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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Hisaye Yamamoto
(b. 1921)

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 DeSoto.

Yamamoto 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.

Because 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.

Despite 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.

The 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.

King-Kok Cheung
University of California at Los Angeles

In the Heath Anthology
Seventeen Syllables (1949)

Other Works
Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories (1988)
Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, Revised and Expanded (2001)

Cultural Objects
Text fileHaiku

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Yoneko's Earthquake
The complete text of Yamamoto's story.

Voices from the Gaps
A biography, criticism, a selected bibliography, and links.

Secondary Sources