| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Hisaye Yamamoto once said that she “didn’t have any
imagination” and that she “just embroidered on things that happened, or that
people told [her] happened.” The statement, though spoken out of her wonted
modesty, reveals the extent to which personal and historical circumstances form
the grist to her fictional mill. Born in Redondo Beach, California, Yamamoto
was a child of Japanese immigrants. She started writing when she was a teenager
and contributed regularly to Japanese American newspapers. During World War II
she was interned for three years in Poston, Arizona, where she served as a
reporter and a columnist for the Poston Chronicle (the camp newspaper) and
published a serialized mystery. After the war she worked from 1945 to 1948 for
the Los Angeles Tribune, a black weekly. Soon afterwards her short stories
began to appear in national journals, and she received a John Hay Whitney
Foundation Opportunity Fellowship (1950–51). She was also encouraged by Yvor Winters
to accept a Stanford Writing Fellowship, but chose instead to work from 1953 to
1955 as a volunteer in a Catholic Worker rehabilitation farm on Staten Island
founded by Dorothy Day. She returned to Los Angeles after marrying Anthony
was one of the first Japanese American writers to gain national recognition
after the war, when anti-Japanese sentiment was still rampant. Four of her
short stories were listed as “Distinctive Short Stories” in Martha Foley’s Best
American Short Stories collections: “The High-Heeled Shoes” (1948), “The Brown
House” (1951), “Yoneko’s Earthquake” (1951), and “Epithalamium” (1960).
“Yoneko’s Earthquake” was also chosen as one of the Best American Short
Stories: 1952. In 1986 she received from the Before Columbus Foundation the
American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Yamamoto excels in depicting Japanese American communal life, it is helpful to
see her fiction in historical and social context. Most Japanese immigrants came
to America between 1885 and 1924. The first waves of immigrants consisted
mainly of single young men who saw North America as a land of opportunity.
After establishing themselves in the new country, some returned to Japan to
seek wives, while others arranged their marriages by means of an exchange of
photographs across the Pacific. Hence a large number of Japanese “picture
brides” came to this country after the turn of the century to meet bridegrooms
they had never seen in person. By 1930 the American-born Nisei (second generation)
already outnumbered the Issei (first generation), and about half of the
Japanese American population lived in rural areas in the western U.S. Japanese
was the language generally spoken at home, so that many Nisei (including
Yamamoto) spoke only Japanese until they entered kindergarten.
the preoccupation with survival in America, a number of Issei maintained their
interest in Japanese poetry. There were literary groups engaged in the
traditional forms of haiku, tanka, and senryu, and numerous magazines devoted
to Issei poetry. Nisei, on the other hand, mostly expressed themselves in the
English sections of Japanese American newspapers. The vibrant Japanese American
literary movement was disrupted by the advent of World War II, when over 110,000
Japanese Americans were incarcerated under the Japanese Relocation Act of 1942.
pre-war and postwar experiences of many Japanese Americans are reflected in the
work of Yamamoto, who persistently explores the relationship between Issei men
and women and between immigrant parents and their children. Because of the
prevalence of arranged marriages among the Issei, compatibility between couples
could hardly be assumed. In “Seventeen
Syllables” it is through the naive perceptions of a Nisei daughter—Rosie—that
we glimpse the dark nuances of Issei silences. While intergenerational
differences are not peculiar to Japanese Americans, the gap between the Issei
and the Nisei is widened by language and cultural barriers. Rosie’s inability
to appreciate her mother’s Japanese haiku bespeaks her more general
incomprehension of her mother’s life story. The child’s partial understanding
allows Yamamoto to tell the mother’s story obliquely.
University of California at Los Angeles
In the Heath Anthology
Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories
Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, Revised and Expanded
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The complete text of Yamamoto's story.
Voices from the Gaps
A biography, criticism, a selected bibliography, and links.