From LA Times:
Often compared to such short-story masters as Katherine Mansfield, Flannery O’Connor and Grace Paley, Yamamoto concentrated her imagination on the issei and nisei, the first- and second-generation Japanese Americans who were targets of the public hysteria unleashed after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Yamamoto was 20 when the attack sent the United States into war and her family into a Poston, Ariz., internment camp. Her most celebrated stories, such as “Seventeen Syllables” and “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara,” reflect the preoccupations and tensions of the Japanese immigrants and offspring who survived that era. Among her most powerful characters are women who struggle to nurture their romantic or creative selves despite the constraints of gender, racism and tradition.
Yamamoto was born in Redondo Beach on Aug. 23, 1921. The daughter of immigrant strawberry farmers from Kumamoto, Japan, she was a voracious reader and published her first story when she was 14. At Compton College, where she earned an associate of arts degree, she studied French, Spanish, German and Latin. She wrote stories for Japanese American newspapers using the pseudonym “Napoleon.”
During World War II, she wrote for the Poston camp newspaper, which published her serialized mystery “Death Rides the Rail to Poston.” She briefly left the camp to work in Springfield, Mass., but returned when her 19-year-old brother died while fighting with the U.S. Army‘s 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Italy.
After the war ended in 1945, she returned to Los Angeles and became a reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Tribune, an African American weekly. Her experiences there deepened her awareness of racism to a point of nearly unbearable anguish. She wrote a story about the intimidation of a black family named Short by white neighbors in segregated Fontana. She attempted to hew to journalistic standards of impartiality, cautiously describing the threats against the family as “alleged” or “claims.”
After her story ran, the Shorts were killed in an apparent arson fire. Yamamoto castigated herself for failing to convey the urgency of their situation.
“I should have been an evangelist at Seventh and Broadway, shouting out the name of the Short family and their predicament in Fontana,” she wrote decades later in a 1985 essay called “A Fire in Fontana.” Instead, she pronounced her effort to communicate as pathetic as “the bit of saliva which occasionally trickled” from the corner of a feeble man’s mouth.
She left the newspaper and rode trains and buses across the country. “Something was unsettling my innards,” she wrote of her dawning multiethnic consciousness. “I continued to look like the Nisei I was, with my height remaining at slightly over four feet ten, my hair straight, my vision myopic. Yet I know that this event transpired within me; sometimes I see it as my inward self being burnt black in a certain fire.”
She drew from this well in the burst of writing that followed. Her breakthrough came with the 1948 publication in Partisan Review of “The High-Heeled Shoes, a Memoir,” a shockingly contemporary story about sexual harassment. She weaved intercultural conflicts and bonds into “Seventeen Syllables” (1949), in which a nisei girl’s blooming romance with a Mexican American classmate offers an achingly innocent counterpoint to her issei mother’s arranged marriage. “Wilshire Bus” (1950) explores a Japanese American woman’s silence during a white man’s racist harangue against a Chinese couple on the bus they are riding.
Image credit: goodreads.com
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