Before I arrived in Seattle, I thought that moving here would be like returning to my Southern California home—all Asian Americans and Japanese American towns. But when I got here, it wasn’t the mecca that I expected. There were no neighborhoods of Japanese Americans with a Buddhist temple at the center, no K-12 teachers with names like Sasaki, Mizuba, or Nakata, at least not that I could readily find. It’s often difficult for me to express what it was like to grow up Japanese American in Southern California. However, Uyematsu has done it perfectly in her new book of poems, The Yellow Door. Everything she describes, I recognize. The Asian American leaders and artists that she acknowledges and praises are my heroes, too. Reading her poems makes me homesick, makes me laugh, and makes me say, “Hey, I remember that, too!”
The collection’s theme is the idea of yellow, not only as color but as a marker of identity, both reviled and empowering. Uyematsu writes of how she is “a curious,/ sometimes furious yellow,” and her voice in the poems makes me want to be that as well.
There are poems that look at yellow as a derided skin color, but also as magnificent dragons, flowers, and boats that maintain us through rough waves. And as much as she writes about the struggle with identity balanced with the brilliance of Asian Americans, she writes of being an outsider as well, of standing outside the circle of dancers during Obon festivals, of having black hair instead of the curling blond hair of her classmates, of growing up Japanese American just outside of the Japanese American towns in Los Angeles, like the one that I grew up in.
Still, Uyematsu’s poems don’t come across as angry as the writers that she mentions in the poem “Riding the Yellow Dragon,” writers like Janice Mirikitani and Frank Chin. Uyematsu’s fury seems more like a thorn, something that digs in slowly and latches on. This searing can be felt when she writes in one of the poems:
I can measure/
my growing resistance/
to that all-American preference/
for the blond and boring co-star.
In the end, the poems in The Yellow Door are a celebration of that resistance. It is a collection of resistance against skin color and otherness, a collection that reveres heroes and histories of internment and loss, a collection “where everything moves/ to sun and wind/ wave after wave/ a sea of golden yellow.” Uyematsu writes that the yellow on the Buddhist flag represents the Middle Path, and it seems that Uyematsu has decided that this is what yellow is—her focus, her center. The Yellow Door is an endearing read, one that will keep me focused, centered, and homesick for quite some time.