If you aren’t a writer, you may think it is an easy thing to do, or you may believe it to be a near impossible thing to do. But when your life is severely restricted simply because of your ethnicity, you learn use words as weapons.
When Hisaye Yamamoto was born on August 23, 1921, The California Alien Land Law had been in effect for 7 years. The state limited immigrants in term of land ownership and even leasing housing. Yamamoto was Nisei, second-generation Japanese-American, and the law meant her family had to move frequently. The upside of their moves was that Yamamoto discovered that books and writing could be constant, whereas friends and neighbors could not.
A few years later, in 1924, the situation got much worse for Yamamoto and her family with the passage of the Federal Asian Exclusion Act, which essentially prevented Asian immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. Attempting to fit in and be accepted, the Niseifocused on using English and adopting white American culture. Yamamoto was no exception to that trend. She sent her stories and letters to the English section of the Kashu mainichi shinbun, a Japanese-American newspaper. Some of her works were published while Yamamoto was still a teenager.
In 1942, at the age of 20, Yamamoto and her parents were sent to an internment camp in Poston, Arizona. The camps were horrible places, but the prisoners did what they could to try to make them communities. Yamamoto became a reporter for the camp’s newspaper, the Poston Chronicle. Yamamoto wrote about life in the internment camps in her 1950 story, “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara.” This story was the only one that tackled the reality of how America treated Japanese-Americans during WWII.
Once WWII was over, Yamamoto and her parents returned to California. From 1945 to 1948, Yamamoto was a columnist, editor, and field reporter for the Los Angeles Tribune, a weekly African-American newspaper. Yamamoto’s experiences in the internment camp and working for the newspapers opened her eyes to the problem of racism across ethnic groups as well as challenges faced by women. These themes would repeatedly show up in her work.
Her first major publication was in 1948, when the Partisan Review put out her short story, "The High-Heeled Shoes, a Memoir." The short story would resonate today, because it tackled the ever-present reality of sexual harassment. Yamamoto continued to address racism and sexism in her stories. From 1948 to 1952, seven of Yamamoto’s works were published. Her most famous work was the 1949 short-story collection Seventeen Syllables, which explored the challenges between mother and daughter that reflected the generational differences that Japanese-Americans faced.
Yamamoto took a short break from writing after she married Anthony DeSoto in 1955. The couple had four children and also raised Yamamoto’s adopted son. Yamamoto struggled with finding the time to write while a mother and wife, a situation that may be familiar to many of us today. It may be that the gap in time between published works reflects the fact that it was difficult to make time to write. She once said in an interviewthat she was a mother and wife, not a writer; she described her itch to write by saying, "I write when something sticks in my craw." During the early years of her marriage and motherhood, Yamamoto had only two stories published: “Epithalamium” in 1960, and “Las Vegas Charley” in 1961.
Yamamoto took a longer break, then returned to publishing in the late 1970s. Through both male and female characters, Yamamoto examined how racism affected not only minorities’ interaction with the dominant culture but how minorities treated each other. Most of her work was fiction, but sometimes she wrote about herself. “Life Among the Oil Fields, A Memoir” in 1979 showed her childhood during a period when her family lived on a farm in the oil fields of California. In 1988, her memoir "Fire in Fontana" recounted her time at the Tribunenewspaper.
Yamamoto won several awards for her work over her lifetime, including the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1986. Yamamoto was not the best promoter of her writing, probably because she didn’t see it as her career. From 1950-1951, she had a John Hay Whitney Foundation Opportunity Fellowship that helped her focus on her work, yet that same decade she turned down a writing fellowship from Stanford University. Why? Yamamoto didn’t compromise what she wanted to do or where she wanted to do it even if it meant financial challenges.
By the time of Yamamoto’s death in 2011, she was considered one of the premier Asian-American writers. Today her work is part of the curriculum in several literature and writing programs at the college and university level. Her words should inspire a continuing commitment to the truth so that we don’t replay the prejudicial policies of the past.