Thursday, February 17, 2011

Hisaye Yamamoto, Part Two

Yesterday, I went to the memorial service for Hisaye Yamamoto. I was honored to be invited to attend by her family and even more honored when I was asked to sit with some of the family members. The service was held in a small, pleasant chapel in Little Tokyo and was well attended. Of the attendees I knew, I must not have seen them for ten years or so, and their appearances had changed — in one case, so much so that I didn’t recognize her.

At one point in the service, the officiating minister invited anyone in attendance to speak about Hisaye to everyone assembled. I didn’t feel the need to speak, satisfied that my blog post about her — which received some very nice comments from her family — said all I needed to say. This was also a rather awkward moment in the service because only two people got up to speak. Still, I remained seated and silent.

However, since the service yesterday, I’ve thought of a few more things I’d like to say, and I’m now sorry that they didn’t occur to me at that moment. For instance, I’d like to have recounted for her family and friends how I first discovered her writing...

When I first got interested in Asian American literature in the mid-1980s, about the time that I received my Master of Arts, I was able to get a hold of two anthologies: one was called Counterpoint, and the other Aiiieeeee! (both no longer in print). The standout in Counterpoint was a short story called “Seventeen Syllables,” and the standout in Aiiieeeee! was a short story called “Yoneko’s Earthquake.” Because my middle name is not Sherlock, it took me a while to notice that the two stories were written by the same author — which, looking back, would seem rather obvious, given that they had so much in common.

Not long after I realized this, I tried to see if there were any novels or short-story collections by anyone named Hisaye Yamamoto. Since this was about two years before Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories had been published, I couldn’t find any single volume by this author. So, I decided to see what other stories I could uncover on my own. Using the bibliography in the book Asian American Literature by Elaine Kim as a starting point, I tried tracking down as many of the original publications as I could.

I still vividly remember photocopying the Yamamoto short story “The High-Heeled Shoes” from a musty old 1948 copy of Partisan Review — where it had been originally published — in the main library at USC. Happening across another out-of-print anthology of Asian American writing in a used-book store introduced me to “The Brown House ” (1951). Learning of my literary hunt, a Chinese American friend xeroxed a copy of “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara” (1950) from yet another out-of-print Asian American anthology. While I was searching, a collection of five Yamamto stories (in English) was released by a Japanese publisher, which is how I learned of “Life Among the Oilfields” (1979).

Between discoveries like these and what was available from UCLA’s Asian American Reading Room, I was able to amass about ten of her pieces from various sources. In fact, Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories wasn’t published until after my radio production of the book’s eponymous short story. If the collection had come out a couple years earlier, it would have saved me a lot of effort — but it would have also robbed me of memories of some very satisfying detective work (maybe my middle name is Sherlock after all).

I think the attendees at the memorial service would have liked to hear that I put in so much to seek out Hisaye’s stories. Because they also liked accounts of her wit and way with words, I could have also told them...

When I was touring Europe in 1990, I thought that I would send Hisaye a post card from the picturesque city of Prague (which was then in the country of Czechoslovakia). My letters to Hisaye didn’t engage in a lot of leg pulling, but I began my card: “I was trying to get to Lompoc, but I made a wrong turn in Vernon and ended up in Prague.” When I got back to the States, Hisaye’s next letter to me began: “It must have been the slaughterhouse miasma in Vernon that made you lose your way.”

I might have mentioned that I knew a niece of Hisaye’s for years from another corner of my life, but didn’t learn that they were relatives until a month before the writer’s passing. (The things you can learn from Facebook...) Since Hisaye died, I’ve now come to regret not re-establishing contact with her after my major medical episode seven years ago. But at least, because of Hisaye’s niece, I didn’t learn of her death days or even months after the fact.

All during the memorial service, from two TV monitors perched above its altar, the chapel televised still photos from Hisaye’s life, starting with a baby picture taken in the 1920s through the days of her adulthood and on into her sunset years. The slideshow gave me a better feeling for her life as a wife and mother — as well as a literary figure. The photos made me wish that I had seen her in person more often. I’d also like to have met her husband — he passed on nine years ago, but the pictures of him in the chapel’s slideshow made him seem like a neat guy. The photos also showed a side of Hisaye that she wrote about but I’d never seen: how she was always beaming whenever she was around her grandchildren.

If I had communicated with her these last eight years, I’m not sure what I would have said to her that I hadn’t already said in my letters. If I had reminded her how much I like her writing, she would have probably just waived away any kind of kudos I gave her, as she usually did (while she kept talking about all these invitations she’d receive to make appearances and do readings at literary events). I guess that I would have just wanted to let her know that I hadn’t forgotten about her, that my sparseness of communication had more to do with medical issues on my end, that I still wished her and her family well. Because I was remiss in getting back to her, I didn’t get to say any of that. And I didn’t think about saying it during the memorial service. So, I’ll say it now.

1 comment:

gasagasagirl said...

Hello, Rob! There will be a public memorial for Hisaye this Sunday (March 27) at 2 PM at the JACCC's Garden Room (basement level). Hope that you can make it.

Naomi Hirahara