Hisaye Yamamoto

Hisaye Yamamoto

Hisaye Yamamoto

Hisaye Yamamoto was born in San Francisco, California, the daughter of Japanese immigrants. She attended Stanford University, where she studied English literature and earned her BA degree in 1943. After graduation, she worked as an editor at Time Magazine and later taught English at Mills College. In 1948, she married writer John W. Campbell Jr., and they had one son together. They divorced in 1959.

In 1961, Yamamoto began teaching creative writing at the University of Hawaii. She became a professor emerita there in 1990. During her academic career, she won numerous awards including the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the O. Henry Award. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1981.

Yamamoto died of pneumonia in Honolulu on January 30, 2011, aged 89.

Background and career

Yamamoto was born to Isseis parents in Redondo Beach in 1933. She was one of five children; three brothers and two sisters. Her father worked as a mechanic for the Southern Pacific Railway Company, and her mother ran a small grocery store. When Yamamoto was six months old, her family moved to Los Angeles, where her father took a job as a carpenter. They lived in a rented house near downtown Los Angeles, close enough to walk to school each day, but far enough away to avoid the racial tensions of the city. Yamamoto attended Lincoln Elementary School and later Emerson Junior High School, both located in South Los Angeles. In high school, she was active in student government and participated in drama productions. Her interest in journalism led her to enroll at UCLA, where she majored in political science. During her freshman year, Yamamoto wrote articles about the Japanese American internment camps during World War II. After graduating from college in 1956, she returned to Los Angeles and enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley School of Journalism. She graduated in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

World War II and the internment of Japanese-Americans

In early 1942, Japan launched what came to be known as the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” a plan to expand its empire throughout Southeast Asia and beyond. This included conquering most of China and parts of India. But while the war raged across Europe, America remained largely unaffected. As such, American leaders believed that Japan could never defeat the Western Allies.

On December 7th, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, destroying many of our Pacific fleet ships and killing 2,403 people. Four days later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, giving the government the authority to arrest anyone — including US citizens — and relocate them to detention camps.

The next day, the U.S. government began rounding up 110,000 Japanese Americans living along the West Coast. Many of those detained were sent to hastily built concentration camps where they endured poor conditions and harsh treatment.

While the majority of the detainees were eventually allowed to return home, the experience left lasting scars on the families. For example, one woman named Yasuhiro Okamura wrote about his experiences in a letter to his mother. He described how he was placed in a camp called Manzanar, where there were no books, no radio, and very little food.

Okamura went further to describe how he learned English by reading magazines and newspapers that were smuggled into the camp. And despite being imprisoned, Okamura still found time to write poetry.

Life after the war

Yamamoto’s life took a dramatic turn when she met her future husband, Anthony DeSoto, while he was stationed in Southern California during World War II. She went on to marry him in 1946, and the couple moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a journalist for several newspapers, including the Los Angeles Tribune.

The mother of five, Yamada has discussed the difficulties she faced finding time to write, saying: “I don’t know how many hours I put into my writing. Most of the time I’m cleaning house, or cooking, or doing yardwork.”

After enjoying much critical acclaim in their heyday, Yamamoto and DeSoto divorced in 1952.

Writing style and influence

Yamamoto’s writing style has been described as “moody and lyrical”, while her work has been called “subtle and understated”. One critic noted that she “isn’t afraid to use the English language in unconventional ways”. Her stories have been likened to poetry, and one reviewer described her as a “masterful storyteller”. Her work has been compared to that of Katherine Mansfield, William Faulkner, Flannery O’ Connor and Grace Paley.

Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories

This collection contains seventeen short stories and novellas, including “Seventeen Syyllables”, “A Story About Love”, “The Legend of Miss Sasaoka”, “The Brown House”, “The Lost Child”, “The Man Who Loved Trees”, “The Woman Who Was Too Beautiful”, and “The Girl Who Married a Bird”.

Editions of the text

The original 1988 version of the book was published by Kitchen Table : Women of Color Press. In 1998, Rutgers University press released a new edition that includes the 1987 short story “reading and writing”. In 2001, a revised edition of the book added three more stories written as early in 1942: “death rides the rails to poston”, “eucalyptus”, and “a fire in fontana”.

List of stories

The High-Heeled Shoes—A memoir (1948)

Seventeen syllables (1949)

The Legend of Miss Sasagawa (1950)

The Story of a Girl Called Mayumi (1951)

The Unfortunate One (1952)

The Newcomer (1953)

The White Snake (1954)

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