Perhaps many of you have never heard the name Hisaye Yamamoto who died on January 30, at the age of 89. But many students and former students of Asian American literature will know who she is. Yamamoto was one of the most respected and appreciated writers in the short history of Asian American creative arts. She is regarded as a pioneer in Asian American literature and her work has been republished and anthologized numerous times. She inspired others and also set a very high standard for all aspiring writers. Her output was slender, but she was quickly recognized as a master storyteller in the 1940s and 50s, with stories in such noted literary magazines as The Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, and Furioso. One of her stories was included in Martha Foley’s yearly collection of Best American Short Stories in 1952, putting her up in the ranks of the best American writers of the time.
I had the happy accident of meeting her when I was around 10 years-old in Oceanside, California, and during World War II we lived in the same block in the concentration camp* at Poston, Arizona. She became a mentor and friend for many years, maintaining our friendship through letters. I don’t know how she put up with a naïve and questioning adolescent, but my literary and political interests were much influenced by her insights and her encouragement.
Hisaye Yamamoto was clearly brilliant and complex. She was a pacifist and a civil rights activist in her youth, standing in picketing lines and working for an African American newspaper, the Los Angeles Tribune, as a journalist and columnist for several years. After returning to the West Coast. A John Hay Whitney Foundation fellowship allowed her to devote full time to writing for a period, and many of the stories that were published in those prestigious magazines came out from that period. The writing took a secondary role after her marriage and the raising of her family of five children, but for many years she continued to have her work consisting of articles, stories and poems published in the local Nikkei press in Los Angeles.
Her stories about the lives of Japanese Americans, particularly those taking place in the pre-World War II period in California, are richly detailed with the minutiae and concerns of their immigrant existence, but the characters are never stereotypical. They are all struggling with the need to make a living and raising families in an often hostile environment, trying to merge old world values with the new, and often trying to find ways to express themselves. Yamamoto observed their lives with compassion for their frailties and with an ironic understanding of each individual life. As King-Kok Cheung, UCLA professor of English and specialist of Asian American literature says of her work, “We must be attentive to all the words on the page to unbury covert plots, fathom the characters’ repressed emotions, and detect the author’s silent indictment and implicit sympathy.” Yamamoto’s writing gives us a deeply insightful look at the Japanese American experience, ever mindful of the humanity of all of their lives.
* Also known as internment camps.