Hisaye Yamamoto, a pioneer in Asian American literature, passed away on Sunday in Los Angeles at the age of 89.
She was the author of “Seventeen Syllables,” “Yoneko’s Earthquake,” “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara” and other short stories about Japanese American life from the 1930s to the present. Based on actual events, many of her stories explored the sometimes difficult relationships between Issei couples and between Issei parents and their Nisei children. She also touched on such topics as interethnic relations and sexual harassment.
She is particularly noted for portraying the difficulties faced by the women of her parents’ generation. “Seventeen Syllables” (1949) is the story of an Issei woman who finds solace from manual labor by writing haiku for the local Japanese newspaper. The recognition she gets for her artistic endeavors is bitterly resented by her less-educated husband. The story is told from the point of view of their young daughter, who is herself beginning to learn about the complications of romance.
Born on Aug. 23, 1921 in Redondo Beach, she was the daughter of immigrants from Kumamoto Prefecture, Kanzo and Sae Yamamoto. She attended Compton Junior College, where she majored in French, Spanish, German and Latin. She also attended Japanese school for 12 years. Her father was a farmer and the family was living in Oceanside when World War II broke out.
From 1942 to 1945, she was interned at Poston, Ariz. along with her father and three brothers; her mother had died before the war. In 1944, she and two brothers relocated to Massachusetts, but the death of the oldest brother, Johnny, while serving with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Italy brought them back to camp. In 1945, she moved with her family to Los Angeles.
Yamamoto became a published writer at the age of 14, writing for the Kashu Mainichi under the pen name “Napoleon.” While interned, she wrote for the camp newspaper, the Poston Chronicle. After the war, she was a staff member for three years at the Los Angeles Tribune, an African American weekly.
In 1948, she began to publish her short stories and essays in mainstream journals, including Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, Harper’s Bazaar, Carleton Miscellany, Arizona Quarterly and Furioso. “Yoneko’s Earthquake” was included in “The Best American Short Stories of 1952.” “Seventeen Syllables,” “The Brown House” and “Epithalamium” were selected for the annual listings of “Distinctive Short Stories” included in the “Best American Short Stories” volumes.
In 1950, Yamamoto received one of the first John Hay Whitney Foundation Opportunity Fellowships. From 1953 to 1955, she joined the Catholic Workers in New York and wrote for The Catholic Worker. She married Anthony DeSoto in 1955 and moved back to Los Angeles, where she raised five children in the Eagle Rock neighborhood.
She was a frequent contributor to the Rafu Shimpo’s holiday edition and was also published in Pacific Citizen, Hokubei Mainichi, The New Canadian, Rikka, Asahi Shimbun and Pan.
Naomi Hirahara, former Rafu English editor and author of the Mas Arai mystery series, was inspired by Yamamoto to become a writer and published a number of her stories in the Rafu. One of her favorites was “A Fire in Fontana” (1985), which was based on Yamamoto’s interactions with the African American community. Yamamoto later wrote that while working at the Los Angeles Tribune, “I came to realize that our internment was a trifle compared to the two hundred years or so of enslavement and prejudice that others in this county were heir to.”
Yamamoto’s stories have also been widely anthologized in collections of Asian American literature, including “Aiiieee!,” “Counterpoint,” “Ayumi,” and “Charlie Chan Is Dead,” as well as anthologies of women writers and fiction about the West, California and Los Angeles. Yamamoto wrote the introduction to “The Chauvinist,” a collection of short stories by one of her contemporaries, Toshio Mori (1910-1980).
The editors of “Aiiieee!” and “The Big Aiiieeeee!,” Frank Chin, Jeffrey Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada and Shawn Wong, said that Yamamoto’s “modest body of work is remarkable for its range and gut understanding of Japanese America … Technically and stylistically, hers is among the most developed of Asian American writing.”
The most complete collection of her works is a revised and expanded edition of “Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories,” published in 2001 by Rutgers University Press. It includes an introduction by King-Kok Cheung of UCLA and a preface to the revised edition by Yamamoto herself. The original book, published in 1988 by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, contained 15 stories; the revised edition has four more, including one of her earliest works, “Death Rides the Rails to Poston” (1942). There is also a volume of literary critiques of her writing as well as a Japanese translation of her short stories.
Her book features “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara” (1955), her only story set in the Poston camp; “Las Vegas Charley” (1961), a portrait of an Issei man not unlike her father; “Life Among the Oilfields” (1979), which recounts a hit-and-run involving her younger brother and an indifferent Caucasian couple; and “Florentine Gardens” (1995), which is based on her visit to her brother’s grave at a military cemetery in Italy.
Filmmaker Emiko Omori, a longtime family friend, adapted “Seventeen Syllables” and “Yoneko’s Earthquake” into an hour-long drama, “Hot Summer Winds,” which was broadcast in 1991 as part of the PBS series “American Playhouse.” Yamamoto was also one of the interviewees in “Rabbit in the Moon,” Omori’s 1999 documentary about the internment.
Yamamoto was the recipient of numerous honors, including the 1986 American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Before Columbus Foundation and, just last year, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Asian American Writers Workshop.
Her husband of 48 years passed away in 2003. She was in declining health after suffering a stroke last year.
Survivors include five children, Paul, Kibo, Yuki, Rocky and Gilbert; seven grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; two brothers, Jim and Frank; three nieces and one nephew. Services will be held on Wednesday, Feb. 16, at 11 a.m. at Fukui Mortuary, 707 E. Temple St., Los Angeles; (213) 626-0441; www.fukuimortuary.com.