THROUGH THE FIRE: The Greatness of Mitsuye Yamada

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By SHARON YAMATO

A wise man once said that to achieve greatness, one should live as if you will never die. At age 96, poet Mitsuye Yamada breathes life into those words.

Take, for example, in 1963 when she was told she had terminal emphysema. Instead of succumbing to the diagnosis she became more determined than ever to continue with her work of writing and teaching. By 1976, she had published her first book, “Camp Notes and Other Poems,” a volume of work written largely while she was incarcerated as a young woman at the bleak and desolate place called Minidoka.

“Camp Notes” has since become a classic in Asian American literature and an inspiration for poets, writers, survivors, feminists, and social activists alike to tackle the subject of incarceration through the written word.

I first met Mitsu (as she is known by those who love her) last year when I had the honor of interviewing her for DiscoverNikkei.org. I admit I was a little apprehensive about conducting a video interview with an icon, much less one whose voice had perhaps slowed with age.

To my surprise, at then age 95, she was more articulate and sharp than I could possibly have imagined. When greeted at the door with her lively canine sidekick, Wolfgang (Mozart), I knew at once that this was going to be a test of my ability to keep up with her. She immediately won me over with her soft-spoken manner, gracious humility, and her undeniable spark.

After conducting a lengthy interview that covered a life that has not always been easy, I was somewhat shocked to hear her say she was working on a new book. The surprise was not due to my thinking she was not capable; rather, it was due to the fact that she now suffered from the crippling effects of macular degeneration. I couldn’t help but think her poor eyesight would affect her ability to write, but she told me she woke up early every morning to a computer screen that had been enhanced to help with her limited vision.

Pictured from left, first row: Diane Fujino, Mitsuye Yamada, Hedi Mouchard, Maiya Osumi-Kuida; second row: Amy Uyematsu, Brynn Saito, Diana Tsuchida, Kyoko Takenaka, Kyoko Nakamaru, Miya Iwataki. (Photo by Ben Furuta, Courtesy of Japanese American National Museum)

While working earlier this year on her book, “Full Circle,” Mitsu faced physical hardship once again, this time falling and suffering a break in her cervical spine. Once again, this didn’t stop her and her daughter, Hedi Mouchard, from finishing her book. Together, they pieced together a stunning collection of poems, art, and musings from some of the people who know Mitsu best — an anthology that is at once a tribute to her endurance and a celebration of her unmistakable greatness.

Which brings to mind this stanza from Mitsu’s own poem, “Sphere,” from “Full Circle”:

I will fulfill

every

single

ineffable

moment of life

left in my

body.

I suppose if you were to ask Mitsu how she manages to keep going, I would venture to say she might attribute it to family and friends. She expressed her gratitude to them recently at the JANM launch of “Full Circle,” an event that brought out family members from as close as Orange County and as far away as Japan, as well as dozens of friends from far and near.

Mitsuye Yamada with daughters Hedi Mouchard (center) and Jeni Yamada (right).

You could feel the love in the room bookended by Mitsu’s sons, Stephen and Kai, and her daughters, Hedi and Jeni. UC Santa Barbara professor Diane Fujino, who is currently finishing a biography on Mitsu and her brother, Rev. Michael Yasutake, said it best when she described Mitsu’s understated yet overpowering creative spirit: “love is lifeforce.”

Mitsuye Yamada expresses strength and love in every small gesture — a smiling glance to a friend or a heartfelt hug to a family member — but nothing says it better than her own words, as these describing her mother in “Grandma’s Prayer” from “Full Circle”:

I pray every day for the

health and happiness of

each child and grandchild

by name

except some I don’t remember

so I say

bless my chonan (eldest son)

his wife and their children,

my jinan (second son)

and his family

my chojo (eldest daughter)

and her family

and so on and so forth

I pray for all my good friends

still living and their families.

Grandma prays

for every

body.

“Full Circle” is on sale at the JANM Store. More information and updates can be found at https://mitsuye.com. Keep on the lookout for Diane Fujino’s upcoming book, “Ways of Seeing: The Feminist Poetics and Radical Ministry of Mitsuye Yamada and Michael Yasutake.”

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Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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