(photo by Joy Yamauchi)
Hisaye Yamamoto passed away in Los Angeles last Sunday. She was a pioneering Asian American author, an American-born nisei who wrote at a time, the 1940s and ’50s, when few others from her community were finding a nationwide readership. She was reportedly the first Asian American to publish in the Paris Review.
Ironically, last Sunday was also California’s first official Fred Korematsu Day, a day dedicated to the Japanese American who challenged his World War II internment all the way to the Supreme Court. Hisaye Yamamoto was also interned, at the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona, at the age of 20, and her troubling memories of that ordeal never went away.
Her output of fiction was slim but impressive. She wrote a number of short stories in the ’40s and ’50s, including the haunting “Seventeen Syllables” (1949) and “Yoneko’s Earthquake” (1951), both stories told from the circumscribed perspective of a pre-adult nisei girl who has difficulty understanding the struggles of her immigrant parents. However, not long afterwards, Yamamoto turned away from writing as a vocation in order to raise a family, writing only the occasional piece, whether fiction or non-fiction, for specialized outlets, such as the Japanese American press. Her best short stories are collected in the volume Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories.
I was fortunate enough to know her. Back in 1988, I got the idea to record “Seventeen Syllables” for the radio program “The Morning Reading,” broadcast at the time by KPFK-Pacifica. I wrote to her asking for permission to record her story (like most of those at KPFK, I was a volunteer, so there was no money involved), and she graciously consented. I produced and directed the recording of the story with actress Jeanne Sakata giving a wonderful performance. The whole experience of producing the reading and working with Jeanne was enjoyable and rewarding. Hisaye liked the radio reading when it was broadcast, and we stayed in touch, corresponding with hard-copy snail mail over the years.
Early in our correspondence, I kept peppering Hisaye with questions about the internment — not hers specifically, but the historical incident in general. After a while, I thought to myself that if I continued writing about the subject, I’d just become an internment pest to her. So, I decided that the next line I dropped her would say nothing about the internment. I found a card with an arresting black & white Ansel Adams landscape photograph, filled it with non-internment talk, and sent it off to her. Her next letter to me began: “Did you know that Ansel Adams photo was taken in Manzanar?” The best-laid plans of mice and men...
The first time we met face to face was shortly after Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories was published, and she held a reading and book signing in Little Tokyo in 1989. By then, we had been corresponding for a few months, but she couldn’t possibly have known what I looked or sounded like. When she started signing copies of her book, I stood in line with the others and patiently waited my turn. Soon, I was finally in front of her and gave her my copy to autograph. “Who do I make it out to?” I told her my name and, without another word or even a glance in my direction, she leapt to her feet and ran across the room to tell the event’s host about my radio production of “Seventeen Syllables.” It’s a little humbling when someone runs away from you immediately after you say your name, but she eventually returned, and we had a pleasant conversation. We met a handful of times after that.
In 1991, a film version of “Seventeen Syllables” and “Yoneko’s Earthquake” was made for PBS, a fusing of the two stories titled Hot Summer Winds, directed by Emiko Omori. I was dissatisfied with Omori’s take on the material. The most compelling element of both stories is their obliqueness: they each center around a naive young protagonist who is unaware of the dramatic tensions swirling around her, tensions which are only implied on the page. In Hot Summer Winds, Omori foregrounds those tensions and robs them of their dramatic power. I ended up writing an academic article about the differences between the stories and the film, an article which became my first piece to be anthologized.
For her part, Hisaye loved Hot Summer Winds and thought that I was making a mountain out of a molehill. I thought it was a bit odd that a writer who had obviously taken such care to craft her short stories the way she did would be so blasé about her narrative strategy being discarded for a less compelling one. But I suppose that she was just never that protective of what she wrote. She was also very modest, sometimes to the point of being self-effacing.
I had been out of touch with her for the last seven or eight years. Recovering from surgery and its after-effects, I just didn’t have all that much to talk about. How did I hear of her passing? Incredibly, within this past month — literally — I learned that someone I’ve known for a long time from a completely different context was a relative of hers. I knew that they had the same surname, but Yamamoto is such a common Japanese name that it never occurred to me to ask if there was a connection. Small world, eh?
I’d like to pay a small tribute to a writer who certainly deserves a larger one. My tribute may be tiny, but comes from the heart (as well as the brain). When you take time out of your life to write an academic article about someone — especially when you write something commendatory — you’re paying tribute to that person. So, I would like to close with an excerpt from my article about her writing. The article was originally published in East-West Film Journal in 1993. The same excerpt also appeared in an anthology of articles about Asian American women writers edited by Harold Bloom. It’s a bit wordy, but Hisaye loved words:
Because Yamamoto’s young main characters are not aware of all the important events influencing their lives, the reader of both “Yoneko’s Earthquake” and “Seventeen Syllables” must peer beyond the girls’ limited purview to discern the narratives’ crucial hidden content. Abandoning seamless narrative closure, Yamamoto crafts a writerly text that demands the participation of her audience to complement the written story with their own construction of the absent narrative.Perhaps inspired by the evocative understatement of haiku, Yamamoto’s narrative strategy calls attention to the ethnic issues inherent to her stories. Her characters’ status as so-called ethnic minorities suggests a problematic relationship to their own Americanness: straddling but separated from the signifiers of two cultures, Japanese and American, the issei and nisei characters are crucibles of a new identity which must discover its own meaning and purpose. As personified by Yoneko, a Japanese American identity already exists, but it is still unfinished, growing, maturing. However, rather than unproblematically defining such a “Japanese American” identity, Yamamoto’s synthesis of disparate cultural signifiers ultimately turns in on itself: the constant exchange of culturally distinctive ideas and activities among the diverse characters implicitly questions the narrow idea of culture as a collection of fixed, insular ethnic groups. Furthermore, the possibility, however deferred, of intercultural/inter-ethnic unions in Yamamoto’s stories also indicates — and perhaps celebrates — the constantly fluctuating cultural and ethnic makeup of America’s human landscape. Yoneko may exemplify a synthesis of Japanese and American cultures, but she can’t contain the boundless fluidity of cultural interaction.In this context, Yamamoto’s narrative ellipses take on an added resonance. Discussing the ambivalence of both narration and the national self-image, Homi K. Bhabha connects the loose-ended narrative to resistance against a nation’s narrative authority and its construction of an unquestioned, seemingly homogeneous national identity ...The reader, then, may easily interpret Yamamoto’s crucial narrative absences as a correlation to the relative absence of Japanese Americans — and people of color in general — in the discourse of American history as it has traditionally been taught in mainstream education. In particular, the pedagogical absence of the Japanese American internment, only recently remedied, has long elided this crucial event in the history of the U.S. Constitution. Also, Yamamoto’s narrative lacunae are associable to invisibly oppressive power relations among the characters in her stories: the absence of important narrative information marks the missing alternative voice of the underling. Just as they suggest the amorphous space of an alternate literary discourse, the rupturous gaps in Yamamoto’s stories suggest the contours of a perceptually radical history denied by patriarchy, hierarchy, and racism. By drawing the reader to the silences within the open-ended narrative, Yamamoto’s stories quietly question what remains to be said beyond the narrative, and beyond the construct of American culture as fundamentally immutable and Eurocentric.