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THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT—The life and times of Hisaye Yamamoto: writer, activist, speaker

Hisaye Yamamoto, who died on Jan. 30, 2011 at the age of 89, remains known primarily as a literary artist, a crafter of powerful short fiction—such as her signature stories “Seventeen Syllables” and “Yoneko’s Earthquake”—as well as assorted newspaper columns. Yet the story of her development as a writer is less known, and bears exploring, especially since it ties in with the many other lives that she led. For Hisaye Yamamoto was the last and quite possibly the greatest representative of a whole generation of Nisei literary and political thinkers who were featured in the Japanese vernacular press in the prewar years, and the only one who was able to achieve mainstream renown with the writing that she did after the war.

The cover of "Seventeen Syllables" (Rutgers University Press, 1994). The story "Seventeen Syllables" is Yamamoto's best known work, but the late Nisei writer also left a legacy of insightful journalism and daring activism behind.

Hisaye Yamamoto was born on Aug. 23, 1921 in Redondo Beach, Calif. Like the family she depicted in “Seventeen Syllables,” her father Kanzo Yamamoto was a farmer. It was her mother Sae, better educated than her husband, who was attracted to literature, and who inspired her daughter to take an interest in learning.

Beginning when she was just 14 years old, Hisaye began a regular column for the local journal Kashu Mainichi, writing under the pen name Napoleon. Her column went through a variety of handles, from “Napoleon’s Last Stand” to “Don’t Think It Ain’t Been Charming,” before finally settling on “Small Talk.” Much of it was, indeed, of little lasting interest: chatty anecdotes of her dialogue with brothers Johnny and Yuke (Frank Yukata Yamamoto), plus a running mock feud with fellow columnist Kenny Murase (in later life the distinguished educator Kenji Murase, but then—to hear Napoleon tell it—a pimple-faced stuffed shirt).

Like the other writers for the Nisei press—such as Sam Hohri, Mary Oyama Mittwer, Eddie Shimano, Chiye Mori, George Furiya, Yasuo Sasaki, Joe Oyama, Ayako Noguchi and the rest—Hisaye was caught up in endless discussions of who would write the Great American Nisei Novel, but did not publish much in the way of fiction during the late 1930s. Yet she read widely and seized on the chance to educate herself.

After finishing high school, she enrolled at Compton Junior College, where she specialized in foreign languages—German, French and Latin. In the process, she was exposed to modern literature, especially from Europe, with new political ideas. For example, she was greatly impressed by Erich Maria Remarque’s antiwar novel “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which she read in an uncut German version. She was enchanted by the existential novels of the French writer Andre Malraux, such as “Man’s Fate” (la condition humaine), which were little known in America.

By mid-1940, Yamamoto had begun to expand her column to include discussion of literature. Her columns contained reviews of works by Thomas Wolfe, then recently deceased, and the African American novelist Richard Wright. She also inserted comment on political issues. A self-described cynic, she adhered to no definite platform, but indirectly made her views known by citing letters from friends. One piece from December 1940 deplored the national climate of militarism, and the danger that Nisei would be forced to abandon their dream of democratic treatment and conform in the name of patriotism. “Maybe it is a fortunate thing that the Nisei are yet to come to a political awakening, that the Nisei are yet to experience ‘social consciousness’ and that the few Nisei who are liberals are too disorganized to effect any influence on the rank-and-file Nisei.”

With the coming of war, Yamamoto’s life was turned around. Even before the West Coast press was shuttered, she abandoned her column and turned to helping her family. In 1942 the entire family was sent to the Poston, Ariz. concentration camp. Hisaye soon found work as a reporter for the Poston Chronicle, and restarted her “Small Talk” column. Although the Chronicle was less strictly controlled than other camp newspapers, she was forced to be careful about her presentation of subject matter. “We knew what we could and could not print,” she later commented. Still, Yamamoto managed to present some powerful stories.

In an October 1943 article on the deportation of the “segregants” to confinement at Tule Lake, Calif. she vividly underlined the cruel impact of the move by her description of the tears of inmates separated from friends and loved ones. “A young girl sobbed so hard that the comic books in her arms—saved to shorten the journey’s length—fell to the ground. And her friends, crying, bent to pick them up.” She meanwhile produced for its readers a serial novel set in camp, a potboiler called “Death Rides the Rails to Poston” (probably the first hardboiled detective tale with Japanese American protagonists, and surely the first to mention Andre Malraux!).

In 1944, Yamamoto relocated to Springfield, Mass. with two younger brothers, and found work as a domestic. Despite the city’s famed “Springfield plan” for improving race relations, she found the town unfriendly and conditions harsh. During her time there, she did befriend Yone Stafford, a biracial Nisei socialist and pacifist who was active in organizing financial aid for inmates. Soon after, Yamamoto’s eldest brother Johnny, who had joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, was killed in combat. She decided to return to camp and help care for family. She adopted a young Sansei boy, whom she raised as her own.

In 1945, Yamamoto returned to Los Angeles, first living at the Evergreen Hostel and then settling in Boyle Heights. Following her return, she learned that the African American newspaper Los Angeles Tribune was in search of a Nisei columnist for its staff. The Tribune had distinguished itself during 1942 as the sole Los Angeles newspaper to formally oppose Executive Order 9066, and columnist Erna P. Harris had subsequently contributed numerous pieces supporting the rights of Japanese Americans. Meanwhile, thousands of black workers had moved to Los Angeles during the war and found housing in the evacuated Little Tokyo district, which was redubbed “Bronzeville.” As Japanese Americans moved back to their old homes, they entered into close contact with their new black neighbors. Now the Tribune sought a columnist to serve as a bridge between the two communities.

Hisaye later related that when she applied for the job, she doubted strongly that she would be chosen. First, she had very little experience with African Americans, apart from a few students in school, plus a set of black War Relocation Authority employees at Poston (perhaps because Poston was first established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, under the direction of the progressive activist John Collier, it featured a more intellectual and racially diverse staff than other camps. Black employees in Poston included Ora A. Dennis, a teacher and sanitation engineer, nurses Lydia Vance and Beatrice McMillan, and schoolteacher Manila Smith). Also, as she went for her job interview at the Tribune’s office, she saw that Bean Takeda, an experienced Nisei journalist and editor, was also in contention. Yet Yamamoto was hired. Since the Tribune had a female editor, Almena Davis, and featured columnists Erna Harris and Minnie Lomax, she may have faced less disadvantage as a woman than elsewhere.

Hisaye started work for the Tribune in June 1945, at the munificent salary of $35 per week. She was later joined on the Tribune’s staff by other Nisei, including Sports Editor Chester Yamauchi. “Cheddar” and his then-wife “Wacky” (writer Wakako Yamauchi) became close friends. Hisaye meanwhile solicited other writers to contribute to the Tribune, including her brothers Yuke and Jemo (James Tsutomu Yamamoto), Jeane Naito, Edith Fukuye, Yone Stafford (who ultimately replaced her as columnist) and Sam Hohri, who published a pair of pieces before his early death of tuberculosis.

On her recommendation, the paper also featured a piece about life on a goldfish farm—the first publication of a budding Nisei columnist named Chizuko Omori. Hisaye had grown close to the future author of “Rabbit Ramblings” at Poston, and had housed Chizu briefly after the independent-minded teenager left her family to return alone to the West Coast. The two would remain lifelong friends.

Yamamoto found working for the Tribune a transforming experience. Although she had been hired to produce a column about Japanese American issues, on the model of Larry Tajiri’s Pacific Citizen pieces, she quickly branched out to cover other topics, including existential philosophy or Arab-Jewish relations in Palestine. She not-so-delicately approached the touchy issue of Nisei prejudice against blacks. In the process, as she later recounted in her 1985 memoir “A Fire in Fontana,” she began to feel like an African American herself. The climax of her identification came out of a hate crime. She was visited at the newspaper’s offices by an African American couple who had bought a house in a suburban white district and who feared violence. She was deeply stunned shortly after when the house burned to the ground, killing three family members inside, in a clear case of terrorism.

In part as a response, she became active with the civil rights and pacifist group Fellowship of Reconciliation (and reported on FOR activist Bayard Rustin’s lecture to the Japanese American Citizens League). With assistance from the Yamauchis, in 1947 she helped organize the Los Angeles chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. In July 1947, CORE began a series of Saturday sit-ins in the restaurant of the downtown Bullocks department store, which refused to serve the store’s black patrons. A mixture of white, black and Nisei patrons took up seats and refused to leave until they were served. Yamamoto publicized the group’s activities in her column (to the consternation of editor Almena Davis, who disagreed with CORE’s direct action tactics). After several weeks, Bullocks capitulated and ended its segregation. Some months later, in early 1948, Yamamoto organized a set of pickets at the Bimini Baths, a popular swimming resort that restricted both black and Asian patrons. The campaign lasted several weeks and ended inconclusively.

In 1948, Yamamoto published her first short story, “The High Heeled Shoes,” in the prestigious New York intellectual journal Partisan Review. Encouraged by this success, she left her job at the Tribune to devote herself to writing full-time, with help from a John Hay Whitney Foundation Opportunity Fellowship in 1950. She remained interested in pacifism and social justice. Impressed by the ideas expressed by social activist Dorothy Day in her journal Catholic Worker, in 1953 Yamamoto moved to New York and took a job as a laborer on a farm run by the organization. There she met Anthony DeSoto, and in 1955 she married DeSoto and returned to Los Angeles. While she was able to find time to produce an occasional column, mostly Christmas pieces for the Rafu Shimpo, she devoted herself to caring for her husband and raising five children.

Though her small corpus of stories continued to be anthologized, it was not until 1985 that her writings were first collected into the book Seventeen Syllables. Published in a condensed edition in Tokyo in 1985, it was brought out two years later by Coffee Table Press in a volume introduced by King-Kok Cheung. The work won the American Book Award and relaunched Yamamoto’s fame.

Although family cares, accompanied by poor health, limited her work, she remained a vibrant writer and speaker (most notably in interviews in the film “Rabbit in the Moon”) throughout her later years.

*This article was originally published in Nichi Bei Weekly on Feb. 24, 2011.

© 2011 Greg Robinson

Hisaye Yamamoto literature writer