Intro by Alan Chong Lau, IE arts editor
As the annual Asian Pacific American month rolls around in May, I thought it only appropriate that we remember and honor the contributions of a major writer, Wakako Yamauchi. For aspiring Asian American writers sitting at a desk in the early 1970’s, some must have wondered if there were any writers who had come before them or even if there was an Asian American literary tradition. With the 1974 publication of AIIIEEEEE! An Anthology of Asian American Writers (Howard University Press), that barren landscape changed, and the beginning of a tradition began to emerge.
In that anthology, a short story by Wakako Yamauchi entitled And the Soul Shall Dance first appeared and brought to light the talent of a major short story writer, playwright, poet and painter. Her portraits of rural Japanese Americans and their struggles with dreams, prejudice, economic depression and the WWII incarceration camp experience opened up a whole new world to coming generations.
In the house of Asian American literature, the work of Wakako Yamauchi certainly represents a major pillar. When she died in August, 2018, we lost a major writer. In the following remembrances, we hear from her peers, colleagues and friends. Thanks to all who contributed. For those readers interested in reading the work of Wakako Yamauchi, there are the following: Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays and Memoir (Feminist Press) as edited by Garrett Hongo and Rosebud and Other Stories by Wakako Yamauchi (University of Hawai’i Press) as edited by Lillian Howan.
Essays remembering Wakako Yamauchi
The first performance of And the Soul Shall Dance
By Stephen H. Sumida
The records can’t really show it because it was an outlaw production pulled off by Garrett Hongo, but we were the first to stage And the Soul Shall Dance, in early 1976, Seattle, produced by the Asian Exclusion Act and Asian Multi-Media Center. I played the bad guy, Oka. The “workshop” production cut in line ahead of the E-W Players’ premiere stipulated by the play development grant from Rockefeller, but the Seattle show was really to give Wakako her first-ever look at her first play, on stage and on its feet. Before then, she had no idea how each of her characters on paper could come to life in the flesh.
With me in particular, she discussed how she’d thought of Oka simply as Emiko Oka’s antagonist. The two male characters in this play only have surnames – Oka and Murata – while the female characters have given names as well – Emiko (Oka being her family’s name, her husband Oka having been adopted by them), Hana Murata, Oka’s daughter Kiyoko, and the Muratas’ daughter Masako. I’d decided that if I were to spend time rehearsing and performing a part, it was my responsibility to develop that character as the playwright’s words suggested, implied, or ordered. After the show I talked with Wakako about two fellow farmers in Hawai‘i her Oka, on paper, sharply reminded me of. These two models complicated how I would perform Oka. Wakako went home to Gardena and revised with joy, again inspired, for the E-W Players’ debut of the show the next year. Not that she really had to revise. Her own, original words opened spaces for directors and actors to get to work.
How Wakako moved creatively from her original idea for a story to the work as performed or published was often from something she thought simple to something complex, though her writing style was evocative with understatement. The play, And the Soul Shall Dance, emerged from her “simple” memory of her farm family’s neighbors in the Imperial Valley of California, around 1935. At the time, there appeared at the neighbor’s a woman from Japan, a mysterious person who seemed to be trained in Japanese arts. Wakako’s short story by the same title was published in AIIIEEEEE!!! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, in 1974, and from what appears to be this simple, unfinished memory, her work on the play soon followed.
I last saw Wakako in the fall of 2001 when And the Soul Shall Dance played in Tokyo, translated into Japanese by Mako and directed by him. Suzy Hoshi, Mako’s wife, was the only American in the cast. It was a little strange, because some of the other actors seemed to have been veterans of Japanese TV soaps, trying hard to deliver lines in a “realistic” way that came off as overstatements of emotions. The subtexts were missing. The result was that the spare, understated poetry of Wakako’s script in English wasn’t there. But Wakako was so happy, saying that at last her play was performed in the actual language of the experience, Japanese. To me, the actual language was her English.
Afterwards Wakako was surprised to see me wave at her in the theater. Mako walked up to us when we talked in the lobby. Wakako said to him, “I want to introduce you to my friend, Steve Sumida.” Mako said, “Yes. I know.” Then he said to me, “You gained weight.” I had met him in person only once before, in 1980, when Gail Nomura, Wakako, and I saw a show at E-W Players. During the intermission that time, Mako and I passed by each other, and he growled, “Hi.” After that show, I introduced myself to him and said I was from Seattle. He said, “Yes, I know! That’s why I said ‘Hi!’” I guess he’d studied the reservation list. Now, in Tokyo, 2001, 21 years after we once met, he announced that I’d gained weight. Then he scolded that an actor should never change his appearance like that! Wakako and I shared one good laugh.
The next day there was a forum at Waseda University featuring Wakako and Mako. At the dinner that night we were served $200 melon for dessert. Wakako and I watched with pleasure to see Mako happy all day and night, for once. He was the life of the party, the center of Wakako’s attention. Our last time together was like the first time with Wakako observing some interesting characters in action, as we watched Mako carry on as if transformed into a funny man in Japan.
A lifelong friendship that started in Poston
By Chizu Omori
Writer, playwright and artist Wakako Yamauchi died at her home in Gardena, California, on August 16, 2018. She was 93. Best known for her play, And the Soul Shall Dance, which was adapted from a short story of the same name, Yamauchi published two books, Songs My Mother Taught Me and Rosebud and Other Stories.
I first met Yamauchi while we were incarcerated at Poston, Arizona, one of the 10 concentration camps that we used to hold roughly 120,000 American Japanese during WWII. She became a close friend of Hisaye Yamamoto, another writer, and I became acquainted with Yamauchi because of my friendship with Yamamoto. They were working on the camp newspaper, The Poston Chronicle, and I was a teenager with lots of time on my hands.
Yamamoto’s barrack unit became a drop-in place for us and we spent many an hour talking about everything, including how and why we happened to be in this desolate place. Yamauchi was a beautiful young woman who always carried herself with an elegance about her, and a sensitivity to all that was happening around her. When the war ended, she moved to Los Angeles, and we saw each other often while I was a student at UCLA. As former internees, all of us were struggling to get on our feet and having to rebuild our lives.
Wakako came from a farming background, as did Yamamoto and me. Her first love was art, and she took up painting, but with the encouragement of Yamamoto, she expanded her work into writing. Both Yamauchi and Yamamoto settled in Los Angeles and maintained a close friendship for the rest of their lives. Both wrote about life as lived by American Japanese, before WWII, during the war, and after. They are notable in that they were among the few American Japanese who wrote serious fiction after the war. What had been a lively, active literary scene in prewar days never came back, and the literary community never regained that vitality. And so we have these two to thank for some wonderful, nuanced and moving depictions of life as immigrants from Japan.
And The Soul Shall Dance, a story of two Japanese farm families in the Imperial Valley, won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for best new play of 1977 and has more or less been in continuous productions since then.
Another play that she wrote was 12-1-A, a story that takes place in Poston, with the title being her actual address in the camp. In that play, she depicts the story of a family having to endure the hardships and problems people encountered while being incarcerated in a government concentration camp. How to deal with the few choices that the government presented are addressed, like whether to go into the military, whether to “relocate” out of the camps, and also the loyalty questionnaire that starkly divided the community by asking inmates to choose between loyalty to the U.S. or to Japan.
Yamauchi and I maintained a friendship through long telephone conversations and occasionally get togethers in Los Angeles. I went into political activism and she chose art and writing, but we both shared a deep interest in the lives as lived by American Japanese, the culture clashes, the gender differences, the generational divides and class and race discrimination. She was always very modest about her writing, saying that she really produced very little, but she remained an astute observer of life around her and her community. Her strength came through in her work, and her accomplishments and her legacy will remain a part of our community’s complicated, troubled, and dramatic history.
Wakako Yamauchi’s lifelong passion and talent for writing and story telling
By Stan Yogi
When I first met Wakako Yamauchi, her infectious smile dazzled me. Our November 1987 meeting took place in the Nisei writer, playwright and visual artist’s living room. She had agreed to let me interview her for my master’s thesis which explored her short stories and those of her dear friend Hisaye Yamamoto, another pioneering Nisei author.
Before meeting Wakako, I had envisioned her as a stern woman, perhaps a smoker, with glasses perched on the end of her nose. That’s because her stories, which I had read and re-read, were serious. They depicted gruff Issei men eking out livelihoods in inhospitable places, sensitive and tough immigrant women chafing against constraints, and young Nisei struggling to understand their parents while navigating American society. Her sobering stories gave me insight into the lives of my grandparents and parents.
Instead of the no-nonsense woman I expected to meet, Wakako charmed me with her impulse to laugh and to make herself the butt of humor. I later learned that during the 1940s and early 1950s she went by the nickname “Wacky,” an example of Nisei’s proclivity to transform their Japanese first names into Anglicized sobriquets. In Wakako’s case, the nickname captured her ebullience and verve.
Wakako died in her Gardena, California home on August 16 at the age of 93.
She was born Wakako Nakamura in 1924 in Westmoreland, a small town in California’s sunbaked Imperial Valley, the setting for many of her works. Her parents were farmers. She was a contemporary of my father, who was born the same year in nearby El Centro. But they didn’t know each other.
Wakako showed an early interest in literature and visual art, encouraged by her mother, who wrote haiku and taught the Japanese language. Wakako’s parents subscribed to the Japanese community newspaper Kashu Mainichi in whose pages Wakako came across the writing of Hisaye Yamamoto, who penned a column for the paper under the pseudonym “Napoleon.” Soon after discovering Hisaye’s writing, Wakako frantically searched through back issues of the paper to see if she’d missed any of “Napoleon’s” columns.
After her family moved to Oceanside, California because of a bad crop failure, Wakako learned that Hisaye also lived there. Wakako was excited at the prospect of meeting her idol. Although the two met, they didn’t become friends. Wakako later reflected: “Perhaps I was too effusive.”
During World War II, the government incarcerated Wakako, Hisaye and their families in Poston, Arizona. Both of the young Nisei worked for the Poston Chronicle: Wakako as a staff artist and Hisaye as a writer. There they began a life-long friendship.
After the war, Wakako settled in Southern California where she married and gave birth to a daughter. After 25 years of marriage, she divorced but retained her married name.
Wakako told me that she always wanted either to paint or to write. Since childhood, drawing came easily to her. That was partly why she pursued painting first and did not launch her literary career until relatively late in life.
Because she was intimidated by the amount of knowledge she felt writers had to have at their grasp, Wakako did not begin writing seriously until the late 1950s. She wrote her seminal story And the Soul Shall Dance in the late 1950s. After the New Yorker and other publications rejected the haunting tale of Issei and Nisei living in the Imperial Valley in the 1930s, Wakako felt she didn’t understand story writing, so she took a correspondence course.
And the Soul Shall Dance languished in a drawer for years until the Rafu Shimpo, a Los Angeles Japanese American newspaper, asked Yamauchi for a contribution. She submitted the story, and the paper published it in 1966.
Hisaye Yamamoto recommended the story to the editors of the landmark 1974 publication AIIIEEEEE: An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, who included the piece in their collection.
The actor Mako, artistic director in the mid-1970s of the Los Angeles Asian American theater group, East West Players, asked Wakako to translate And the Soul Shall Dance into a play.
Having never written a play before, Wakako sent her daughter to the library to find a book on playwriting.
Wakako learned the book’s lessons well. And the Soul Shall Dance became a play and won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for best new play of 1977. As a teenager, I was thrilled to watch an adaptation that PBS broadcast the following year. It was one of the first times I had seen Japanese Americans depicted on television.
Wakako was prolific, publishing dozens of stories, beginning in the Rafu Shimpo in 1959. She once joked that it was easier for her to work in the short story form because of her short attention span, but added that she could feel the rhythms of a short story. In 1994, The Feminist Press published Songs My Mother Taught Me, a collection of Wakako’s stories and plays, edited a poet Garret Kaoru Hongo. And in 2010, University of Hawai’i Press published Rosebud and Other Stories, a book that focuses on the complexities underlying Nisei lives.
She also wrote numerous plays after transforming And the Soul Shall Dance into theatrical form. East West Players and theaters across the U.S. and Japan have produced her works – which often center on Japanese American families but include a play about Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao Zedong. As one of the earliest playwrights who focused on Asian American characters and stories, Wakako was a trailblazer in expanding the scope of American theater.
In her biographical statement accompanying And the Soul Shall Dance short story in AIIIEEEEE!, Wakako explained one of her motivations for writing: “Years ago when my mother passed away, she left a diary in Japanese that I was unable to read. I realized I never really knew her nor would I ever now know her, and it became important to me to leave something of myself that my daughter could read and perceive the person I really was, so she could know who she was and why.”
Sadly, Wakako’s daughter, Joy, predeceased her. But Joy lived to read her mother’s stories and to see her plays and, hopefully, to understand her mother. Readers and theater-goers have benefited for decades from Wakako’s insightful stories and moving plays which have memorialized the now absent Issei generation and the quickly disappearing Nisei.
A year ago, I ran into Wakako at a community event. Her smile and spirit that charmed me 30 years ago remained the same, even at age 92.
Wakako came from that generation who saw Asian American children unschooled, un-read, ignorant of their parents’ histories. There was an unstudied expression of relief and frank bemusement in her when all of us began to appear asking what happened, and who we were. Her work became part of the literary music we danced to. – Jeffrey Paul Chan, writer.
Wakako Yamauchi: How her words matter to us
By Russell C. Leong
It was 18 years ago, June 3, 2000, when the UCLA Asian American Studies Center organized Words Matter: An International Asian American Writers Symposium. Two of the founders of Asian American literature were honored as “literary founders” by Majorie Lee. The two were almost sisters, many times reading side by side; their works also being discovered by each new generation of Asian American readers. These two were Japanese American writers Hisaye Yamamoto and Wakako Yamauchi. At this writing, both have passed, Wakako just last month on August 16, 2018 at the age of 93.
A beautiful and modest person, yet, her vision and persistence paid off: she wrote of Japanese workers in the dusty fields of Central California, of what work and love and and the coming and going of migrant workers meant–not to sociologists or politicians – but meant to the heart. Wakako, born in Westmorland, California, was a child of first-generation Japanese immigrants who farmed in the Imperial Valley, and many of her works including The Music Lessons and The Soul Shall Dance and other stories are set there.
Wakako was a writer who did not shy away from affairs of the heart, even when her characters did not have the easiest of lives and who could have easily been disheartened by harsh and demeaning circumstances of anti-Japanese hysteria, government internment, and displacement. She, herself, at the age of 17, was interned with her family in Poston, Arizona. Both she and Hisaye Yamamoto, her fellow writer, became fast friends from that time onwards.
Wakako Yamauchi, through her words, somehow always managed to rescue her characters, and rescued us, from the “dustbin of history” wherein Asian Americans had no role in formulating the literary landscape of America. Her writings, especially the story and PBS play, “And the Soul Shall Dance” placed the “soul” squarely in the center of Asian American lives, where it belonged. For a Japanese American writer before and after World War II, it was not easy to become a writer or even believe in oneself.
Yes, I picture Wakako still, sitting on a living room chair or in the kitchen in her house in Gardena, California, saying: “You have to keep doing it, and you can’t give up. Because the time will be ready, right for you, when you get the feel of yourself, your material, the language.” Wakako fulfilled her promise and found her material, shaping the language of Asian America when we had few words, from others, to accurately describe and flesh out our lives.
This, then, is how her words matter, and still matter, to us, who “can’t give up.” I am almost sure that Wakako would give the same advice to new writers of Latino, Middle Eastern and Asian descent who find themselves facing similar conditions of displacement and discrimination by the larger U.S. society.
Now, her soul dances for all of us, and we are indebted, and truly grateful to her for writing.