.

“It wasn’t until later that I learned about the defiant and courageous way she went about making her mark in this world, in particular through the vehicles she chose to affiliate with and publish, which only increased my admiration.

“Fearless and eloquent, Hisaye Yamamoto was one of the great writers of her time and has left us with a tremendous legacy to remember her by.”

• Elaine Kim, Asian American studies professor at UC Berkeley and co-editor of “Making Waves: Writing by and About Asian American Women” and “Making More Waves: New Writing by Asian American Women”:

“She was so—so JA! By that I mean she had that very tranquil-seeming surface and she didn’t say much, but her writing revealed the spunky, quirky, keenly observant, spicy spirit that was burning beneath.

“Her stories were like that, too. There’d be a cheerful, kind of glibly clueless child narrator dropping hints of dangerous secrets lurking somewhere out of sight while she prattled on—adultery, abortion, suicide, madness—and everything that makes those things happen in human life, including love and desire and also patriarchy and racism.

“Ever modest, ever insisting that she didn’t have much to say or offer, I remember her on a panel once when she must have been in her 60s. She was in front of a huge audience that was paying adoring tribute to her and her work. Casually dressed in a white T-shirt and a black vest and khaki slacks, she spoke evenly in low tones, not letting on that she was moved or affected in the slightest by all that adulation.

“But I was sitting next to her, and I felt her elation and noticed the sparkle in her eyes. They loved her so much, and I think she was very happy. She was a great writer and a great person. We will really miss her.”

Poet Garrett Hongo, author of “Yellow Light,” “The River of Heaven,” and “Volcano”:

“In the fall of 1975 I think it was, I met Hisaye Yamamoto at the home of her near lifelong friend Wakako Yamauchi in Gardena. She was a tiny, middle-aged Nisei woman whose shoulder-length hair had long streaks of gray in it. She dressed modestly, in slacks, a blouse, and a loose-fitting sweater. And she smoked, speaking quietly between puffs on her cigarette, merriment sometimes flashing across her eyes, her chin tilting back as she laughed silently. Despite the lightheartedness she shared, mostly with Wakako, there was a razor-edge to her mind and a kind of stiffness in her bearing I recognized as “academic.”

“Later, perhaps a year or two further into the ’70s, I visited her in her house at Eagle Rock, near Occidental College. She fed me lunch — sandwiches — and afterwards brought out sheafs of yellowing papers, some from large plastic bags, some from file folders, and many of them stapled together. The sheets were grayish, absorbent almost like rice or construction paper, the printing on them stark black and uneven. I recognized them as early mimeograph and they were page after page of poems and commentary printed in the Stanford English Department on surplus target paper and other miscellaneous cheap stock during World War II.

“They were from a master’s course in English poetry taught by the famous poet-critic Yvor Winters — a course I knew about from reading essays by N. Scott Momaday, the Kiowa Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and Robert Pinsky, a poet who’d later become poet laureate. I’d also heard about the course from Donald Justice, the poet who led the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for many years, and from Donald Hall, my teacher at the University of Michigan. All had completed this course while studying with Winters at Stanford. But how did Hisaye come to possess these esoteric sheets, legendary among young American poets?

“She told me that, through correspondence with the poet Janet Lewis, the wife of Yvor Winters, she took the course while interned at Poston Relocation Camp in Arizona during World War II. She did every lesson as did Winters’ master’s students at Stanford, memorizing the poems, reading them for the moral ironies and ambiguities he taught resided within them, and taking short essay exams based on the lessons every other week.

“Lewis and Winters were members, you see, of a small, unheralded network of educators called to conscientious action by Dorothy Day, the famous co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, a loosely affiliated group of communities of Catholics across the United States whose mission it was to ‘live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ’ and to extend hospitality towards those on the margin of society. Like photographers Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, who lent their work to document and protest what they felt was unfair treatment of American citizens, Lewis protested too — by sharing her learning and her craft with a precocious American teenager imprisoned by her government for reasons of race.

“I came to understand Hisaye much better after that — the high literary quality of her work, the rigorously understated and often bitter themes of her intricately rhymed poems, the tough moral ironies revealed by the unfolding of her stories, the sometimes esoteric literary vocabulary she used, and her fondness and familiarity with the lyric poetry of the English Renaissance and 17th century.

“When she gazed at me, her eyes had the same cast of inspection as did those of Scott Momaday’s when he did — not at all twinkling, but as though they could see through stone through their stoicism. A gaze centuries long, steeped in learning, patient with yet scornful of the actions of men.”

• Greg Robinson, author of “By Order of the President” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” co-author of “Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road” and columnist for the Nichi Bei Weekly:

“I first met Hisaye Yamamoto in January 1999, when we attended together the opening of the new wing of the Japanese American National Museum. We arranged to meet up first for lunch at an ancient udon restaurant that Hisaye knew in Little Tokyo.

“I felt both excitement and considerable apprehension as I rode over to our date. I had already read and admired her writing, while I was a young East Coast hakujin grad student working on a dissertation about Franklin Roosevelt and Japanese Americans, but I had not published anything and had no reputation.

“Hisaye immediately impressed me. It was not the brute force of her personality, for she came off as a bit shy and unassuming — I remembered the description of writers who put their passion into their writing and are more phlegmatic as people. Conversely, I was enchanted by her eager friendliness and her fashion of immediately finding in-jokes to laugh at with me, like an old friend.

“She also touched me by her interest in my research — she said that she felt delighted to be dealing with a historian for once, rather than another Asian American literature scholar. As grateful as she was for her readers and their embrace of her, she told me that literature students all tended to ask her the same sorts of questions, especially since the corpus of her work that they studied was so small.

“After lunch, we went over to the museum. I pointed out to Hisaye a descriptive plaque in the permanent exhibition with a quote from her writing, which seemed to please her. After a little while, though, she said that the exhibition was making her sad. It was clear that the memory of the camp years was still vivid, and searing. So we decided to leave. Hisaye gave me a hug and told me to stay in touch.

“After returning to New York, I began corresponding with Hisaye. Over the next several years, she sent me several letters, plus Christmas cards and other greetings. When my book ‘By Order of the President’ was in press, she kindly sent the publisher a blurb for it. I felt so proud that not only was this great writer someone I actually KNEW, and had publicly praised my work.

“After a while, the letters ceased, and I knew that her health was declining. I was able to visit her twice more at her home, carrying archival materials I had found on her. She had told me that her memory was diminished, and so even though she greeted me cheerfully and seemed to know me. I took care always to reintroduce myself.

“Hisaye allowed me to look through some of her scrapbooks as we chatted and to make copies of material. As something I read to her or a question I would ask would strike a long dormant memory, and she would regale me with a story.

“I wanted to find time to visit her a third time, but the distance to Los Angeles, mixed with my shyness about bothering her, meant that it did not happen. I remain thankful that I got to know her a little, and to sense the person inside the magic name.”

Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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