Saturday, February 19, 2011

R.I.P. Hisaye Yamamoto

69 years ago today, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which nullified the constitutional rights of every resident (alien and citizen alike) living on the West Coast of the United States. The military, under FDR's direction, interpreted the order such that only Japanese and Japanese American communities were evacuated, en masse, forced to relocate to concentration camps (the term used by FDR's administration) for the duration of WWII.

[Aside: It is true that Italian and German nationals, along with Japanese nationals, were arrested and forced to stay in special detention centers on the suspicion that these men (and almost all of the detained were men) were a threat to national security. However, the only community targeted through their racialized difference were Japanese Americans--no other ethnic community were targeted through exclusion in the way that the Japanese American community was during WWII.]

69 years ago, a young Nisei, Hisaye Yamamoto, and her family, prepared for their internment, eventually being forced into Poston internment camp. Ms. Yamamoto had her first short story published at the age of 14 and continued to write for the camp newspaper while interned at Poston. And upon her release from camp, she wrote for an African American L.A. area newspaper and also published her short fiction in such venues as The Partisan Review.

But it is the publication in 1988 of fifteen of her short stories, collected in Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, that brought her to the attention of generations of college students who encountered Ms. Yamamoto's writing in their Asian American studies classes. The stories in this collection centered on the Japanese American community, before, during, and after the war, especially noting the racist tensions they faced in their post-war lives.

I was one of a lucky few who had the privilege of hearing Ms. Yamamoto read from her short story collection while I was an undergraduate at UCSB. She was down-to-earth and direct--and I was awed by the fact that a living writer was in our classroom talking about her work with us. I still have my autographed copy of Seventeen Syllables and still remember the good humor and patience with which Ms. Yamamoto handled our questions.

On January 30, 2011 Hisaye Yamamoto passed away in her sleep. She was 89 years old (click here for her LA Times obituary). She was a pioneer in Asian American literature. She was a woman who understood the necessity of being an ally in the Civil Rights movement. She was a witness to history, using her considerable literary talents to tell the stories of the Japanese American community. She will be missed.

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